The reasons that people today cannot bring themselves to have faith in any god (let alone the God pre-eminently revealed in Jesus Christ) are many – we live in a highly sceptical age that is soaked in materialism and positivism, and thus unable to accept that we can know anything beyond what is discernible through our senses (and often even – in theory at least – only that which is provable under laboratory conditions); we also live in an age that is geared towards the satisfaction of short-term, material goals, to getting as much stuff or doing as many things that will make us feel good as quickly as possible – such an attitude, which is reinforced by every means possible in our culture, does not lead to an atmosphere conducive to the honest self-scrutiny that is necessary for breaking out of the narrow confines of the self and encountering God.
On top of this we are the heirs of a political culture that has and continues to do everything it can to undermine the Christian heritage of the West and mitigate against any embracing of the values rooted in that heritage or the Faith that formed it, preferring instead to advance a wholly secular project that combines a particularly subtle but no less intrusive or controlling brand of socialism with a radically libertarian view of ethics, particularly sexual ethics. This has in turn had a devastating effect on the family, which is of course an intended consequence, given that the family has always been the cultivator and protector of traditional morality and religious devotion. It is unsurprising that the only kinds of spirituality which tend to thrive in such a world are deeply individualistic and lack any resources to challenge the one who practices them.
There is however another cause for the lack of faith in our age which cannot be so easily attributed to the philosophical legacy we have inherited, nor to the designs of the cultural vandals that form the bulk of our political classes. That cause is the lack in our ability to trust – not just to trust God, but anyone at all. For many, despite the manifest obstacles our culture puts in our way, believing God exists is not really that much of a problem (as has no doubt been the case in all ages – c.f.; James 2:19; Romans 1:18-23); but to actually trust in Him, to really have faith that He is Goodness itself and will never abandon us? This is a different proposition altogether, and much harder to accept.
Many people today have been failed by people and institutions that they had been led to believe were trustworthy – they placed their absolute trust in somebody or thing, and were severely let down. Unfortunately, one of the places in which this has occurred that comes to mind is within the Church itself, where the terrible stories of sex abuse that have been brought to light over recent years highlight just how possible it is for those in positions of trust to misuse their power, and in doing so, not only wreck the lives of the individuals involved, but cause long-term damage to the credibility of the Church itself. It is indeed true that statistically speaking, there have been far fewer instances of abuse in the Church than in other areas of society, and that more has been done to ensure this doesn’t happen again than anywhere else; but the damage is done, and many people will find it a lot harder to trust the Church again.
There have also been schoolteachers, social workers, youth-group leaders, etc. being found guilty of such crimes, and similar breaches of trust instanced in the abuse uncovered in care homes for the elderly and infirm. Then there are the banks who have lost so much of our trust after their cavalier and negligent use of money invested by customers who sincerely believed their investments were in safe and responsible hands, and the politicians who have shown themselves to be not only prone to corruption and careerism (this is nothing new after all) but who also seem to hold the electorate in contempt, ignoring their genuine and justifiable pleas to put the brakes on the kinds of social reform outlined above whilst throwing them the occasional superficial policy change to keep things quiet.
But the saddest area in which this severance of the bonds of trust has taken place is in the family itself. Increased opportunity for travel has led to a disbanding of the localised extended family; the need to have two parents working has often left children and elderly relatives with nobody to care for them (and in the latter case, the call to honour one’s father and mother, having gone out the window with other ‘traditional’ values, has decreased our felt obligation to do so); marriage itself has been consistently undermined and has found decreasing support from both government and society, so that commitment to family by both spouses has become rarer, leaving children in a less stable environment, sometimes having a succession of spousal changes to contend with.
All the above has led to an environment which should be the safest and most stable place for a child to be, changing into a highly unstable, sometimes volatile environment where that lack of stability (particularly the repeated introduction of new ‘partners’ into the family home) provides little in the way of the security and constancy children need to develop, affords much more opportunity for abuse to occur, and above all, completely undermines any sense of trust in people at the very time when the capacity to do so is in its formative stages. Thus we have not only been failed by the people and institutions of our own age, but are creating a system in which future generations will have little sense of the value of trust in the first place.
The cynic may say ‘So what? All the better then – the world is a dangerous place and the sooner we find out that we can’t trust anyone the better.’ But how many of us would really recognise such a world – where noone can be trusted at all, each lives unto themselves and we all fight it out to survive? Whilst we may have had the experience of being let down in our lives (and some much more than others), there are not many of us that can say our life has been totally devoid of kindness, or that it didn’t make a huge amount of difference when we found it. Furthermore, behind the cynic’s argument seems to be the assumption that if there are bad things in life, we should be collaborators with that badness, either by contributing to it or by only seeing to ourselves, ignoring others.
Putting aside the fact that for any Christian this position is completely untenable, it seems to me that if such an outlook were ever taken seriously the world would have collapsed in on itself long ago. It is because we have an inbuilt sense of hope that we have not given up on the world, and it is because some continue to strive to be the one who offers the hand of kindness to a stranger that we never completely give up on the idea that we can trust people. This indeed is part of the way in which we can make trust a quality that people can believe in again – by being trustworthy ourselves, by living lives of integrity and virtue, and most importantly of all, by showing the world that it is God who gives us the strength to do so.
By seeing that we have been shaped into people can be trusted because of our prior trust in God, we can not only show that in the short-term this person here and now can be trusted, but that there is a way of seeing the world that makes such a life possible – a way of being that is open to others, that rejects cynicism and that chooses the path of love over the way of self-interest. This means that speaking about our faith and living it can never be separate things – if we believe God to be trustworthy, we must say so, and attend to that verbal witness by living it out as well. However, if and when someone we meet asks us why we trust God, why we place our faith in Him, what do we say – why should anyone trust in someone who they have not seen, and especially when the world sometimes seems so full of cruelty and uncertainty?
The answer we give will of course first require that we find out where the one who questions us is in terms of knowledge, experience and background. Once we have ascertained what they mean by the word ‘God’ etc. though, the only place we can point them to is the Gospels – to the life of Our Lord – and say that here, in the life of this man, is the very nature and character of God lived out; if you can trust this man Jesus, you can trust God. We can also make sure to say that this is not always easy – that trusting in God does not mean deliverance from all earthly troubles (c.f.; Romans 8:28 vs. 8:35-39), but that God never stops being who He is, never stops being that loving, truthful, faithful Person we see revealed in Christ; it is for good reason that He is so often referred to in the Psalms as ‘rock’ and ‘fortress’, for He is the one thing that never changes.
We can also reflect with people upon the act of creation. If we have gone through with the person asking about our faith the question of what it means for God to be God, then we can also say that as the absolute source of all that is, there is nothing alongside God that compelled Him to create, and nothing within Him that needed to do so. From this we can surmise that God created the world not for any selfish reasons, but because He wanted to share Himself with other beings, beings that are not Him – He is Love, and so gives Himself away to us in the very act of creation.
So both in the act of creation itself, and in the revelation of His character (to Moses and others in the Old Covenant, but pre-eminently in Our Lord) in and through history, we can have good reason for seeing God as someone we really can trust – One who is utterly committed to what He has made, who is not just loving and patient but the very source of love and the very model of what it is to be steadfast. While the people and institutions of the world, and even our own families, may let us down, we can have real confidence that at bottom, the very ground of our being and Lord of our life is unfailing – a source of strength and compassion that never changes and never ends. It only remains for us who believe this to make it real to others – to be signs of His love and faithfulness to the world that He has made.