Coming together…

We have had a lovely weekend with some friends, talking about church, the future, community- how we have done it, how we might do it better etc.

It was inspiring to hear stories of people coming together around a central purpose; trying to be faithful to one another and faithful to God. The rest of it- all that overlay of religiosity that we spend so much time worrying about- it all seems so pointless when we remember that we are first and foremost social beings, and the quality of our coming together is measured most by how we are learning to love.

Which brings me back to my own community, and my own flawed attempts at learning to love. All those masked minor irritations mixed in with the deep pleasure of our coming together. Bent and misshapen we may be, but still we are shaped for the purpose of love. I am very grateful for all these people who love me…

I took this photo during our last Aoradh meeting, twenty odd people packed into our lounge to share worship. Our format is all about ‘open table’- people bring something to add to the worship (activity/song/poem/prayer/video etc) and one of us takes the responsibility for bringing it all together. Then we eat. It is simple and often profound.

Aoradh gathering

Communing…

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It was Aoradh Sunday today- the day in the month when we get together as a group to share food and worship together. We use a simple structure- people bring contributions for the table, and an item to use as part of a worship event- song, video clip, activity, thought, poem etc…

Today we shared communion, around a clay tablet that we had made at the last gathering (and had since been fired, glazed and mounted.) It has names of people who are involved in Aoradh, along with names of God on it. It will spend time in different homes over the next year.

It was also the gathering closest to the birthdays of two of our number, who will both notch up 50 years. That is a lot of candles. (Thanks to Sharon who supplied the cake despite not being well enough to attend herself. Get well soon…)

It was a lovely gentle afternoon and I am deeply thankful for the friends that I am surrounded with.

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N B-W shows some (tattooed) flesh…

Nadia09

Here is one of those problems that affects us ever more in this age of total communication, where everyone is open to 24 hour digital scrutiny;

Movements of people need leadership.

Leaders tend to fail, sooner or later (they are just like us after all.)

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor of Church or All Saints and All Sinners in Denver, is undoubtedly giving leadership on some really important issues, from inside (or at least on the edge) of organised religion. Along with her faith community, she has broken open a lot of issues around inequality, greed, the destruction of the environment and (of course) homosexuality.

I believe that if we are to find a place of real change, we need leaders who will challenge and show a different way. I also believe that change requires heart, passion, spirituality, and that the this is where an encounter with the radical love of Jesus starts to break things open.

There is an interview in which she tells something of her story here. Be inspired.

But expect too that the pedestal that we place her on will inevitably crumble… but the ideas can live on through the radical tradition that she (and we) are part of, known simply as ‘The Kingdom of God’.

How does faith survive the loss of our religion?

footprints on snady beach

 

Like many of you, my faith has taken a battering. Or perhaps to be more accurate, my religion crumbled away in all sorts of complicated ways, and I worried that my faith would go the same way. I was right to worry perhaps, as for many faith does NOT survive this process.

Many of you will also have experienced times when the structure of our belief breaks down, or the vehicle in which our faith travels runs out of road, or the set of lens through which we view the world suddenly seems full of distortions. The technical word for these structures/vehicles/lens is this one; hermaneutic. The danger is that we often confuse a hermaneutic with finite truth.

So how do we let go of the very real fear that we are ‘losing it’- that something precious and real is being stolen bit by bit?

There is a brilliant answer to this question on Rachel Held Evans’ blog by Brian McLaren that was so good I thought I would re-post it here;

From Daneen: I love Brian’s books! They have been water for my parched soul. I want to ask him about an idea I’ve seen recently via a friend [Ryan Bell of the “Year Without God” project] who used to be a progressive Adventist pastor, but is now exploring atheism. Recently he posted that he thinks progressive Christianity is just a slower way to admit that there isn’t a God. It got a huge amount of response from others who agreed and said that had been their path to atheism. I guess that’s my question, and I’m sure he’s thought of this. How would he respond to that idea that progressive Christianity is just a slower path to non-theism altogether?

Daneen, get ready for a super-long answer. I couldn’t be briefer because this question is so big, important, and timely.

