Westminster Diocese Primary Headteachers’ Conference

This piece was written in a personal capacity

15 March 2002
Poole, Dorset

Faith; Inner attitude, conviction or trust relating man to a supreme God, or ultimate salvation. In religious traditions stressing divine grace, it is the inner certainty or attitude of love granted by God himself.

-Encyclopaedia Britannica

“The opposite of Faith is not Doubt; the real opposite of Faith is Certainty”

-Dean Alan Jones, San Francisco Cathedral

“O Lord I believe, Help thou my unbelief”.

“We have not inherited this world from our parents, we have been loaned it by our children”

-American native proverb

“What is Man that thou art mindful of him?”

-Psalms

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

-Hamlet

Faith in the Future. The title sounds ambiguous. It’s meant to. Does this mean faith as we might understand it in the future? Or does it mean that we have faith in the future?

I want to acknowledge both alternatives, and then to argue that unless we have faith in what, at this stage, I will simply define as “sacred” then I don’t see much reason for having faith – meaning an optimistic attitude – in the future.

I should tell you something about myself and why it is – with great trepidation – that I am attempting to make this presentation. I have never before spoken in any sense formally about theology, nor, apart from five-minute homilies in school assemblies, have I ever delivered a sermon! Many of you heard me last year speak to the topic “What Kind of Education for What Kind of World? Do we want our children to grow up as battery hens or free range chickens?” So you will know something about where I am coming from.

We each experience moments of “truth” that force us to think deeply. I well remember the day in Estonia some four years ago when I had just finished speaking to a group of teachers. An English speaking Russian cornered me with the profound question “Who are you?”

For a moment I was not sure if this was a question of identity, or philosophy. It was the latter.

“You in the West persistently misunderstood we dissidents. When we tore down the Berlin wall we did so because we wanted to be free to make decisions for ourselves. But you thought we did this because we wished to replace Communism with Capitalism. Now it looks as if we are replacing one tyranny with another. When the Berlin wall was there you in the West defined yourselves negatively; you were against Communism. Now that Communism is no longer a threat to you, your reason for being seems empty. Surely you are about more than just money?”

It was a question similar to one asked me by an intense, gifted seventeen year old in the Sixth Form of the school where I was Head some fifteen years before. He was experiencing both a personal and an intellectual crisis. He had recently read Richard Dawkin’s book “The Selfish Gene”. He looked at me, “If I’m no more than a collection of selfish genes, why should I bother with life? What’s wrong with suicide?” It was a chilling argument that he advanced, and one that earlier had led to the suicide of the brilliant mathematician George Price, seeking to understand what is becoming to be known as “Game Theory” as an explanation for human altruism.

Of course we are more than selfish genes, I wanted to assure him. Yet my own intellectual base was stronger on Faith than it was on knowledge of Maths and science. The argument, or rather discussion, that I had with that young man showed me that, if I were to make the case that life was sacred, I would have to understand the sciences far better. Faith has to do more than cover up for intellectual laziness. That scared me. I feared that I might move into such unfamiliar territory that I, like Charles Darwin and so many other good people before us, I too might lose my faith.

I was privileged to have a wonderful upbringing. My father was an Anglican priest. He was a very special man – as happy in his workshop as he was in his pulpit. God was in everything he saw around him. His theology was the Natural Theology of William Paley – God had created the perfect set of rules, and it was our job to understand and respect them. In my naivety I saw God as a white English gentleman, and the rest of the world in desperate need of “being saved”. I would, as an early teenager, have delighted in becoming a missionary, and in labouring to build my own church on some distant Pacific island. I fear, however, I might have been highly dogmatic in my statements!

There was one incident when I was thirteen that left me confused. It was the day I was taken by my parents to visit the Public School I was shortly to attend. “I hope,” said my father, “that my son won’t be taught evolution in biology?”

I can’t remember the Head’s response exactly, but it was, I certainly remember, curiously vague and ambiguous. There was something going on I did not quite understand, but I was too much in awe of those Gothic arches, chapel services, muscular Christianity, and largely other worldly teachers, to trouble myself about such radical questions.

My father died very young, and before I had developed enough confidence in myself to question him about the clash between science and religion. To him, however, I owe a quite enormous debt for he left me with an unshakable belief that we are, each and every one of us, God’s children.

Just how to describe that I have not found difficult since a curious incident when I was twenty, teaching for a year in a small boarding preparatory school before going to university. It was last period on a Friday. I was tired and had run dry of what to teach. “Let’s discuss space travel” one boy suggested, and so we did. The discussion was lively and fascinating. “Please sir”, said one boy “What do you think people on another planet would look like?” It was my time to be confused. I looked at the class and they too were perplexed, save for one boy who couldn’t keep still. “Please sir, it’s obvious. In the bible it says God made man in his own image, so if we look like God so must they!”