The Crisis of Faith

A sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Readings for this service: Exodus 14: 19-31

There’s been a major change in our culture in the last 60 years: being a Christian is no longer a normal thing to be, and going to church is no longer a conventional thing to do. Christianity’s claim to truth hasn’t become any the less valid, but those of us who uphold that claim have fewer companions, and our convictions are no longer surrounded by extensive social supports, but increasingly exposed to the chill winds of indifference, scepticism and even hostility. It’s not surprising that for many of us, that erosion of Christianity’s social confidence becomes internalised, especially when voiced by spouse, parent, sibling, colleague or friend, and we sit in church, perhaps this morning, with a whispering voice saying, ‘Why are you here? What connection has Sunday morning at St Martin’s got to reality?’

What I’ve described is the experience of a collective crisis of faith. And to explore what it involves, and what to do about it, I want to read with you perhaps the most significant story in the whole of the Old Testament, the account of the parting of the Red Sea and the liberation of the Israelites from Exodus chapter 14. I believe in this story lies everything that’s become problematic about being a Christian in our day – but also everything that offers promise of hope and joy and renewal.

The crossing of the Red Sea is the foundational story of the Old Testament because it brings together the three things the Old Testament is essentially about. It’s a new creation story – look how, just as in Genesis chapter 1, God brings dry land out of chaos, God makes a kind of birth experience of the waters breaking and a new people coming into being, God speaks and things happen and the result is new life. It’s a story of liberation:  God wants Israel to be free, sees Israel’s plight in slavery to the Pharaoh, creates a path to freedom, and destroys the powers of oppression. And it’s a portrayal of covenant: God cares for Israel, God is sovereign over the natural environment, and Israel in turn responds through the obedience of Moses and the active participation of the people. Creation, liberation and covenant – it’s the whole of the Old Testament crystallised in 13 verses.

Now what I want you to see is that once this whole theological canvas fitted onto our culture and society as comfortably as a jacket slips onto a person’s back and arms and shoulders. It fitted philosophically because Britain saw itself as the new Israel which had inherited the status of God’s favourite nation and had a role to play in civilising the world and bringing order, peace and justice like a new but better Roman Empire. It was taken for granted that God was all-powerful, and that the parting of the oceans was all of a piece with creating them in the first place. It fitted morally because Britain, whose citizens insisted, you’ll remember, that we ‘never, never, never shall be slaves,’ was a kind of guardian of justice and freedom throughout the world, and saw itself as a kind of collective Moses figure, achieving astonishing things through its industrial revolution that rolled back the tide of ignorance and inefficiency and laying down laws that commanded the loyalty of peoples the world over. And it fitted culturally because our leaders were regarded with a degree of deference that assumed they had a kind of divine right to advance the benevolent hand of British authority, which included fostering the expansion and flourishing of the church as justification and guarantee of righteousness.

But over the last 150 years that set of assumptions, by which the crossing of the Red Sea was taken to be a story about us that affirmed our place in the cosmos, in the world, and in the social hierarchy – a package underwritten by Bible, church and God – has come under three kinds of assault. It’s come under historical assault because scientists and philosophers have said, ‘The kind of Charlton Heston-style rearing-up of the waves can’t happen. This is the most dramatic of a host of Biblical miracles that just don’t sit alongside a modern worldview. This story was probably created by tribes in Canaan as a myth of origins to explain their distinctive identity and strong sense of unique calling.’ It’s come under moral assault because critics have said, ‘What kind of a God is this who chooses a favourite people, exercises extensive violence to rescue them, and mercilessly leaves the Egyptians strewn across the shore? If God has this ability to control wind and waves and cares about the plight of the oppressed, how about doing a better job with steering hurricanes away from population centres and delivering innocent Yazidis from the hands of marauding and murderous Isis?’ And it’s come under a more subtle cultural assault because activists have said, ‘If Britain is a postcolonial power that retains a seat on the Security Council, surely it’s a self-serving misreading of the story to characterise us as the powerless Israelites; wouldn’t it be more accurate to say we Western powers are more like the Egyptians in this story, and a true fulfilment of the story’s promises would leave us and our geopolitical hegemony strewn across the shore.’

