Every sermon is a heresy, they say. And I am only too aware of that every time I preach. I just cannot say everything I want to. I was particularly aware of that last week when I preached on Romans 8.16 – ‘the Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we are children of God’. I was clear with my listeners: ‘It’s important to seek for Christian beliefs that can function in the marketplace of ideas…to come to church and follow a Christian lifestyle… to work for God – but if there’s no ‘live traffic’ – if we don’t have a personal experience that transcends all that, we and our religion will be ‘fake news’!
For once(!) nobody argued with me to my face on this occasion – but they could have done! Listening from a different perspective, they could have observed that the opposite of what my sermon had said is also true! If we have a lot of ‘spiritual experiences’ but don’t experience transformation, changes in our attitudes, our behaviours, our lifestyles… our Christianity will also be fake news!
The longer I have studied and taught communication, the more aware I become that it is always a fragile process - both inside and outside church. As Samuel Johnson said: 'The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished'. And whether or not effective communication happens, so much depends, at least on a human level, not only on how you speak - but also on how you’re heard. Understanding or ‘attunement’ between a speaker and a hearer, between a preacher and the members of the congregation is crucial. It’s a mysterious process. I believe that, basically, ‘attunement’ in all relationships comes from the meeting of needs. Its success depends on unquantifiable factors like culture, temperament and age, on health and levels of fatigue – and so much more.
Central to that ’so much more’ in church, it seems there is one significant factor which creates interference in the process of religious communication and stops needs being met. It is a difference in approaches to biblical understanding – or ‘biblical literacy’.
The ability to read or hear religious words – in the Bible or in church teachings and ‘translate’ them into real, everyday human experience takes as much, if not more effort, as learning any other human language. The capacity to discern the difference between time-limited realities and eternal values takes more than human skill. The knack of deciphering the ‘code’ to identify faith in God at the heart of cultural practice is crucial. It's not surprising that genuine present truth is a rare commodity in the 21st century.
When there are vast differences of interpretation and misunderstandings between people in the same religious community – that’s where relationships break down and conflict begins. We may not use physical violence but there are clouds of misunderstanding and verbal abuse between us. And we can’t blame those outside the community for being totally bemused!
It’s easy for me to recognise religious illiteracy in extremists who perpetrate the sort of ‘religious’ violence we saw in Sri Lanka last Sunday. I’m also willing to recognise a level of extremism and illiteracy in my own religious community which leads to lack of ‘attunement’. But perhaps I’m not always willing or patient enough to do the personal and spiritual work necessary to attune to the needs of other people within my community – not to mention beyond it! As is always the case when I've finished preaching – I think I need to go and listen to my own sermon!