Principles… Groucho and theological formation.


Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.

Groucho Marx.

A funny guy, was Groucho.

But it seems to me that for thousands of years men and women have tried to find a platform for living that promised something solid and good and true.

In this way, perhaps we can guarantee a life of prosperity for ourselves and our children.

Perhaps too the sum of our days might then come to mean something. And the Gods above us might cease their indifference, and cause the sun to shine on our ripening corn.

And then perhaps we might live out long lives, and see the flowering of our children’s children…


So the story of wandering nomadic middle eastern people recorded in the Bible, seeking a code for life- this is not just ancient mythology- but it is the story of who we are too.

We follow their journey into the desert, where the wind blows and the wild animals are. We camp with them at the foot of the mountain, and pray for laws for life to be given to us on tablets of stone, and mediated by men of wisdom and strength.

If we can only learn what is required of us, and follow the code of the road that we travel together with our friends, through bandit country…

But then comes the twistings and turnings in the long road. The failings of our leaders, the fickle following of the flock, the empty promises of a distant God who appears to have forgotten his people.

The impossibility of these laws- which always place goodness beyond the reach of mortal man, and condemn us for what we can never be.

But then into the story steps the man called Jesus.

He walks with us for a while, and stands in the gap between being and becoming that we humans always seem to stumble in.

And though he is not a law-breaker, neither is he enslaved by it.

Everything about him calls us to a deeper level of being- back to core of who we are…

We once again find ourselves to be Children of the Living God.


Which brings me back to the point of my post.

If I am right, and there seems to be a universal desire to find spiritual truth and meaning in our existence, then what parts of our understanding do we bring to this search?

Cognitive behavioural psychologists suggest that there are three main levels to our mindfulness. I wonder if there may be clues within this that might help us to consider how we form our thoughts towards God?

The first level concerns out feeling and our acting– those immediate reactions and responses that seem to pop into our consciousness in an almost automatic way. We react out of understandings and experiences that are driven by core beliefs which will be to a large part hidden from us.

These feelings and actions are fickle and changeable. We can modify them sometimes, but often it seems as if they happen to us and around us, and we have little control.

I know people who approach God (or I should say I have approached God) in this way.

The image we have of God arises from a set of inherited assumptions and half understood yearnings. We reach for him in times of immediate need, and try to shape our actions in line with the behaviour of these others who seem to know him better.

There is something of the child in this. It is good. But it is also incomplete. We are more than just the sum of how we act and feel.

The second level concerns the structure of obligations and rules we tend to apply to ourselves. Once formed, we cling to them tenaciously, and though we can act against them, they still govern our acting and feeling in subtle ways.

Some of these rules are well organised into structured hierarchies- and serve us well. However, these exist alongside other assumptions about ourselves and how we relate to the world which may be less helpful. Assumptions formed out of pain or dysfunction, or through incomplete information.

Such rules and assumptions on which we base actions and feelings are not easily accessible or necessarily understood. The reasons we then give for actions may well relate to hidden experiences and understandings that still become the engine for whole ways of being.

Much of my faith experience seems to have been lived in the shadow of guilt induced by me breaking rules. We Christians are very good at rules, even when they are not written down.

Rules of how to dress, how to speak, how to spend time, how to sing, how to love one another, how to shop, how to speak to God. Many of these rules are good- they have evolved out of the history of our faith community and those who went before us. We pore over scripture and refine or understanding of these laws. Some seem more important than others to different groups and at different times. They may then give priority to those laws, and subordinate the others, and the people who follow them.

And mixed in with this structured law keeping are all the other assumptions- that shape the way we act and feel in less predictable ways. Partial and incomplete understandings that still we concrete into a shape that we call truth…

The third level concerns the core principles which become the building blocks for who we are. It is on these principles that the rules are formed from- and in turn govern our acting and our feeling.

These building block principles are formed early, and then take some shifting. Again, we are unlikely ever to have a full understanding of what these are- we only get clues to them as they arise into our conscious interaction with the world around us.

They concern cherished ideas on which we can stand tall, but also other core beliefs that may be less positive- perhaps based on ideas of our lack of worth and value, taken on as children, and still shaping us as adults.

If faith does not live within us at this level- then what value has it? If our theology does not start with the beautiful principles we see lived out in the stories of Jesus, then what value have the rules we employ and apply, or the acting out and feeling that result from our experience?

These things seem to be the flowers that later the Spirit of God would turn into fruit in our lives.

It is not that the laws or the acting out are wrong necessarily. They may be wonderful. But they may also be missing something of the heart of the matter.

Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness, Gentleness. Self control. Against such there is no law.

1 thought on “Principles… Groucho and theological formation.

  1. Agree
    but if you are going to use behaviourists.. it is their primary assumptions I disagree with. reality is as it is, and has been corrupted by too many words. IF I were to take this construction to japan would it still work..?
    Behaviourist thought is constructed out of greek philosophy, although there are the overlying principles of justice, truth, goodness, equality, that are inherent in natural justice existent in all cultures.. it is the presence sometimes not of faith, but the spirit of god, which overcomes this.
    This is that hidden core belief that is no longer hidden, but is revealed… its their primary assumptions I have a problem with

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