The Jesus of the gospels was, Coelho argues, similarly contradictory. “Jesus lived a life that was full of joy and contradictions and fights, you know?” says Coelho, his brown eyes sparkling. “If they were to paint a picture of Jesus without contradictions, the gospels would be fake, but the contradictions are a sign of authenticity. So Jesus says: ‘Turn the other face,’ and then he can get a whip and go woosh! The same man who says: ‘Respect your father and mother’ says: ‘Who is my mother?’ So this is what I love – he is a man for all seasons.”
Like Jesus, he’s not expressing a coherent doctrine that can be applied to life like a blueprint? “You can’t have a blueprint for life. This is the problem if you’re religious today. I am Catholic myself, I go to the mass. But I see you can have faith and be a coward. Sometimes people renounce living in the name of a faith which is a killer faith. I like this expression – killer faith.”
Coelho proposes a faith based on joy. “The more in harmony with yourself you are, the more joyful you are, and the more faithful you are. Faith is not to disconnect you from reality, it connects you to reality.”
In this view, he thinks he has Jesus on his side. “They [those who model their sacrifice on Christ’s] remember three days in the life of Jesus when he was crucified. They forget that Jesus was politically incorrect from beginning to end. He was a bon vivant – travelling, drinking, socialising all his life. His first miracle was not to heal a poor blind person. It was changing water into wine and not wine into water.”
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;
Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established “religion” (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s “personal Lord and Savior” . . . The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.
(Courtesy of yesterdays minimergent.)
There are many ways to read scripture passages; some of you may remember a list I once reproduced here of some of them.
There is also this one- an imaginative reading. In this kind of reading, we immerse ourselves in one of the stories of the Bible- placing ourselves as one of the characters, seeing it from a human perspective, being part of the action. This kind of reading is often applied to stories from the gospels.
It is also a kind of interaction with scripture which appeals to people like me who write.
One of the passages I was given to aid reflection in my silence last year was the story of Blind Bartimaeus, in Mark, chapter 10. It is a lovely story, full of Grace, and here is my imaginative response;
What a day.
There I was, sitting in the town square tying to sell a few pots, when everyone started to run down towards the road. Naomi and old Jebediah almost knocked each other flying in their haste.
“What is going on?” I shouted “What’s all the excitement about?” But no one would stop to tell me- they were all heading down to the road- even blind Bartemaeus picked up his stick and started to rattle his way out of the square, taking his begging bowl with him. Soon there was just me and old Martha who is so old that she has forgotten what day it is.
Despite myself I followed the whole village down the hill. They were all craning their necks to catch sight of something. “What is going on?” I repeated myself. Finally Naomi answered- “It’s that man Jesus- the Rabbi. The one I told you about. He is coming here! James saw him this morning and ran all the way back to tell us!”
Jesus of Nazareth! Of course I knew something of him- who didn’t? The stories were flying back and forward about what he was up to. Some said he was a new Prophet sent to speak to the people of Israel just like the old times. Others said he was a fraud who was just making trouble, and there had been quite enough of his sort in these parts.
There are even those would say that he is The One– the Messiah- come to fulfil all those old scriptures. Come to release captives, to bring sight to the blind, a declare the year of the Lord’s favour (if I remember my school boy Isaiah properly.)
What did I think of all this? A load of crap I said to all who asked- another loud mouth living off the bread of folk who have little to give in the first place. The country was full of ‘messiahs’ after all- every one with their own set of followers. Naomi is a little more gullible than me, shall we say- this was the third teacher this year that she had got all excited about. “This one is different” she would say, “he is not interested in money, or fame, or power- he just seems to talk about love and this thing that he calls the New Kingdom.” She also told me stories of miracles- but we have heard them before as well. A bit of religious trickery always seems to make people more ready to part with their coin. Naomi might live and breathe this sort of thing but I for one give it no attention.
Just then the crowd started to hush “He’s coming!” someone said. I was standing at the back as people lined the road, so I quietly climbed on the branch of a low tree to get a better view.
