What we are not…

Early Christian stone 2

I read this on FB today- and loved it. I know it is easier, and even quite seductive to focus what we are NOT than to grapple with what we actually stand on, but even so, some things need saying, and Jim- you said it well…

“God is not a belief-system.
Jesus is not a religion.
The good news is not a ticket to Heaven.
Church is not an address.
The Bible is not a book of doctrines.
Transformation is not behavior modification.
Community is not a meeting.
Grace has no exceptions.
Ministry is not a program.
Art is not carnal.
Women are not inferior.
Our humanity is not the enemy.
Sinner is not our identity.
Love is not a theory.
Peace is not a circumstance.
Science is not secular.
Sex is not filthy.
The herelife is not a warm-up for the afterlife.
The world is not without hope.
There is no “us” and “them.”
Tattoos are not evil.
Loving the earth is not satanic.
Seeing the divine in all things is not heretical.
Self-actualization is not self-worship.
Feelings are not dangerous and unreliable.
The mind is not infallible.”

– Jim Palmer

The silence of God…

The silence of God

 

Here I am God

Speaking again into your vast unknown

Straining for resonance in space you left wide open

Waiting

 

They say you speak through sunsets

That you voice the throat of sparrows

That I should look for you in the least of these

And that you also speak in silence

They say you are a jealous God

Who calls us from beyond the periphery of our understanding

 

But I am weary of mixing portents from selective mundanity

I hope for so much more than God-in-abstract

Who is unmoved by weeping

 

Perhaps the problem is all mine

Some deficiency of listening making holes in my audial spectrum

Perhaps I am too used to snowing my head with white noise

Or maybe my ears are all plugged up with sin-wax

 

But then again, can this really be a matter of technique?

An accident of genetics gifting some with God-ears?

Do you require some holy smoke-filled sanctuary?

Or a flagellated enlightenment?

Can a loving God be so capricious?

 

So I decided to stop sending all those wish lists

All the pleadings for success and significance

I will even intercede reluctantly

More out of habitual hope

And a desire to carry the shape of you to others

 

I mean in this no lack of respect Lord

What rights have I to command your attention?

Neither is this related to my lack of faith

Even when I forget where I planted my mustard seed

 

It is just honesty

In the face

Of silence

 

But still I am listening

 

Teaching, preaching- in small missional groups…

In the middle of all the laughter around the campfire on my recent wilderness trip, conversation took a much more serious turn. I found myself in the middle of a rather intense and difficult discussion with one of my friends and Aoradh chums. Some of this was about leadership in Aoradh- which I will return to when I have had a chance to process and discuss it again, but another issue flickered briefly in a way that surprised me- ‘Teaching’.

‘Teaching’ that is, in the traditional Christian/Evangelical sense of the word. Apologies to those not from a background like this, but those that are will know exactly what I mean. All our services revolved around one thing- the climactic 45 minute to an hour long sermon. Through this a skilled preacher would expound on a passage from ‘The Word’, inspiring us, shaping us, challenging us and bring us to repentant response.

This kind of spirituality grew out of Victorian spirituality- a combination of the elevation of the written words of the Bible  as the primary (even the only) revelation of God, and the syncretism of faith with modern rationalistic culture. So it was natural to engage with spirituality in the same way that we would engage with the study of medicine or chemistry- in a lecture hall, with the celebrity scientist at the centre, sharing his accumulation of knowledge- even his life long labour- with those eager for understanding.

Along with this of course, scientific rigour was required, along with reliable, testable source material. So faith became something it was possible to organise, define and defend. And we did this above all things by knowledge of the Bible- carefully cross referenced verses, once produced, ended all argument.

Perceptive readers may sense a certain scepticism in the tone of this piece. It is easy to have a go at all this from a post modern cynical perspective.  We can point to all sorts of problems that we inherited with this kind of spirituality-

  • The top down nature of it, casting us in the role of passive receivers, not active questioners
  • The potential it gives for the misuse of power and control
  • The one dimensional quality of a lot of preaching- the giving of one man’s (and it usually is a man’s) perspective on ‘truth’
  • The elevation of the words of the Bible to what I would describe as idolatry- a tendency to treat the words as some kind of unassailable blue print that arrived down on earth on the wings of an angel as the transcription of the very word of God (in case you are wincing at my heresy, there is a fuller discussion of this issue here.)
  • The changing communication style of the age- the shortening of attention spans, the endless competition of other media has now entered into the human condition.

