What we are not…

Early Christian stone 2

I read this on FB today- and loved it. I know it is easier, and even quite seductive to focus what we are NOT than to grapple with what we actually stand on, but even so, some things need saying, and Jim- you said it well…

“God is not a belief-system.
Jesus is not a religion.
The good news is not a ticket to Heaven.
Church is not an address.
The Bible is not a book of doctrines.
Transformation is not behavior modification.
Community is not a meeting.
Grace has no exceptions.
Ministry is not a program.
Art is not carnal.
Women are not inferior.
Our humanity is not the enemy.
Sinner is not our identity.
Love is not a theory.
Peace is not a circumstance.
Science is not secular.
Sex is not filthy.
The herelife is not a warm-up for the afterlife.
The world is not without hope.
There is no “us” and “them.”
Tattoos are not evil.
Loving the earth is not satanic.
Seeing the divine in all things is not heretical.
Self-actualization is not self-worship.
Feelings are not dangerous and unreliable.
The mind is not infallible.”

- Jim Palmer

The God-hoover is out of the cupboard again…

Check out the trailer for this film;

There have been other attempts to scare people into faith by dodgy theological interpretations of the wild meanderings of the Apocalypse of John. I have written before about my childhood experiences in this regard.

Popular culture reflects the zeitgeist in ways that are often interesting. What emerges on to the entertainment market often reflects all sorts of subliminal fears, preoccupations and prejudices. In the American heartland, still dominated by Conservative Evangelical Christianity, this film will do well. Guns, fundamentalism and fear- surely this has to sell well even if the film making itself is rubbish?

Naomi Klein makes some interesting points about what she describes as ‘Rapture Rescue’. I have posted this before- but it is worth watching again;

Western society, despite our peace, prosperity, security and excess, still seem to define itself in terms of fear of catastrophe- be this some kind of real or imagined terrorist threat, a fear of immigration, of civil unrest. We then imagine some kind of massive redemptive transforming event to solve the problem- a new saviour, a victorious war, a wonder technology.

Add religion into the mix and things can get, well just silly. Except that when so many people are caught up in it all it is not really a laughing matter.

Ideas are important. Naomi Klein said this;

“If we want the transformation, we can’t wait for it to happen in some massive jolt, we have to plan for it and model it…”

“Only a crisis, actual or perceived produces real change, and when that change occurs this depends on the ideas that are lying around. That is our function, to keep ideas alive until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

My concerns about films like the one above are partly theological (there is a discussion of some of the dispensational theology in this post) although correcting esoteric theological ideas is always a bit of a waste of time. Those who hold them do so as if to a branch out from a cliff. They will never let go.

The issue is more relevant when we consider the impact of this kind of theology on our engagement with the world. Christians have some of the best ‘ideas’. We have a story that can change whole cultures- that HAS changed whole cultures. Sadly ideas and stories like this can become the servants of culture, not part of a critical, vitalising commentary.

So if our religion takes us to a place where we believe that this world is doomed, that God is going to suck all the good people (measured according to whether or not they have said the ‘sinners prayer’) up with his great rapture hoover and the rest will get their just deserts- if this is our religion then how might this change the power of our story or the potency of our ideas? How might these ideas set us free to be engaged in works of salvation- not just for a narrow self elected few?

That is why we need to hear other voices of faith- like Tom Wright;

Faced with an apparent crisis in our ability to hope and believe for the future, we people of faith have a choice…

We can proclaim the end of it all, and offer only the hope of a few of us being sucked away from the stinking rotten corpse that is this world, or we can become hopeful critical collaborators in our culture- salting those things that have good flavour, and shining light where there is darkness that requires illumination.

It does not matter what you believe…

theology

…or does it?

We had a lovely discussion tonight with some friends, sitting round a fire, talking about life and death (as you do.) The death bit because several folk were still in the midst of dealing with loss. The life bit turning on how we understood what our lives were drawing us to.

And because of our shared journeys, the meaning we have found has a lot to do with Jesus, although has been somewhat complicated by our experience of religion…

Some of us have done a lot of (perhaps even too much) unlearning/deconstructing/questioning what this religion has told us we have to believe. Not just the obvious stuff, but the sub-cultural subliminal stuff too that it even harder to come to terms with.

I found myself asking the question- does it really matter what you believe?

We kind of agreed that the religious context that we were familiar with made far too much of belief. We all knew exactly what we were supposed to believe. It was never really stated, but we all knew it was vital to get all your theological cards stacked right. This was what most ‘teaching’ was really aimed at after all.

