Ezekiel 33.7-11; Psalm 119.33-40; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.15-20
17th September 2017
Does religion make us better people? There are many in society who doubt or dispute this claim. And yet this morning’s readings all presume it, firmly convinced that religious belief and practice are ethically beneficial.
Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes:
and I shall keep it unto the end.
Nonetheless, against this presumption that religion makes people better, it is a firmly held tenet of many celebrity atheists that world religions are a force for harm.
What a year it has been for the Abrahamic religions!
I could [the letter tailed off] go on and on…
So this question about whether religion is morally positive or negative is live and controversial. If the atheists are right, all of us here today are (at best) wasting our time and (at worst) might become bigoted fanatics. On the other hand, if the atheists are wrong, all of us here today need to be affirmed in our decision to come to church (because it’s a good thing to do) and to know in ourselves why religion is beneficial so that we can counter criticism when we meet it.
I should say at this point that there are many non-religious people who lead upright lives. I’m sure we can all think of lots of people whom we know or admire that respectfully don’t believe in God but who are among the most caring people we are likely to meet. Conversely, there are many folks who do wicked things under the thinly veiled cloak of religion. Recent events in Burma seem to be a case in point. It is of course humans who are responsible for atrocities committed in the name of their faith – but in the eyes of the New Atheists it is religion (and even the God in whom they don’t believe) that should take the rap.
Let’s be realistic, faith does not turn us into angels. Church leaders have known this from the earliest Christian centuries, for example when the mainstream found themselves facing up to a rigorist group called the Donatists. The Donatists were not so-called because they had a thing for doughnuts; indeed they would have found doughnuts rather frivolous. The Donatists were named after a North African called Donatus. Their rigorism was expressed in an insistence on rebaptising those who had lapsed from the Church’s fellowship and they denied the validity of sacraments celebrated by sinful clergy.
The Donatists would have rather liked the stern guidance in today’s gospel about how to tick off a naughty person in church. However, today’s gospel sits cheek by jowl with last week’s reading about forgiveness. We need to read the two together. The Donatists are right in asserting that sin has consequences – but they are wrong in putting up impossibly high barriers to reconciliation.
We must not erect impossibly high barriers to reconciliation precisely because faith does not turn us into angels. What faith does do is give us two things that make a difference. Faith gives us guidance and it gives us grace.
Faith gives us guidance. The Bible is not a moral handbook. It doesn’t have a pat answer for every dilemma that confronts us. But it does give us a framework in which we can make better choices. That framework is summarised in the don’ts of the Ten Commandments and their more positive expression in Jesus’ Golden Rules: love the Lord your God and your neighbour as yourself.
Faith gives us guidance. And it also gives us grace. Grace, as I said at the end of August, is that crazy, undeserved, overflowing love of God. Because we are called into the awesome presence of a God who is perfect, we become acutely aware of our own limitations. Because God’s perfection throws our mistakes into stark relief, we turn to him for forgiveness and help. And among the helps that God gives are virtues, positive qualities that build us up. Our medieval forebears thought that there were seven virtues: prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice, faith, hope and love. And they believed that the virtues reinforced one another: when we have a bit of them we want more of them. In this upwards process, the seven virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice, faith, hope and love) are the opposite of the seven deadly sins. We pray for virtues that build us up in a virtuous circle and we pray to avoid the deadly sins which drag us into a downward spiral.
A few months ago I was asked to be part of a debate about ethics at Townsend School, the Church of England secondary towards the northern end of our blessed parish. Alongside me on the panel was a Catholic, a Hindu and a humanist. This sounds a bit like one of those pub jokes but sadly its not as funny. Throughout the debate, the generous and gentle representative of the British Humanist Association kept coming back to the mantra that we can be ‘good without God’.
Well, we can indeed see goodness in people of all faiths and none. But measured by the unending beauty and majesty and perfection of the almighty, human goodness falls so short that it doesn’t look good at all. Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners, but through faith we seek guidance in this world and through grace we have hope of eternity. If it looks possible to be good without God, it is so much better to be with him. Amen.
 Pullman in Mooney, Devout Sceptics (2003), 125–26.