Julia and I recently went for a lovely walk over Horsell Common, a site of ‘special scientific interest’ near the ancient village of Horsell, on the edge of Woking. It includes a number of Bronze Age barrows and protected heath-land. The common has thousands of trees and a large amount of wildlife. In the south-east corner of the common is a former Muslim Burial Ground, now reinstated as a Peace Garden. One of the most recognisable features of the common is the sand pits, roughly in the centre of the common. The sand there has been used for houses in the nearby area. The pits were used by H.G. Wells (1866-1946), the English writer, as the site of the first Martian landing in his novel The War of the Worlds. The Martians emerge from their craft and fire their Heat-Ray at the bystanders. The sand pits have since become a site of pilgrimage for many science fiction fans. Fortunately for Julia and myself there was not a Martian in sight when we went for our walk!
H.G. Wells was never particularly religious, but after he had studied the history of the human race and had observed human life, he came to an interesting conclusion: ‘Religion is the first thing and the last thing, and until a man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end. He may have his friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour. But all these things fall into place and life falls into place only with God.’
When Julia and I moved to Knaphill (another ‘urban village’ on the edge of Woking and near to Horsell) in 2015, our remit from the Deacons and Church Meeting was to help the church to find a new direction. They knew that they needed to change and believed that God had a new direction and purpose for them, but they were unsure as to what that direction and purpose was. We did not come with any preconceived ideas but simply with the intent to prayerfully explore the way forward together with the church leadership and congregation. We began by spending our first year in Knaphill exploring what many scholars believe to be the first, and most important, theological question: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’
This is the first, and most important, theological question that we need to consider because – both as individuals and as local churches – our perception, our understanding, of God will dictate both our belief system and our consequential behaviour, life-style, ministry, mission, etc. Thus, if we see God as just ‘other’ to ourselves – up there, out there, distant from us – then the likelihood is that we ourselves will be exclusive, separate, distant from others (and even reality). If we see God as somewhat hard, harsh, judgemental – a God whose primary purpose is to punish us for our sins and short-comings – then the likelihood is that we too will be like that as well. Our ‘gospel’ will be a ‘message of condemnation’ (as one preacher once proudly described his own ministry to me), and we will come across as hard and harsh and judgemental in our dealings with others. If, however, we see God as gracious and loving, kind, merciful and forgiving – a God who has already made a way for us to both find him and our God-given purpose in life through Jesus Christ (John 3:16,17) – then we too will have a Gospel that truly is ‘good news’ to share and a loving, gracious kindly way of living to back that up!
It is interesting that the Bible never argues ‘the case for God’ but simply states the existence of God as a ‘fact’. The opening verse of the Bible simply tells us ‘In the beginning God …’ (Genesis 1:1). What follows (Genesis 1:1-2:4) is a poetic narrative (most probably designed for liturgical use in the worship services of God’s Old Testament people), the main theme of which is the wonderful truth that God and God’s creation are eternally bound together in a distinctive and delicate way. This is the presupposition for everything else that follows in the Bible. It is the deepest premise from which the good news of the Gospel is made possible. As Walter Brueggemann suggests: ‘God and his creation are bound together by the powerful, gracious movement of God towards that creation. The binding which is established by God is inscrutable. It will not be explained or analysed. It can only be affirmed and confessed. This text announces the deepest mystery: God wills and will have a faithful relation with earth. The text invites the listening community to celebrate the reality. The binding is irreversible. God has decided it. The connection cannot be nullified.’ [Genesis, Interpretation Series, John Knox Press (Atlanta) 1982, pp.22-24].
Only a foolish person leaves God out of the equation of life! When I was a very new Christian (around 17 years of age) a chap in the office where I worked at that time (knowing that I had recently become a Christian and wanting to have a bit of ‘fun’ with me at my expense) told me that the Bible says, ‘There is no God!’ I went home and searched my Bible and discovered that he was correct … the Bible does indeed say (on two occasions) that ‘There is no God!’ Both statements are in the Book of Psalms, but what the Psalmist actually says (a fact that my work colleague conveniently left out) is: ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God!”’ (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). So … I went back to him the next day and told him he was a fool?!
Recognition of the reality of God is not just a matter of faith, however. Faith and conduct, belief and behaviour, are inextricably linked. We cannot divorce the two sides of the question we began with: ‘What kind of God?’ and ‘So what?’ Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), the former President of the Czech Republic and considered by many to have been one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century, commenting on the chaos and confusion resulting from our ‘loss of God’ today says: ‘I believe that with the loss of God, man lost an absolute and universal system of co-ordinates, to which he could always relate anything, chiefly himself. If God is not there, then we can no longer speak of meaning, of purpose, of accountability, or responsibility.’ [Open Letters, Vintage Books, 1992, pp.94,95].
My late father died a number of years ago when I was around 23 years of age, and a ministerial student at Spurgeon’s College, London. He was not a professing Christian by any means (although in one of those strange twists in life, he was partly responsible for me starting to attend church when I was in my mid-teens – but that is another story for another time) and struggled not only with the fact that I had become a committed Christian but also eventually gave up a good job ‘with prospects’ in order to train to become a Baptist Minister. I vividly recall my last serious conversation with him (although, in fact, he did most of the talking) shortly before he died. It was quite late one night and he brought up the subject of me being a Christian. ‘If you are wrong about all this ‘God stuff’’ he said, ‘then it doesn’t really matter. I can’t imagine you living a better, more rewarding, more purposeful life than you are!’ There was a long pause, and then he continued, ‘But on the other hand, if I am wrong about there not being a God ….’