It does not matter what you believe…

theology

…or does it?

We had a lovely discussion tonight with some friends, sitting round a fire, talking about life and death (as you do.) The death bit because several folk were still in the midst of dealing with loss. The life bit turning on how we understood what our lives were drawing us to.

And because of our shared journeys, the meaning we have found has a lot to do with Jesus, although has been somewhat complicated by our experience of religion…

Some of us have done a lot of (perhaps even too much) unlearning/deconstructing/questioning what this religion has told us we have to believe. Not just the obvious stuff, but the sub-cultural subliminal stuff too that it even harder to come to terms with.

I found myself asking the question- does it really matter what you believe?

We kind of agreed that the religious context that we were familiar with made far too much of belief. We all knew exactly what we were supposed to believe. It was never really stated, but we all knew it was vital to get all your theological cards stacked right. This was what most ‘teaching’ was really aimed at after all.

Strange then that this did not seem to be Jesus’ preoccupation. He was not much interested in making sure that his disciples answered all those complex theological questions that we struggle with now. In fact, he seemed to take quite a lot of pleasure playing with people who came to him looking for absolute theological questions- sending them away with a parable or two- almost like he was saying ‘go and work it out for yourself’.

As I read the gospels, it seems to me that Jesus was much more interested with how faith (rather than belief) brought us to action- particularly how it turned us towards love. Those two commandments- love god and others as yourself.

My conviction is that the obsession with belief often gets in the way of active love. It does not encourage engagement with the world around us, but sits smugly on its own sense of rightness, pompously calling for others to join our club.

theology

At least that is what I believe.

As our discussion went forward we circled again towards death. We talked about the death of a God fearing man, whose passage from life was characterised by fear of God. How he was sure he would not be allowed into heaven as he had done too many bad things. And we began to wonder again about belief…

Our working conclusion was this- belief matters only as far as it becomes the means for us to move, to act, to live, to travel. Even if that journey is the last one.

The rest of it is children playing with marbles.

Fundamentalism…

annex-gish-lillian-scarlet-letter-the_03

…acceptance of pluralism relativises truth. Once it is allowed that there are different paths to truth, a person’s religious allegiance becomes a matter of choice, and choice is the enemy of absolutism. Fundamentalism is one response to the crisis of faith brought about by awareness of differences…

This from here. (Emphasis mine.)

I read this recently and have been chewing on it for a couple of days. The logical outcome of a faith that lays claim to absolute truth is the fact that everyone else is wrong. If truth is important, life saving even, then we have to try to convince them of their error, at any cost. Even if it costs us (or them) our lives.

This is the story of fundamentalism in all the different traditions- be they Islamic, Jewish, Christian or Hindu.

In my tradition we are emerging from a mess of what happens when the religion named after a man of the poor becomes the religion of empire- first via Constantine, more recently the British Empire, now America, despite its attempt to separate church from state, is making the same mistakes.  We talk as if the power  and privilege we have is a result of the blessing of God on our embracing of moral and theological truth.

Other forms of fundamentalism grows as a direct result of the mess we have made- it is stoked by a sense of deep injustice, by loss, poverty, by an identity forged outside and in the dark shadow of empire. The truth of this kind of fundamentalism is the truth of a people in exile.

For most of us, fundamentalism is mediated, softened by other things- secularism, separation from people who are different, a gap between our cant and our mission, or… a change in our theology. Some despise the latter as weakness, corruption.

But others see it as the kind of truth that sets us free.

The way, the truth and the life by which we come to the Father.

This is not easy journey, but I think it is one that many of us are on.

Transcendence…

Light obscured

Not in the ‘other worldly’ sense, the God who is removed and distant. For me, Transcendence means something hyper-real, something that saturates the ordinary, but which somehow connects us with the divine.

in a previous post I tried to define it like this;

… I mean the experience of God in the ordinary. The incarnation of the maker of the universe within the temporal, messy world in which we live and love.

Transcendent moments fill our lives if we look for them. And the more we attune ourselves to the looking the more we see.

They are everywhere in the natural world; sunsets, new leaves, mushrooms in caves, the lick of new born fur, the light of the moon on still water, the smell of rain on dry earth, the sea that goes on for ever. All these things will happen whether or not we are there as witnesses. But when we look in a certain kind of way a hollow space opens up in the middle of them into which we can meet with something transcendent. Into which we can invite/be invited by the living God.

They are everywhere too where humans also are. In conversations, in touch, in the longing for justice, in the decision to forgive, in the deciding to repay hurt with love, in the listening and in the laughing. Because God is a God of communion. God commands love, and love requires direction. Perhaps above all, the transcendent God is immanent when we come together in community.

They are encountered in art, because art can become a bridge to something beyond our business. Films, books, poems, paintings, sculptures, music.

They can even be encountered in church – for me, especially when we sing, when the chordal voices find the vault of the building and make it vibrate.

I have been thinking about what all this might mean to us again, and wrote this;

.

Unpregnant

.

