A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth
Open your FB feed. Finger your way up and down Twitter. Open any newspaper. What will you see? I guarantee you that bookending all the cat videos and other people’s holiday making the dominant message you will encounter will be this one;
We will be titillated by a sense of threat and almost-panic, which will leave us nursing a constant, debilitating, border-line anxiety.
I know this because I play that game too. I contrbute to it. I share posts railing against climate change denial and the bloody awful Univeral Credit system in the UK. I do this because what else can I do but piss into the digital wind? At least raising the issues might do some good, right?
Or perhaps not. After all, these posts almost certainly only reach people who already agree with them. They achieve nothing, change nothing. All they do is stoke the sense of crisis and anxiety.
Perhaps it might be even worse and that this anxiety is debilitating and undermining our ability to actually change anything. After all, there is something about how we consume our social media that then consumes us, rendering us impotent and useless as a force for change. The end result is a feed back loop that traps us, nullifying any energy that might be left for actual activism.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we need to declare an emergency, in order to stimulate an emergency response. Real change often requires a crisis to pitch us into action. But when this crisis is framed in a way to make meaningful indiviual response seem impossible, it becomes a problem.
What can we do about it? I think it is time that even an old cynic like me has to start looking for stories of change that can inspre and unite local response. These are the stories that need to clog our FB feed- not just the virtue signalling ‘aren’t I cool’ thing, but in terms of celebrating the things done by others.
There also seems to me to be an impotant mind-shift in challenging what philospher Timothy Morton called Hyperobjects- terms that might represent something real, but are no longer useful terms because they are too big to get into our heads; black holes, the internet and of course global warming. Hyperobjects overwhelm us and render us powerless before them, like the approach of juggernauts. We have to find ways to break down hyperobjects so they become meaningful again.
We have to find ways back to hope.
It is a small thing, but this is one of the reasons I read and write poetry, so here goes again;
We are not helpless here
Thundering juggernauts will shudder to a halt
Inches from our upraised hands
We have made a stand
We are not victims here
Each injustice is remembered, not to avenge
But as the tender wounds of our becoming
Back when we made a stand
We are not broken here
Our bodies embrace their beautiful imperfections
And here, in our many shapes and colours
We make our stand
We are not defeated here There is much to do but we are many, and Whole worlds are reshaped by loving So right here, we will stand
This is the fourth 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;
A look at the old paradigm.
A look at the new.
Finally, a ‘statement of faith’
There is a long tradition of apologetics in Western theology, which is the religious discipline of defending religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse- as if it might be possible to cancel out any doubt or heresy by a convincing debate. That is not my point here. I have no interest in defending one narrow definition of faith because I think that this might miss the point of faith entirely. Let me say more.
What if the point of the faith that grew amongst those who called themselves followers of Jesus was NEVER about the defintion and codification of correct belief?
What if the point of faith was only ever the degree to which it set us free to live lives of love and service?
What if the depth of our spirituality is measured not in terms of the clarity and depth of our personal knowledge and enlightenment (despite all of the lovely ego rewards that would surely bring) but rather by the way that spirituality works out in our actions.
To put it another way, love is verb, describing an action. It is not an abstract concept that can be detatched from the messy business of shared humanity. Love has relevance for everything we do or say, or it has no relevance at all.
Or I could put it this way; Christian faith, divorced from active, engaged, sacrificial love has almost certainly lost it’s way.
…a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.
It is religion reduced to ‘feeling good’ and ‘personal success’; faith that fits neatly into a lifestyle that values most the attainment of a life full of ‘me’ experiences, ‘me’ relationships. God is employed as a talisman, or a life coach for our attainment and to develop our consuming power. Casey suggests that it is this kind of faith that American teenagers are learning from church and from the Christian families that they grow up in.
Does it sound familliar? If we look below the surface of our own experience of Christianity in the UK, might an impartial observer not draw similar conclusions? But then this too is incomplete. There are many examples of people whose faith has driven them to acts of radical engagement; people who have placed themselves alongside the most needy, or made them seek careers of service.