This historical, moral and cultural critique amounts to a formidable assault, and it’s what has dismantled the church’s sense of ease, confidence and entitlement in British society. For many people the church’s historical, moral and cultural authority is significantly compromised. Christians have responded to this onslaught in three ways – a bad way, an inadequate way, and a good way.

The bad way is simply to shout louder, to claim the privileges and status of the past as entitlements, to employ nostalgic notions of being a Christian country, to use influence, manipulation or force to make things as much as possible like they used to be. Such actions make the problem far worse than it would otherwise be.

The inadequate way is more or less to give up on the outward trappings of Christianity and retreat to an interior realm of spirituality and mood music and untroubling benevolence. The trouble with this is that the crossing of the Red Sea is an intensely political, conflictual and public story. Creation, liberation and covenant aren’t interior experiences in the Old Testament – they’re about society, slavery, escape, social change and struggle. Assuming the Red Sea story simply endorsed British colonialism may have been distorted and mistaken, but turning the story into the stimulus for interior equilibrium renders the Old Testament meaningless.

So what is the better way? If Christians in this country respond to the cultural revolution that I have described without defensiveness and with a healthy dose of humility, I believe we’ll recognise that this revolution has made us able to read the account of the crossing of the Red Sea with fresh eyes. No longer will we read the story – and Christianity in general – as affirming our social standing, our favoured place in the world, or any sense of entitlement. Instead we will take the following lessons from the story:

Number one, God’s fundamental purpose, beginning with creation, is to be in relationship with us not just personally but collectively – the biblical word for which is covenant. God will not rest and creation will not be fulfilled until this desire for full, profound and universal relationship comes to pass. Every time we form or restore relationships of this kind, especially in the face of adversity or hostility, we are imitating God’s signal purpose.

Number two, in order to make such relationships of trust, commitment and reconciliation, we need to experience a significant degree of freedom. God wills to liberate us not because we should be allowed to do whatever we like, but because we exercise freedom most fully by forming and restoring fruitful relationships.

Number three, Jesus models what it means for God to seek relationship with us, what it entails to bear the cost of our hostility, and what it involves to restore relationship through forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. The early Christians saw the crossing of the Red Sea as the prototype of resurrection and they embodied its deliverance in the sacrament of baptism.

Number four, the church is given the stories of scripture and the counsel of the Holy Spirit constantly to relocate itself in the places and among the people where this balance of liberation and covenant is taking place. Sometimes it gets things terribly wrong and realises that it has turned into the oppressive Egyptians. Sometimes it gets things right and has the exhilarating experience of feeling protected by God’s power and close to God’s glory and alive in freedom and hope.

And finally number five, the church looks forward to the day when, like Israel in this story, it rejoices on another shore, with dancing and singing and love and laughter and wonder and joy, with all the powers that oppress it in disarray, and with God very present and close and forever and true.

Earlier I said the crossing of the Red Sea was the Old Testament in 13 verses. In fact it’s more than that. What I’ve just described to you is the whole of Christianity in five acts, like a great drama. There’s creation, covenant, Christ, church, and finally consummation. And every single one of those great dimensions of God’s story are present in embryo in these 13 verses of the book of Exodus. So this story isn’t just the whole Old Testament; it’s the whole Bible, the whole of everything, the entire story of God and us.

And here’s the point. For centuries we clung to this story, and others like it, to justify our standing in the world. For the last 150 years that hegemony has come under wave upon wave of criticism, which has depleted the church’s confidence just as it has created in many people a crisis of individual faith. But the truth is most of that criticism was fully justified – and, here’s the great irony, that criticism was in the spirit of the original story. And on the other side of that formidable challenge lies a deeper understanding of the exodus, of the church, and of God. Once we let go (and only once we let go) of our certainty that this story has to enhance our security, status and strength, we can begin to discover that this story reveals to us the purpose of existence, the nature of our struggle, and the heart of God.