Voluntary Faith in the Sixth Form

Voluntary Faith in the Sixth Form - by The Chaplain 

As sixth form pupils, one of the things of which I am always conscious, and you should be too, is the fact that your years of compulsory education have ended and that you are now at school on a voluntary basis.

Of course there are a whole lot of pressures that may not make it feel voluntary, such as the desires of your parents by which they generously support you in being here.  There are the pressures of society that seem to demand that decent A-levels and a degree is the requirement for many forms of employment, not least many of those that will offer you financial reward, satisfaction or possibly even both.  There are perhaps the peer pressures that would expect you to be at school for A-levels, for the social aspect if not for any higher academic pursuits.  And within you there may still be some personal element of psychological conditioning that really believes that you need to still be studying in order to realise some potential or purpose that will take you onto further studies and will be the key to greater achievements.

Amidst these strong pressures you do remain here voluntarily and this doubtlessly creates certain questions or tensions, not least in what should be expected of you and how should dress yourselves at sixth form pupils.

Within your minds, and sometimes mine, there might be a question about what is happening when you come together either as a full school, or for these Friday mornings as a sixth form to experience chapel.  For the many of you who are Christian I hope you will find inspiration or learning in what we share together.  For those who see the value of Christianity and its role within society I hope you may also learn something about the faith that has shaped and continues to shape this nation and the world. 

A third of the world professes to be Christian, a fifth Islam, an eighth Buddhist and, after including other religions, in total 86% of the world can be said to follow a religious path.  12% more are said to be agnostic and only 2% have declared themselves as atheist.  Such figures might not seem to reflect our northern European experience where the general experience of wealth, health, individualism and security correlate with religious decline.  People may not have faith for many reasons in our own society but whatever factor or error you allow we do have to accept the significant role of religion within the world. 

Whilst maths and science would claim to deal in theoretical or verifiable certainties none of their conclusions can force us into changing our beliefs or our actions.  Statistics might be used very effectively to make us feel part of a majority of minority, but they should not be a blunt tool to try and make us change our behaviour.  I do not in any way think that you should be religious just to fit in with the other 86%.  Nor do I think that Pascal's wager is a firm basis for faith.  He suggested, as you might remember, that if heaven is the reward for those who believe in God, hell is the punishment for those who do not, and an entry into nothingness at the point of death is the destiny for those of faith or no faith if there is no God.  The only winning bet is that of having faith.  But faith is not a matter of probabilities.  Albert Einstein famously remarked that God does not play dice, and nor should we gamble with the most precious thing we seem to possess, our very lives.

So if maths cannot direct our lives, what about science, the other great discipline of rationality and certainty?  Once, again science should be about disinterested observation, not about judgements as to what we should believe or how we should live.  As an example, science might show that climate change is happening and that humans are contributing towards this.  But science goes beyond its remit if it should make an ethical statement as to how we should change our behaviour to address this problem.

Such an attempt to determine behaviour based on observations or facts is what is known as a naturalistic fallacy, sometimes summarised by G.E.Moore's phrase 'you cannot derive an ought from an is'.  What he means is that we cannot make ethical judgements based on facts or observations.

Whether as an RS teacher to 39 of you, or standing here as your chaplain, I hope that you would find within what I say a very strong element of rationality as well as emotion and commitment.  But I am not here to convince you of things of which I have not questioned for myself.  I am not here to sell you a metaphysical conception of God that I cannot justify.  In fact my own understanding of God, may seem a bit different and perhaps a little more radical than other conceptions within the broad Christian tradition and history of understanding God.  I would place values, ethics and human character at the heart of faith just as I believe Jesus had a radical message that called people to examine and to change how they lived.

And the reason I would place ethics at the heart of faith, Christian or otherwise is because, as humans, we do have values and seem to need values by which we can shape our lives.  But none of those values are immediately implicit in life and the universe as it is presented to us.  At one end of the moral and philosophical scale, one might live as a nihilist such in the philosophy of Nietzsche, believing that nothing at all ultimately matters.  This is somewhat of a destructive philosophy.  Somewhere along from that would be existentialism, perhaps beginning with the nineteenth century Danish figure of Kierkegaard and championed by such twentieth century figures as Sartre or Camus.  They argued again that the universe has no inbuilt sense of meaning or purpose. Camus described the experience of existence as 'absurd' and the response to this starting point was that we need to create meaning for ourselves.  Paul Tillich, a Christian theologian, whose writings and influence I found to be helpful in my studies, believed that Christianity still had confident message despite the sense that life may ultimately seem to be futile or meaningless.  He does not say that we need to unquestioningly accept Christianity or any faith, but rather than begin with nothing and construct our own ethics on the shifting priorities of society, we can make a commitment to a way of faith that has evolved, through reason and experience, through more generations than just our own.  Faith he described as being 'the state of being ultimately concerned' and he regarded a God of love as being the only appropriate symbol of that to which we can fully commit ourselves.

Of course, at the other end of a scale of ethics and belief are any number of ready made solutions.  These might include any form of totalitarianism or even a world view that would seek to define you as simply an unquestioning consumer within a capitalist system.  And, of course, there are a wide variety of religious fundamentalisms that seek to provide or impose answers to those who want the security of unquestioning certainties. 

I think it is an increasingly complicated world in which you have to find your way.  I understand the temptation to look for ready-made answers, and also the need to reject some of the simplistic answers of the past, but I would hope that you might find that faith is something that you can rediscover through life rather than leave within the category of childish or superstitious things.

I do believe strongly that there is much in the Bible and in the traditions and history of the Christian church that can be of immense value to inspire, inform and challenge us.  You do not need me to lead you through this.  Try reading as a start, the Gospel of Luke, the letters of Paul to the Galatians or the Philippians, or the letters written by John or James.

I also believe that there is much that we can gain from other religious traditions and also from the shared experience of trying our best for the good of humanity.  I believe that faith in God is not a point of arrival but an expression of a relationship that grows throughout our lives.  It is one that we must enter into voluntarily, but like any relationship, something that requires commitment.

As I began by saying, your two years of sixth form are a strange combination of being here voluntarily but being here as part of growing in knowledge and friendship and maturity.  I hope that your time in chapel might be part of that experience and education and that what we do here might help you to make decisions about what is important to you, for your future and the world in which you live.

And to conclude, there is a phrase in St. Paul's letter to the Philippians with which I would like to leave with you as it reflects this challenge:

"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."


The Revd. David Johnson

Dauntsey's School Chaplain

October 2009