I think it’s worthwhile to note that when the early Christians favored God as revealed in Christ over the Roman pantheon, they were called atheists. The only gods that counted were the Roman gods, so anyone who didn’t believe in those gods was an atheist. Similarly, at the time of the Reformation, I can imagine Roman Catholics saying that Protestantism was a first step toward atheism … and then when Protestant intellectuals like David Hume and others more or less embraced atheism, Catholic warnings must have seemed prescient.

Both of these examples suggest that atheism often means “disbelief in the God of the establishment,” since those in power typically define the God who is supposed to be believed in. Every new conception of God necessarily requires doubting or rejecting the prevailing conception of God. So you could say that theism only evolves through atheism. I think there’s a kind of yin-yang between the two.

To put it starkly, Jesus must disbelieve in the God who loves our friends and hates our enemies in order to envision a God who manifests a compassionate perfection toward “the just and the unjust” as he does in the Sermon on the Mount.

Rachel’s first book and this remarkable blogspace she has created are surfacing what my work is also surfacing: there are lots of people who are losing faith in the gods of the establishments (of which there are many). For many, the process is like peeling an onion. First they lose faith in the 6-day creationist god, then in the bible-dictation god, then in the male-supremacy god, then in the european-supremacy/western-civilization/colonialist god, then in the anti-gay god, then in the pro-war god, then in the American-exceptionalism/manifest-destiny god, then in the anti-palestinian god, then in the controller-of-everything-that-happens god, then in the design-engineer god, then in the penal-substitutionary-atonement god, and so on. Of course the detail and order of events may vary, but eventually, every layer of the onion is peeled away and one is left with nothing … but maybe some tears.

The fear of being left with nothing leaves many people desperately afraid to question anything, which might be a good definition of fundamentalism. You mentioned Ryan Bell, whom I know and like a lot. I haven’t followed Ryan Bell’s blog as closely as I wish I could, but I check in when I can and I was impressed by this remark he made in passing recently: “For Christians, generally speaking, faith is the virtue that makes them impervious to new evidence.” I think that’s an accurate – and tragic – statement, generally speaking. But I especially agreed with what Ryan said next: “But none of us have anything to fear from the truth. And even when fear is an appropriate response, I would rather confront a fearful truth than be comforted by a lie.”

The establishment understandings of God are indeed under assault, and open-minded believers are forced to grapple with “new evidence” of unprecedented magnitude, as the recent photograph from the Hubble telescope made amazingly clear.

To believe in God as creator of a cosmos of billions of galaxies that have developed over 13.82 (or whatever) billion years requires disbelieving the God who was creator of one world in the center of one crystalline sphere that was made 6-10,000 years ago.

And of course, it’s not just cosmology. Neurobiology … anthropology … psychology … sociology … history … semiotics … nearly every field challenges the conventional packages of concepts that are associated with the word God, whoever is speaking it.

The question, I think, is this: what happens after one peels away the onion and faces the possibility that there is nothing left? Will any concept of meaning, purpose, value, direction, and value come back? As my friend Steve McIntosh asked me earlier this year, “Can we get God back at a higher level?”

I think Ryan Bell is grappling with this challenge. In order to get God back at a higher level, we have to be willing to let the lower level conceptions of God go. Peter Rollins has been another courageous thinker in this regard. The process isn’t easy. The outcomes aren’t guaranteed. We have to make room for one another to be at different places, in different “time zones” if you will, which is hard for many people to do – and nearly impossible for some churches to allow, sad to say.

I have tended to do this kind of deconstructive questioning in private, and then write about the positive conclusions I’ve reached. But the deconstructive work must also be written about. Maybe my approach has been more pastoral, and Ryan’s and Peter’s more philosophical … but both are needed.

A philosopher who has engaged with this process in a very helpful way for me is Richard Kearney. The title of his book Anatheism suggests the recovery of God after atheism – not old theism, not atheism, but a new search for God after one has lost his or her old faith. Here are a few choice quotes from Anatheism:

So much depends, of course, on what we mean by God. If transcendence is indeed a surplus of meaning, it requires a process of endless interpretation…. The absolute requires pluralism to avoid absolutism. (xiv)

If the Word was in the beginning, so was hermeneutics. There is no God’s-eye view of things available to us. For we are not Gods, and history tells us that attempts to become so lead to intellectual and political catastrophe. Hermeneutics is a lesson in humility (we all speak from finite situations) as well as imagination (we fill in the gaps between available and ulterior meanings). Hermeneutics remind us that the holiest of books are works of interpretation – for authors no less than readers. Moses smashed the written tablets; Jesus never wrote a single word (only a scribble in the sand to prevent a woman being stoned); and Muhammad spoke, after much hesitation, but left writing to others. (xv)

