Who cares what we believe?

This is the third in a series of blog pieces describing the place to which my faith journey has taken me. Out of these scattered thoughts, I am constructing a new creed, or rather I should say WE are constructing a new creed because these are not original thoughts. They arise from discussions, books, doubts, hopes and a profound feeling of HOPE for the emergence of a new kind of Christianity.

For each of these posts, I will try to follow the same format;

An introduction.

A look at the old paradigm.

A look at the new.

Finally, a ‘statement of faith’

Ironic, huh, given that am writing a creed? But what does it all matter, really? Who cares what you or I believe? What difference does it make to anything?

I think this might be an appropriate moment to step to one side from all this creed making to ask the question once more- what is the point of faith? Would we not be better off without all this defining and categorising of what is, after all, essentially unknowable and ineffable?

What makes people (like Patrick Hamilton, above) willing to die to preserve what they choose to believe?

Consider how much time and energy we have wasted in the past trying to map correct doctrinal positions on a huge range of complex social and theological issues; marriage after divorce; the virgin birth; homosexuality (particularly this one); what happens when we die; leadership by women; predestination; original sin- I could go on and on.

Does some of this not remind you of the so-called medieval debates about how many angels might fit on the head of a pin? (Although it turns out that this might have been fake news.)

I ask again; does any of this matter?

You shall know the truth…

This is the answer that I grew up with. Faith was mostly about defining propositional, correct, bible-based ‘truth’.

It went something like this; we were told that God was the answer to all our questions about life. We were often given those questions, pre-formed, followed by a set of answers so we could be sure to have ready ammunition with which to answer other people’s… questions. The whole nature of faith was set up as a kind of information exchange, known euphamistically as ‘The Good News’. If people were told the Good News in the correct way they must surely be convinced. If not, then they were in effect choosing hell over heaven, and who in their right mind would want to do that?

Let’s pause for a moment and consider the words ‘Good News’. Even as a young man, I always considered it a hard sell. The ‘Good News’ went something like this; 1. We are all sinners and so will be going to Hell. 2. But God so loved the world that he sent his son Jesus to die in our place. 3. If you accept Jesus as you personal Lord and Saviour then this escape clause will apply to you. Good News indeed.

We will return to this subject later, but I would argue that the theological thinking that fueled this kind of religion has given us a whole lot of problems;

  1. It places evangalism (saving souls from eternal damnation) as the single most important action for Christians. (Contrast that with the example and teaching of Christ, who seems much more concerned with acts of love, and had very little to say about saving souls.)
  2. It sets up a narrow gate through which people can enter (making frequent use of the ‘narrow’ passages in the Bible.) This becomes an us-and-them, dualistic thing in which ‘we’ are good and ‘they’ are bad. It sets up a kind of faith-as-opposition. Faith-as-warfare. (Contrast that with Christ’s way of radically including outsiders and seeking peace with enemies.)
  3. The business of religion becomes focussed on the next world, rather than this one. Good works are useful only as much as they might save souls. (As opposed to Christ’s way of living a life motivated first and foremost by active love.)
  4. The business of religious is to follow a narrow religious code that confirms that we are one of ‘us’ rather than one of ‘them’. (Remember that they called out Jesus for hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes.)

This kind of religion leads us down problematic paths- consider what is happening in the USA at the moment under president Trump. The good Chrsitian majority is solidly behind Trump, because he is seen as being ‘God’s Choice’ – not because people necessarily like him, or approve of his immoral and boastful life style, but because he offers the best way to deliver on a narrow agenda. His trashing of environmental protections is not a problem, nor his inflamatory language about immigrants and his rampant Islamophobia, so long as he protects the elect and their ability to dictate on certain moral choices. It is a religion that puts itself on a war footing to protect its own ‘religious freedoms’ but somehow manages to entirely miss the point.

Those of us that grew up in and around protestant evangelicalism in this country will nod wisely at this, as if the American bible belt religion is different- but let me tell you, it is not. It is the same. The language used, the songs we sing, the codes of belief. It is all the same. The major difference is one of scale, which lends the American religious institutions power.

So- back to that question again- does it matter what we believe?

Or, as John Lennon famously suggested in his song ‘Imagine’, what if there were no religion at all- no belief systems to ascribe to- would things not be better?

…and the truth will set you free

The answer to Lennon’s question is of course entirely personal, but it must also depend on what we mean by ‘religion’.

Take Jesus, for example. He seemed to be struggling with exactly the same kind of thing- perhaps it might be useful to think a little about his religious and political reality.

There is an interesting discussion in one of Brian McLarens books (The secret message of Jesus) where he talks about the crisis facing the Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus birth and early life. Jewish culture and history had been overwhelmed by an invading force. The Roman Empire had annexed Israel, and set up its headquarters in Jerusalem, the city of God. All good Jews awaited the coming of Messiah, who would overcome this evil empire and establish a new Kingdom.