There were quite a few people on the road- mostly men, but a few women. I had no idea which one was Jesus- they all looked pretty ragged, but at the same time somehow ‘road fit’- these people clearly knew how to put in the miles. They walked in groups, talking animatedly and gesturing at one another- there was a lot of laughter and one man even turned a cartwheel to please the crowd.
Just then, right in front of me, blind Bartimaeus started to shout. He had no idea exactly how close he was to the travellers so he shouted really loudly;
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
‘Son of David’ no less- how did this beggar know so much scripture? His father, old Timaeus, used to have a broken down farm over the other side of the village and he had no time for such things when he was alive. This blind man was calling Jesus ‘Son of David’- more or less calling him ‘Messiah’!
The folk of the village did not like it- they turned on him. I think some were just embarrassed- an important, famous Rabbi comes to town and gets shouted at by a beggar- it just does not look good does it? Others thought Bartimeaus was after money (he normally was after all) although if he could see the state of the travellers he would have known that they did not have much in the way of cash. There were also more than a few religious folk in the crowd who were scandalised by the suggestion that somewhere in this ragged bunch was to be found Messiah.
So they hushed Bartimaeus, aimed a few kicks at him- but he would not be quiet. Even louder he shouted;
“Jesus- son of David. Have mercy on me!”
The travellers stopped in the road and turned towards the noise and the crowd went still- apart from Bartimeaus that is who shouted even louder. Then out of the group of travellers, a man started walking towards him.
I do not know why I had not seen him before- certainly he did not look much different, his clothes were just as ragged and his feet covered with the same road dust- but there was no doubt in my mind that this was Jesus of Nazareth. He had this presence, this quiet authority. Not the kind of authority that requires a title or a set of soldiers to enforce- this was something I had not seen before. There was nothing threatening about him at all, and yet I still found myself shrinking back a little.
This man would walk into any crowd and would become its centre. He could walk into a room and it would almost change colour. I at once saw what the fuss was all about- why he had upset people so much, why people were talking about him everywhere.
Bartimaeus was not at the front of the crowd- he was towards the back, quite close to me and I watched as Jesus walked towards him. The crowd parted like the red sea for Moses and I thought it best to climb down from my tree, not wanting to be noticed rubbernecking. I was then more than a little embarrassed to find myself standing almost right next to Blind Batrimaeus, who was still shouting for all that he was worth.
“All right, all right Bart old son” I said urgently “he heard you- and he is coming. Hush now!”
And he did. He sat there in the dust and blinked into the mid day sun, arms outstretched. I looked up and Jesus had stopped about ten feet away from Bartimaeus, and the crowd formed a ring around us like a thick hedge to keep in the goats.
He was close enough now for me to see his face. He was young – younger than me – that much I can tell you but yet I struggle to describe what his features actually looked like. All I know is that his face was so alive. His eyes seemed to be laughing even though his mouth was still.
I wondered then if he had stopped short of actually coming right up to Bartemaeus because he realised has was just a blind beggar- the sort that line all the major roads shouting for mercy. A man of no worth and no consequence. A man who some religious types described as bearing the consequences of sin. An unclean man, an outcast. The only reason that Bartimaeus survived at all was because people in my town remembered his mother, who was a good soul and had a lot to put up with what with her waster of a husband and her only child born blind, so many of us dropped him a coin or a piece of bread (when no one else was looking of course.)
Suddenly Jesus spoke.
“Tell him to stand up and come to me”
I realised with a start that he was talking to me- that he was looking right at me. And in the presence of this ragged stranger, my heart started pounding. I opened my mouth, but words seemed to have got stuck.
“Come on man- introduce your friend to me and tell him to stand up” said Jesus.
My friend? I thought- does he think we are the same? Was he mocking me? Certainly there was laughter in his voice.
Still, I bent over and spoke to Bartimaeus again “Come on Bart old son- he wants to speak to you.” I put my hand on the arm of this unclean wretch and helped him to his feet. “He is right in front of you, waiting.”
