In her first blog as Director, Chine McDonald explains why she is convinced the world needs to pay attention to faith and belief. 07/01/2022
In November 2008, I stood in the dust of the tracks at Auschwitz–Birkenau – the site where more than a million people were murdered during the Holocaust. I had joined a group of other journalists covering faith and religion, alongside schoolchildren invited by the Holocaust Education Trust to join the leaders of the nine largest religions in the UK on this historic occasion. The group of faith leaders, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, and the late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, led a moving candle–lit vigil on the tracks after we had spent the day hearing and seeing with our own eyes the horrors that had once occurred in that place.
As I think back to that moment, standing at Auschwitz, I am convinced that faith and belief can speak meaningfully into those profound existential events in ways that other things can’t; those times in which we wrestle with such atrocities and ask big questions about our humanity and its nature. It’s fair of course to ask whether beliefs and worldviews are themselves to blame for some of the greatest atrocities we have seen in human history. These are questions I have wrestled with all my life. But I’m also increasingly convinced that faith and belief can provide wisdom and answers to some of the biggest questions the world is asking today – looking at the present and what’s ahead, not just looking backwards.
I’ve long been fascinated by the interplay between religion, politics and every aspect of human society, which is why I’m still pinching myself that I am now the Director of Theos – one of the best examples of an organisation that explores this interplay and presents a credible and considered Christian voice in public life; that digs beneath the surface to provide robust research exploring some of the most fascinating and diverse issues that affect us all.
My own background has mainly consisted of journalism, media and fundraising within the faith sector, but I’ve always been fascinated by the particular role that theology plays in public life. I’m privileged to be able to speak about some of the most topical issues of the day through a theological lens when regularly presenting Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. I covered some amazing stories – including the trip to Auschwitz but also the occasional interview with people who had seen the face of Jesus on a tile or a piece of toast – when I was a local newspaper reporter covering religious affairs. For a long time, I’ve felt a personal calling to communicate the good news of the Christian faith to a world that no longer understands it and often finds religion in general niche and irrelevant.
When studying theology and religious studies at university many years ago, I would often be asked by fellow students whether the reason I was studying religion was that I was planning to become a vicar, a nun or an RE teacher. These questions about my future vocation betrayed an underlying belief that religion must surely be confined to certain spaces – and clearly should not escape from its narrowly–defined box.
When I was studying in the early 2000s, much of the thinking in sociology of religion was around whether or not secularisation and globalisation had relegated religion to a thing of the past, arguing that it would soon become extinct, defeated by the arguments of the new atheists, who were clearly intellectually superior.
But recent years have shown us that you simply cannot understand the world we live in today without paying some attention to religion, belief and worldview. As writer Octavia E. Butler once said: “Religion is everywhere. There are no human societies without it, whether they acknowledge it as a religion or not.” From QAnon to the climate crisis, from Black Lives Matter to artificial intelligence, from the trans debate to nationalism; the biggest issues of our day ask fundamental questions about who we are, what makes us human and how we should live in light of the answers.
Digging into the rich archives of Theos’ past reports and publications, these words about what Theos stands for – taken from our first report Doing God in 2006 – still ring true: “Theos aims to shape events, not simply react to them. We aspire to speak wisdom into the increasingly crowded market–place of ideas and seek to demonstrate that religion in public debate is not dangerous or plain irrelevant, but that it is crucial to enable such public debate to connect with the communities it seeks to serve. We believe that faith is personal but it can never be private.”
There is much more of this to come. In my first week at Theos, we as a team have discussed the Capitol Hill insurrection, death and dying, the Ashers ‘gay cake’ ruling, science and religion, the state of UK politics and 17th century philosopher and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal. We’re nothing if not diverse. That’s the thing about religion – nothing is beyond its remit; we believe that faith has something to say about pretty much everything. So expect more stimulating and robust research from Theos, expect more fascinating discussions on our podcasts The Sacred and Reading Our Times, expect to see us getting out and about and helping to shape the debates that in turn help to shape our world.
I can’t wait.
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