But Messiah seemed to be taking his time, and in the waiting the different stratifications and sects within Judean society adopted fixed positions, partially in response to the crisis. Here are some of them;

Essenes. The Essenes all but gave up on Jewish society. It was too sinful, too decadent. They withdrew to the desert, where they sought to establish new communities based on austerity, religious observance and piety. The trappings of Jewish society were spurned, and the Essenes focused their effort and attention on the study of scripture, and the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

What their response to Jesus was, it is not clear. They may have been scandalized by his engagement with ordinary life and ordinary people. They may have been appalled by his apparent party-going, feasting and drinking with unclean and debauched individuals. They may have struggled to understand what he meant by statements like The Kingdom of God is here.

Pharisees. The Pharisees were the evangelicals of their day. They represented to new, they were a working class protest against the upper class Sadducee orthodoxy. They popularised a way of faith that seemed in direct repsonse to the disaster of Roman invasion and occupation. They espoused the strict observance of rigid religious codes and laws. They evolved complex legal systems to give shape to every situation, built from the raw material of the Laws given to Moses. Ritual purification through sacrifice and attendance at synagogue and temple was expected of all Pharisees. They also eagerly awaited Messiah, who they saw as heralding a new pure and glorious Jewish Kingdom.

For these Pharisees, the reason that Messiah did not come was because of the sinful state of the nation. Every where there was impurity. Sexual immorality, political compromise and accommodation with the enemy, unclean and unworthy people. So they set out on a mission to clean up society.

Jesus seemed to have no time for the Pharisees at all nor they for him. Rather he was seen to hangout with impure and unworthy individuals and to break all sorts of religious laws. He taught a perversion of correct doctrinal law, and kept going on about love and forgiveness.

Jesus suggested a radically different path. A radically different New Kingdom.

Herodians. The Kings Herod (there were quite a few different ones) were puppet rulers of a Roman province. Their power came from compromise and political maneuvering. They also had a dreadful reputation for debauchery, incestuous relationships, and murder. Their followers were largely the Jewish ruling class. They were pragmatic realists who may not have liked the situation that the nation found itself in, but recognized the futility of struggle, and the need for peace and stability.

Jesus threatened stability, because people said he was Messiah. But confusingly, he did not seem to be setting himself against the Romans. He told people to continue to pay taxes, and even HEALED family members of Roman soldiers.

But there was all this talk about the NEW KINGDOM, which was clearly treasonous…

Zealots. The Zealots wanted the nation to rise against the oppressor. They lived with the stories of David and Jonathan, who fought in the power of God. If but a few would rise up, surely this would herald the coming of Messiah? After all, was this not the PURPOSE of Messiah?

Jesus invited a Zealot into his inner circle. A man called Judas Iscariot. He seemed to have many of the attributes of a revolutionary. But his message of peace and the loving of enemies found no allies within the ranks of the Zealots.

If there was a New Kingdom, then where was the King, and where were his armies?

Does this have any relevance to the the debates about faith and belief today? I think it does.

  • We might seek to remove ourselves from sinful culture entirely, giving up on this world, and look to the next (like the Essenes, and like the American Evangelicals)
  • Or we might seek to hold back the tides of immorality and impure doctrine, to defend the faith (like the Pharisees and like some of the dwindling British Evangelicals)
  • Or perhaps we should just realize that Church has to accommodate and compromise with the changing world about us (like the Herodians, and like much of state organised religion)
  • Finally, perhaps we could fight a Guerrilla warfare against the opposition. We could start to see the enemy as less than human, and that all is fair in the holy game of war (like the Zealots, or Islamic terror movements or other Christian groups in our history such as the Covenanters.)

So, religious belief (theological fomations made popular) can get us into a mess, but they can also lead us out again, as we seek new expression of truth. New ways to imagine and engage with the ways of love.

That kind of truth can literally set us free. Free that is from a different kind of truth that might have become a prison for ourselves and for others. Think about this for a moment…

If truth no longer sets us free, perhaps it is not a truth at all. Perhaps it has become ‘religion’, managed by the power of a priesthood whose tenets and codes have to be called out in to the open. Repeatedly. Generationally.

Because there is no final version of this kind of truth- rather there is good, and better. There is now, and there is where we are travelling towards.

(A)theism

I think that what I a proposing here is a kind of faith that is driven by principles rather than doctrinal detail. A faith that accepts that what ever it thinks it knows about the divine will be limited and incomplete. A faith that knows its truth to be not fully true, so will always be seeking something deeper.

If you want to read more about this kind of truth thing, you might like to make an adventure into some of Pete Rollins’ writing, particularly the rather wonderful How (not) to speak of God. In this book he kind of makes these points;

The life of faith is a life of contradiction. Therefore all things we think we know about God, when we really stop and think- we do not really know after all.

All the tenets of faith we were given as absolutes are (not) true.