And that is, I think, a grace of philosophy. It opens a space for the questioning of God where theists and atheists may converse. It invites us to revise old interpretations and reimagine new ones. (xvii)

The figural saves God from the literal. For faith is not just the art of the impossible but an art of endless hermeneutics. (14)

… the absolute can never be understood absolutely by any single person or religion. (16)

The great stories of Israel are, I am suggesting, testaments to the paradoxical origins of religion in both violent conflict and peaceful embrace. This, in effect, makes every dramatic encounter between the human and the divine into a radical hermeneutic wager: compassion or murder. You either welcome or refuse the stranger. Monotheism is the history of this wager. (22)

Obviously, I could go on and on. But I want to mention two other quotes from Kearney that intersect with my own work.

First, Kearney asks, “So what exactly did Bonhoeffer mean when he advocated an ‘irreligious Christianity?’ … Religion was but a ‘garment’ tailored to the needs of different historical epochs over two thousand years. So the real question for us today is What kind of God could be the Lord of a nonreligious Christianity? .. Bohoeffer’s postreligious Christianity took the form of an atheistic rejection of the metaphysical God combined with a belief in the suffering God. (66-67)”

I haven’t spoken of this much, but this insight was very much behind my book Naked Spirituality. We need a spirituality that allows us to strip away old conceptions and welcome new ones … a faith that is (to evoke my new title) a road, not a warehouse or parking lot. A flexible (or naked) spirituality carries us, I think, when our bolted-down theology falls apart on us.

Second, Kearney says, “…one must, I suggest, abandon the old God of sovereignty and theodicy. That Master God must die so that the God of inteconfessional hospitality can be born. And, insofar as religious dogma has often served as vehicle of infantile fear and dependency, the interreligious God may be described as a postdogmatic God. That is why anatheism appreciates a rigorous atheistic critique of the theistic perversions of religion.” (52)

Obviously, this was a big part of my last book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? In my new book, We Make the Road by Walking, I read the Bible not as a static revelation of God in a system, but as a dynamic narrative of human discovery as old conceptions of God die and new conceptions are born in the vacuum. To be a believer is not to stop or freeze the quest for bigger and better and deeper and truer conceptions of what is ultimate and true and beautiful and valuable, but to join it.

So … to get back to your question: Some forms of atheism, like some forms of religion, are also parking lots or warehouses. They mark the end of questioning, search, wondering, imagining, hoping, dreaming, opening. But I trust that for many, atheism is more like taking off of a suit of clothes that no longer fits. It is scary to be naked … especially when there are accusatory and mocking inquisitors out there ready to pounce, mock, criticize, and so on, motivated by the kind of fear that Ryan wrote about.

So, Daneen, we might say that good faith is at heart not becoming “impervious to new evidence,” but rather the reverse: a vulnerability to new evidence and possibilities, a nakedness of the kind we experience at birth or when we go to the doctor or when we make love, a confession that “I haven’t yet arrived, but am still on the road, still seeking, still on the quest.” Whatever God is, God must not be smaller than our questions! So for me, one of the meanings of the resurrection is that just after you think God has died, a surprise is in store. I would hope that whatever progressive/emergence/etc. Christianity is … it makes room both for the questioning and the surprise.

 

 

 

 

 

What is the point of revival?

revival

 

I find myself mulling over some comments made on an old post of mine from a few years ago- in which I was chewing on a particular understanding of prophecy within some of the UK church, and a prophecy spoken about ‘fires from the North’ by a woman called Jean Darnell in particular. You can read the post and the comments here. I think I have said most of what I want to say on this issue during the post and responses to comments.

In some ways it feels foolish to respond to some comments made there because people tend to bring very fixed attitudes to these debates; I do so more out of politeness and hospitality, with a dose of trepidation as I do not enjoy conflict- even of the virtual kind. All the angry shouting at one another that we do, particularly over matters of faith, seems to be such a sad waste of time. However I wrote a post that was contentious in the first place so I had it coming I suppose.

The question that I am left with is one that I also asked in the post mentioned above- what is the point of revival?

