Waking Up to God:
Rediscovering Faith in Post-Pandemic Times by Neil Richardson
Sacristy Press 2022
Neil Richardson has had a long and distinguished ministry as a Methodist theologian. This has included serving as the British Methodist President in 2003 and leading Wesley College, Bristol, as Principal. In eight chapters he tackles head-on with energy and clarity the nature of faith and its shape in these post-pandemic times.
In these eight chapters there are some illuminating biographical and personal narrative that go some way to providing the reader with a sense of his journey, motivation and the way faith has been formed in his life. Throughout the book he has the skilful art of shaping his questions out of the confines of ‘church’ and in to our creation and the broader life of our world and its communities.
Three core questions, for Richardson, need to be explored in order to articulate, reinvigorate and develop a faith which can lead us into a brighter future. They are: what are human beings? What might our common future be? Who or what is God? He believes that Christians are good at asking fundamental questions and that in each generation they need to be looked at anew.
There is some resonance for this reader in the way the book explores our spiritual and religious geography. The pandemic has faced us with some fundamental questions about ourselves and the way we make meaning. It may also have asked questions about God. We have handled our anxiety, our distraction and our insecurities in diverse number of ways. We still live with a weary sense concern about the future. Richardson suggests that religion can help us to articulate and set our priorities and deepest values that are informed by a range of theological truths and traditions. These reflect his ecumenical sympathy and commitments as well as his scholarship. The pages of this book invite the reader to stop, reflect and consider what our living looks and feels like
Richardson moves between the ways in which we might experience our existential crisis both on a personal level but also in our relationality in nature and towards creation. His skill as a biblical scholar puts the Bible to work, sometimes in unexpected ways – but above all in reminding the reader that the most recognisable of all realities is God. God is fundamental to everything – behind, beneath, in it all. ( page 12). In this plea for relationality there is a restless challenge to action for our own sakes, and the health and sustainability of creation.
The book is unafraid of tackling difficult questions. In Chapter One, he explores some of the problems associated with how we think about God and what language we might use to describe the nature of God’s relationship to the world. Where might God be discerned in a world so fragile and unpredictable as ours as we have struggled with Covid ? Is God involved in creation or so removed that belief in a personal God seems hard to sustain? There is in these chapters, a sense of the evolving, ever giving reality of God in and through all of the complexities of our lives. In other words, there is such a dynamism to God’s participation in creation that there is ever new knowledge of God to be discovered. Richardson demonstrates and articulates wisdom and a passion for God that is as essential as our very breath, light and love – and therefore necessary to our well-being and our common future.
Chapter Two offers an intelligent and convincing handling of Scripture. He cautions careful handling of the text in a persuasive and reflective way. Chapter Three examines Jesus, his life and his death, and the authority of the cross and resurrection for Christian life. Chapter Four invites the reader into a journey of growing into God drawing on the teaching and writings of St Paul. There is a constant invitation into a more subtle and less hard edged approach to Christian truth – a confidence that we can be confident in God, but also live with paradox and compromise. This is a story that unfolds and develops as we commit ourselves to the common good and a better world. This takes shape in chapter Five (Towards a more Human Church), Prayer, silence, contemplation, and the mystical tradition invite us into a deeper attentiveness but also into braver and more prophetic practice. We are to be prophets who ask awkward questions and seek justice. We are to call out the contradictions of a democracy that does not serve the common good. Joining the human race invites us to fight for creation and do our bit to safeguard the planet’s future. This is life before death and a life which God yearns for us to live in all its fullness.
As the chapters of the book move to a close Richardson is genuinely humble about whether his discourse and the deconstruction of some of the hardened edges of Christian thinking is convincing for the reader. He wonders as the book draws to a close whether the Church will be part of a new normal, where the human race needs the story of Jesus which can allow us to be human rather than ideologically religious. His hope is that Jesus, as our guide, can enable and empower humanity and religion to ‘merge’ into one.
This is a good book –spirited, stimulating, invitational – and with a grounded wisdom that religion has so often overlooked or even derided. Part of its strength is in its questions and certainly in its articulation of paradoxes and uncertainties. It would work well for a house group, or indeed could be adapted for a Lent course.
I had hoped for more intentional theological reflection on the pandemic and the kind of questions that we are living with in these unpredictable and all too anxious times. Indeed, some of this spiritual questioning may well have been heightened by the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
However – this is a useful book and one which you will benefit from in unexpected ways. It stands in a long tradition of grounded Methodist theological discourse. Richardson establishes himself as a distinctive voice in this – this reader is certainly the richer for listening to this voice.