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.

The future of Church in the west?

Following on from my somewhat negative previous post, I have just been reading a couple of reports from this conference.

The discussion focused on the future of Christianity in the USA- and this is clearly potentially very misleading. The global growth of Christianity is a very different discussion. However, the influence of American Evangelical Christianity on the UK religious scene is huge- all the TV channels, the publishing juggernaut and the big name preachers. We watch changes there with interest, knowing that the impact of these changes will be felt this side of the Atlantic.

Brian McLaren believes that over the next period, the Conservative Evangelical denominations (protestant and Catholic) in the USA will “constrict, tighten up, batten the hatches, raise the boundary fences, demand greater doctrinal, political, and behavioral conformity, and monitor boundaries with increased vigilance.”

He believes that this will drive out many, whilst increasing the anxiety and ‘bunker mentality’ of those left inside the denominations. At the same time, he sees a new coalition forming-

That new coalition, I believe, will emerge from four main sources:

  1. Progressive Evangelicals who are squeezed out of constricting evangelical settings.
  2. Progressive Roman Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) who are squeezed out of their constricting settings.
  3. Missional mainliners who are rediscovering their Christian faith more as a missional spiritual movement, and less as a revered and favored religious institution.
  4. Social justice-oriented Pentecostals and Evangelicals — from the minority churches in the West and from the majority churches of the global South, especially the second- and third-generation leaders who have the benefits of higher education.

Scott McKnight points out that Conservative Evangelical Mega churches in the USA (and I believe,the UK equivalents) are in fact growing. He does not believe that ‘Evangelicalism’ is made up of one stream- believing that some incarnations will be around for a long long time to come.

However, what he sees as now having ended is the old ‘Evangelical coalition’-

The evangelicalism that formed in the 1940s and 1950s, more accurately called “neo-evangelicalism,” was a reaction to strident forms of fundamentalism, a call to serious intellectual engagement so that evangelicalism could gain both theological and academic credibility again, and a formation of a big tent coalition to work together for evangelism and theological development. By and large, this big tent coalition combined the Calvinist and Wesleyan segments of evangelicalism, found places for Christian colleges, parachurch ministries, missionary societies, and a plethora of magazines and radio stations, and gave a privileged place to evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Carl Henry.

But perhaps the most powerful piece was by Philip Clayton who had this to say-

A major national survey recently published in USA Today shows that 72 percent of “Millennials” — Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 — now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even among those who self-identify as practicing Christians, all of the traditional forms of Christian practice have sharply declined from previous years: church attendance, Bible study, prayer. Doubts are higher, and affiliation with the institutional church is sharply lower. All of us who are still connected with local congregations already know this pattern, up close and personal. Still, it’s sobering to see the trends writ large; after all, we’re talking about almost three-quarters of younger Americans!

The decline of traditional churches and denominations will presumably continue, so that by 2020 the effects will be as devastating in the U.S. as they already are in Europe. (On a typical Sunday, for example, 0.5 percent of Germans attend church.) Numerically, two-thirds or more of mainline churches will close their doors or struggle on without a full-time pastor. Denominations will merge in order to be able to maintain even minimal national staffs and programs. A larger and larger proportion of those who still go to church will attend large “mega” churches, those with 2,000 or more attendees on an average Sunday.

Clayton issued what he called a ‘call to church’-

We churchpeople were the center of American society since this nation was founded. We enjoyed power and prestige; we were the center of the action; we counted presidents, educators, and industry leaders among our numbers. But those days, it appears, are over. We still have a crucial role to play in the world. But it’s no longer a world that revolves around us.

This new role actually makes it easier for us to model ourselves and our communities on the Head of the church, who “has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him” (Isaiah 53:2). As Dwight Friesen puts it in Thy Kingdom Connected, the church can no longer be a “bounded set,” defining itself by the people and ideas it’s opposed to. We now have to be a “centered set,” pointing toward — and living like — the One whose life and ministry we model ourselves on. If we can’t communicate our Center with power and conviction, no one’s going to listen. Oh, and by the way: we have to find ways to do this that don’t sound or look anything like the church has looked over the last 50 years or so.

Finally, Clayton talks about an age of experimentation in church-

What does “church” look like when you take it out of the box, replant it, and let it grow organically? It’s going to stretch and challenge you; it’s going to take openness to forms and practices you’ve never seen before:

  • churches that meet in pubs, office buildings, school classrooms, or homes . . . or virtual churches, like those at SecondLife.com;
  • churches that have no leader, or have leaders who don’t look like any pastor you’ve ever known (OMG, what if they have piercings?);
  • pastors who are hosts to discussions, who can listen long and deep to doubts and questions before presenting the answers on which they center their lives;
  • churches that don’t have buildings, denominations, pastors, or sermons; that don’t meet on Sundays; that consist mainly of people who don’t call themselves “Christians”;
  • churches whose participants are drawn from many different religious groups; churches full of “seekers”; churches that consist mostly of silence (like the Quakers) or of heated discussions between participants.

Not only conservatives will wonder and worry where one should draw the line. And that’s the point: we’ve now entered an age where we no longer know how to draw lines, because the old criteria just don’t work anymore — except to exclude the vast majority of the people whom we hope to interest.

All this sounds very familiar from this side of the Atlantic. We are much further down the line that it all.

We have our Evangelical enclaves- who tend to be exclusive, embattled, and increasingly fuelled by an agenda that looks either to African or American Mega churches. Despite their vigour and apparent success, they are largely irrelevant to the larger cultural situation- and their engagement with mission is simply to attempt to create more ‘converts’ to their own kind of belief system. These churches feel to me to be about marketing and mass consumerism.

And then we have the huge majority of spiritually interested consumers, who may have been inoculated against Christianity, but not against Jesus.

And then we have a growing number of experimental pioneers, whose methods are increasingly being adopted by the mainstream traditional churches- through things like Fresh Expressions-

…and all the mixed madness to be experienced at Greenbelt Festival.

We live, my friends, in interesting times, where change is normal, and the future uncertain. But I have no doubt that church will continue, and that the mission of Jesus will be carried forward into new generations. Some will resist any change fiercely, others will embrace it.

But change will happen- it has already happened…