The land that lies between

religious belief and non-belief

by David Fairhurst

from Signs of the Times, No. 18 - Jul 2005

I live in the land that lies somewhere between religious belief and non-belief; or to be more presice, my mind quite frequently alternates between these two positions.

I have not always lived in this land. As a boy and young man I attended a Presbyterian chapel where I was taught about the Christian faith in general and where I heard the stories of Jesus. As a result of this I became not so much certain in my belief but rather I accepted what I was taught without question.

As the years have gone by more and more questions, more and more searching, have led me to my present position in the border territory between faith and doubt.

This is often an uncomfortable place to be and I sometimes envy my fellow Christians who appear to be convinced in their beliefs and who seemingly have no doubts that they have found the ultimate truth.

However, on the other hand those who are certain that their views are right have throughout history always given much cause for concern and have invariably provoked much conflict. Someone once remarked that the most frightening people on Earth were those with closed minds with God locked on the inside.

And indeed in present times there are still many reasons to be concerned about those who profess absolute certainty. For one thing, certainty kills the search for truth. So for Such people the quest (wherein it has been argued real truth lies) has ended.

Even more worrying it seems to me that certainty of belief is often the first step onto a slippery path that leads to that kind of fundamentalism that is intolerant of those who do not share those beliefs.

At its most extreme, such fundamentalism has resulted in cruel repressions and ultimately to wars and bloodshed. Sadly this pattern continues in today's world which is littered with conflicts and wars caused or legitimated by inter- or intra-religious disputes.

Modern thinking suggests that no absolute certainties are available to us. All truth is provisional. George Soros with his concept of an Open Society in which it is recognised that nobody possesses ultimate truth, persuasively argues that this latter requirement is an essential condition for fostering freedom around the world. The inevitable alternative to an Open society is repression.

In conclusion, it seems to me that if we can follow our faith by holding onto the profound insights its teaching gives and by committing ourselves to the values that these insights imply but at the same time also retain a degree of uncertainty we may actually help to realise some of the deepest intentions of our Christian faith.

For example, if we can accept that Christian teachings and practice are just one path among many, and that the wisdom and teachings of the world's other great faiths also have much to contribute to the future of humanity, we enhance the prospects for genuinely open and effective inter-faith dialogue and thereby improve the chances for peace both within and among the nations.

Thus, paradoxically, by accepting some uncertainty in our faith, we help to realise some of Christianity's deepest intentions, i.e. for a more tolerant, a more peaceful, and a more loving world.

And there would no longer be any need for an absolute 'take it or leave it', 'all or nothing' approach to religious faith.

David Fairhurst is a retired Economics lecturer and a strong advocate of inter-faith dialogue.