Yesterday evening I was in a packed church - and St John's, Princes Street is quite a size to pack - to hear Bishop Jack Spong talk about the difficult subject of eternal life. Difficult? From my early teens I've realised how difficult, when my father used to quizz me: what kind of eternal life did I envisage? Would I fancy it as a spotty adolescent, or would it be more like an eternity of arthritis? He knew, and even then I knew, that these were facetious questions masking an uncomfortable reality - Richard Dawkins would have felt quite at home chez nous in the early sixties. And of course, it's the simplistic notions that the Dawkinites, and plenty of people who actually simply know very little about religion, keep insisting are the bread and butter of the Christian faith and any other you might care to mention. No wonder they dismiss us as daft. And no wonder we get fed up.
But Jack Spong had this crowd feeling anything but fed up, if the applause was anything to go by. He's just brought out another book: Eternal Life: A New Vision, and reading it would give you a better idea of his drift than reading this post. But a few bits stick: the God-filled man that was Jesus showing that the Kingdom of God was within him, and telling us that it is also within us; the living of a life of loving that aligns us with God who is timeless; the self-conscious humanity that is at once our original sin and our saving grace. And a joyous recognition of the impossibility of sharing our experience of God in words, in this question: Can a horse tell another horse what it means to be human?
The laughter showed the relief of those who had realised that the high and crazy and the low and lazy were not for them, and that sharing their own experience didn't fill pews. That's not our job, said the bishop in his wonderfully American way. We're not here to do that. The faith we hold is not to bring peace, but to help us to grasp reality and have the courage to go on facing it. It takes, he said, a lot of courage to be human and realise that we are finite - the whole nature of humanity is to be anxious.
In the end, I can't even redeliver this talk, any more than I can redeliver religious experience without resorting to art. But the realisation that there are so many of us - including people we met whom we know in more conservatively Christian circles - was thrilling. Our churches may be falling down around our ears, they may be populated by people of my age and older - but maybe that's as it should be, at this time. And for sure I came away with the conviction that if the church is diminishing, it should probably not moan about the failings of society.
It's time to take a long, hard look at our own failings. And then? I don't know. But it should be good ...
As Richard Holloway, winding up the evening, put it: we'd been well and truly Sponged. I recommend the treatment!