Bartimaeus put out his hands- he had left his stick on the ground- and took a step towards Jesus.
Then another, and another, until his hands were actually in contact with this strange compelling man. Jesus did not flinch as the beggars hands even began to explore his face; instead he opened his mouth and roared with laughter.
And his followers laughed too- not an unkind laugh; not the sort of laugh that happens when a man trips over a stray dog or a woman drops her bucket down a well. There was no victim to this laugh, rather it was an inclusive laugh- the sort that sucks you in and holds you in its embrace. It seemed to arise from a kind of emotion that I can only call joy. I found myself laughing too- really laughing. It was as if the trees and the stone walls laughed with us.
Then Jesus leaned forward and spoke again; “What do you want me to do for you?” he said, softly- so softly that I think only a few of us heard him.
That’s done it, I thought- clearly he has no money and there was no way he could take this poor wretch with him, wherever he was going. This is where it gets ugly again.
Bartimaeus did not ask for money though. Instead he dropped his hands, stood an inch taller and said this;
“Rabbi, I want to see.”
The crowd let out a communal gasp. Many had heard the rumours- lepers who had been made clean, mad men who were calmed, even a man called Lazarus over in Bethany who seems to have been raised up out of his own tomb. But talk was cheap and anyway things like that never happened in my town. Not here. Not to some smelly blind beggar who we all stepped over on the street every day of our lives.
But Jesus seemed to have heard only what he expected to hear- he appeared delighted. There was mischief in his voice when he said;
“Go on then- on your way. Your faith has healed you.”
And with that, Jesus turned about and started to walk down the road.
Is that it I said to myself. Is this the work of a Messiah? He throws out a few smart words then is on his way? I felt cheated somehow- despite my cynicism, even I had started to believe that this Jesus was different from all the other would-be Messiahs.
Bartimaeus just stood there- eyes wide open, wriggling his fingers between the sky and his face. I felt sorry for him.
“Well that’s that then Bart.” I said. “Come on up to town with me and let’s get something to eat…”
But before I could finish my sentence, he was shouting again at the top of his voice!
“I can see! I can see! I can bloody well SEE!”
The crowd parted again as he stumbled towards them, dumfounded as he pointed out the branches of the trees against the blue sky, the lichen on the wall next to the field, the marks he had made in the dust with his feet, and the smoke rising from the village chimneys in the distance. We all watched dumbfounded as he ran back to his stick, picked it up, kissed it then hurled it far over the wall shouting;
“Good bye you old bugger, I’ll not be needing you any more!”
Then he stopped in his tracks and spoke more slowly;
“Go he told me- on my way. Where on earth would I be going… if it is not with him?”
With that, once-blind Bartimaeus was up and half running, half stumbling down the road, still with a hand held out in front like the blind man he used to be, chasing after Jesus for all that he was worth.
As for me, I stood with the others, watching him go- unable to take it all in. Unable to believe that the most important thing that ever happened to this town- no, the most important thing that ever happened to me– was wrapped up in the rags of this creature running like a drunken goat down the road.
I was wondering what it meant. Wondering what had just changed right before my eyes. Looking for something to anchor myself to, but not able to see it…
But that was all years ago now. Bartimaeus came back a few weeks later. He told us the story of what happened over the next few weeks. He was our eye-witness as to how Jesus rode in to Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, only to be arrested on trumped-up charges and put on trial. Bartimaeus was there when Jesus was whipped and beaten up. He was there when they paraded him through the streets, and watched as they crucified him and hung him there until he died. He also told of how the curtain in the great temple ripped right down the middle and the sky went dark at mid day.
And Bartimaeus told us how a couple of the women went to take care of his body early in the morning, only to find Jesus not dead but alive– of how he met with his followers, and even let once-blind Bartemaeus touch his face again, and of how they all laughed till they cried.
Bartimaeus is my friend now. He lives with Naomi and I and helps me make pots- all those years of living by touch alone has turned him into the most gifted potter in these parts- people come from miles around to buy what he has made.
