Not usually – but on this one occasion recently, we found him helpful! Mr Johnson once wrote in The Daily Telegraph about his faith and whether it influenced his politics, and the quotation is resurfacing now that he is prime minister.
He said something really thoughtful, profound even. Or it would have been if, as we suspect, it had not been intended primarily as an evasion. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Of his faith he said that it was ‘like Magic FM in the Chilterns, it comes and goes’. He was talking about the patchy reception of this popular radio station in a range of hills to the west of London.
His words are a reminder of a fragment from the reclusive American poet, Emily Dickinson. She said something to the effect that she believed in God except on Mondays and Thursdays when he somehow went missing.
We were aware of that some years ago when we went through a series of family bereavements. People who offered us words of condolence suggested that in our time of loss, our faith must be a great comfort to us. Well no, to be brutally honest, it was not. We found that very little can remove or much reduce the keenness of the loss, especially in the darkest moments. For neither of us did a promise of a future reunion greatly dull the pain. The stark and terrible fact is that the loved one is simply not there. We came to believe as a family that it was the support of the community of faith, not the faith itself which brought us consolation.
One of the things that brought us together fifty-one years ago was our questioning about faith as students in the 60s. Our experience since is that for many Christian believers, there are times of real doubting. There is much ebb and flow. The dark night of the soul is still a reality for both of us. The path of faith has never been a straight line as it often seems to be for some others.
There is a clear sense in which faith is fundamentally opposed to certainty. You do not need faith to cling on to life’s certainties. It is always true that water boils at 100 degrees C – you don’t need faith to believe that!
We often wonder if it may also sometimes work the other way round for agnostics and atheists. There are those among our good friends who never have or would no longer, identify as Christian believers. Some will actually say that they have moments of wonder or of some sort of transcendence. For them, those flashes are not sufficient to sustain any kind of faith. Some would say they even wish it were otherwise. For us, having faith is sometimes like driving through the border areas of, say, the Alps. You cannot always be quite sure whether you are in France, Italy or Switzerland.
And so it often happens often that we find great companionship and great willingness to confront difficult realities in those who, after much thought, profess no faith. There are times when they are much more willing to confront what one of them described to us recently as ‘the big questions’. More willing, perhaps, than our fellow ‘believers’.
We have found very little else on which to agree with our current Prime Minister. For us, Emily Dickinson is a wiser guide. As she once wrote: ‘The soul should always stand ajar’. Wise words for all of us.