Faithful and Free
1 - Introduction
Around the beginning of 1990 a group of Dunedin Methodist Parish members accepted the challenge to form the parish Communications Group, with a brief of 'faith exploration and communication in an open and liberal spirit among Methodists, and from Methodists to the community'. Their most significant achievement over a year or so of fortnightly meetings was to shape up and publish a 50-page booklet intended for "people outside the church who may be considering Christianity as a possible life basis; for people contemplating confirmation or more intentional Christian commitment; for church members who are dissatisfied with the way faith has been presented to them, and for those who are seeking a better way of expressing their faith to others."
The names attached to the published version were David Bromell, Richard Cannon, Harvey Hoskin, Evan Lewis, Nigel Pitts, Rosalie Reynolds, Terry Sugrue, Tralee Sugrue, Troy Sugrue, Bev Sutherland.
In a preface the group commented: "It is significant that only two of the regular attenders are ordained ministers. It has been important to have competent theological input. But it has been equally essential for the material to be thoroughly worked over by the whole group."
They also said: "We do not wish to give the impression that we have found ourselves everywhere in complete agreement. God is universal and individual. God is known and unknown. God is God for the church and God for the world. In these antitheses, we would not all reach exactly the same points of balance. But we are all committed to the liberal spirit in which the exploration was undertaken, and its outcome is substantially true to the Christian faith that each of us holds."
A print run of 500 copies has been long exhausted and there is no prospect of a re-issue. However we intend to reproduce Faithful and Free on these web pages a chapter at a time, month by month, beginning here with the Introduction, printed below.
This book is an invitation to Christian faith. That is, it is an invitation to trust in God's unprejudiced love as the unshakeable ground of your life, and to respond to that love by reflecting it to all creation. From the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, Christians learn that God's love is 'broad like beach and mountain', non-discriminating, far-reaching, surprising. And they are taught a response that holds nothing back in love for God and for the world.
The most fundamental thing about Christian faith is not belief in its founder, but belief in the reality of God. Other Christian beliefs may be debatable, but belief in God is indispensable. You cannot stop believing in God and still be a Christian. Unfortunately, belief in God has become a problem for many people. They find it unreasonable in an age of scientific enlightenment. Common conceptions of God seem to them immoral. Or maybe they just fail to see any relevance of religion to the practical business of living their lives. Trust in God becomes impossible. You can hardly trust someone whose existence you doubt, or someone whose behaviour you find contemptible. But we hope to show you that belief in God is reasonable, and that it makes a difference. And we will offer ways of thinking about God that are not morally offensive. There is no need to experience God as an arbitrary despot. On the contrary, we see God as the one who makes our freedom possible.
We will encourage you, then, to do some thinking. We will not present Christian faith to you as a system to be swallowed whole, in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. Our invitation is for you to follow our argument, think through its implications, assess its strengths and weaknesses. Consider whether you have been offered sufficient reason not just for belief, but also for the risk and adventure of actually trusting in God. We are happy to accept that, after thinking things through, you may end up with a vision of reality that is different from ours. Such a conclusion, carefully and thoughtfully arrived at, is worthy of all respect.
If you have grown up in our society you must already have been presented with belief in God as a possibility, and made your own, more-or-les conscious, response to it. You may have settled for traditional belief, or you may have adopted an alternative understanding of the-way-things-are. There is certainly a wide choice. There are views such as Marxism, scientism, and secular humanism which are not friendly to any kind of religious belief. Theistic religions like Judaism, Islam, and Christianity - distinct among themselves - contrast with Theravada and Zen Buddhism which have no belief in God at all. Nineteenth and twentieth century sects compete with Christian denominations that have a longer history. Within one denomination there may be traditionalist, evangelical, liberal, and neo-pentecostal parties. And, in the Western world, there is a whole range of speculative and new-age approaches to reality, beyond the Christian spectrum.
You can hardly expect to achieve a comprehensive appreciation of all the different possibilities. But the fact that they exist is a challenge for people to give a reasoned justification of their own belief as to the-way-things-are. We (who have prepared this book) certainly find ourselves under obligation to clarify our own convictions. We do this in an open-minded fashion. We are glad to have dialogue with those whose beliefs are different from ours. Of necessity, this conversation usually takes place as we read what others have written. We have learned good lessons, sometimes, from people whose final conclusions are different from our own. We belong to a tradition of Christianity which welcomes such an approach, because it affirms the essential reasonableness of belief in God.
Obviously we cannot claim to speak for all religious people, or for all Christians, or even for all members of our own denomination. And they do not all speak for us. Our argument for belief in God, and our invitation to you to trust in God, come from within the liberal tradition of Methodist Christian faith. But in the end we are able to speak only for ourselves.