Consider the case of Bernard Madoff, the New York financier who is said to have lost $50 billion of his clients’ money. His whole business was a massive fiddle, where the returns of the first investors were paid for with the money being put in by the next investors, and so on. Some of the savviest people in the global-finance community have lost their shirts, for Mr Madoff and his swanky Manhattan offices were eminently believable. Yet nothing about his business was real.
There are those who think that religion is just as much of a con. They cry that faith also trades off fancy offices and respectable front-men, but that, ultimately, there is nothing to it. Our atheist critics cry swindle, and say that clever people are always being had by grand schemes, financial or religious.
The answer to the Mr Madoffs of this world is greater and more intelligent regulation. Those who invested in him trusted, naïvely it now seems, that the regulatory authorities were doing their job well.
Yet, if regulatory vigilance is essential to the smooth running of the financial system, surely there is also a case for regulatory vigilance being essential for the smooth running of the Church. Unlike Mr Madoff’s hedge fund, however, there is no agreed procedure for auditing the claims of believers. What does an audit of belief-claims look like?
The key part is to focus on where “belief” — again, financial or religious — actually touches the ground. One needs to trace a connection to something solid. It is all about where “the rubber hits the road”, to use cod-business speak. For Christianity, that point is supremely the incarnation. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is faith grounded in reality.
Now I know this raises 101 other questions, especially about the historicity of the Bible stories. But I am not trying to prove that faith is real. I cannot do that. I am trying to suggest that, even as people of faith — perhaps especially as people of faith — we need to have active and functioning phoniness-detectors.
Furthermore, in the realm of religion, these detectors work best by seeking out where God has an impact on human life in some definite way. Again, this is not any sort of proof. But we must always be on the look-out for ways to sieve our religious imaginations for self-delusion.
If I were going to plan a way of doing that for the Christian faith, I would begin with a theology of Christmas. The idea that the divine is also a human child in Bethlehem locates our faith in a very practical set of concerns: food, clothing, shelter, security, freedom. Christmas, supremely, is where God gets real.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.