In the corner of my gaze something moved

I blinked

Reminded of almost imperceptible stars

Sky all black like bruises

Pricked with harsher things

.

Did I form you out of some ancient river bed?

Did I raise you up on poles?

Are you just déjà vu

For the deluded last few

Will science yet prove us all fools?

.

Then the night whispers

Like an unknown breath on puckered skin

Like the scent of sea to a sailor

Like a poem whose words are not yet spoken

Like an unpainted painting

Or a song still yet to be sung

Like a reed still yet to be fluted

Or a string that was never strung

Like the silence when echoes have faded

Like an unpregnant womb

Still waiting

Ways to pray in public places…

pints of beer

It has been a long day. I was off early to Lochgilphead as I was a trainer on a course for social workers who are about to participate in our emergency out of hours duty rotas across Argyll. Part of todays task was to look at some child protection issues- including the inevitable photographs of injuries that been inflicted on kids- little boys with cigarette burns on their feet and tiny girls with finger bruises wrapped around their faces. I am always broken a little bit when I see these photographs.

So I should be- but this relates also to my own childhood memories, fractured as they are.

However, in the midst of all this, I had a transcendent moment. Don’t get me wrong- no angels sang, there was no whiff of incense or pure white lights. What I was captured by was the sudden depth of the Kingdom of God- woven through everything, and this thing called the shalom of God. What might it mean to hope for a future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, and in which all things are made new?

A world in which parents do not damage children, and damaged children do not do damage in turn? A world where love sets the agenda in more things than not?

Come the evening I was sat in a pub with some friends. We have been meeting to discuss a book by Brian McLaren called A New Kind of Christianity. Tonight however we did discuss the book, but I suggested we try to find a way, in the busyness of the public bar, to pray.

I started with something that we had used on an island recently, in the middle of a wilderness with eagles riding the late spring storms over our heads. I thought that if God was there, then he was here too.

  • I asked people to find a place of quietness inside themselves- to find a neutral spot on wall or table to look at, and to focus on their breathing
  • Next I asked them to listen to the sounds all around them in the pub. The hubbub of conversation, the chink of glasses, the scrape of knives of plates, phones ringing jokes raising burst of laughter. I asked them to notice as many different sounds as possible and acknowledge each one
  • Then I asked them to listen again to deeper sounds- the sounds behind the sounds. As we do this, a remarkable thing happens. The hubbub kind of fades and blurs together- it ebbs and flows like the sea, and behind it all are other noises- the hum of all creation. Some people still noticed things like the ringing of a bell on the till, or the footsteps of a lovely friendly waitress
  • I then asked people to imagine that the sound behind the sounds was the music of God. God in and through it all, rejoicing in the beauty of us all. Rejoicing in the drinks, the food and the lives being shared. It was not hard to do so.

Next I passed round a pen and paper, and asked people imagine what God might want for all these people in the bar. What might he hope for them. I asked people to write something down, and to fold the paper over so the next person could not see it, then pass it on.

This is what people wrote, in no particular order;

Eternal life

Freedom!

I see your heart and know your sadness and want to bring you my peace.

Peace, hope, love and understanding

Shalom

Peace

And there, with a pint in my hand, it was holy.

God is God…

Time for some music.

Here is a song written by Steve Earle for Joan Baez;


I believe in prophecy.
Some folks see things not everybody can see.
And,once in a while,they pass the secret along to you and me.

And I believe in miracles.
Something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing.

Yeah, I believe in God, and God ain’t me.

I’ve traveled around the world,
Stood on mighty mountains and gazed across the wilderness.
Never seen a line in the sand or a diamond in the dust.

And as our fate unfurls,
Every day that passes I’m sure about a little bit less.
Even my money keeps telling me it’s God I need to trust.

And I believe in God, but God ain’t us.

God,in my little understanding, don’t care what name I call.
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all.

I receive the blessings.
That every day on Earth’s another chance to get it right.
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night.

Just another lesson
Maybe someone’s watching and wondering what I got.
Maybe this is why I’m here on Earth, and maybe not.

But I believe in God, and God is God.

Chalke on homosexuality- video

My last post on this issue at the moment.

I feel I must say sorry to my friends who are troubled by my take on this issue- angered even. My last post was unfortunately rather flippant and did not do justice to the depth of the issue. All I would say is that I do not do this because I am drawn towards controversy for its own sake. I do it because I have come to believe that the church has got its attitude towards gay people badly wrong.

We isolate people at their point of greatest need. We place them on the outside with no possibility of acceptance and inclusion. In another e-mail recently I found myself saying this;

human sexuality is highly complex- some people can indeed change their sexual behaviour to a certain extent, but the harsh fact is that most can not. The implication for this majority then is that God created them with a different sexuality, but who they are will never be acceptable to His people on earth- short of a half life of loneliness and struggle. The end results are high suicide rates, mental illness, isolation and some people end up living in (not always healthy) ghettos where they feel safer. Despite a shift in societal attitudes gay people still live in fear of all sorts of prejudice.