If you are not from a particular Christian tradition you may not know what I mean- it will all seem like something that belongs to an alien world (perhaps you are right.) However there have been many recorded ‘revival’ events throughout history. They are religious/social phenomena that have had lasting effects on our societies and cultures- the most recent ones in the UK were the Welsh Revival (1908), and the Hebridean Revival;

In fact, this last revival is still often held up as what we should all be earnestly seeking after and praying for. As if this was the ultimate expression of what it means to be a Christian. If we could some how have revival it will have been all worth it. We will be PROPER Christians. Our faith will be vindicated. God will truly be on our side. All the others will be wrong. All those sinners will get their come uppance. It will be great.

Given the decline of Christianity in these islands- the closure of Church after Church, the perception of Britain becoming a post-Christian society, more favourable to other faiths but happy to persecute Christians (which is nonsense of course, but a widely held belief) then it is perhaps no surprise that a remnant clings to the idea of revival as some kind of last gasp turn-around.

I find all this problematic, for many reasons. In the post mentioned earlier, I said this;

Jean Darnell was speaking out of a particular context and understanding of evangelism- which longed and hoped for REVIVAL- transformative, all encompassing Holy Spirit saturated revival. No other move of God makes sense, and as such, the prophecy comes from a wish-fulfilling impulse. Revivals like this have happened here before (Wales, Outer Hebrides for example) and continue to happen in other parts of the world (Korea, parts of Africa.) However the outcome and aftermath of these outpourings is often very mixed. I no longer think that attempting to conjour and cajole God into reviving us should be our prime focus. 

 

Because of the decline in church, certain embattled remnants hold on to this prophecy with both hands. We NEED it to be true- because the alternative is an end to all that is held dear. However there is such danger in this- we become people desperate for heavenly Holy Spirit intervention, and forget the call to be Agents of the Kingdom here and now, rather than in the future. 

 

I have lived and moved in this tradition, and know how all consuming and possibly deceiving it can be. It is a kind of wish-fulfilling, magical faith- which places incredible pressure on individual members to BELIEVE because if not then their lack of faith will prevent the things coming to pass. The legacy of the great revivals we look back to with such enthusiasm is also rather mixed- often leading to excess and in some cases absolute oppression- whilst being over and gone so quickly.

 

Revivals are rare events, particularly in a cynical post modern context which is rather devoid of large movements of people who are prepared to be seduced by one ideology- unless it is an anti-ideology; one that espouses the failure of the ideologies that have been. However, perhaps we are seeing a change here- things are polarising again, Extremes are becoming normalised. Racism is re invented as patriotism. Selfishness is re branded as citizenship. There will be a reaction from the left, sooner or later. The Church too will have to raise a voice…

Back to the point of this piece though- what is revival for? Neil, who commented on the Jean Darnell piece suggested it was for these things;

The point is that God is glorified by those who once vilified Him.
The point is that wretched sinners are reconciled to an angry God and become holy.
The point is that precious souls for whom Jesus died are swept into His Kingdom.
And the point of the next and probably last one, is to prepare Scotland, the UK, and the rest of the world for the return of our glorious King!

 

Neil does a great job here of summarising a kind of evangelical/charismatic orthodoxy around the point of revival. I find so many questions about this list however, and the underlying assumptions behind it.

Does God need revival in order to be glorified? If so, why so infrequently?

An angry God. Lord forgive me but that very phrase makes me angry. Who can say what angers God most? Jesus seemed to get the most stirred up by the religious hard assumptions thrown about by people. Then there is the whole debate around substitutionary atonement.

Saving souls. Whatever we understand that to mean. Revivals do seem to involve lots of transformation of society for the good- drugs, alcohol problems, anti social behaviour, people learning to love one another, all that sort of thing. But this is not the kind of saving souls that are being referred to here- this is all about going to heaven when you die.

The return of Jesus. We come to eschatology, and the other set of assumptions about living in ‘end times’. Revival is necessary to persuade Jesus to come again. Quite what the Biblical justification of this view might be has always been beyond me, but it is a remarkably pervasive idea.

So, here are my soft, uncertain conclusions about revivals, for what they are worth. I know many of you fervently disagree, and if you do you are welcome to your views. Some of them might even be proved correct. I am very human after all.

