‘Love Unknown’ is the title of Ruth Burrow’s latest book, Archbishop Rowan Williams’ chosen book for Lent. But it could also describe Richard Holloway’s quest for the presence beyond the absence, laid bare with searing honesty in his autobiography ‘Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.’ I have just read both books in quick succession and was struck by their experience of depression about the absence of God. Ruth Burrows found her faith in “The Word became Flesh.” Richard drifts away from his. Both confess that at times they have felt a sham.
Faith is not the same as belief. There is a tendency in contemporary language to make the two words synonymous. Belief in its original Anglo-Saxon is about holding dear, to prize, to give allegiance to, to be loyal to. The accessibility of the mystery of God is prior to theological reflection. Not the other way about. As Richard Holloway says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty.” And faith is not some mysterious religious quality which only a few possess. Faith is not something reserved for some holy, perfect, religious person, something given to some, but not given to others. Ruth Burrows attests strongly to this.
Faith is a willing, but struggling trust in the revealed intentions of God; it is a confidence in what God promises. It can only be calibrated in terms of depth and perseverance. And it is also about humility, since faith may be as small as a mustard seed, hesitant, uneasy, filled with doubts, and yet determined to hold onto God’s promises even though the world and all its wiles will do everything to assail us. All the great saints of the past persevered by faith despite being persecuted and mistreated. But in doing so they were not exercising some Herculean choice, the reward of toil in preference to pleasure. For them faith was not simply belief that there was a God but trust that God rewards those who seek him.
God calls Abram to leave his father’s household in south-eastern Turkey and journey south into Canaan. The promise God is making to Abram is a promise of blessing. A blessing to him and through him a blessing to the world. The promise of a blessing is repeated on numerous occasions throughout the book of Genesis. Eighty-eight times to save you counting.
The tragedy acted out in Holloway’s book is that God seems to be calling the precocious youth from Alexandria, Dunbartonshire with a promise of blessing. But first he is distracted by the formularies and ritual and monastic rigours of Kelham seminary. Then the peace he finds at Old Saint Paul’s Edinburgh devoting most of his time answering the knock from Jesus at the door, in other words, the passing vagrant, the insane, the drunk, the lonely and the homeless, eventually disintegrates into compassion fatigue. And finally, whilst Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, he allows the dogmatic certainty of the institutional church to provoke his waspish mind and he walks away from his priestly vocation.
Ruth Burrows, on the other hand, lives out intensely all the truth disclosed by liturgy, scripture and doctrine against a background of “black depression.” She matures in her faith, notwithstanding her “failure at prayer, not just now and then, but day after day, year after year!” Her advice is, “His loving gaze rests on you. You have no excuse. Gird your loins and follow the Lord.”
Both books are a wonderful read but both should be read with an open mind.
As we journey this Lent, God’s call to journey with him is not about having everything about the journey carefully worked out so that we know where God is calling us. Like Abram, it’s about being sufficiently open to God and ready to make space for God to work in us so that he will draw us closer to him.