Faith is formed as we learn to become faithful betrayers of our inherited traditions.

Faith is formed as we  learn our status as (A)theists, because belief is a very human construct in which we manage our uncertainties and incomplete understandings by making qualitied statements.

Like this one.

I beleive that belief matters, because our actions are shaped by our belief, for bothgood and ill, but truth, wherever we find it, can easily become a trap that concretes us into our comfort zones. The way of Jesus was often to confound our limited formations and call us to journey towards new, better ones. He also showed us that all doctrine should ALWAYS be subjected to the primacy of love.

Proximation…

I wrote this three of four years ago, and read it again recently. Not for the first time it reminded me that poetry can come to us like premonition; it can allow us to express ideas that are beyond our immediate grasp. Poetry becomes a kind of proximal thinking. Prophetic even.

Like much of the bible perhaps?

I was thinking of Aleppo. Barrel bombs and people hiding in cellars. Despots clinging to power. Western superpowers trying to cancel out destruction and murder by sending more of the same.

And I was thinking about the god who sees all, but apparently sees nothing.

Syria, Aleppo, East Al Midan, 14. December 2016 On Wednesday, a ceasefire agreement entered into force for the fiercely contested Syrian city of Aleppo. However media reports speak of continued fighting and violence directed against the civil population by Pro-Syrian forces.

Gods

Sometimes I fear that we were given only empty promises
from a far-away-god who casts knowing glances
while we wind towards inevitable destruction
like unregulated clocks.
A god of love who will watch most of us burn.
A god of grace whose good folk gorge
while the others starve.
A god whose justice is skewed
and whose faithfulness is unreliable
A god made in my own image –
For both of us are broken.

But sometimes, just beyond the spectrum of visible light
I feel the glow of a different god
Who is in all things, but is never enclosed.
Who is in everything, but is never excluded.
Who is above all things, but is never aloof.
Who is below all things, but is never debased.
Who centres himself everywhere
but lacks circumference.
This god confounds those who seek to constrain
Where she might be recognised.

(In the whorl of every new born finger and
every uncurling leaf.
Deep in each fossil hiding in the old stones
Of mosque or cathedral
The god who waits in Aleppo dust
Like ancient seed.)

This God knows the weight of the ocean
But measures in love.

What are we going to do with our bibles?

This is the second in a series of blog pieces describing the place to which my faith journey has taken me. Out of these scattered thoughts, I am constructing a new creed, or rather I should say WE are constructing a new creed because these are not original thoughts. They arise from discussions, books, doubts, hopes and a profound feeling of HOPE for the emergence of a new kind of Christianity.

For each of these posts, I will try to follow the same format;

An introduction.

A look at the old paradigm.

A look at the new.

Finally, a ‘statement of faith’

An open bible left on the fireplace of an abandoned croft house on Bernera, an island just off Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

The fourth (and most important) person of the ‘Trinity’

I made this statement about the way we have treated the bible in my last post. I don’t think I overstated – let me say why.

Perhaps the defining triumph of the first reformation was the fact that the bible was, for the first time (because of the printing press revolution) made widely available to an increasingly literate ordinary population in our Western civilisation. The assumption was that this could only ever be a good thing- that it would set us free to read the very words of God directly, with no ecclesiastical/clerical obstruction or interpretation, therefore raising us up into the very presence of God. People hoped this would change everything. Perhaps it did.

Remember however, that Christianity had largely managed without the bible for one and a half thousand years, during which what we recognise today as ‘the bible’ simply did not exist, at least not in the collected form that we know today. It is still a source of wonder (but not surprise) to me that this fact was NEVER mentioned in any of the many thousands of bible-based sermons that I sat though in the first half of my life. It was almost as if to speak of it would undermine something sacred- something that came down from heaven on a cloud. Something we started to call ‘The Word of God’, despite the fact that nowhere within it’s pages does it make this claim (which is after all one of the names given to The Christ.)

How did this amnesia about the origins of the collected canon of scripture come about? Perhaps because, for the last 500 years, the largely Protestant West (protestant in the sense of protesting against other versions of biblical truth) has been engaged in a series of truth wars, using the Bible as a bazooka aimed at apostasy.

Of course, much of this was necessary. It began as liberation- setting people free to make new adventures and to challenge the powers of orthodoxy, who often responded with punishing violence, but they were unable to suppress this new religion which flowed like lava, burning all before it with holy zeal. But like all lava, it eventually set to stone. We carried our bibles into granite institutions and began to dissect it, to treat it to the same analysis as we might a scientific specimen. We needed it to be a blueprint, so we found a way to make it one. Soon, far from being a source of truth available to everyone, new orthodoxies were concreted in place, mediated by a new priesthood, who were able to define ‘correct belief’ with almost the same power and control as their medieval pre-reformation counterparts, because sooner or later, religion tends towards the Pharisaical.

So, what am I saying?