Or perhaps they come to hear the stories. Of a man called Jesus, who on some days even I have come to believe was indeed the Messiah.
We have had a house group at our house for a number of years- some dear friends, a pot of tea and lots of chatter. However, for some time now I have been thinking that it is time to move on into something new. We have floated the idea of starting a local discussion- probably in a pub.
The are a few reasons for this- groups like ours (no matter how lovely) can simply become too familiar, too safe- and the Lion of Judah is not a tame lion. I just think it is time to step out again a little.
Next, those of us who were part of all the ’emerging church’ discussions/conversations/debates/slanging matches perhaps became a jaded with the same theological merry go round. Post modernity, post evangelicalism, post charismatic- we all embraced the questions but had no certainty about where the road might be leading- and that was fine.
But there comes a time when a new direction for our theological journey begins to become a little clearer. All those questions start to find some kind of answer, even if incomplete and held lightly.
Of late, there have been some discussions about ‘teaching’ within Aoradh. I was rather shocked at first as I was not that sure I wanted to teach anyone anything. I was happy to learn alongside others as we journeyed together, but the idea that other people should be shaped and moulded by my (or one of my friend’s) knowledge and wisdom was rather beyond me. At first the whole idea of it seemed a step back towards something that I was glad to leave behind.
But of course, St Paul talked about the gifts given to the body of the church- apostles prophets teachers miracle workers healers helpers organizers those who pray in tongues. I am no longer given to treating the suggestions of St Paul to the people in Ephesus as a blue print for the organisation of ‘church’, but neither am I going to ignore him either!
Having said that, there are a few other positions in St Paul’s list above that still have no certified incumbents. Whilst I hope that we can be respectful of church tradition, I have no real desire to start a journey towards a new clergy. Rather let us use the passion and talent that we can, and encourage the same in others around us. If we have a teacher, let him/her teach.
Or let us just gather to learn together- this still sits much easier with me.
So- if you are in the Dunoon area, do you fancy being part of a discussion group?
My working idea has been to use some of the questions proposed by St Brian of Mclaren in his book ‘A new kind of Chrisitianity’;
1. What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?
2. How should the Bible be understood?
3. Is God violent?
4. Who is Jesus and why is he important?
5. What is the Good News?
6. What do we do about the church?
7. Can we find a better way to address the issue of homosexuality?
8. Can we find a better way of viewing the future?
9. How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
10. How can we translate our quest into action?
It is a question I was discussing with a friend last week. She, like me, comes from a background in which the stories of the Bible were regarded as unquestioned absolute fact. The problem is that as you start to take a look at some of these stories, you start to hope that they are not.
But if they are not, then the absolutes that faith has been built from start to come unravelled- if you pull at these bricks the whole wall will fall in.
I wrote a series here called ‘Bible Nasties’ in which I tried to explore some of the issues that arose from my own theological meanderings. You can catch the first one here, and the others via the links in the comments.
However, Brian McLaren does it much better in this article here. Here are a couple of quotes;
Let’s define violence simply: force with the intent of inflicting injury, damage, or death. I think believers in God have four primary responses to the question of God’s violence defined in this way:
1. God is violent, and since we human beings are made in God’s image, we’re free to use violence as one valid form of political communication (to borrow a famous phrase from Carl von Clausewitz), and in fact we are commanded to use it in some cases.
2. God is violent, but in a holy way that sinful humans are incapable of. That’s why violence is generally prohibited for humans except in certain limited cases. In those cases, only those designated as God’s chosen/elect/ordained, acting under God’s explicit direction, are justified in using violence.
3. God is not violent, so human violence is always a violation of our creation in God’s image — both for the perpetrator and the victim. If it is ever employed, it is always tragic and regrettable, never justified.
