Mark Argent
Creativity design composition spirituality work with organisations

Politics:: articles since 2015 General Election
Is faith a problem?

26 June 2015, first published in Liberal Democrat Voice

One of the themes which has recurred in the leadership election debates is the question of faith, which I have been hearing in terms of comments on Tim Farron’s Christianity, whether this is a good or a bad thing, how Liberal it is to make an issue over that, and how that places him in relation to Norman Lamb describing himself as agnostic.

This territory is very familiar. For some years I was Secretary of the East of England Faiths Council and very much involved in the engagement of faith and governance. But I have also spent some years doing one-to-one spirituality work, which leaves me very conscious of how much more complex these things are in the realities of an individual.

Religions in general, and Christianity in particular, cover a wide range, from those for whom “believing” something makes it a “true” to those for whom faith is about a deep rootedness which lets them be both resilient and flexible. Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are shining examples of the latter — Nelson Mandela might be an even more striking example of someone whose Christian faith enabled him to step well beyond that label.

I’ll pick up two contrasts:

Deep faith — deep mysticism — is good at being with unknowing. It makes it easy to recognise difference and not be threatened by it. At its best, I see it in the Christian side of the Liberal heritage, where faith resources people’s engagement with politics, but would be deeply uncomfortable at being part of a political party which espoused one religious orthodoxy because that gets in the way of one’s own faith changing. This is caught in the wise cliché “The opposite of faith is certainty” and stands in contrast to all forms of religious fundamentalism.

Friedrich Schleiermacher’s ground-breaking book Speeches on Religion to its Cultured Despisers makes the radical-seeming claim that he was meeting many people outside the Church whose way of being in rejecting Christianity seemed more authentically Christian than he was seeing in the Church. That book was published in 1799 — by an intriguing coincidence, the word “liberal” is used by theologians to describe the stream of thought it began.

I don’t mean that to mis-represent Norman’s description of himself as “agnostic” as something other than that, but Schleiermacher’s language reminds me of the depth in genuine agnosticism, and the limitedness of an overly-narrow definition of “Christian”.

Christianity — or agnosticism — could create certainties that make someone far from Liberal, or could give the rootedness that enables someone to be deeply Liberal.

I have heard unease about Tim as an Evangelical Christian, and others feeling under threat as Christians in part because of this mentality. Both sides of that can be problematic.

By a fascinating coincidence, the article immediately following that on Liberal Democrat Voice is Sal Brinton, another Liberal Democrat of deep Christian faith, sending a Ramadan greeting to British Muslims. There is no sense there of her faith as a barrier to working with people of all faiths and of none across the party and across the UK.

I am an Elder in the United Reformed Church, and from my perspective, what matters is that our new leader has a rootedness and depth which enables them to be flexible but not adrift, to think creatively and foster the creativity of others, and an inner liberty which enables them to foster liberty. I’m drawn to Norman because my instinct is that he inhabits these spaces more naturally.