You might read this as being anti-bible, but this would be to miss my point entirely. I think we should read the bible much more than we do, but in order to read it, we have to stop worshipping it. We have to stop treating it as a rule book, or an instruction book, or a blueprint that can solve all problems and answer all questions.

If faith is going to be set free again in this new reformation there is perhaps nothing more important than reforming of how we read and understand the bible.

The bible as blueprint

The first reformation emerged during a period known as ‘the enlightenment’, when rational thought and scientific method were dominating and replacing medieval mysticism. The value of an idea now measured according to how ‘true’ it was; how much it could be measured and proved. Of course, this gave the protestant reformation a problem; how might it be possible to bring the same scientific rigour to the practice of religion? They turned to the bible as primary source material, which allowed focus on the solid, tangible, external world of words, rather than the messy internal world of mystery and ‘faith’. Of course, if it was to be proper source material, the bible had to be codified, cross referenced – it had to become an organised, unified whole, inspired by God and ‘without error or contradiction’. It had to have complete authority over everything. It needed to be something we could go to again and again to mine propositional, hard truths- but ones that fitted well into an organised whole.

The problem was that the Bible had certain shortcomings if it was to be used in this way. For a start, it was not a book at all, but rather a whole library of books, written over an unknown period of time at least nineteen hundred years ago, charting ancient attempts to understand the nature of the divine. The library includes books of history, books of poetry, books of philosophy and books of wild prophecy. The prophecy was not really about foretelling the future, although we often treat it as such. It was more about speaking truth to power. Many scholars through the whole of Christian history contended that some of the books should be read as allegory, whilst others, (particularly more recently) demand that we read the whole thing literally, as if every word was uncontestable ‘fact’ (even if they themselves often had chinks in their own willingness to do the same.)

The Old Testament in particular is full of nasty bits, in which God seems to condone or even instruct mass murder, rape, child sacrifice and even cannibalism. I spent a few posts on this blog trying to think about what these may be all about. You can read more here. Not that we really talked very much about these passages in my experience of church.

We had to find a way of integrating all of these story lines, all of this wild poetry, all of the contradictions and inconsistencies and so a whole industry spent centuries doing just that. The extreme of this were seen in systematic interpretations of scripture, in which each and every ‘problem’ was given an explanation, backed up by references to other parts of scripture. We also tried to argue that the stories emerged in different ‘dispensations’, as if God was happy with murder back then, but changed his mind a little after Jesus came.

Not that the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, were necessarily given primacy. After all, our war mongering, empire building and slave making was justified, using the bible – the Old Testament, that is. Because we were able to give equal weighting to all of ‘The Word of God’.

You see the problem? But it does not end there.

We also made the bible our rule book. It had to be this of course. It has lots of commandments and instructions in there- some of which we have ignored, some of which towers over us. The bits we tended to ignore were those that did not sit easily with our culture- the warnings about wealth and money, for instance, or gluttony, or treatment of our enemies (who we were told to love.) The bits we emphasised however were often concerned with private morality, particularly sexual morality.

Those that did not comply with these instructions were excluded. This is no small matter.

If we make the bible into a holy blueprint, we diminish it, because we make it into something it never was. For many, it can even become a prison, locking us into a proscribed set of beliefs which are to a large extent dependent on… our ‘correct’ readings of the bible.

Other ways of reading the bible

Of course, people have always read the books that make up the bible in other ways too, both before the first reformation and after it. People have also always relied on many other source material to inform their spiritual lives, and these in turn have had an influence on how we approach the bible. Whether or not we acknowledge it, we all approach the bible through a set of assumptions and pre-conceived ideas which we project onto our readings.

Perhaps then, our starting place has to be about recognising what these are and the history and context they arise from. It would argue that it might help to concern ourselves again with the principles taught and demonstrated by Jesus, allowing these to shape our readings first and foremost.These will surely take us towards a skew to the concerns of the poor and weak and those who have been excluded, particularly those who have been excluded for religious reasons.

If we stay with our literal reading (bible as blueprint) we miss so much richness. In this post, i discussed a number of other ways to read these ancient texts proposed by the writer Brian McLaren, which included the following;

Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.

Converstional reading- where we engage with the different conversations across the generations embraced in the Bible- for example Jesus with the religious powers of his day, the Priests and the Prophets, the Jews and the Gentiles.

Missional reading– in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending God’s overarching mission of blessing all nations through a called and commissioned community of people.

Political/Economic reading– the skew of God’s attention towards those who suffer injustice at the hands of earthly empire involving money, sexuality, power, violence, and law.

Rhetorical reading– in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.

Literal reading- “…when readers of the Bible develop sensitivity to the ways poets, protesters, storytellers, activists, priests and mystics use language, the Bible is liberated from its constitutional captivity to be the wild, inspired, and impassioned collection of literary artifacts that it is.” McLaren suggests that people who say they are taking the words literally often are doing the very opposite- approaching the test through a very narrow hermeneutic.