  • Revivals are rare events, often containing many odd, even dangerous elements. They are psycho-social events as well as religious ones.
  • The circumstances in which they take place are less about the fervency of the prayerful few, and much more to do with the nature of the society, the point of history and the receptiveness of the context that they explode within
  • The aftermath of revival is often mixed. Think of the splintering of the church in the Hebrides, with so many petty squabbles over doctrine. Think of the hard judgemental attitudes that live hand in hand with the rivival-now-gone-cold.
  • The longing for revival within the church owes much to the underlying assumptions of evangelicalism- the need to save souls, to be proved right, to be vindicated in the face of an increasingly secular society. It is a focus on the world beyond, not on the here and now.
  • I find it hard to square this kind of revival with the way of Jesus. He constantly brought people back to now- to the reality of loving actively and deliberately in the face of all sorts of negativity and outright oppression.
  • I find the idea that the LACK of revival is somehow the fault of people like me who do not have enough faith, do not pray for it enough, rather circular and ludicrous. If the point of revival is to save souls, then is God prepared to let them burn because I do not ‘get it’? Really?

One final word- I have been speaking about revival as in a kind of mass phenomenological event. There are other kinds however- quieter ones, involving transformational encounters between people and what I would suggest to be the Living God. These things are precious, private and beautiful- I know this to be true because I have seen it- not once, but many many times. This is not magic, nor the waving of some supernatural wand that makes everything better instantly, but rather it is a process of transformation nevertheless.

This kind of revival I have no hesitation in praying for. Particularly in myself.

 

 

 

Rumours of deeper things…

 

tents, in high wind

I am heading off with a group of friends to a small Hebridean Island for one of our ‘wilderness retreats’ next weekend.

Spring is here. Yesterday we played our first cricket match of the year (both Will and I out for 0 on a wet sappy pitch) and the garden is full of shy colours. I yearn for wild places.

My awareness of the significance of the wild in understanding myself, as well as trying to understand God, is a constant work in progress. I can make few definitive statements in relation to either. All I can say is that experience is more important than definition. So I continue to place myself in places where I hear rumours of deeper things…

In deep meditation

A few years ago I wrote a series of ‘dispatches’- short poems really- that I tied laminated onto bright card, then tagged to the top of canes. We have used them a few times, laid out along cliff tops or on circular routes around wild headlands. I was reviewing some material for this trip and decided not to use them again, but realised that the dispatches say almost everything about my own hopes and prayers for encounters with God. Here they are;

1.

There are rumours-

Like smoke signals blurred in desert wind
They say

He is here

Not in metaphor
Not whipped up in the collective madness of charismata
Not just politely suggested by the high drama of religious ritual-

Here

Sweating
Breathing
With mud on his shoes
2.

Should I hide?

Should I stay in a fold of ground
And hope he does not walk my way?

I could never meet his eye
Knowing that the hidden parts of me will be
Wide open
3.

How do I prepare?

I have no fine things-
No fine words
My shield of sophistication
Is broken

I am soft flesh laid bare
I am a fanfare to repeated failure

I am herald only to this
Hopeless
Hope
4.

But this King wears no stately form
Wants no majesty

He walks gently
And has a humble heart

And he is-

Here
5.

Put down those things you carry
Sit with me a while
Stop making things so complicated
It is much simpler than that
6.

Start from where you are
Not where you would like to be
Not where others say you should be
There may come a time
When I will warm your heart towards a new thing

But right now
I just want to warm your heart
7.

It is not for you to cut a way into the undergrowth
Or make a road into the rocky places
Rather let us just walk
And see were this path will lead us
You and I

8.

All around you is beauty
See it

Smell it

Feel it falling like manna
9.

Look for softness in your heart
There I am
Look for tenderness
And it will be my Spirit
Calling you to community
10.

My yoke rests easy
If you will wear it

And my burdens lie soft on the shoulders
If you will lift them
11.

You are wrapped up in me
And I am bound up in you

We are held together by soft bindings
Like tender shoot and stake
Like mud and gentle rain
Like worn shoe and weary foot
Like tea and pot

Like universe and stars
Like ocean and rolling wave
Like fields and each blade of grass

There is now
And there is our still-to-come

Coming

12.

And he was gone-

But still I am not alone

The Spirit is stirring the waters