Nevertheless, it is a constant matter of amazement to me that a religion that grew from followers of the poverty stricken prophet who gave the Sermon on the Mount could co-exist so comfortably with imperialism and capitalism- not just in the sense of religion turning a blind eye, but rather in providing the very philospohical and spiritual underpinnings for both. It is this that seems incredible. How ever did it come to this? It is as if Christianity has be co-opted to act as justification for a thousand acts of conquest and consumption; even genocides.
Take slavery as a case in point, and remember how the words of the Bible were used to justify the fact that black slaves working in cotton fields or sugar plantations were doing so because of the will of God. Author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove suggests that this tradition remains strong within American Evangelical Christianity. In his book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion, he describes it like this;
“After the South lost the Civil War, slavery was abolished, but slaveholder religion never went away,” he says. “It never repented. And it is with us still.”
…another pattern of slaveholder religion is to separate personal faith from political engagement. If you’re not going to fight for white hegemony, slaveholder religion would like you to stay focused on personal piety and compassion ministries — to not be “too political.” So we also have to face the silence of white moderates as a vestige of slaveholder religion. It’s not just the Trump defenders who got us here. It’s also all the good Christian people who did nothing when a man who was endorsed by the KKK became a candidate for president.
To return to the question asked at the head of this piece, what is faith for? Despite the important cricitsms above, in my experience growing up in charismatic and evangelical protestantism, the point of our religion was clear. It was to save souls from eternal damnation in hell.All other activities were then measured according to the degree to which they facilliatated this goal.
What happened to us when we had been saved (although I always had trouble believing that I actually was) was never well defined in this evengelical mono-focus. Of course, we knew that we had to save others, but understanding what living a good Christian life looked like was more problematic. What were we to atually do with ourselves?
The world was essentially divided in two- the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved’. Salvation was so important that we were taught to be deeply suspicious of eerything from ‘the world’, which had been given over to Satan. This included art, music, science and partiularly other religions which were all deceptions of the devil. Service to the poor and needy was all well and good but unless it resulted in saved souls, it was a distraction.
What was left for Christians to do (when they hd been saved) was something called ‘worship’. We were to tell God how great he is, repeatedly, mostly in the key of G. I got very good at it, spending most of my spare time playing worship music. What else was a good Christian to do? Along with the rest of our faith, our worship reinforced our seperate-ness. It was an exclusive thing that took place in church buildings. We might have talked about seeing God in sunsets and rainbows, but we talked about it in church. Faith was validated and lived out through the public act of worship, and the correct study of the Word of God which was the climactic event of every gatheirng.
It was a faith that often over-employed its activist followers – to the point of absolute burn-out and beyond – in the support of the institution. I have heard it described as an elaborate wedding ceremony in which the same couple get married at the same time each and every Sunday. We did this because we thought it was a good thing to do. WE thought it served God. We thought it was the only way to live out our Chrsitian lives, short of going off into ‘the mission field’, which was only for a hallowed few.
Perhaps some of you will think this harsh. Perhaps you are right. Churches up and down the land are running food banks, night shelters, AA meetings, debt counselling, mother and toddler groups, even inter-faith dialogue meetings.
Things are never that simple; there is not good and bad, rather there are varying degrees of both/and. God was always willing to work with us in our incompleteness and imperfection- whilst drawing us forward into new encounter. I can testify to my personal similtaneous experience of both.
But Jesus never told us to worship him, he told us to FOLLOW him
Think about that for a moment. Can it be true?
As Richard Rohr puts it;
“Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: ‘Worship me.’ Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything” (see the full context of the quote here)
The God Jesus incarnates and embodies is not a distant God that must be placated. Jesus’ God is not sitting on some throne demanding worship and throwing down thunderbolts like Zeus. Jesus never said, “Worship me”; he said, “Follow me.” He asks us to imitate him in his own journey of full incarnation. To do so, he gives us the two great commandments: 1) Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28). In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus shows us that our “neighbor” even includes our “enemy” (Luke 10:29-37).
So how do we love God? Most of us seem to have concluded we love God by attending church services. For some reason, we thought that made God happy. I’m not sure why. That idea probably has more to do with clergy job security! Jesus never talked about attending services, although church can be a good container to start with, and we do tend to become like the folks we hang out with. The prophets often portray God’s disdain for self-serving church services. “The sanctuary, the sanctuary, the sanctuary” is all we care about, Jeremiah shouts (7:4). “I hold my nose at your incense. What I want you to do is love the widow and the orphan,” say both Isaiah and Amos (Isaiah 1:11-17, Amos 5:21-24), as do Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Micah, and Zechariah in different ways. The prophetic message is absolutely clear, yet we went right back to loving church services instead of Reality. I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives. There is Sunday morning, and then there is real life.
The only way I know how to teach anyone to love God, and how I myself can love God, is tolove what God loves, which is everything and everyone, including you and including me! “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). “If we love one another, God remains in us, and [God’s] love is brought to perfection in us” (1 John 4:12). Then we love with an infinite love that can always flow through us. We then are able to love things in their “thisness” as John Duns Scotus says—for themselves and in themselves—and not for what they do for us. (This from here.)
What I (and I think Richard Rohr) am proposing is not that we ‘set worship at war with works’ rather that we do the absolute opposite. We make them the same. They always were the same anyway We just forgot. Faith without action is… utterly pointless.
We forgot that the point of faith was never about our need for personal validation and security. It is not even about inspiring our our own moral correctness. It was certainly never about empire or the conquest of other countries for private profit.
What about all the saving of souls? Those of us brought up in the evangelical tradition will find it almost impossible to concieve of a Christian faith devorced from what we would regard as ‘the Great Commission’. It is our job to convert the world, right?
Or is it? This is something else that many of us have found our thinking undergoing a remarkable transition on. The Great Commission from the end of Matthew’s gospel says absolutely nothing about saving souls from hell. This is what it actually says;
God authorized and commanded me to commission you: Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.
Who is Jesus talking to here? Certainly to his disciples, probably extendable to us. He was telling them/us that what he had shown them and taught them was the way forward. He had set them free from narrow religion and reminded them that there is a better way, characterised by grace and love. He had planted hope in the gutter and showed us that our focus should always be on the poorest and most needy. He radically included the outsiders and those whose his own society excluded and hopes we will do the sae.
Jesus called this new way of living out life ‘The New Kingdom’. (Yes, the idea of a New Kingdom had other implications too, but we’ll get to these later.) The point of the Great ommission was to send out agents of the new kingdom, not to make converts to a religion called ‘Christianity’. This distinction may seem subtle, but it it not.
My point here is to ask again about this saving-souls-through-getting-them-to-say-the sinners-prayer stuff that many of us grew up with – what if this was a gross distortion of the message of Jesus? What if salvation is here-and-now thing, not just something reserved for the hereafter?
What if salvation is a intended as a kind of reconnection and restoration of the whole world, not just the chosen few?
I would go further still. What if many of the agents of this new kingdom are not ‘Christians’ at all? What if Christ ‘...plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his‘ as the magnificent Hopkins poem would have it?
What if some of those eyes and limbs are attached to people of other faiths, or none? I am afraid I no longer doubt this. Quite simply nothing else makes sense. Wherever love and grace are, there is God because S/he is the source of all love and grace.
What if Christ is another name for everything, so is in fact the world we are sent to love? Surely then it is our job to recognise him and join him there. It is not difficult to imagine that the Living God would be the breath in all living things and the electric spark that holds every atom in tension. It might be even more special than that though because this is where science and faith become one. What if that force that is the breath of all things and the spark that holds atoms in tension and the energy that sent the galaxies expanding outwards in to unimaginable vastness could actually be called by another name?
I think that name is love.
I believe that Christianity, if it is to be a religion at all, must be one that sends out, rather than only gathers in. It must be the place where agents of the kingdom of the living God are inspired, enabled and commissioned. These agents have a mission that arises from the very stones and soil on which we stand; they are called to find ever more creative ways to love the world. They might do this through missions of peace and justice, or missions of healing and restoration of relationship Because Christ is another name for everything, the mission might also call us to the ends of the earth, to every last species of animal, tree or spider.
A reworking of an old poem. I was thinking again about our redemption naratives, and how far they have travelled from love. Was the cross not ultimately about love? If not, what else? It was ALWAYS political, so I make no apology for associating this poem from the redemption story below it.
(Forgive the provocative title, but I hope it got your attention.)
How does faith live on when the institution of Church no longer feels like a safe or generative space within which to adventure? This is an old theme on this blog, and a discussion I have had a thousand times with friends both inside and outside our religious institutions. I have been left with the firm impression that there are thousands of us who have a simlilar experience, but conversely we all tend to feel alone. This post is aimed at people like me. I don’t mean to presume, but I think you are out there.
Sometimes it all sounds like whinging and sour grapes, as if we are stuck in a loop of criticism and dissatisfaction with what has been before, and although this might well be an important part of any change process, it is ultimately self-defeating. In the wake of all the deconstructing and critiquing of doctine, it seems that lots of us find ourselves in a similar place, asking ‘What next?’
To some of you, this may sound like navel-gazing nonsense. Even if you have read this far, you will accuse me of self-centred religiosity, but you will be wrong. I think this matters, not because I want this to be my ‘thing’. Not because I want to fill my own voids, but because I think there is a gaping void in our culture at the moment. At a time when our politics is swinging towards the nacissistic right, where are our reference points? What allows us to collectivise a vision for something better, more loving, more engaged, more egalitarian, more concerned about the state of our planet and the poorest inhabitants thereof?
Faith challenges us towards better. Religion anchors us to tradition. Both have their place, but sometimes the two are rightly brought into conflict and I think this has never been more important than right now.
Let me try to ut it another way;
Perhaps, like me (and many of my friends), you are on the fringes of organised religion. Perhaps you used to be an active member of a church, a leader even, who now finds it difficult to attend church regularly, if at all. Perhaps you have tried to find something authentic and true, but have struggled because different styles of church all just felt like window dressing for the same old product.
Perhaps, like me, you have been through the period of pain and mourning – a terrible feeling of losing something precious as faith seemed to be slipping away through your fingers. Perhaps you found yourself knee-deep in guilt and self-condemnation, convinced that there was something wrong with you.
Perhaps, like me, you felt very alone.
Perhaps, like me, you went on a lengthy deconstruction journey, desperate to understand what it was all about; digging into the theology that had felt like a prison; shaking at the bars of belief until they all loosened and fell away… leaving you with dust and rust and endless circuclar questions as well as a bookshelf bursting with books.
Perhaps, like me, you became angry and hostile towards the religion that you left behind. Perhaps, like me, you even became a know-it-all asshole who started to think of yourself as better than those old stick-in-the-muds who just needed to open their eyes and get themselves enlightened.
Perhaps, like me, you eventually realised that it was never that simple; that in fact Church was a repository for truth and beauty and love, even if it no longer felt authentic to you.
But perhaps like me you knew that you had to make a new journey because there was still a pull on your life towards meaning, toward social justice, towards beauty, towards creativity, towards love.
Perhaps, like me, you began to rediscover Jesus- not the one from TV or pulpit, but the Christ; the one who is in all things and who is ‘another name for everything’. The Christ who is the source of all things that are and all things that will be. Perhaps it all seemed too good to be true, too simple. Perhaps it charged you with the smallest tingle of hope. Perhaps it changed everything.
But perhaps, like me, you still feel disconnected. Not from God (however we understand her) but from others who are walking the same path.
Perhaps, like me, you are appreciating the freedom, but are also hungry for community and connection, even whilst being frightened of commitment (because in the past Church demanded far too much commitment.)
Perhaps, like me, you are starting to wonder what spiritual practices might be helpful as you make this new journey. Perhaps you wonder what others are doing, and whether any of these are done collectively.