Close reading- better readings of scripture will fit in with the small details of the narrative- the bits that we easily miss that the writer chose to include in the text, which is rich in culture and traditions that we easily miss.

Communal reading- the Bible is complex and hard, and the only way we can really engage with it is through the broader community- firstly in terms of “the community of the dead” where we listen respectfully to how previous generations have understood scripture, whilst understanding their skew towards a western, wealthy, white, male perspective. Secondly we look for the voices of minorities- those who have been forced to the margins. It is not ONE perspective, but rather both/and.

Recursive reading- understanding of the Bible, and emphases within it change, ebb and flow across generations, and within lifetimes. This might be one of the ways that the Holy Spirit brings renewal.

Ethical reading– text applied without ethics have allowed our faith to justify slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and gay people- therefore we have to accept that interpretation is a MORAL ACT, so we should test an interpretation by reason and scholarship,using our rational intelligence, and a sense of justice and ethics. How might I treat people if I follow this interpretation? Whom might I harm? What unintended social consequences can we predict if this interpretation is widely embraced? Could people be vilified, harmed, or even killed because of this interpretation? McLaren points to those in Scripture who have wrestled with God in the face of his seeming injustice… Job, Moses, Abraham.

Personal reading- “the reader is himself or herself in the predicament the text addresses. So faithful readings are habitually humble, expectant, open, and hungry and thirsty to encounter the Living God. Even the “professional” reader and teacher of the Bible must remain forever an “amateur” too …”

Mystical reading– we must “…develop the habit of mystical openness, receptivity not only to understanding from the text but to enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, not only to interpretation but to revelation, not only to intelligent engagement with the text but also to personal abduction by its message.”

.

McLaren proposed on further way to read the Bible, the relevance of which will no doubt be obvious;

CHRISTO-FOCAL READING

McLaren proposes that we no longer approach the Bible as a collection of words of equal weight- but rather that we approach all other words through those of Jesus.

He suggests we need to leave behind three old ways of reading the Bible that have perhaps dominated-

Flat reading- where we see all Jesus’ life and words pressed down and flattened to the same level as those of Abraham, Moses,David, Isaiah, Paul, and Jude. This results in the raising of the Bible above Christ- which is a kind of idolatry. For example, it might be biblical to commit genocide by quoting Deuteronomy 7, but one could never claim it is Christ-like.

Descending reading- where we start with an ideal state in Genesis, and then it all goes wrong, leading to a time when God is going to destroy everything, and Jesus is but a lifeboat for a few. Or the other decent comes from the fall too- “the problem is sin and the solution is law-keeping, with sacrifice-making as a back-up plan. The rest of the story descends from this high point, so that the life and ministry of Jesus have value to the degree that they solve the problem.”

Ascending reading- “Moses’ teaching was good, David’s perspectives were better, Isaiah rosehigher still, John the Baptist ascended even higher, and Jesus was really wonderful andunique, but the crowning revelation comes with Paul and his writings.”

What McLaren proposes is something more radical- “When Jesus is the focal point of the story, he is the climax, the hero, the summit, the surprise, the shock, the revelation that gives all that precedes and all that follows profound and ultimate meaning. If we follow this approach, we’ll speak less about the Bible as the supreme Word of God and more about Jesus as the supreme Word of God. We’ll let the person of Jesus –including and integrating his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, abiding presence, and ongoing mission through the Holy Spirit – become the light in which all interpretations are evaluated, the key in which all interpretations are played, the leader behind which all interpretations arrange themselves as followers, and the meaning in which all interpretations have meaning.”

These readings set us free from the old liberal/fundamentalist false paradigm. The bible can become once more what it always was- a library of astonishing writings reaching back to the beginning of humanity and recording our attempts to understand ourselves in relation to the divine and eternal.

They set us free to adventure again into the library, to see where it might lead us. Not because there is a ‘correct’ reading, but because all scripture is

“God breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3, 16-17.)

And as we read Timothy, we might usefully remember that when these words were written, there was no such thing as a ‘bible’. Then, ‘scripture’ included many books we no longer regard as sacred, as well as some that we do. This should remind us too the there are other wells to drink from because God is a generous God, whose breath flows in all things.

I believe that the bible is a rich library, full of ancient history, poetry, prophecy and beauty. It is not a blueprint, or an instruction manual. It is not an object of worship. Too often it has been used as a blunt instrument and a means to exclude people. We must also recognise the way that history,context and cultural backgrounds influence the way that the bible has been written and also the way we read it. I believe that as we read the bible, we should always start with the ways and words of Jesus, which ground everything in love.

I am all of these things, and I am nothing…

The last couple of posts have been the start of a new journey for me, as I seek to put in to words a change in the way I understand the foundation of our being. I’m not alone in this kind of thinking- we stand at the brink of a paradigm shift in Western Christian thinking when old certainties are falling away, replaced by something far more generous and generative.

