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Giles Fraser: When the real question is: ‘Are you saved?’

Earlier this year, John Humphrys and I had a mammoth argument about God around his kitchen table. This is a person who has tried extremely hard to find and understand faith (Books, Interview, 5 October).

Faith is something he admires in others. But he cannot get there intellectually. He cannot believe, simply because he finds the whole God thing incredible. So, after endless looping circles of discussion, the question of whether there is a God reached a predictable stand-off.

Then I suggested that we had begun the whole conversation in the wrong place. The reason I am an Evangelical of sorts is that I believe the first question of theology is not the philosophical question: “Does God exist?” but rather the existential question: “How are we saved?” — or, to make it more direct, personal, and uncomfortable: “Are you saved?”

Of course, this raises the question of what we mean by salvation. What are we saved from? The answers to this have been many and various: saved from death, from error, or self, suffering, sin, meaninglessness, or oppression. The list goes on.

St Paul runs sin and death together. We are saved from sin/ death, because sin is a form of death. Real sin — rather than the watered-down, overly sexualised version we too often employ as a substitute — is cold, and hollow, and meaningless. Hence it is death. Furthermore, real sin is not a terribly religious thing. One does not have to be a believer to feel threatened by the deathly chill of human self-absorption.

So the question of salvation, the first question of theology, is something like this: have I found a way to be released from the sin/death composite, or am I trapped by it? It begins with a sense of one’s own captivity, and how incredibly difficult it is to free oneself when one is for ever being sucked back into sin, like being sucked into quicksand. It was no surprise to me that the question of salvation jump-started our ailing conversation around the kitchen table. Suddenly, we seemed to be talking about something that really counted.

Although my background is in philosophy, I am at one with Luther when he wrote: “I believe I owe it to the Lord to bark against philosophy, and speak words of encouragement to holy scripture.” If we turn the question of God into a philosophical question concerning God’s existence, we have chosen the wrong terrain for the whole debate. In doing that, we ensure that God will never be found.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney. His most recent book is Christianity with Attitude (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-85311-782-4).

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