I was both horrified and petrified this week when on my FaceBook feed, a BBC news report appeared about Robert Peston, a leading economics journalist and sharp commentator on financial matters.
The Bank of England, said the report, was suing Peston because he had revealed the details of an app he was using to make money. Soon, he had said, he wouldn’t need to work because he was slowly putting his money into the account the app represented. Traders were working night and day to invest his money. The Bank of England was suing Peston because people everywhere were withdrawing their savings from regular banks and following Peston's example.. There was a picture of Peston and the man who had interviewed him. And beneath the report comments from people who gave details of how much money they were making by using this app.
Gotcha! For a minute or more, I fell for it! I felt a degree of panic before I looked at the website reference and found to my relief that this was not a BBC report at all. The article was well written, the logo was there, corporate colours and style and the whole appearance of a BBC news item. But a BBC news item it was not! Maybe I should take more notice of the daily stream of emails from various sources reminding me to be on my guard against fraud and deception!
This experience made me wonder how our climate of fake news, fraud and deception affects communication about religious matters.
I’ve been working this week with a couple of people giving feedback on religious communications – early drafts of a sermon and an article. In both cases the authors are talking about God and various aspects of religious experience. How to speak convincingly about something so ‘abstract’ without fraud or deception? As I looked through both manuscripts, I asked myself yet again, in a world where there is so much fake communication and, let’s face it, a fair amount of fraudulently religious communication going on, is it even possible to say anything credible about God to thinking people?
Of course it’s not difficult simply to find and speak to an audience of millions who are ready to trust anyone with letters after their name who stands behind a pulpit or writes in a religious magazine. There are plenty of Reverends or Pastors who are ready to proclaim that even though God is invisible and unquantifiable, they know for certain about “Godly matters” and the rest of us don’t (so just sit still and listen and stop asking questions!)’. That’s a kind of fraud - a benevolent kind of brainwashing...sometimes with less than benevolent results. Think Waco or Jonestown.
On the other hand there are the readers and listeners who are suspicious of top-down communication about God, These are people young and old who instinctively mistrust people who proclaim with no evidence of self-questioning that they and their tribe alone know what God is like or what God expects.
I believe that the cultivation of trust with people who have many questions, who think for themselves is paradoxically simple in its complexity! With religious communication, where there’s so little empirical evidence, I suspect, the best that can be done by anyone seeking to talk about God and metaphysical matters is simply to ‘bear witness’. To recount their experience, to be transparent about the questions they have asked. Credibility sits with people who make no claims for their own superior knowledge but simply share: ‘ here’s what I have questioned, here’s what I have discovered, here’s what I have learned, here’s what I have discarded, here’s what I believe. Take it or leave it.’ It’s a very vulnerable situation to be in, but, honestly, what else is there?