The problem is that when we start to talk about this new/old way to approach the divine, words fail- the old bible story about God giving the Israelites an unpronounceable, vowel-free name was making the same point- when we start to try to define, we too easily take up a position of power and control; we weaponise God in our own interests.

Perhaps too the idea of a God who both hides and shows his/herself in all of creation and is in and through and beneath each one of us is so simple and common-sense straightforward that it becomes hard to teach, hard to speak about, because the ideas have gone from the specific towards the universal. We humans look down our noses at universal things. We regard mystery not as something to embrace, but rather as a knowledge gap that needs to be overcome.

Which takes me to poetry, for what other language can allow both mystery and great simplicity? How else can we both the author and the conduit for feelings, emotions and ideas? How else can we move from the private, internal towards the open and universal, sometimes in a single line?

In my previous post, I spoke of the Christ. Not just Jesus, who stepped into our human history, but the Universal Christ through which all things live and have their being; the Christ who is “another name for everything”. I spoke of a book that has opened up my thinking on this subject hugely (Richard Rohr’s ‘Universal Christ’), which I very much recommend if you want to adventure in this area.

Then I remembered things I had written myself, half understanding them, reaching into the darkness.

I remembered this poem- written a couple of years ago, in an attempt to connect with the great Spirit that holds everything, otherwise known (by some) as The Christ.

I agonised over this line; I am all of these things and I am nothing

That word: nothing.

It seemed important, but felt like a betrayal.

Then it felt honest and true, in a way I could not quite explain, so much so that I used the line again and again.

I will not try to explain it any further, but can only ask that you read this poem in conjunction with my previous post.

I am

I am bird, I am wind

I am scaled, I am skinned

I am soil, I am stone

I am flesh, I am bone

I am ebb, I am flow

I am stream, I am snow

I am all of these things

And I am nothing

 

I am love, I am light

I am morning, I am night

I am atom, I am star

I am close, I am far

I am start, I am end

I am stranger, I am friend

I am all of these things

And I am nothing

 

I am silence, I am song

I am right, I am wrong

I am sea, I am shore

I am less, I am more

I am young, I am old

I am iron, I am gold

I am all of these things

And I am nothing

Christ: ‘Another name for everything’ (rather than ‘Jesus’s last name’)…

This is the first in a series of blog pieces describing the place to which my faith journey has taken me. Out of these scattered thoughts, I am constructing a new creed, or rather I should say WE are constructing a new creed because these are not original thoughts. They arise from discussions, books, doubts, hopes and a profound feeling of HOPE for the emergence of a new kind of Christianity.

For each of these posts, I will try to follow the same format;

An introduction.

A look at the old paradigm.

A look at the new.

Finally, a ‘statement of faith’

I read a lot. Sometimes I read voraciously around a particular subject- one book leads to another and then another. Cricket. Everest. Climate change. Above all, matters of faith. A decade or so ago, I joked about Amazon being my spiritual director, so much did I come to rely on the ‘You might also like…’ function that they cleverly added into their business model. What becomes even more interesting is the way that books begin to explore the same new ideas from different perspectives- when this begins to happen, it is time to wonder whether something new is actually breaking out.

But books can only take you so far; the danger is that you end up pulled this way and that by the skill of the writer, moulded to their passions. Something needs to anchor them, and for me, that something is community- the place in which the ideas they contain are tried and tested, critiqued even. This might take an academic leaning, where the testing will typically be more forensic, or it might simply be about talking it over with friends. Books that explore theology seem to require an extra degree of community testing, as theology itself emerges from community.

With that in mind, I have to confess the importance of one particular book for the conclusions of this post, in that it has gathered a number of scattered thoughts and together and gelled them into something deeply meaningful for me in a quite remarkable way. The book is this one; The Universal Christ by Richard Rohr.

I have been so captivated by this book that I am ‘book clubbing’ it with some friends who live close by, and asking others to read it too whose views I trust, even if different to mine. I am going to make liberal use of some of Richard Rohr’s statements in this post.

Jesus; “Who do you say I am?”

In the first reformation, we discovered Jesus as the redeemer who saved us from the consequences of sin. Jesus, came to earth primarily to die- his teaching was largely incidental, the main action was to act as our cosmic get-out-of-jail card. Not all of us though, just the elect- those who followed the right form of belief (and this right form has been debated.)

This Jesus, through a process of re-invention, was formed from a particular reading of two main portions of the bible- the book of Romans and the Gospel of John. The rest of the bible was then backwards interpreted in the light of these two readings, and any inconsistencies ironed out.

The first reformation employed enlightenment thinking, with Jesus as the great sacrificial lawyer, subjected to eternal laws of damnation bigger than himself, bigger than God. Logic ruled, and as such, a logical framework was applied to religion, justified by the deification of the bible, which became the forth person of the trinity – perhaps the most important – because it was tangible. It could be held in the hand. It could be used like knowledge, as if it contained the very mind of God. As if it was a blueprint that (once interpreted through the correct form of faith) answered all questions, for all people, for all time.

So, the Word of God (Jesus) was largely obscured by the Word(s) of God (the bible).

If you think me harsh in that last statement, think about the yawning gap between what Jesus said and what our religion has become and remember that this religion is entirely justified by correct, orthodox readings of… the bible. But enough of that, for now. We will come back to the bible later!

Jesus, in the tradition I grew up in had another purpose. He was there to be worshipped. We had a thousand songs with which to do so- some of them positively weird in their aping of popular love songs. How odd then that Jesus is never recorded telling us to worship him. Not once. Rather he told us to follow him.

Follow him? What, into poverty? Radical inclusiveness? The constant call for re-connection, to find ever more ways to love? To make peace with our enemies? To give away our second shirts?

Nah, let’s just worship him instead.

Another name for everything

Jesus stepped into human history, but he was always the Christ.

Through him, all things were made, and have their being. He is both beginning and end. Through him all things are held together. He is the essence that lives in all creatures.

He is the unity of all things that we partially sense when the sunset fades into starlight.

He is love, light.

Through him all things are being made new, always, for all time.

And what of us? We are like him because he is the life within us. ALL of us, not just the chosen frozen few. Even the most dissolute, hardened, poisoned and venomous specimens of humanity, because even though we are like tombs in which the Christ is dead, he has this trick of coming back from the dead, remember.

The Christ, in the human form of Jesus, gave us the Sermon on the mount, in which he told us over and over again to love one another, particularly the poor and the broken, the weak and the stumbling. The Christ, in the human form of Jesus, excluded no one from his love. He became angry at those who sought to do so in the name of religion and he said ‘Follow me.”

The eternal, cosmic Christ, loves things by becoming them.

In this way, everything that we see and touch – everything of rock or fur or feathers; everything that smiles or weeps; everything that grows leaves or feathers; everything that hides in pools or in a twist in the stream or the tide – all these things are by their very nature, the Christ.

If we look, we will see him. That is what he longs for us to do. If we see him then everything changes, right? That climate change thing? The mass extinctions? The poverty? The racism? The sexism? The exclusion and dividing up into good and bad, in and out, saved and unsaved?

Remember that trick he does in making things new, even when everything seems too late? Even when the tomb is closed and the funeral party has ended?

Far from being subject to logical legalism, the Christ is much more interested in restoration- you could say, restorative justice. He seeks to connect us again to our own deep humanity, which is where he waits for us, at the core of our being.

Christ-who-was-also-Jesus calls us to participate with him in the great divide dance. It is remarkably close and remarkably ordinary.

I believe in the Christ, through whom all things have their being. He came into history as a brown-skinned man with the heart of a woman, but he is so much more than that; he is the very essence of all things and the glue that holds it all together. Other cultures know him by other names. He calls us to follow the way of love, which means looking for him in the most unlikely places; in the eyes of our enemies for example, or in a tangle of endangered forest. He is particularly to be found in all that is beautiful and all that is broken. He is also to be found in ourselves.

Towards a new version of ‘Christianity’…

I feel myself being pulled towards hope.

Like many of us, I spent much of the middle years caught up in cycles of frustration at the religion that had dominated the beginning of my life. I found myself at war with myself, and with the old certainties that felt anything but. Along with my friends, I spent hours and hours deconstructing and questioning, until it seemed like nothing would be left. In fact, sometimes perhaps nothing was- just a series of open questions allied to a residue of mysticism and social justice.

It didn’t help that the religion I knew often felt like a ‘moral trap’- a rigid code of ethics mined from interpretations of the Bible that left little wriggle room for embracing a whole range of major issues developing in the wider world;

Why should we care about climate change when our religion renders nature merely as a pretty backdrop against which the major business of faith (saving souls from Hell) takes place?

We simply could not understand how ‘Loving the sinner and hating the sin’ would always remain an exclusion criteria for LGBTQ people.

Our Jesus remained almost entirely white, male and rich. He lived happily within in a capitalist world, even if he sometimes made charitable trips to drip largesse to the poor, who remained poor regardless.

But there I go again, deconstructing… and I mentioned a pull towards HOPE.

For the first time in my life, I feel that something genuinely new is being born, and I wanted to write about this new thing, to celebrate it and to gather it together in writing, rather than just in conversation with my friends. I think this will be the first of many blog pieces on this subject. I hope also it will be helpful to some of you who have walked a similar journey.

What I will be trying to gather is no small thing- it will be my attempt to write down a new creed of faith. One that is true to the learning and becoming of the last twenty-thirty years. One that is true to our most recent ‘reformation’, sometimes known as ‘the emerging church’.

