A twerp twice over
Steve Tomkins, 18th Apr 2016 one comments
No longer able to believe half the things he’d been told to believe, writer Stephen Tomkins wondered where on earth he’d land up.
Standing in church seven years ago, skipping lines in the creed I no longer believed in, it occurred to me that I was on my way out of Christianity into atheism. I had come a long distance from the conservative faith I was brought up with, one critical step after another, but was alarmed to think that I would soon leave the dry land altogether and find myself adrift in the sea of no faith.
In fact it didn’t happen. Not because I panicked and ran back home. Instead I decided to go slowly and cautiously. I feared that haste, and ‘all-or-nothing’ tendencies, might bounce me from fundamentalist Christianity into fundamentalist atheism and I’d be a twerp twice over. I had less noble reasons as well, such as making part of my living as a Christian pundit.
So I took it easy, and over time, instead of unbelief, two things happened.
A self critical faith
One was that I encountered versions of Christianity that chimed with my deepest being, thanks to the writer Francis Spufford and my vicar Sheridan James. This faith was inclusive without being vague – genuinely liking people as they are, but offering a compellingly distinctive path. It taught me the humility to be reconciled to others, and the gentleness to be reconciled to myself.
It was a self-critical faith, not claiming to have all the answers, but answering a deep need to connect to the divine. It introduced me to the transformative moral genius of Jesus: where we are all in the same boat, too faulty to condemn others, too full of treasure to be condemned; where the world is not divided into sinners and saved but full of broken children of a parent whose family business is mending. It knew my deepest imperfections, but instead of judgment offered a healing embrace. This was something that I wanted to be part of. It was good for me to be here.
When doctrines have little importance
The other thing was that doctrines started to seem less and less relevant to my experience of Christianity. I suppose religion has various facets – ritual, doctrine, community, experience – each much more important to some people than to others. The faith I was brought up in made doctrine all-important and scorned ritual. Today I find I’m someone for whom being part of Christian community – local and global – is important, and for whom doctrines have little importance.
I suppose my former self might accuse me of merely wearing the outfit of Christianity; and I’d reply that it fits me better than it ever used to.
About the author
Stephen Tomkins is a biographer and the editor of Reform magazine, published by the United Reformed Church. His books include A Short History of Christianity, The Clapham Sect and biographies of Wilberforce, Livingstone and Wesley.