A pint with a theologian

27 October 2009

Adam Fowler files his second report from a faltering journey

SUNDAYS are tricky. That reluctant walk to church. Anna sitting beside me on the pew, anxious that I am nourished. Me, fidgeting through­out. And that tense walk home.

It's the sermons that do it. Not the insipid ones, nor the simplistic, but the opinionated. I can't yet tell whether they are God's opinions or the Vicar's, but Anna knows to ex­pect one of my regular rants before we reach our front door. As after the sermon in the Lake District, when the evils of divorce had been enumerated through a very muffled microphone.

"I am not going to start thinking badly of my friends who are div­orced." (Rant No. 3.) "If believing in God means I have to turn my back on the people I love, I'm not doing it."

"No, dear. I find church difficult, too. But it's hard to be a Christian in isolation."

"And why can't churches use their sound systems properly?" (Rant No. 10, my favourite.)

"Yes, dear. Perhaps you criticise so you don't have to engage with the big picture. Like a defence."


The other days of the week tend to go better, and I do find myself continuallyb drawn towards the spirituality of my wife's friends and family. But one stray comment is all it takes for me to retreat.

"Thank you, God, for this beauti­ful day," I overhear.

A fire extinguisher of a senti­ment. My fluttering inner candle goes out again. That half-prayer comes implicit with the ending, "and thanks for sending the floods to Bangladesh instead of here".

"A hands-on God. OK. But what has Oxford done to deserve a sunny day at last, and what appalling sins have been committed in Dhaka? I'm not believing in God if he's that vindictive. Or does he just get to do all the good weather while the Devil does all the bad?" (Rant No. 8.)


As ever, Anna is getting the benefit of my theology. As ever, she calms me down with the same point she always makes. The one I always forget.

"When it's a beautiful day, I feel thankful," she explains again. "I'm not thinking that God has sent this particular day to this place, or that there is any particular reason for it. I just feel thankful, and feeling thank­ful makes me want to be thank­ful to God, too."

"OK. I see."

For a while. It's just that when I hear people thank God for any number of things - from exam results to medical recoveries - or even asking for specific outcomes in prayers, that seems odd to me.

Time for a pint with my dashing theologian-friend with the interest­ing past and the sports car. Surely, if God gets the credit for providing the things we want for ourselves or others, he should get the blame for withholding them, too.

"Rejoice with those who are rejoicing; weep with those who are weeping." He exhales with a cloud of cigar smoke. "Paul."

I push him for a little more detail, waving the air clear.

"Well, it's all about the inter­connectivity of everyone with God, in woe and weal."

"I see."

"We should celebrate what is good, without being so bound up with our own joy that we cannot share in the misery of others."


"I know people who think we should pray to God for parking spaces."

"Oh, my!"

"You see, it's an acknowledge­ment that we depend on God for everything."

No, I don't see, and no amount of alcohol seems to clarify the matter. Not for the first time, I fear my path to God may not turn out to be overly theological.

In fact, the few moments of clarity I have experienced have been in times of stillness, on retreat, after days of structured contemplation. But any light is soon doused by the return to busyness, and no amount of words or reasoning can rekindle it.

But at least the weather is nice, and Anna and I can take baby out into the garden that evening.

Watching him play in a patch of sunlight, I reflect on the wonder of his existence. An IVF child, from the only embryo we produced after four years of trying, he was, the hospital staff seemed to think, close to a miracle.

I can't believe that God actively chose to give us this perfect child, while choosing not to give a child to so many other couples, nor that it was his will that we should have so much disappointment before our joy.

But when Anna prays to God to keep him safe through the night, I pray secretly beside her, too.

And when I see him playing in the garden in the first long, warm evening of spring, I am content, and grateful for this beautiful day and everything in it.

Pass me the matches.

Adam Fowler is a freelance radio producer, working from home in Oxford.

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