“.. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians chapter 13 v12-13)
A few days ago my contribution to a panel discussion led to some strong reactions on social media. Although the reaction was seemingly not in direct response to the discussion itself but rather to an inaccurate headline attached to an article by The Times science correspondent who was present at the event (‘You can’t have love without faith, says woman bishop.’ The Times 11 June 2018).
One of the challenges facing us in this country is how we make space for in-depth discussion and exploration together, particularly in our places of difference. Therefore it was a privilege to be part of a panel discussion at Cheltenham Science Festival entitled ‘Connections: Belief and Community’. It was an opportunity to engage with people in a forum of face-to-face conversation and reflection, which is very different from people reacting to one another in 280 characters. My fellow panellists were the anthropologist Pieter Francois and the science teacher Alom Shaha, author of ‘The Young Atheists’ Handbook.’
In speaking about community I outlined my starting point as a commitment to relationship and serving the common good, and I went on to say that I could not talk about either of these things without shining a spotlight on love and hope. These are core to my understanding of who God is and who human beings are created to be. As a Christian I believe that God is love, and that all people are created in the image of God. In love we see what it means to be our full selves.
I most certainly do not hold a view that people without faith cannot love.
I commented on the poignant responses we have seen in this country in the aftermath of atrocities such as the bomb in the Manchester Arena in 2017. People of all ages and backgrounds came together to stand in solidarity and powerfully state that love is stronger than hate. We saw love rooted in a sense of hope and I stated my view that love and hope are vital to build cohesion and community. You can’t have healthy connectedness and belonging without them.
I reflected on the fact that Bishop Michael Curry’s Royal wedding sermon had gone viral, and that he had spoken about the revolution of love rooted in Jesus Christ, and I said that as a follower of Jesus Christ my hope is in love which is stronger than hate, and life which is stronger than death. I then went on to pose a provocative question of curiosity as I asked whether you can know deep love and hope without faith. It was not a statement, but rather an offering into a forum which was designed to spark ideas and discussion. In the questions that followed I talked about my discovery of God’s unconditional love and there was an interesting exchange of disagreement. We could have continued in healthy, challenging and thought-provoking dialogue for some time.
In that same exchange I spoke about our human brokenness and mixed motives. My love is often flawed however much I long for it not to be. Sometimes our care and love for one another is driven by such things as a fear of not being significant or a fear of rejection. Learning to love and be loved is a lifelong discovery, and for me it cannot be separated from my faith in God. As I continue my life and discover yet more of who I am, not least in human encounter, I continue to discover ever greater depths to the overwhelming love of God in Christ. This is about the strange and mysterious connection between faith and love, each leading to a deepening of the other.
When Jesus Christ was on earth he spoke of loving God with ‘all your heart and soul and mind’ and loving ‘your neighbour as yourself.’ In my own exploration and discovery of love, I continue to discover the relationship between love of God and Neighbour and Self. And it is not a relationship from which I can remove God.
I recognise that for some this will sound offensive, but it is not intended to ostracise or create distance. Indeed one of the strong messages I sought to convey in our panel discussion is my desire for all of us to build relationship and community in places of difference. I spoke of the fear of otherness which seems so prevalent in our world and which can lead to people attacking or distancing themselves from one another rather than going towards one another and building community.
Love desires the flourishing of all people and creation, and for me that reflects the heart of God.
‘Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est’ : ‘Where charity and love are, God is there.’ (The old poem referred to by Bishop Michael Curry)
Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester