Belief in the twenty-first century
Michael Jensen’s book My God, My God explores what it means to have faith in today’s world and he begins by charting the changes throughout history that have influenced how society views religious belief. The Reformation caused faith to be seen as an inward and private matter, rather than an external one, as it had previously been viewed. While belief was and still is viewed as a personal choice governed by human free will people are still aware of external factors such as environment, genetics and upbringing and their influence on an individual’s decision to have faith. This influence is still very much present in today’s society, it is offensive to raise the subject of religion with someone; religion is now in the same camp as discussions on politics and money.
The philosophy of utilitarianism, which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number, also influences how society approaches the choice of whether or not to believe. In today’s Western society people will often evaluate a religion on the basis of will it ‘work’ for them rather than is it true. I have seen this happen as people pick and choose from several different religions and New Age philosophies in order to construct their own personal religion based on the fact that those elements ‘work’ for them. In using the term ‘work’ Michael Jensen is saying that people using this approach to belief evaluate it based on the benefits it will bring them: a feeling of inner peace, a healthier lifestyle and the opportunity to perform good works.
The book moves from an overview of the theological, philosophical and social influences on belief in the twenty-first century to explore poet Alfred Tennyson’s battles with his own doubt. Tennyson’s poem ‘In Memoriam’ was a deeply personal exploration of his grief over losing a close friend and his own doubts about having faith, and while he never let go entirely of the concept of the existence God he never recovered from his wavering sense of faith. This is the ‘experience’ that Jensen goes on to discuss further, the underlying feeling that there is more to life than meets the eye, and I think it is a feeling that is shared by many people.
Whilst the rationalism of the eighteenth century reduced orthodox Christianity to a set of facts, during this same period the sermons of John Wesley and George Whitfield brought about a revival and renewed enthusiasm in their congregations. The faith they preached spoke to the whole person, it was not merely a set of meaningless truths, but affected the whole self and all of an individual’s life.
It is important for us as Christians today to be reminded of this, that ours is a faith that speaks to us in our own situation, whatever that may be. Many reject Christianity as dull and outdated, out of touch with the world today, but the Word of God is a spectacular narrative that spans the centuries and still has much to teach those who have ears to hear its message. A really helpful way is for us to share this with others as we speak about our own faith, sharing with them how knowing God and having faith in Him has shaped and affected our own lives.
About our contributor, Emma Little: I was born and raised in Sydney and am currently in fourth year at Moore College where I have loved being immersed in God's word for the past three and a bit years. I have also loved being a student minister at Guildford Anglican Church for the past two years. I'm a big fan of the Sydney Swans (cheer, cheer the red and the white!), and love cooking, knitting, reading and writing.