4. God is not violent, so violence in any form is absolutely forbidden, no exceptions.
McLaren goes on to describe his own struggles with this issue- how the violent version of God contrasts with the other version in the pages of the Bible- the loving, forgiving, self sacrificing one, who eventually casts himself as the victim of violence, not the originator of it. Which version is the truest one, because increasingly it becomes impossible to hold them both together.
McLaren points us to Jesus, and along the way, we again bump into how we understand attonement;
In my own grappling with this subject, a single question has brought things into focus for me: Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?
If God is primarily identified with the Romans, torturing and killing Jesus, then, yes, the case is closed: God must be seen as violent on Good Friday. The cross is an instrument of God’s violence.
But if God is located first and foremost with the crucified one, identifying with humanity and bearing and forgiving people’s sin, then a very different picture of God and the cross emerges.
Both locations present a scandal. The former, it seems to me, subverts the entire biblical narrative. God is not then identified with the slaves seeking freedom, but with Pharoah keeping them in their place. God is not with the woman caught in adultery, but with those who want to stone her. God is not with Paul, accepting Gentiles as sisters and brothers, but with the Judaizers, upholding the Law. And God is not hanging on the cross, but stooping over it, pounding in the nail. That’s scandalous in one way.
The latter understanding subverts violence and all those who depend on it for their security, affluence, and happiness. God is with the slaves, not with the slave-drivers. God is found in the one being tortured, not the ones torturing. God is found among the displaced refugees, not those stealing their lands. And God is found in the one being spat upon, not in the one spitting. A very different scandal indeed — and a very different cross, with a very different, but no less profound, meaning.
I am reading this book at the moment;
I have heard people talk about it for years- it was written in 1988 after all, and became a publishing phenomenon in the early 90’s. At some point it arrived on one of our bookshelves, but I always avoided it because of some vague association in my mind with new age self fulfilment self help books.
However, different time of life and all, and different spiritual outlook, so in search of a book to read on the ferry that fitted easily in my pocket, I picked it up.
And I am really enjoying it.
Enjoying the writing and the story telling- which is ‘magical realism‘. A shepherd boy who meets a king who tells him his destiny, and he sets off on a journey in search of this destiny, along the way finding the depth of things – the Soul of the World.
But also enjoying the theological questions that it is bringing to me. In many ways the book proposes a spirituality that is a mash up of all sorts of influences- a bit of Jesus, a lot of Eastern mysticism, a lot more Coelho.
It suggests that each of us have a destiny, which we discover by listening to our hearts and following the omens and signs that the Soul of the World scatter in our way. Most do not dare to follow this destiny as it involves risk and pain, but when we do, the whole world conspires to deliver what we desire.
At first, there is what Coelho called ‘beginners luck’, we start out, and things fall in place. But the journey towards destiny always involves testing.
On the face of it this kind of simplistic magical thinking is the exact reason why the book has remained on the shelf for so long. It is too much like the prosperity gospel charlatans or the ‘success is yours if you go for it’ nonsense.
What rescues the book is its gentle thoughtfulness, and words like this;
We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it is our life or our possessions or our property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.
What has been occupying my mind is this question of fate. This post discussed some of the issues around vocation, and I suggested that I did not believe that God had a golden path planned out for us. In a reply to this, Paula suggested an alternative something like a flow chart with lots of different potential paths.
But as I think about the heart of the matter – the desires that in in the middle of us – I have to acknowledge the thought that we each carry unique individuality and creativity. The accident of our birth impedes or facilitates how this might shape our lives, but ultimately the degree to which this uniqueness is worked out is about the choices we make.
I wrote this line recently about God ‘twisting with our fate’. Mingling with us, laughing with us, prompting us, singing with us in success and holding us in failure.
Is this the same thing that Coelho is painting- the same fragments of the truth from the Soul of the World?
All I can say is that life is not for standing still, and movement has to have some direction, even if the way is indistinct and fraught with danger.
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,
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.
We are just back from a lovely Easter service.
Thanks to the kindness of Aileen, one of our local ministers, we were given permission to use the beautiful Inverchaolain Chapel– out along Loch Striven. It is a small simple stone building, cupped in the bowl of the hills next to the Loch.