Strange then that this did not seem to be Jesus’ preoccupation. He was not much interested in making sure that his disciples answered all those complex theological questions that we struggle with now. In fact, he seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure playing with people who came to him looking for absolute theological questions- sending them away with a parable or two- almost like he was saying ‘go and work it out for yourself’.

As I read the gospels, it seems to me that Jesus was much more interested with how faith (rather than belief) brought us to action- particularly how it turned us towards love. Those two commandments- love god and others as yourself.

My conviction is that the obsession with belief often gets in the way of active love. It does not encourage engagement with the world around us, but sits smugly on its own sense of rightness, pompously calling for others to join our club.

theology

At least that is what I believe.

As our discussion went forward we circled again towards death. We talked about the death of a God fearing man, whose passage from life was characterised by fear of God. How he was sure he would not be allowed into heaven as he had done too many bad things. And we began to wonder again about belief…

Our working conclusion was this- belief matters only as far as it becomes the means for us to move, to act, to live, to travel. Even if that journey is the last one.

The rest of it is children playing with marbles.

Is God violent?

It is a question I was discussing with a friend last week. She, like me, comes from a background in which the stories of the Bible were regarded as unquestioned absolute fact. The problem is that as you start to take a look at some of these stories, you start to hope that they are not.

But if they are not, then the absolutes that faith has been built from start to come unravelled- if you pull at these bricks the whole wall will fall in.

I wrote a series here called ‘Bible Nasties’ in which I tried to explore some of the issues that arose from my own theological meanderings. You can catch the first one here, and the others via the links in the comments.

However, Brian McLaren does it much better in this article here. Here are a couple of quotes;

Let’s define violence simply: force with the intent of inflicting injury, damage, or death. I think believers in God have four primary responses to the question of God’s violence defined in this way:

1. God is violent, and since we human beings are made in God’s image, we’re free to use violence as one valid form of political communication (to borrow a famous phrase from Carl von Clausewitz), and in fact we are commanded to use it in some cases.

2. God is violent, but in a holy way that sinful humans are incapable of. That’s why violence is generally prohibited for humans except in certain limited cases. In those cases, only those designated as God’s chosen/elect/ordained, acting under God’s explicit direction, are justified in using violence.

3. God is not violent, so human violence is always a violation of our creation in God’s image — both for the perpetrator and the victim. If it is ever employed, it is always tragic and regrettable, never justified.

4. God is not violent, so violence in any form is absolutely forbidden, no exceptions.

McLaren goes on to describe his own struggles with this issue- how the violent version of God contrasts with the other version in the pages of the Bible- the loving, forgiving, self sacrificing one, who eventually casts himself as the victim of violence, not the originator of it. Which version is the truest one, because increasingly it becomes impossible to hold them both together.

McLaren points us to Jesus, and along the way, we again bump into how we understand attonement;

In my own grappling with this subject, a single question has brought things into focus for me: Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?

If God is primarily identified with the Romans, torturing and killing Jesus, then, yes, the case is closed: God must be seen as violent on Good Friday. The cross is an instrument of God’s violence.

But if God is located first and foremost with the crucified one, identifying with humanity and bearing and forgiving people’s sin, then a very different picture of God and the cross emerges.

Both locations present a scandal. The former, it seems to me, subverts the entire biblical narrative. God is not then identified with the slaves seeking freedom, but with Pharoah keeping them in their place. God is not with the woman caught in adultery, but with those who want to stone her. God is not with Paul, accepting Gentiles as sisters and brothers, but with the Judaizers, upholding the Law. And God is not hanging on the cross, but stooping over it, pounding in the nail. That’s scandalous in one way.

The latter understanding subverts violence and all those who depend on it for their security, affluence, and happiness. God is with the slaves, not with the slave-drivers. God is found in the one being tortured, not the ones torturing. God is found among the displaced refugees, not those stealing their lands. And God is found in the one being spat upon, not in the one spitting. A very different scandal indeed — and a very different cross, with a very different, but no less profound, meaning.

 

Honest doubt and fundamentalism…

I have been listening to some of this series on the old wireless during my travels this week- Richard Holloway‘s journey through the emergence of doubt in the wake of faith. Compulsive listening for old pilgrims like me.

For those of us on a quest for honest faith, we have also to be honest about doubt. The two things are intertwined, as I have written about previously. Doubt then is not the opposite of faith, but rather the means through we we engage, wrestle and ultimately it can become the way that we move towards light.

Today the discussion centred around the issue of revelation- the idea of an interventionist God, who reveals himself to his followers through dreams, visions, prophecy, and people ‘hearing his voice’.

Some of these ‘voice hearers’ began to write down these words, and it is these words that we go to most often as we seek fresh revelation.

