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.
  • .
  • 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.
  • .
  • 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.
  • .
  • 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.
  • .
  • 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.

The Archbishop and the little girl…

Did anyone see this story over the weekend?

It seems that the father of a little girl called Lulu took objection to the teachers at her Scottish Church primary school ‘doing God’. Curiously Lulu was asked to write a letter to God, entitled “To God; how did you get invented?”

Lulu’s Dad, who is not a believer, cheekily forwarded the letter to the Scottish Episcopal church (no reply- sorry Andrew!) the Church of Scotland (no reply) the Catholic church of Scotland (a nice but complex answer) and finally to Lambeth Palace- and received this reply;

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lors of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

Lovely.

That word- ‘Faith’…

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.
Hebrews 11:1-3

I think the word ‘faith’ is one that I overuse.

This is possibly because it can be a rather generous, non-specific word with which to describe personal, private belief. I use it in this way more as a badge of introspective spirituality rather than a declaration of religious conviction.

Because conviction, certainty and clarity of belief have simply never come easy to me. The words of Hebrews above easily rang out as evidence of my failure- my lack of faith. Others seem to have no such spiritual weakness. They are like St Paul. I am like St Thomas.

Today however, an analogy came to me.

I was thinking about another noble human characteristic- courage. Most of my generation have never had their measure of courage tested by war or extreme adversity- but we are all stirred by stories of those who have.

The spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain who took to the skies against overwhelming odds. The men steeling themselves to climb a wooden ladder to almost certain death as the whistle blew to start an attack in the Somme.

And if these images are a little too martial for your tastes, then we might also mention the man who stood before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square armed with nothing more than a flower, or those who push themselves beyond the outer limits of human endurance in the high Himalayas, or the polar icecaps.

Some of these people seem to be over blessed with courage. Or perhaps under concerned with fear.

And this courage can be like a force of nature- it can be transformative, inspirational and raise for us an ideal that we can all aspire to. Or at least admire from afar.

At the same time though, this kind of courage can be blind, foolish and self seeking. It can be abused by others (and ourselves) and is easily allied to causes far less noble. In this way, perhaps courage can be dangerous.

And it can also be deceptive- because courage is an entirely subjective experience. Who knows what measure of fear was overcome by the people who achieved such admirable feats in the face of adversity? Were they naive and uninformed? Dulled by some kind of narcotic? Driven by deeper demons?

Or was their courage merely a front- a means to force down the fear, and despite all their lack of confidence and self belief- to press ahead anyhow?

Does this work for you as an analogy of how faith might also be an active force in our lives?

In his book ‘How (not) to speak of God’ (which I loved) Pete Rollins talks about (a)theism. Contained in all our ideas about God is also the fact that what we know is incomplete, imperfect and error strewn. He would contend that the only honest way to approach God is to start from the point of (a)theism- where our theories about God are confronted with our unknowing.

I too have come to believe that belief in God is an amalgam of all these things-

Our faith and our doubt

Our knowledge and our uncertainties

Our crowning confidence and crippling fears about the future

Our theology and the place where theories fail

Our transcendent experiences of the divine and our plunges into Godless darkness

Times of declarative joyful certainty, and nights of lonely doubt

Times when the fragrance of the presence of God hangs in the air, and times when all is meaningless and barren

Times just to hold on to the hem of hope

And after it all, there is still

God.

Post charismatic Christianity?

I have just started this book, by Rob McAlpine.

I have blogged before about my own Charismatic background- here for example… So the title of this book grabbed me.

I have found myself wanting to re-examine much of my own Charismatic experience again- something I have avoided doing in any detail until recently. I suppose these experiences are full of all sorts of mixed feelings and emotions. They left me with such mixed baggage.

For me, the it began with a yearning for God in my formative years, that met the electric possibility of a God who was present and active and empowering through the Holy Spirit.

But there was always the hope for more, amid the hype and exaggeration, and the plain madness of some people and situations I found myself in. I was often an outsider- not able to experience fully what others were blown away by. And feeling attracted and repelled in equal measure.

As a worship leader, I could always hide behind a guitar… it was possible to be there, and to be seen to participate, but to only have the shape of participation, not the fullness of it.

As a young man- I thought I was alone in my doubts. I thought I lacked faith, and my sin was insulating me from God like a rubber blanket on a live cable.

There were also many times though when I caught glimpses of God. When I was as sure as I can be that he was there amongst us. There are many things that happened that I can not easily explain in any other way.

Here’s a quote from the book that captured some of my own experience;

They are tired of hearing the stories of the good old days, jaded from hearing too many prophecies about the great move of God that seems to be just around the corner, fed up with exaggerated or even fabricated stories of healings and miracles, and disillusioned with a view of spiritual formation that is lived through a weekly crisis moment at the front of the church…

Pg 17.

That is not to say that I want to reject or deny the work of the Spirit. May the Spirit have free reign to do with me as he will.

But I hope that it is possible to find my way to him, and his to me without all the baggage that has become so unhelpful to me.

And from my reading of this book so far- it seems that I am not alone.