Audrey led us through a liturgy, using some ideas borrowed from Tabled– which is a fantastic collection of creative ideas for communion. We used two objects- one was a crown of thorns suspended with little baskets containing frozen cubes of wine, which dripped down onto a silver tray and a white cloth. The other was a loaf of bread into which we asked people to push nails. The images were powerful and Audrey’s words complimented them wonderfully.
(By the way- if you try the frozen wine thing, bear in mind that wine does not freeze very well- better to use water with some food colouring.)
Afterwards we went back to Andy and Angela’s as the planned picnic was rather rained off. No matter though, we took with us something precious that brought a deeper sense of the death of Jesus, and his resurrection then, and through us, now.
Within churches across the western world, many of us will be singing this line today- from the modern hymn by Stuart Townend, ‘In Christ alone’. The whole verse goes something like this;
In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.
It is a great hymn, deeply emotional and soaring in its melody. However I increasingly find the one dimensional nature of it’s theology really difficult. It is this one line about the wrath of God. It conjures up the idea of some kind of unstoppable force of holy hate and destruction in the universe that was narrowly averted only by the torture and death of Jesus.
This is another one of those underpinning assumptions of Evangelicalism that most of us accepted as unassailable truth- Jesus died the horrible death on the cross that was rightfully ours and because of this, God was able to undertake some kind of divine conjuring trick for some of us. This was the only way to overcome the natural forces of justice in the universe. It was the only way to deal with the wrath of God.
For non theologians like me, the fact that this kind of understanding of the atonement of the cross is not the ONLY way of understanding the central drama of the Christian faith might come as a surprise. Recently of course, a number of hugely controversial books have emerged taking a new look at the issue. The authors of these books (Rob Bell, Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren) have often been subjected to the outrage of the faithful.
So, on this Good Friday, I thought that it might be worth examining some of the other understandings of atonement- the other ways that followers of Jesus have attempted to come to terms with the enormity of a God who would come to earth to die such a death.
The name given to the theory of atonement outlined above is ‘Substitutionary atonement’ or sometimes ‘Penal Substitution’. However rather than talk more about I think it would be useful to take a journey through atonement in church history.
Firstly, there is a summary of some of the ideas in this clip by Tony Jones, along with some of his own hard hitting alternatives;
There are other theories of atonement, but here is a quick summary of the dominant ones again;
In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his death and resurrection.
This was the atonement theory dominant in the early church in the second and third centuries and was taught by the Church Fathers. It was also popular into the middle ages and beyond.
Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind).
Here Jesus is not used as a ransom but rather defeated Satan in a spiritual battle and thus frees enslaved mankind by defeating the captor. This theory continued to influence Christian theology for a thousand years.
This theory grew from the work of the 11th century theologian Anselm. Mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Here we see the influence of earthly politics projected onto the heavens.
The Protestant reformers developed Anselm’s theory. Instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour, rather sin is regarded as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being rightfully deserving God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Galatians 3:13).
A variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ “governmental theory“, which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.
Some would argue that all these theories contain part of the truth, and (in the absence of certainty) I think I would agree with this.
Apart from this thing that we call ‘the wrath of God’.
I would contend that our theological projections of God are always partial, always incomplete and always emerging from our cultural perspective. So it was natural for the children of the modern enlightenment to see God as embodying a force of logical, highly technical justice. It seemed like the elevation of mankind towards democratic freedom mediated by the purity of the law was a process ordained by God, and so this must also be the character of God himself.
God the judge- stern, inflexible, bound by the fine detail of the law, but able to save a narrow few through a technicality.
But today we remember the death of a man Jesus.
The scandal of the cross.
The unreasonableness of the cross.
The injustice of the the cross.
The laying down of all power and majesty, the ultimate vulnerability of the cross.
The end of all our hopes on the cross.
The defeat of the cross.
The humanity of the cross.
And the mystery unfolds within us.