One little morsel that impacted me today was this one, concerning the writings of Origen

Origen was a hugely influential scholar, theologian and writer of the early church, writing in Alexandria in the second and third Centuries after Christ. His views soon were controversial- he was a universalist and believed in the pre existence of souls. He was condemned later as an apostate- but perhaps we should regard him as a theological adventurer, putting forward ideas and theories for us to chew on.

Today his views on scripture were mentioned. The gospels that were circulating at the time (and there were many more than the 4 we have in our Bible now) had all sorts of areas of disagreement and contradiction. This might be hardly surprising if we read these as eye witness accounts, or scholarly collections of stories.

We might also expect a gospel to bear in some way the perspective, the creativity, the agenda of its particular author- one person might focus on one aspect of the life of Jesus- love for example, anther might be more interested in proving some other theological issue. You could describe this as observer bias.

This is of course not a problem if you understand this as you read- in fact it can be extremely enriching to view the life of Jesus from different perspectives- this is the whole point of us still having 4 gospels in our Bible is it not? However it becomes a problem when you start to treat the text not as revelation through a man, but rather the very ‘Word of God’. Then you have to deal with the contradictions in a whole different kind of way. You have to make it all fit into one homogeneous whole. As we used to hear said- ‘inerrant; without error or contradiction’.

It seems that back in the second and third Centuries there were already disputes about the validity of scripture as the inerrant Word of God. Origen however suggested that God had deliberately allowed these contradictions/disagreements to remain in scripture precisely to remind us that it was not to be taken literally- rather it was to be engaged with, wrestled with, questioned and debated.

In this time of the rise of fundamentalist doctrine, this ancient heretic might well have some more agitation to do for this generation too…

New belief…

Over the past few years, often charted on this blog, the defining codes of faith on which I have sought to live my life has changed considerably.

At first it fragmented. I was no longer sure if I believed at all, let alone had confidence in the traditions I was part of. This was sometimes traumatic. Later however faith began to emerge again less as a set of resounding assertions about the nature of the divine but more as a process of faithful questioning.

In other words, it could be regarded as faith not as the opposite of doubt but rather doubt as an integral part of a living faith journey. I wrote about this before, here.

Along the way, the emphases I place have shifted considerably. I do not think that the correct goal for the life of faith is perfecting our theology- either from the point of view of knowledge, or narrowing down our understanding of ancient text until we have nailed down every errant verse to fit an integrated whole. Rather I think that attempts to do this will always be futile, and distractions from the real business of faith, which is all about how it releases us to live.

This has led me to worry far less about all those ‘questions-in-a-bubble’ theological arguments- the sort that no one really cares about apart from theologians. Such intellectual sparring can be entertaining, but when it is mixed with angry defensiveness or attack in the name of truth I walk away.

But to suggest that what we believe does not matter is foolish.

Our actions are driven in both subtle and obvious ways by the core ideas that we build our lives on. Here is an example from a psychological point of view.

>Core belief;  People are inherently evil and untrustworthy, particularly those who are ‘different’.

>Leading to guiding assumptions; I am at risk, my family needs to be defended, you are a threat, I need to prepare for hostilities.

>Leading to instinctive interactions; Distrust, hostility, defensiveness, aggression, tendency to isolation  and separation.

Everything that Jesus taught us about love is based on the idea that if this becomes the core of everything we believe then our core assumptions about the world and our instinctive reactions to it are all affected. In this way, love is not weak, nebulous and irrational, rather it can change the whole world.

But (unfortunately perhaps) life involves a whole lot of other questions to which we have to at least form working theories, if not absolute conclusions.

So back to the point of this post- the forming of new tenants of faith out of all of the questioning. It is another regular theme on this blog- what to construct after all the deconstruction. There comes a point (or at least there has for me) when I start to feel more comfortable with making tentative statements about what you believe again.

Although as I think about it, as a young man raised in Evangelical/charismatic settings, saying what you believed was not  often necessary- it was obvious as we all kind of knew what was held in common to be ‘true’. The point at which belief was really defined was in the negative- that is when someone (usually outside out immediate group) got it wrong. We could then dissect their incorrect doctrine and discount it and in doing so we could also discount them.

I confess that there is this tendency in me still- I continue to strive towards grace in this as in many things.

What I am starting to construct however, I do not construct alone- everywhere I see a convergence of a new kind of consensus around some basic ways of approaching faith. It seems to me to be cross denominational, but typical of those of us who may have come through all of those ‘posts’ discussions (post modernity, post evangelical, post charismatic, post Christendom.)

