January 31 2021


The prefacing Note to Dylan Thomas’ Collected Poems of 1952 contains the following recollection: “I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: ‘I’d be a damn’ fool if I didn’t!’”

The most powerful influence for good or for ill in the world is Faith. Many treat Faith as if it were just a subject often discussed, “Which church do you go to?” rather like where we went for our holiday last year, but not something fundamental to our life, what makes us the people we are, like the power to think or the power to love

Just as, for example, everyone already has the power to think or to love, so everyone already has Faith. The shepherd remembered by Dylan Thomas had it, and in no uncertain fashion. We ourselves have never existed for a moment without exercising it. We live and move and have our being by virtue of our capacity to believe in or have faith in something; it may be simply that the sun will rise again tomorrow morning, or that if I light a fire it will keep me warm.

Of course most articles of Faith, as it were, are more complicated than that, but they are no less fundamental or true. Just as we have a love-life, we have a faith-life: no one needs to be urged to have it.

So there is no such person as an unbeliever, one who lacks Faith. He or she may use the ability to believe in different things: different causes, different lifestyles, God or materialism, conspiracy theories, different politics; but all the time their faith-ability is at work within them, and involved in every activity of mind and life.

This matter is therefore very important to us because we all face situations today which are extremely challenging, and which make our ability to carry on difficult. Psalm 27: “I had fainted, unless I had believed…” Faith is very much a marshalling of one’s interior resources in order to confront a situation.

Returning for a moment again to the shepherd who made ritual observances from within fairy circles, in popular thinking Faith has often been seen as opposed to intelligence. In fact Dylan Thomas didn’t make that mistake. He showed he could see where the shepherd was coming from, as he continued in his Note to the Collected Poems: “These poems… are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.” Faith is not in conflict with intelligence, they are different stations on the same railway line.

Erroneous popular beliefs can become a kind of habit for some people, who then set intelligence and faith against each other. When Galileo grasped the new astronomy he found himself overwhelmed by the old faith in a different system. On my way with the dog through the village the other day I couldn’t help but overhear the most colourful altercation going on between the manager of a store and a man who did not believe it was necessary for him to wear a mask if he wished to go shopping.

A human being is a creature who necessarily and forever believes in something, and that fact alone is sufficient to account for all the conflict in the world. So we can see how Faith is a prodigious power. Deep at the centre of every personality, where we handle our essentially solitary nature, we are working out success or failure, salvation or destruction, by our use of this prodigious power

All our intellectual activity is instinctively gathered around those things we have faith in. It is most obvious, I suppose, in the field of theology and religion, where   committed churchgoers try to live their life according to the 10 Commandments or the sayings of Jesus, or if on the other hand you believe it is possible to fly to the moon, or create a covid vaccine, that will be where all your concentration will be.

Life is not aimless. It gets focus, integration and direction from what we have faith in. Everyone feels the need of these qualities, and most of us will try will-power to achieve them. But as we saw in relation to the surprising lack of success with New Year Resolutions, straining our volition is like sitting in a boat and blowing at the sail. Faith in life is restored by being open to the unexpected occurrences of kindness, thoughtfulness and affection; sometimes beauty does it; perhaps music, art, or nature: walking in green pastures, beside still waters, restoring your soul…

Possibly the great difference between having a religion and not having a religion lies in this: not having a religion is a declaration of a limited faith in life; that it came from nowhere and that it is going back to nowhere. Having a religion is a declaration, of faith in life which is not discouraged, in its spiritual origin, in its endless possibilities and its eternal meaning.

The sum of our experience is not merely what we perceive life to be on the surface, and all that is best in us is the revelation of something.  As Dylan Thomas expressed it: “with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, these poems are written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn’ fool if they weren’t.”

Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics, had a horseshoe suspended over his doorway. A fellow-scientist asked him whether he really believed this would bring him good luck. Bohr answered, “No, of course I don’t. But apparently it works whether you believe in it or not.”

I would say, that this has to be true of God as well.   Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period