A View from the Pew

by Joan Dorrell

from Signs of the Times, No. 28 - Jan 2008

At MCU Conference many years ago I was in a small group led by the late Monica Furlong. We were asked to sit silently and think about how we saw God. When it came to feedback time I was the last to talk and felt embarrassed. We had heard a variety of descriptions including the benign old man sitting on a mountain top. I felt the odd one out as I said "I see God as light: I live in the country with no street lighting but even on the darkest night there is always light somewhere". It was then coffee time so I never knew what Monica Furlong thought. At that conference (before 1994) we had several feminists working actively for the ordination of women so I thought perhaps we had been intended to see God as 'She'!

Since then I have been intrigued to discover the many references to light in the Bible, liturgy, prayers and hymns. Perhaps the most significant quotation is: "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life". (John 8:12). And is it not light that pervades every aspect of our lives? Like God, light may be elusive, but always there.

One frequently finds people accepting or questioning two aspects of God:

  1. Is there a personal God with a plan for my life?
  2. Why does God let disasters happen?

These questions imply a vision of God as the old man sitting 'up there' interfering in what goes on 'down here'.

If we contemplate the extent of all that we ascribe to God and his creative power it becomes difficult to accept that there can be any personal plan for our lives. How could he possibly manage billions of plans? In this case, what does it mean to be 'called'? Does Jesus still 'call' people to be his disciples? In my teens I recall having prayed to be allowed to serve. Since then I have often laughed to think that if I had known what I was letting myself in for I might not have prayed so fervently! At times it is even possible to feel that we have been led into situations. A former colleague (a Quaker probation officer) once found himself driving in a direction he had not planned and arriving at the home of a woman who greeted him with: "I am so glad you have come I do need your help". So, do we have to consider something of the power of the Holy Spirit or do we have a guardian angel? Certainly at times in a professional situation, while someone told me of their confusingly multiple problems, I have thought: "0 God, what am I going to do with this?" I have then felt supported and inspired in a way that bore no relationship to professional expertise or training. So, I must rule out God having a plan for my life but if we are willing to "walk in the way" we do not walk alone.

Why does God let disasters happen? Many people seem to have a sense of fatalism sometimes based on superstition. Does our historic genetic heritage give us this tendency? Do some people have a gene that predisposes them to fatalism or is it environmentally determined? God has given us free will: to choose his way or reject it; to choose right or wrong; to choose one path or another through what looks like a grey area; to love our neighbours or to hate them; to accept challenges or reject them. We cannot have free will and be controlled in any detailed sense.

At another MCU conference while we explored the immensity of the universe one scientist from Imperial College was asked what all this did for his faith? He replied to the effect: "I can only believe there is some immense intelligence out there".

In a Church Times article (16.3.2007), entitled 'Angels at Peckham Rye', Rowan Williams wrote: "God has made what we can see and manage, and what we can't see and can never manage - some of which we can get a grasp of, and some which we can't. This isn't a recommendation not to try to understand things, but simply a reminder that not everything is going to be made sense of from our point of view. We can't get to the end of being baffled and amazed." Perhaps we need to meditate on the concept of "A Depth at the Centre of Life" as postulated by John Robinson in Honest to God (1953).

We come nearest to understanding the nature of God as we study the life of Christ and pray in the words of the hymn:

Thou art the Way, the Truth, the Life,
Grant us that way to know.

Joan Dorrell is a member of the MCU Council.