So, here are a few of the things that I have come to believe, structured around the ancient Apostles Creed. I expect things to change- I will be carving nothing in stone, nor nailing anything to church doors- these theories are not external, they are made of flesh, some sinew, and even a little muscle.

1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I do. I believe that this unfolding universe began in the mind of God, and he let it all out in a burst of creativity. I also believe that we embody this god-quality of creativity as we are made out of the dust of the heavens, in the image of the Creator- and that this imposes deep responsibilities on us in relation to the heaven and the earth.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

If there is one thing of faith that lives in me, it is the idea, the hope, the person of Jesus. Immanuel, God-with-us, walking in our filth and turning every thing upside down. I believe in the New Kingdom he proclaimed as being here, and near.

And if I believe in Jesus, then what we know of his ways has to be the place that I start from in relation to all other belief. I have to start with the stories and parables he told, and the way he lived his life in relation to everyone around him.

And I have to concede that love is the most important thing- far more important than judgement, or doctrine, so if I am going to make any error, I am going to strive to make it on the side of love and grace. This will inform my relationships to everyone, particularly those who are marginalised or oppressed.

3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

To be honest, this is not something I think about often- but I rest on the stories I have inherited.

4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

5. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.

6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

These stories too live in me and inspire me.

7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Perhaps Jesus will come again- but I am not going to spend too much time thinking about this as we were not put on this earth just to hope for some kind of swift exit or heavenly Dunkirk. We are here to learn how to love, and how to put this into action.

I believe that we should not fear judgement from a loving God, and that all of us need grace.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

I do- despite all the charlatans and the hype. I believe in the Spirit of God within us.

9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,

I want to believe that the collectives of the followers of Jesus might be the conscience, the peace makers, the justice dealers, the healers, the party makers and the gardeners of this world. I hope for communities of people who support one another in this direction, whilst learning to love.

I believe that God is present in these gatherings, but also elsewhere. I believe that he reveals himself to people of other faiths, and none.

10. the forgiveness of sins,

Oh yes.

11. the resurrection of the body,

I was never quite sure what this meant- something to do with a day to come when all our bodies will be raised incorruptible. To be honest, I think this is another one of those that I will just shelve with a bit of a shrug.

12. and life everlasting.

Yes, I have this hope that we might be more than flesh but also Spirit, and that those Spirits that leave before us might yet be waiting for us elsewhere.

Is this ancient creed enough to define the central things of our faith now?

As I read it over, I do not think it is. Firstly, I continue to think that we have over emphasised right belief- even to the point of burning dissenters at the stake. The creed is all about belief, and very little to do with our response to it.

What I am hungry for is to see right ways of living and ideas of how love can be put into action.

So I would add to the list above a few of my own;

13. I believe in love

For those reasons above.

14. I believe that we are called to be active subjects of the Kingdom of God, and to participate with him in acts of creativity, healing, peace making, protesting, lamenting, redeeming and the formation of community.

15. I believe in the mission/adventure/pilgrimage that God releases us on.

16. I believe that my ideas of God are incomplete and imperfect, and that not every question can be answered. And that that is OK.

Left brain/right brain theology…

Great discussion today on Radio 4’s ‘Start the week’- a debate between scientist (Dawkins and Lisa Randall) and the Chief Rabbi, Johnathan Sachs. You can listen again here if you missed it.

The debate was predictable in subject material- Dawkins expressing his logic-first model, and exorting us all to let go of our superstitious addiction to the supernatural and Sachs talking about the why questions rather than the how, and the truth and beauty we humans experience that is not understandable in a scientific way.

However, there was a respectfulness about the debate that I really enjoyed.

Sachs at one point talked about the wonder of a creator who creates a creative universe- I liked that.

He also said something about the Greek filter that many biblical texts have been through- a familiar theme to anyone who has read any Brian McLaren (the ‘Greco-Roman narrative’ that he describes so well in ‘A New Kind of Christianity’.) However Sachs approached this from a different angle.

He suggested that the Greek Language was the first one to be written left to right, and to contain vowels. Previously, writing was mostly right to left (apart from Chinese which went down.)

This is significant not just because of the left brain (analytical) right brain (instinctive/feelings) split that tends to characterise how we understand the hemispherical nature of our brains. It also asks questions about our theological lens.

Because the older languages lacked vowels, they could only be understood in context- their meaning was only understandable in the paragraph as opposed to the individual words.

So what? Well, when these earlier understandings were translated into the Greek, and then onwards into our modern languages, they were forced to take on a more concrete form- one in which every word is individual in meaning and application. Words that defined and legalised. Sacred words.

Words that try to contain God.

Kind of reminds me of this post- and this picture.