The other end result is that they are driven away from the church and from God. We have two friends whose children grew up in the church but always knew themselves to be ‘different’. Both are now far far from the church. I also have friends who deal with their sexuality by keeping secrets- trying to display surface acceptability. What they long for are stable, monogamous, loving relationships- and to be accepted and loved by their peers.

All of these friends will describe their utter incomprehension at being told that they are loved, but that their sinful lifestyles can not be accepted. They would describe their sexuality as fixed from the earliest age- in the same way as others have blond hair. The arguments about original sin make no sense to them- and they would point to others who are born with a physical disability, who used to be excluded but are no more.

The reason why we in the church have adopted the position we have is based on our interpretation of scripture. This has been a crucial journey for me- in trying to understand what these scriptures mean, and to set them in the wider context of the life Jesus calls us to.

And a long time ago I decided that if I was going to make an error in my theology, I would err on the side of grace. I would err on the side of love. I would err on the side of acceptance.

What I think we need is for people who have an apostolic voice to speak on this issue with love as the primary imperative.  People who are prepared to risk the storm that will surely fall on their heads- risk their jobs, their reputation, even losing their friends.

Step forward Steve Chalke;

http://player.vimeo.com/video/57125373

Steve Chalke raises his head above the parapet on homosexuality…

steve chalke

My mate Simon pointed me to this article, written by Steve Chalke, of the Oasis Trust, and published in this months Christianity Magazine. For those who do not know this publication, it is the voice of Evangelicalism in the UK- read by mostly fundementalist, bible-first, charismatic (with a small c), conservative (also with a small c) Christians. I used to read it myself years ago, but found that it made me too cross.

In this instance however, well done to the magazine for giving air to Steve, who has no doubt summoned down the wrath of many of its readers on his head, but in doing so has opened up an important debate from on the ‘inside’.

Here are some of the things he had to say;

I feel both compelled and afraid to write this article. Compelled because, in my understanding, the principles of justice, reconciliation and inclusion sit at the very heart of Jesus’ message. Afraid because I recognise the Bible is understood by many to teach that the practice of homosexuality, in any circumstance, is ‘a grotesque and sinful subversion’, an ‘objective disorder’ or, perhaps slightly more liberally, ‘less than God’s best’.

Some will think that I have strayed from Scripture – that I am no longer an evangelical. I have formed my view, however, not out of any disregard for the Bible’s authority, but by way of grappling with it and, through prayerful reflection, seeking to take it seriously. My prayer, in writing, is therefore to encourage a gracious and mature conversation around an extremely important pastoral and theological issue that impacts the lives of so many people…

In autumn 2012 I conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two wonderful gay Christians. Why? Not to challenge the traditional understanding of marriage – far from it – but to extend to these people what I would do to others – the love and support of our local church. Our service also gave them the opportunity, surrounded by their family and friends, to publicly recognise their dependence on God and their need to be part of a supportive Christ-centred community to strengthen them in fulfilling their promises to one another.

Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ. I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded…

In my view, although motivated by a laudable concern for inclusion, many of the arguments that have been constructed in the attempt to soften or nullify what is the clear and uncompromising stance of Scripture unintentionally end up clouding the real issue – one of wider hermeneutics rather than simply exegesis.

Through my hermeneutical lens, the Bible is the account of the ancient conversation initiated, inspired and guided by God with and among humanity. It is a conversation where various, sometimes harmonious and sometimes discordant, human voices contribute to the gradually growing picture of the character of Yahweh; fully revealed only in Jesus.  But it is also a conversation that, rather than ending with the finalisation of the canon, continues beyond it involving all of those who give themselves to Christ’s on-going redemptive movement.

Rather than condemn and exclude, can we dare to create an environment for homosexual people where issues of self-esteem and wellbeing can be talked about; where the virtues of loyalty, respect, interdependence and faithfulness can be nurtured, and where exclusive and permanent same-sex relationships can be supported?

Tolerance is not the same as Christ-like love. Christ-like love calls us to go beyond tolerance to want for the other the same respect, freedom, and equality one wants for oneself. We should find ways to formally support and encourage those who are in, or wish to enter into, faithful same-sex partnerships, as well as in their wider role as members of Christ’s body.

I end where I started; in the coming months there will be huge and often heated debate around gay marriage. I am committed to listening and trying to understand the intricacies of the arguments on both sides. But, whatever the outcome and whichever side of the debate we find ourselves on, my hope is that as Christians we face what I think is the central issue – what does real, Christ-like, inclusion look like?

For those who want to engage with the theology of his argument, I recommend reading the article in full.

And in the mean time, I commend you Steve for using your apostolic voice to raise this issue in such a thoughtful and gentle way. I know this is an easy thing to do when someone agrees with your own opinion- it is much harder to feel respect for those on the other side of a debate.

Let us hope that there may yet be a time when the Church can be a place of radical inclusion of out groups- which is after all the Jesus way.