There is also this question in me about my own experience of listening to preaching. I have had the privilege of hearing some really great preachers- people who hold the attention by their great oration and carefully constructed sentences. Preaching like this is an art form, all the more to be celebrated in this age of the 30 second sound bite. Some of my friends still are responsible for delivering sermons each weekend- and I celebrate their honest creativity- their genuine efforts in the long direction, to bring light into the lives of a congregation through words.

I also love to go and listen to speakers at festivals like Greenbelt- people who bring a totally new and sometimes controversial perspective.

But having said all this, when I consider the shape of my own journey, and try to remember how this was affected by teaching or preaching I have heard, I struggle to remember more than one or two actual sermons/teaching sessions (and even those, not necessarily for the right reasons.) Perhaps I was shaped by the experience more than I can remember the actual events, but considering the countless hours of preaching I have sat through, we might expect there to be much more connection between hearing a message, responding to the challenge, and life changes that flow from this.

I think that we have been caught up in the idea that refining our knowledge of a certain kind of moral interpretation of the Bible equates to something we called ‘spiritual maturity’. It was like a uniform we put on- a way of identifying with the church culture we belong to. But as I look back now, this is not the kind of spirituality that has deep value to me.

It is not that knowledge is unimportant, or that we do not need someone to give us some basic knowledge for the road, but despite all this, spirituality (in my experience) is only discovered in real places, encountering real people and asking questions of the experiences along the way.

I also think that the reductionism of faith down to basic facts is dangerous. It suggests that there is ONE understanding that we should all be conforming to- and increasingly I have found faith to be a glorious question mark, within which there are routes for many lines of enquiry.

Those of you that preach will right now want to tell me that there are other ways to skin the cat- and I would agree with you. Preaching can open up issues, not close them down. Preaching can soar like poetry in the ears of the listener. This kind of preaching I want to hear.

Perhaps preaching is reshaping too- think of all those wonderful TED talks that go viral on t’internet. Like this one;

So, what of our short discussion about teaching in small missional groups? How do we ‘teach’ one another in this kind of context?

The very idea initially took me by surprise. Why would I want to ‘teach’ my fellow community members anything? Does this not assume that I am some kind of God-expert who needs to sprinkle my knowledge on my disciples? Are we not learning together constantly just by living deliberately shared lives of faith? Ideas enter constantly into conversation through books we have read, things we have encountered through the internet etc.

Then I thought of our young people- who perhaps do need to learn some things in order to go through their own process of deconstruction/construction. Is it enough for them to learn in this kind of community chaotic way? Perhaps it is time to think again, if not about teaching, then certainly how we facilitate discussions around particular questions.

It is a work in progress- like most of my theological positions, but some principles seem important to me;

  • Open spaces. Learning requires safe spaces in which to adventure. We have to be free to get it wrong.
  • The honest question is worth a million cheap answers.
  • Community is teaching. Teaching is community.
  • We learn in different ways- listening, watching, reading, experiencing, discussing.
  • Everyone has something to teach.

hmmmm….

New belief…

Over the past few years, often charted on this blog, the defining codes of faith on which I have sought to live my life has changed considerably.

At first it fragmented. I was no longer sure if I believed at all, let alone had confidence in the traditions I was part of. This was sometimes traumatic. Later however faith began to emerge again less as a set of resounding assertions about the nature of the divine but more as a process of faithful questioning.

In other words, it could be regarded as faith not as the opposite of doubt but rather doubt as an integral part of a living faith journey. I wrote about this before, here.

Along the way, the emphases I place have shifted considerably. I do not think that the correct goal for the life of faith is perfecting our theology- either from the point of view of knowledge, or narrowing down our understanding of ancient text until we have nailed down every errant verse to fit an integrated whole. Rather I think that attempts to do this will always be futile, and distractions from the real business of faith, which is all about how it releases us to live.

This has led me to worry far less about all those ‘questions-in-a-bubble’ theological arguments- the sort that no one really cares about apart from theologians. Such intellectual sparring can be entertaining, but when it is mixed with angry defensiveness or attack in the name of truth I walk away.

But to suggest that what we believe does not matter is foolish.

Our actions are driven in both subtle and obvious ways by the core ideas that we build our lives on. Here is an example from a psychological point of view.

>Core belief;  People are inherently evil and untrustworthy, particularly those who are ‘different’.

>Leading to guiding assumptions; I am at risk, my family needs to be defended, you are a threat, I need to prepare for hostilities.

>Leading to instinctive interactions; Distrust, hostility, defensiveness, aggression, tendency to isolation  and separation.

