It’s an affront when some Christians give the impression that people like me can only ever grope aimlessly for what we think is right, or for what we think we want. Thus the C of E’s ‘Alpha course’: indoctrination sweetened by selective pseudo-science and a very warm welcome. Alpha introduces participants to their “God shaped hole”, as if they will always be “lost” until that hole has been filled. Well, that was certainly in the subtext when the Elders at my old Church favoured me, and allowed me to co-lead an Alpha course. What fun: trying to convince others was a great way of applying a panacea to my own doubts, and there was the sense that even if I wasn’t quite “sorted” at least I was better off than “my prey”.
Recently I spotted an Alpha poster showing a climber gazing at a breathtaking mountain vista; below a caption asked “Is there more to life than this?”. “What? Isn’t that enough?”, I spluttered, after a brief fit of coughing to clear my suddenly blocked throat. The poster, I realised, made me feel very uncomfortable because its words, so bizarrely at variance with its magnificent imagery, were tempting the viewer to feel unfulfilled even in spite of all the world’s wonders. Alpha beguiles people, and – like any good salesman – it does so by encouraging them to believe that they have a need, a want, or a “hole”. How fortunate that the Good News just happens to be at hand, there, in the Alpha brochure (sorry the manual): “Now for a limited period only (well, until the coming of the anti-Christ) God can gratify your desires, so at last you can be whole and contented.”
But wait, an alternative is to desire less in order to become more content, in line with principles found in Zen, Stoicism, and Taoism. Certainly, our problems often lie in our failure to choose to enjoy what we already have, rather than in what we lack. But we can, even without requiring much or possessing much, always decide for ourselves who we want to be, and create our own meaning; even when pains and troubles inflict our lives, there is always something to be taken from each day – some solace, or joy. That seems like a safer bet than pinning our hopes on finding some gift of ultimate Meaning. Frantically looking high and low (under the sofa?), or grasping for something “out of this world”, doesn’t stand out as a particularly effective way to go.
Evangelical churches, often more than others, revere their “elders”. And yet so-called “mature men of God” – typically individuals who happen to have learned lots of Bible quotations – are not necessarily wise or capable of empathy. You see, I’ve lived with, prayed with, and loved Christians; I know that even the nicest among them aren’t any more “sorted” than decent unbelieving people. To be direct, even the most committed believers rarely behave as if they really believe. Why, like the rest of us, do they allow trivia to upset them if they have Eternal Bliss (as part of God’s Almighty Plan) to look forward to? Why do they waste time dwelling on their anxieties and negative self-evaluations (labelling themselves ‘sinners’), if He has Saved them?
We all suffer, of course we do, often because of the negative attitude we bring to our own lives and/or because there genuinely is something missing. But busily reaching for an intangible source of relief looks to me more like a distraction than an answer. Myself, I’d rather learn to be my own Guru, or call up a real life good Samaritan – a ‘solid’, responsive person capable of doing something practical about my problems. Thus if usefulness were my sole criterion I’d take the Yellow Pages over the Bible.