It is not really MINE, of course- but nevertheless, is one that I have been gathering, sensing and longing for, and read about in other books and talked about with people far more knowledgeable and well-read than I am.

What gives me the right to do this? After all, other creeds emerged from great theological clashes taking place at synods and gatherings of the giants of the Christian world. What right have I to ignore all these searing insights and just make my own religion from the bits that I chose to include- the nice, cuddly bits that ‘feel’ right to my post-modern sensibility?The only way I can answer that is to say that I have no choice, both because I have left behind what was (along with many others) and because I find myself becoming captivated by something new.

I am not a theologian, I am a poet, but I think this gives me an interesting perspective- after all, one third of the Bible is poetry. Also- if not our poets, who will speak?

I also believe that what we build on will always be the wisdom of what has gone before, but build we must.

The first (Protestant) reformation was necessary, in that it (sometimes at great cost) challenged the excesses and destructive unbalanced nature of the organised religion of the Medieval period, using the technology and scientific thinking of the day (The printing press and the Great Enlightenment). We now need to do the same for our time. For exactly the same reasons; the excesses and destructive/unbalanced nature of the remnants of our religious institutions. The power dynamic of these two reformations is different, a fact that I am grateful for as the worst I might expect is a little on- line abuse. I think it unlikely that I will be burned alive, but then again, I am sure I can smell smoke!

Of course, I am not suggesting for a moment that I am writing a creed that will last generations. This is very much a work in progress, and a collaborative one at that. I am happy for people to challenge what I say- but only if you do so thoughtfully and with grace. I have zero interest in hearing the same definitions thundered from concrete pulpits.

So, here we go.

We will begin, unsurprisingly, with Jesus.

People matter…

It needs to be said. Repeatedly.

One of the great paradoxes of our humanity is that we are only individuals because of each other. Our distinctiveness, such as it is, is entirely dependent on our social context, for how else can we define our difference, our superiority, our own brilliance? The danger is, before we know it, we forget that we all matter to one another.

This is not a new problem of course, but nevertheless it is one that tends to grow like a cancer under certain toxic conditions. Wide and widening inequality. Fear-mongering by the powerful. The language of scarcity, even in the presence of abundance. Above all, when the distance between each other widens; when we isolate ourselves inside our insulated boxes…

In 1649, Gerrard Winstanley put it like this;

…we shall prove it by the Righteous Law of our Creation, That mankinde in all his branches, is the Lord of the Earth and ought not to be in subjection to any of his own kinde without him, but to live in the light of the law of righteousness, and peace established in his heart.

And thus in love we have declared the purpose of our hearts plainly, without flatterie, expecting love, and the same sincerity from you, without grumbling or quarreling, being Creatures of your own Image and mould, intending no other matter herein, but to observe the Law of righteous action, endeavouring to shut out of the Creation, the cursed thing, called Particular Propriety, which is the cause of all wars, bloud-shed, theft, and enslaving Laws, that hold the people under miserie.

Signed for and in behalf of all the poor oppressed people of England, and the whole world.

Back then, the battle was being fought to preserve the commons; the long-held belief that people should have access to the land, place of nurture and fertility. The place where we are all equal. The enclosures that followed cut us off from our commonality.

But not from our connection to one another. Not from our need for connection. to each other.

Let me tell some stories of connection, and how they can transform us. They are remarkable only because they are mine. You have your own remarkable stories too.

The first concerns our most recent wilderness retreat, at the beginning of last month. 19 men and one woman, camping on an uninhabited island. Uninhabited now, that is. In the past it was a place of monks. We sat inside one of their beehive cells, shoulder to shoulder and listened to some piano music played by an old man who learned tunes from a woman evacuated from St Kilda, and a whole line of human civilisation stretching back into the mists of humanity came to an end.

The music was our last connection with their humanity, but it brought us closer for a while. Friends lifted their armour and showed some vulnerable flesh. We remembered that even though we were on an island, we are not islands in and of ourselves. It was like being held in warm hands.

The second story took place in a field near Perth- the grounds of Scone Palace to be precise. We were there for entirely commercial reasons, selling ceramics. It was all about the money. Shifting product.

Except that it wasn’t, not entirely. It never is.

We make things that make use of poetry. In this way, we like to think that our objects carry meaning. It is not high art, or always very subtle.

I had made a small piece with this poem on it;

Memory, like a magic lantern
Leaked some light and it fell on you
From back when we walked together
Then bid adieu
Some part of you will always stay
In me.

As I was wrapping it up, I casually asked if it was for her, or a present for someone else, and immediately felt that crackling in the air that happens when facades start to crumble. With tears running down her face she told me it was in memory of her mother, who had died.

There in the middle of the busy festival, we shared her grief. No-one else knew. I felt deep privilege because despite the hubbub of commercialism, here was something real, something that spoke of the beautiful cost of human love.

These stories matter. These moment matter.

Without them, we are empty.