Everything that Jesus taught us about love is based on the idea that if this becomes the core of everything we believe then our core assumptions about the world and our instinctive reactions to it are all affected. In this way, love is not weak, nebulous and irrational, rather it can change the whole world.

But (unfortunately perhaps) life involves a whole lot of other questions to which we have to at least form working theories, if not absolute conclusions.

So back to the point of this post- the forming of new tenants of faith out of all of the questioning. It is another regular theme on this blog- what to construct after all the deconstruction. There comes a point (or at least there has for me) when I start to feel more comfortable with making tentative statements about what you believe again.

Although as I think about it, as a young man raised in Evangelical/charismatic settings, saying what you believed was not  often necessary- it was obvious as we all kind of knew what was held in common to be ‘true’. The point at which belief was really defined was in the negative- that is when someone (usually outside out immediate group) got it wrong. We could then dissect their incorrect doctrine and discount it and in doing so we could also discount them.

I confess that there is this tendency in me still- I continue to strive towards grace in this as in many things.

What I am starting to construct however, I do not construct alone- everywhere I see a convergence of a new kind of consensus around some basic ways of approaching faith. It seems to me to be cross denominational, but typical of those of us who may have come through all of those ‘posts’ discussions (post modernity, post evangelical, post charismatic, post Christendom.)

So, here are a few of the things that I have come to believe, structured around the ancient Apostles Creed. I expect things to change- I will be carving nothing in stone, nor nailing anything to church doors- these theories are not external, they are made of flesh, some sinew, and even a little muscle.

1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I do. I believe that this unfolding universe began in the mind of God, and he let it all out in a burst of creativity. I also believe that we embody this god-quality of creativity as we are made out of the dust of the heavens, in the image of the Creator- and that this imposes deep responsibilities on us in relation to the heaven and the earth.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

If there is one thing of faith that lives in me, it is the idea, the hope, the person of Jesus. Immanuel, God-with-us, walking in our filth and turning every thing upside down. I believe in the New Kingdom he proclaimed as being here, and near.

And if I believe in Jesus, then what we know of his ways has to be the place that I start from in relation to all other belief. I have to start with the stories and parables he told, and the way he lived his life in relation to everyone around him.

And I have to concede that love is the most important thing- far more important than judgement, or doctrine, so if I am going to make any error, I am going to strive to make it on the side of love and grace. This will inform my relationships to everyone, particularly those who are marginalised or oppressed.

3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

To be honest, this is not something I think about often- but I rest on the stories I have inherited.

4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

5. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again.

6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

These stories too live in me and inspire me.

7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Perhaps Jesus will come again- but I am not going to spend too much time thinking about this as we were not put on this earth just to hope for some kind of swift exit or heavenly Dunkirk. We are here to learn how to love, and how to put this into action.

I believe that we should not fear judgement from a loving God, and that all of us need grace.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

I do- despite all the charlatans and the hype. I believe in the Spirit of God within us.

9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,

I want to believe that the collectives of the followers of Jesus might be the conscience, the peace makers, the justice dealers, the healers, the party makers and the gardeners of this world. I hope for communities of people who support one another in this direction, whilst learning to love.

I believe that God is present in these gatherings, but also elsewhere. I believe that he reveals himself to people of other faiths, and none.

10. the forgiveness of sins,

Oh yes.

11. the resurrection of the body,

I was never quite sure what this meant- something to do with a day to come when all our bodies will be raised incorruptible. To be honest, I think this is another one of those that I will just shelve with a bit of a shrug.

12. and life everlasting.

Yes, I have this hope that we might be more than flesh but also Spirit, and that those Spirits that leave before us might yet be waiting for us elsewhere.

Is this ancient creed enough to define the central things of our faith now?

As I read it over, I do not think it is. Firstly, I continue to think that we have over emphasised right belief- even to the point of burning dissenters at the stake. The creed is all about belief, and very little to do with our response to it.

What I am hungry for is to see right ways of living and ideas of how love can be put into action.

So I would add to the list above a few of my own;

13. I believe in love

For those reasons above.

14. I believe that we are called to be active subjects of the Kingdom of God, and to participate with him in acts of creativity, healing, peace making, protesting, lamenting, redeeming and the formation of community.

15. I believe in the mission/adventure/pilgrimage that God releases us on.

16. I believe that my ideas of God are incomplete and imperfect, and that not every question can be answered. And that that is OK.

Terrorism, religion and the group dynamic…

I spent much of today talking about terrorism. This is not usually part of what I do, but I was asked to attend a local awareness session. In the end it was rather fascinating.