Perhaps like me you have children, and wonder constantly ‘what will become of the children?’ How will their generation make sense of the spirituality we hand on to them. Without a vibrant ‘Church’, how will they find ways to church? What if we sell them short? What about Sunday School?!
If these questions are resonating with you, I have a proposal – particularly if you are in Scotland.
I have some good friends and we are all quite used to creating safe spaces for meeting and discussion. We have been wondering for some time if it would be helpful to collectivise some of our ponderings on these matters up here in Scotland. We even named a date and booked a youth hostel at one point, but then backed off as we had no idea what sort of numbers to plan for. Would it be just us or would there be lots more?10? 30? 50?
We suspected this would work best through relationship, because how else can we trust each other with something so important? After all, most of us are rightly wary of getting sucked in to a ‘new thing’, so it seemed likely that a networking meeting like this would start with friends and friends of friends who already had some bonds of trust. Having said that, some of the most important connections and friendships in my life have started through on-line connections, so if this is resonating with you, then consider yourself a friend already!
What we really need is some encouragement, so if you are interested in being part of this discussion, please can you get in touch? You can do so via a comment on this blog piece, or by contacting me by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) of finding me on facebook or whatever other social media platform we spill ourselves on to. In doing so, you commit yourselve to nothing, apart from being kept informed and perhaps filling in a questionaire about how we make the next step happen.
I should say again- we are not trying to compete, or start a new ‘church’. Rather we are just seeking connection, sharing, mutual inspiration. We want to hear ideas, learn what others are doing and where they are finding truth and making a difference.
If you have read this far, then you might find our draft blurb helpful, so here it is;
An invitation to a be
part of a conversation.
What does it mean to seek to live a good life in Scotland, 2019? Where
do we find meaning? What is the role of faith and belief- is it a force for
good or does religion just get in the way? Where are the stories that inspire
us? What books/ideas/activities/films/podcasts have you found that might
inspire others? How do we respond to the challenges facing our generation;
climate change, rampant inequality, consumerism and loneliness? How do we overcome the isolation that many of
us feel as we ask these questions?
If these questions seem relevant to you perhaps you might
like to be part of a conversation.
Some of us struggle to find meaning within the old
institutions of faith. This is not necessarily because church is ‘wrong’, but
rather because it no longer ‘fits’ – or perhaps we not longer fit. For some this might have been painful and led to
a period of ‘deconstruction’ in which old certainties were shaken to the core.
But after all the deconstruction, what next?
We think that one of the barriers to new things developing
is that people who are on this journey in Scotland feel isolated and alone. In
part, our culture fosters this, with its tendency towards individualism and
disconnection, but in reality, we are far from alone. It just seems that way.
A conversation like this needs a safe space and a little
time. It needs to be open and generous.
We propose to take a risk and book some affordable accommodation for a weekend of conversations.
We promise it will be informal and fun.
If you come (and we hope you will) then you will be
committing yourself to sharing- not just your thoughts and ideas, but also to
participating in the leading, the cooking, the cleaning etc.
If you are reading this and some of the questions are
resonating, then please get in touch. You may well already have a connection to
one of us, but it not, then this is who we are;
Marylee is a university chaplain, well used to working in an
environment that crosses the religious spectrum. Michaela is an artist and ceramicist.
David used to lead a church, now he is a teacher. Chris is a poet who used to
do social work. All of us are used to
leading small groups on retreats, workshops and the like. None of us have any
axes to grind- we just want to live lives that mean something.
We want to create a safe, open space for doubts, hopes and
ideas and we think the best way we can do this is as follows;
Generous orthodoxy. We do not need to define
correct belief in other people
Acceptance and inclusion of people of different
race, sexuality and doctrine.
Kindness and respect for one another.
We seek to support and encourage one another,
emotionally and practically
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;
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?
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.
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;
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
A look at the old paradigm.
A look at the new.
Finally, a ‘statement of faith’
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;
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.