Making God relevant for Kiwis
A retired Anglican minister has written a prize-winning book about Christianity in a secular age. PHILIP MATTHEWS talks to Ron Hay.
Of all the people you should never lie to, an Anglican minister would be high up the list. But is this lying, really? Or is it just not quite telling the truth?
The Anglican minister is Ron Hay and he has been phoned by The Press at his home at Castle Hill, North Canterbury, because he has won a Mind Body Spirit Literary award, worth $10,000. Only he doesn't know that yet.
Or maybe he does know and he's playing along too, even when he cheerfully says things like: "You never know what your chances are in a situation like this".
Officially, at the time of phoning, he is just one of five contenders for the award, handed out annually by the Ashton Wylie Charitable Trust for books on spiritual matters. An equivalent prize goes to unpublished manuscripts.
The media has the good news under embargo, provided we can keep the secret. And the secret is that Hay won at an award ceremony in Auckland last night, all going to plan.
Some readers may already know him: Hay was the vicar at Sumner-Redcliffs for 15 years before he took early retirement in 2009, in order to write. His first book, Finding the Forgotten God, is the result.
Its subtitle is "credible faith for a secular age". Does it sound like it should have wide appeal? Hay thought so too. He tried mainstream publishers, such as Penguin Random House, and "the general response was it's well-written and interesting and not our thing".
Auckland-based Christian publisher DayStar Books picked it up, but Hay found the same lack of open mindedness from mainstream booksellers that he encountered with commercial publishers: "Whitcoulls' national buyer turned me down sight unseen."
Since publication in November 2014, he has sold 1600 copies the hard way. Scorpio Books in Christchurch has taken some, as has the Northlands branch of Paper Plus, but otherwise it has been sold through a network of Christian bookstores or by Hay himself as he goes on the road with boxes of books, talking in churches.
"I think people have appreciated the fact that it's coming from a Kiwi point of view. There have been a number of rebuttals of the 'new atheists' from the US and the UK. People have appreciated the Kiwi illustrations and allusions."
For example, lines from local writers Elizabeth Knox and Bill Manhire are scattered among quotes from actual theologians. The Manhire one is fascinating. It turns out that an Otago University classmate of Hay's back in the 1960s was also a close friend of Manhire. The mutual friend died young, from drowning. Manhire wrote a powerful poem, saying that in death his friend had "grown beyond us and our guessing".
It is a lovely way of hinting at transcendence, while also expressing doubt about the exact shape it might take.
"That's the big question," Hay says. "Are we just guessing about anything that may be beyond this world? When it comes to the loss of a friend in early adulthood, it is a pretty raw and real question."
It also invites the sceptical or agnostic reader into the discussion. Hay is reaching out to that kind of reader.
"I'm very conscious that New Zealand is a very secular country and often a Christian voice doesn't get much of a hearing in the media. People have a stereotypical picture that to have a Christian faith is to believe in something superstitious or irrational. I wanted to make sense of Christianity for secular people. There are major problems, like the problem of suffering, which is a very genuine stumbling block to faith."
The problem of suffering is simply the question of why God would allow pain and evil in the world. In Hay's experience, and most theologians would agree, this is the hardest question for non-believers. It is tougher even than questions about scientific evidence. Hay's answer is that God suffers alongside us.
As Hay points out, his book was written in response. He was already sketching things out when scientist and high-profile atheist Richard Dawkins filled the Christchurch Town Hall in 2010 and he has seen "the Dawkins disciples" appearing in the Press' letters pages whenever a religion argument flares up.
The so-called new atheism of Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and others was prompted largely by the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, which put religious fundamentalism at the heart of western life in a way no-one could have predicted. The publishing boom that followed also pointed to an obvious appetite among the secular public.
"Are we in an impersonal world living essentially meaningless lives as the victims of indifferent forces or if there is a God, is the world essentially personal? Is there life beyond death? There can hardly be a bigger question than that."
There is a metaphor he likes that he discovered reading CS Lewis. It compares humanity's relationship to God to the characters in a novel's relationship to the novelist. The idea is that we are in a story and cannot see past the edges of it "and God is in the timeless world outside the novel".
People who think that Hay needs to "prove" God's existence to them might be disappointed, though. He writes that "if God transcends the physical universe then there is no scientific proof (or disproof) we could possibly apply".
That will obviously strike some readers as an easy way of avoiding the question. In other ways, science is said to have its limits. A remarkable idea appears in Hay's chapter on the new atheists, derived from the philosopher Alvin Platinga.
It goes like this. Platinga argues that, "from a theistic point of view", our cognitive faculties would be reliable, as we are created in God's image. But in unguided evolution, why should our cognitive faculties be expected to be reliable? "It's as likely that we live in a sort of dream world," Platinga says.
For Hay, this means that the "philosophical materialist position is untenable, ultimately". It is also remarkable that the idea has been picked up by atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel who now thinks that the "neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false", as he put it in a recent book title.
In short, these are interesting times in which to be a student of religious theories and disputes. The tide has even gone out on the sceptical historians who argued that there is almost nothing we can know or say about who Jesus was historically. Instead, there is a new generation of scholars who argue that the gospels are more reliable evidence than many have assumed. A book by Richard Bauchman, called Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, was a big influence on Hay's thinking in this area.
In any event, it shows there is more going on in these intellectual circles than the atheism of Dawkins or the debunking practised by Lloyd Geering or John Shelby Spong, whose Christ Church Cathedral appearance Hay protested against when he was the vicar of Sumner-Redcliffs.
"We were concerned about him speaking at the cathedral because it seemed like the church was really endorsing his view. We didn't think that was wise.
"It is one of the frustrations of orthodox Christians that it is the renegade figures, the Spongs and the Geerings, who get the publicity. It is part of the appetite for the controversial that news feeds on."
Both Spong and Geering came before the public as men of the church who deviated, which has obvious appeal. Both are essentially atheists now, Hay says, yet they continue to speak from within the church and its traditions in an informal way.
"For ordinary Christians, it's like playing a rugby match and having one of your own players tackle you. They just do not speak for the church in a representative way."
Back at the grassroots, Hay has heard some nice stories about the effect his book has had on readers.
"I had a lovely email the other day from a prison chaplain in the North Island. He had given the book to a guy in prison. He said he was an able professional man who had a fall from grace and wasn't a person of faith, but as a result of reading the book he was now calling himself a cautious Christian. The prison chaplain said that was a lovely, honest assessment of where he was now at.
"There have been a few stories like that that have been really encouraging."
In the end, it all just boils down to stories of individual lives. Near the end of Hay's book there are eight stories of personal faith. A few are from the church at Sumner; others are from people he has met elsewhere.
"I wanted to make it not just an intellectual trip but a book that appealed to the heart as well as the head," he says, "And to flesh out the things I was saying about faith – as they are made real in people's experience."
FINDING THE FORGOTTEN GOD: Credible Faith for a Secular Age by Ron Hay. DayStar Books, $27.99. The book has a website, findinggod.co.nz.