What we tried to think about was the sorts of processes and relationships in our communities that might draw people into extremism, and right away, we people of faith have to concede that one of the most common drivers for this in the world at present is religion.

Many people would have in their mind a stereotypical terrorist, and they well be Muslim, male and aged around 25. There are real problems with these kinds of stereotypes of course, as I have spoken about previously here. There is also a real possibility that we exaggerate the potential threat, and this plays into all sorts of paranoid murky politics.

However, we now know that even our sleepy rural county of Argyll has been touched by terrorism. Several extremist groups have used outdoor centres/outward bound courses up here to breed team spirit, and the bombers who attacked Glasgow Airport a few years ago did so from a holiday home base in our area.

What brings people to the point of being able to justify the use of extreme violence? Of course this is not a new thing, and many would regard the drivers of inequality, imperialism and oppression as fertile breeding grounds. However, today we talked about some of the societal/group pressures that might draw people in;

Belonging

The need to be ‘saved’ from an old life, and released into a special calling, as part of an enlightened elite. So we see some people drawn into extremist groups out of situations of isolation, confused identity, drug addiction and poverty.

Crusade

People often see themselves as on a special mission, to right injustice and to live to a higher calling. There is an exclusiveness to this, and a tendency to see others as weaker, more contaminated, sinful, outsiders to the truth.

Narrowed world view

Extremists are united by a compelling narrative, often focussed on a single issue and simplified to black and white kind of thinking. In this narrative, there will be good guys and bad guys, those on the inside, those on the outside, and a call to fight back.

The drive to proselytise

The need to be bigger, more powerful, to convince others of the rightness of your cause, and to win converts. All other things are secondary and this end justifies all means.

Powerful, manipulative leadership

Leaders who convince, who have elevation over others and able to use hyper emotionality and  charismatic manipulation to bring cohesiveness and common purpose.

Distortions presented as fact

Leaders like this often present historical and theological perspectives, or downright distortions as fact. They emphasis certain aspects (for example eschatology, judgement, Jihad) over others (for example, forgiveness, grace, peace.) People are not encouraged to think for themselves, to test and debate issues, rather they are expected to achieve correct belief.

Removal and isolation

Before every act of violence, there seems to be something in common- a time of removal, sequestration. People are removed, or remove themselves from wider society, and focus on the purity and certainty of their cause, and the need for their final act.

Here is the challenge then- I invite those of you who have been involved in Christian churches to consider this list from that perspective. Those of you familiar with charismatic or fundamentalist denominations may find this list rather familiar. The point is, the group dynamics of religion that distort faith and breed a kind of hatred and destruction do not just belong to the other, they arise from who we are as humans.

Jesus seemed to understand this very clearly, and anyone who knows his teaching would see it as the antidote to all of the above. He seemed to reserve his anger almost exclusively for the kind of religion that valued the law (or religious understandings of the law) over people.

And yet we stand in the shadow of two thousand years of repeated examples of where the group dynamic within our churches has become toxic and released all sorts of hatred, judgementalism and even death as a result.

 

Doubts and loves dig up the world…

A year ago I wrote a piece about doubting the existence of God. It received quite a bit of traffic for a while as it seemed to hit a chord.

Many of us who have been part of an overly concreted doctrinal system of belief have struggled to acknowledge doubt. It is almost as if any small incorrect belief would form a crack in the whole edifice of faith that might bring the whole thing tumbling down. To avoid this apocalyptic end to everything we have built our lives upon we contort ourselves into all sorts of defensive positions.

In my case, this involved two main strategies-

  1. Do not go there. When you feel the approach of doubt, turn in the other direction. It is better not to ask the difficult questions as the answers might be too much to cope with. Distract yourself with narrower, safer issues.
  2. Dishonesty. Better not to talk about doubt as this might infect others as well as yourself. You also might find yourself ostracised by the fervency and inflexibility of others.

Eventually of course something has to give or we become like stagnant pools, unable to flow, unable to sustain any kind of life. Faith fixed and defended becomes something else called religion. And religion belongs in the text book not in the soul.

I was reminded of this again after listening to this from Giles Fraser;

For my own experience of faith is that belief and unbelief commonly nestle alongside each other. Indeed, I cant make any sense of a faith that doesn’t include unbelief as a powerful element. “My God, why have you forsaken me” is, after all, the cry of Jesus at the very centre of the Christian drama.

As with much that is of the soul rather than the brain, faith and doubt finds voice in poetry. Giles quotes a poem he read that forms part of a memorial for Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by a religious man because he sought peace.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai