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God is everywhere but we don’t really talk about it

A guest post from a CMA Member

"Back in November, the MOD took part in ‘Inter Faith and Belief’ week and, with so few opportunities to talk about faith in the day to day of work as a MOD Civil Servant, I was excited by the prospect of putting it at the centre of the conversation for just a few hours in my calendar.

I didn’t get quite what I expected when the first of two events I attended (‘Engaging in Inter Faith Dialogue’) was led by a Humanist speaker who spent most of the talk explaining that religious believers are the new minority and so we really ought to make society more secular. And as if to illustrate the fact of society’s growing indifference to religion, the event was so poorly attended that I was the only religious believer present, outnumbered by the two Humanist organisers.

The panel discussion I attended later in the week was significantly better attended and brought together a genuinely eclectic mix of faiths and beliefs. However, after discussions mostly focussed on practical considerations relating to religious believers in the MOD (diet, dress codes etc) the conversation took a noticeably different turn when one Christian attendee took the opportunity to offer a sincere reflection on what it might take to eradicate unacceptable behaviours across the organisation: “I say: embrace the fear of God within Defence because that changes the person from the inside, changes the heart.” It was a fellow Christian who felt the need to hastily jump in and caveat: “I absolutely fundamentally disagree with that for this forum because it doesn't take into account our Humanist friends!” And that just about summed up the week: an opportunity to bring together people of different faiths and share dialogue… but don’t mention God.

There is an intense fear in public society that the mere utterance of an opinion rooted in religion may constitute an attempt by believers to evangelise or impose. The result is an unspoken rule that anything beyond innocuous cultural expressions of religion ought to be kept entirely private – don’t bring God to work, to politics, to public service or to general conversation.

In a similar vein, I put the first talk into practice and had a follow-up dialogue with its speaker in which the Humanist desire to abolish faith schools became the central point of contention. Whilst

there was a recognition that good RE in schools is critical, the secular vision is one in which religious beliefs sit neutrally side by side with a heavy focus on the festivals and traditions that are most palatable for a pluralist society. Religion is presented predominantly as cultural heritage and anything deeper than that is only a subjective, purely personal choice. In this way, our education institutions perfectly prepare young people for the workplace that follows – a place where religion is a private and best-not-talked-about matter.

It can certainly take us a little by surprise to reflect on just how cleansed (even embarrassed) of its religious heritage this once Christian society now is, but there is little to be gained from disappointment. This is, after all, a characteristically British ‘stifling’ of religion rather than the all-out persecution that faces Christians in other parts of the world. In that way, it’s a mild enough dose of what we were always told to expect:

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and

innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in

their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a

testimony to them and the Gentiles.

Matthew 10:16-18

Our society presents a different but equally real danger to that of the direct persecutions warned about here. Because indifference, silence and watering down of religion don’t so naturally inspire dramatic heroism – instead, they tempt us to accept a stifled existence and rest in the comfort of a purely private faith that doesn’t challenge or inspire anyone. Perhaps not even ourselves. There is a critical passage late in John’s Gospel in which Jesus’ enemies decide that he must die, and it is interesting to look very carefully at what emerges as their justification for his execution:

The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to

do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in

him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of

them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You

do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have

the whole nation destroyed.” … So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

John 11:47-50, 53

It isn’t righteous outrage against one they see as a blasphemer that drives this condemnation, as we might expect. Nor is it personal hatred of Jesus, or fear of what he might do to them. Rather, the most confounding issue is fear of the secular authorities – Jesus is attracting too much attention and it’s this that might disrupt the comfort of their quietly complicit existence within a pagan state.

I commend the Christian who spoke about ‘fear of God’ at the panel event and I pray for the strength to have that boldness. I know that I stifle myself often and keep the name of God on the tip of my tongue because the silence is more comfortable. And the more habitually I keep God from escaping my lips, the less he will enter my mind in the first place.

So I start from the point of trying to remind myself regularly of God’s presence throughout the work day – even just through simple actions, like a short prayer in the time it takes my laptop to load in the morning. When I do, I find that my work is improved. Honesty and integrity, key pillars of the Civil Service code, take on a divine importance, and I am constantly aware of the need to work with the diligence, care and love of perfection that was once practiced by a Nazarene carpenter.

Letting all this naturally lead to speaking aloud about God is the most difficult bit, and I often commit to trying to respond better to opportunities to speak openly as a Catholic. But I find that if my commitment involves waiting for opportunities, then they will seldom arise and the ‘waiting’ becomes the easy bit. The challenge is to create opportunities – not in some forced operation of evangelisation, but simply because the reality of God, His integrity to my work and His all- encompassing presence in my life are just impossible to ignore."

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