On standing in a place of (un)belief…

I have been thinking about that old polarity of faith/unbelief recently. This because of a few significant conversations with friends who have been grappling  with their faith, and also because it has long been an issue for me.

The old Evangelical way of understanding faith is all about assurance- we would quote Hebrews 11 v1-  Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Faith was something breathed into us by the Holy Spirit- it was about certainty, security, muscular purposefulness. Without faith it is impossible to please God.

Except it never felt that way. And so I wondered if God could ever be pleased with me.

Over the years I became more open about the  insecurities of my faith- and discovered that I was far from alone. Sure, I know some lovely people who have not a shadow of doubt- they would echo the words from Hebrews. Some seemed to relax into a beautiful kind of faith, which became a deep well of joy in their lives. To be with these people is a great blessing.

But many others, like me, experience faith as a fleeting presence- ebbing and flowing. Sometimes within grasp, at other times a million miles away.

More recently I have discovered that my faith, rather than being the polar opposite of doubt, can actually flourish in the presence of doubt. It is not that doubt cancels out faith- rather that the honest place of uncertainty and not knowing becomes the means through which I seek to humbly approach God. And sometimes, there he is…

I may well carry temperamental characteristics that skew me towards this kind of faith- but I also wonder if some of this (un)believing (a nod to Pete Rollins for this parenthetical trickery) has been fostered by engagement in all of that deconstruction that happened around the Emerging Church Conversation (Capital letters seemed appropriate!) (Perhaps I am overdoing the parenthesis a little now?)

We became very used to unravelling it all- questioning everything, shaking the theological tree right down to its roots. And once you start, everything is up for grabs. Substitutionary atonement? Biblical Authority? Hell? Virgin Birth? Holy Spirit wackyness? An Interventionist God? Everything has a question mark.

I think that those of us that went through this have a faith that in many ways is stronger- but at the same time is far less concrete- far less dogmatic and assured. What Pete Ward described as ‘Liquid Faith’ may well have the capacity to move like water flowing through our postmodern culture- but there is also a danger that it finds a crack and disappears out of sight- at least for a while…

But there comes a time when deconstruction is not enough- we need to start laying down some more big stones on which to place some of our smaller ones. Or if the brick wall analogy does not work for you- time to stop jumping up and down on the theological trampoline and to rest on it’s soft sprung surface.

I think our starting point in this constructing is becoming clearer. In the words of NT Wright-

And how long must it be before we learn that our task as Christians is to be in the front row of constructing the post‐postmodern world? The individual existential angst of the 1960s has become the corporate and cultural angst of the 1990s. What is the Christian answer to it? The Christian answer is the love of God, which goes through death and out the other side. What is missing from the postmodern equation is, of course, love.’

(Sorry forgotten where I got this quote from…)

Others leaders within this debate are increasingly beginning to commit themselves to foundational beliefs- and in some cases getting a bit of a kicking in the process. I am still working on this for myself, but I have been thinking about what might help me navigate within all this creative flow- in my state of (un)belief.

Here are some of the principles that make sense to me-

  • Cynicism– it is almost always a bad thing- corrosive like battery acid. And it is infectious too. I must strive to remain hopeful- which is to say, uncynical.
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  • Choice- despite my resistance (cynicism?) towards the evangelical three card conversion trick, I continue to think that faith is a choice- we choose to believe, even in the presence of unbelief. That is not the same thing as ‘pretending’, it is about putting ourselves in the place of seeking, hoping and yearning for God, and learning to live in his ways.
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  • Open to encounter- It is my continued hope, and sometime my experience, that God is to be found in the most unlikely of places- “Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.”  My reaction against the ways I formerly was told to expect to encounter God (primarily through preaching and ecstatic worship) has opened up the possibility of all sorts of other encounters. And I am going to stay open to them as much as I can.
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  • Open to tradition- I strive too to learn from how others have understood God, both in the past, and recently. It is easy to either rely on a narrow, pre-selected set of references- the good guys, the stars of the Greenbelt festival speaking circuit. I must navigate further, and avoid the simplistic romanticisation of older men and women of faith also- the celtic saints also had feet of clay.
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  • Faith encountered through praxis and ritual- Sometimes the shape given to faith by tradition, by ritual and by practice is vital. More than just dead habit, it may become the place in which faith is rediscovered.
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  • Faith in community- sharing common encounters- Can faith ever exist in total isolation? Perhaps- if you are a pillar saint. But Jesus talked about his church. The essence of the followers of Jesus was discovered in the collective- in the sharing of stories and the life of love. In this way faith is tested and sometimes broken- but often shared and strengthened.
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  • Transcendence– there is much that I do not know. Much that my head can not grasp nor make sense of. But there is often this singing in my spirit- there in all sorts of small things- art, small kids, new leaves, the smell of seaweed. These things often seem to transcend my own narrow experience, and open up the possibility of something much bigger, much more eternal. And this brings me again to God.
And may God find his way to us through the cracks of our unbelief.

Looking for hope and learning to live it…

Following on from my rather negative piece, reflecting on my reaction to Rollins’ book, I have been doing some more thinking about the process of change…

Deconstructing the institution of Church (particularly evangelical church) has been perhaps the primary preoccupation of the debate that has been described as ’emerging church’. For me, this was absolutely necessary- and part of the inevitable process of change. However, it may be necessary, but it can never be sufficient for the formation of a movement- let along a movement of the living, recreating God…

What has been nagging at me (and many others) is this simple question- what next?

  • This is a theological question- the need to examine again what assumptions and core values drive (or sometimes OBSCURE) the mission of the church.
  • It is also and organisational question- what is church- what does it look like? How is it resourced/led/networked/held accountable?
  • It is a personal question– in terms of the call to be transformed by our encounter with Jesus, but it is also a collective question, in the sense that we (the church) are the collective agents of the New Kingdom. We ought then to be the best hope for our communities, our towns, our planet. How will we seek to become this?

McLaren describes institutions (see clip below) as ‘preservers of the advances made by previous generations.’ in seeking to CHALLENGE and deconstruct, we have to accept that we are also PART of this institution- to a lesser or greater degree. There is still so much to celebrate, so much to preserve. For many, the issue is not the need to destroy (although I confess that I have longed for a few well lit fires in my time!) but rather then need to find new EMPHASIS.

Just in case this sounds too tame, too conformist for you- I should make clear that my small ‘church’ community is right outside any formal institution of church- and could be (perhaps is) regarded as dangerous and heretical by some of my more reformed colleagues. However, when we reflect on what we are, and what we do- our preoccupations, our core values, our practices- they are not new.

So what will our (perhaps pivotal) generation pass on to our successors? What values will they need to either protect, or deconstruct and reform?

What is the mission of God for this our time- the personal one, the local one, and the global one? These are the voices I look for now- the Apostolic ones…

I think this was what was behind my disapointment with Rollins’ book. It was clever, well written, well developed, full of lovely little parables, but despite this, did not connect me with a hope for the future- what might be being built, not just broken down.

I watched the following clip this morning- not because McLaren is always right, but I genuinely think that this man has an Apostolic voice. Listen friends, and let hope rise to action!

I am (not) inspired by Pete Rollins…

I have been reading another of Pete Rollins’ books on and off through this past year- this one- ‘The fidelity of betrayal’.

the-fidelity-of-betrayal

It has some great stuff in it, but to honest, I have struggled a bit more than I thought I would to get through it. This surprised me, as I devoured his last book- ‘How (not) to speak of God’.

Perhaps I did not give it a fair crack of the whip, as I read it in something of a piecemeal fashion.

But I think too I may have seen a bit too much of his gig. It goes something like this-

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.

Now I kind of see where he is going with this, and I think the commentary on faith is important and thought provoking. But I can not help feeling just a little weary with the ‘let’s turn this upside down and then see how it looks from the other side’ kind of style. I find myself kind of seeing it coming, then chuckling to myself when it surely arrives.

But then again, I do think this man is an important contributor to the theological and philosophical debate in our time. Let me quote a passage for you to kind of illustrate my dilemma with this book…

In a chapter called ‘forging faith communities with/out God’ (there he goes again- get it?) he has this to say-

…once this is understood, and people are invited to begin to deconstruct their religious systems, individuals will either be brought to a deeper understanding and appreciation of their faith, or they may find they never really had faith in the first place. In the former case the deconstruction will enable the individual to delve deeper into an appreciation of his or her faith, while in the latter the individual will leave such things behind. Both of these are preferable to either mistaking the true miracle of faith for a system of thought or of using that system as a way of hiding from oneself a lack of faith.

Well I guess… I certainly have found myself to be in the former case most of the time, although I have to acknowledge that some of the time I perhaps slipped towards the latter.

Rollins goes on to give some consideration to the creation of spaces that allow people to explore and deconstruct.

Following on from this there is a need to continue the long Christian tradition of forming spaces in which we collectively invite, affirm and celebrate the miracle that lies behind the miraculous, beyond magic, beyond the sacred, and beyond the secular. We need to continue forming places that can render these ideas accessible at an immediate level- a level that does not depend on the contingencies of one’s education or the ability to think in abstract ways (this from Rollins?!)

The question here is not “how do we make these ideas intelligible”, for the miracle itself can be rendered intelligible only as unintelligible. What this means is that the miracle of faith is a happening, an event, that defines reduction to the realm of rational dissection…

…In contrast to forming space that will make sense only to people who are highly educated, we must endeavour to form spaces that make sense to NOBODY, regardless of the level of education- spaces that rupture everyone and cause us all to rethink

Right.

Again- I get it. Faith discovered/encountered/inspired/agitated through performance art. Or as Rollins calls it- Transformance art.

And then I think of my own community, and our experiments with worship curation. The process that Rollins describes seems so far beyond us. It is too hip, too serious, too absorbed in it’s own rhythm somehow… and I find myself slightly and surprisingly alienated.

And I find myself longing for something much simpler- where deconstruction is not the only language we use, but we also construct things that are small, but beautiful.

But I still think we need Rollins- and I am looking forward to what Ikon have to offer at Greenbelt festival this year…