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.

Up in the air film, and a bit more on community…

I have just watched this film.

It both depressed me and uplifted me at the same time.

The film stars George Clooney, playing a narcissistic travelling businessman, who is paid to fire workers all over America. He lives in a world without any unnecessary connection. A world that is soon to be replaced by video calls.

Along the way he gives motivational speeches to other businessmen- in which he asks them to consider what is in their backpack- all those trappings of modernity that anchor them to place and time, and restrict their freedom of opportunity. All those relationships that tie us down.

He is a kind of metaphor for post modern fluidity and disconnection.

And I think it depressed me because it is a culture and an industrial environment that is familiar- even in the public sector. A world where value is placed only on efficiency and personal goal attainment.

And it is kind of the antithesis of everything Jesus calls us to. He seemed to call us to a way of being in which living sacrificially for others is the measure of the value of a life- and in being connected to others in deep and interdependent ways.

And to celebrate this in community.

Of course, that is the point of the film.

And because it was made in Hollywood, and not by anyone Italian, French or called Ken Loach, then Clooney has an epiphany, involving his rather kooky family, and a romantic association of his own.

Then the existential/romantic crisis.

And the final resolution- which I will not spoil- watch the film!

It reminded me again of the counter culture of the Kingdom of God.

And the hope that we, the Agents of the Kingdom, might display a different way of living based on this other culture, and fed by the fruit of the Spirit.

The Varieties of Religious Experience…

Another interesting discussion on the radio this morning courtesy of Melvin Bragg’s programme ‘In Our Time’.

It centred around the work of Doctor, psychologist and ‘natural theologist’ William James– brother of novelist Henry James.

In 1901 William James began a series of lectures in Edinburgh, which came to be collected together as a book entitled ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’.

It seems to me that James is of our time more than his. The modern obsession with logic and scientific reason- as the proper object and arbiter of all human endeavour- has been eroded by the events of the end of the 20th Century. Perhaps above all the fact that science has not delivered answers to the human condition, but rather has brought  us huge environmental, moral and ethical problems that we all live in the shadow of- Ozone holes, radiation, global warming, the failure of free market economics etc.

In a world where the Zeitgeist was (and perhaps still is) overwhelmingly concerned with the rational and logical, even our approach to religion, James stood out as proposing a totally different way to understand faith. Rather than focus on doctrine and dogma, solidified and codified within religious texts, or in the institutions of faith, he suggested that only valid way to understand faith was in individual subjective experience. He went further and suggested that the faith experience was at the heart of what it meant to be human- and to understand this was to understand better who we are.

This led James to investigate mystical experiences, including by using hallucinogenic drugs. He was less interested in whether faith was ‘true’, or whether God existed, but more in the effect and usefulness that transcendent experience had on those who experienced it. This individualistic and self-centred version of religious seeking feels very post modern.

“Not God”, James states, “but life, more life, a larger, richer, more satisfying life, is, in the last analysis, the end of religion.”

James was also interested in how personality and ‘spiritual health’ interacted with our choice of faith (which resonates with this post) and he spent a lot of his time in the lectures discussing people who had undergone conversion experiences.

A couple of quotes from here

James recognized a pattern in conversion experiences. It tended to happen when people were so low that they just ‘gave up’, the vacuum of hope providing space for revelation. The religious literature is full of stories along these lines, in which the constrictions and negative aspects of the ego are finally discarded; one begins to live only for others or for some higher goal. The compensation for becoming dependent upon God is a letting go of fear, and it is this that makes conversion such a liberating experience. It is the fearlessness and sense of absolute security in God that gives the convert their breathtaking motivation. An apparently perfectly normal person will give up everything and become a missionary in the jungle, or found a monastery in the desert, because of a belief. Yet this invisible thing will drastically change their outward circumstances, which led James to the unavoidable conclusion that for such a person, their conversion or spiritual experience was a fact, indeed more real than anything which had so far happened in their lives.

James acknowledged that science would be forever trying to blow away the obscuring mists of religion, but in doing so it would totally miss the point. Science could only ever talk in the abstract, but personal spiritual experience was the more powerful precisely because it is subjective. Spirituality is about the emotions and the imagination and the soul – and to a human being these are everything.

I find myself both in sympathy and at odds with James- in much the same way as I am with the pluralist times we live in. For him, religion was about personal transformative experience, a little akin to a piece of remarkable cognitive behavioural therapy. God became portable and useful- perhaps even something to be cherished as a way of giving life direction and meaning.

But I have this feeling that the Lion of Judah is no tame lion…


Following up from the poster I used in my earlier post- I thought I would borrow a few more of Katiejen (at Emerging Grace)’s images– cos I like them. Thanks Katie!

I like them because they each capture something of a common journey that many of us have found ourselves on- and because they can be as simple or deep as you want to make them.

And there is the old adage about pictures speaking a thousand words- although I do love words…

(By the way- one word used here is EIKON- which is a lovely word, defined here as- ‘Eikon is the Greek for icon and refers to the visible manifestation of the invisible’

I suppose your reaction to them will depend on that usual combination of personality/thinking style/theological position…

constructing amongst the deconstructors…

There are lots of concepts and key words that have been reference points for those of us who have been following this emerging church ‘conversation’…





We live in world in flux. The personal angst seen in the popular culture of the sixties and seventies has found its way into the very structure of our society, and into our institutions. Everything is now questionable, everything is old and tired and broken down…

Another word we hear a lot is deconstructionism, a philosophical term first used by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s- who began to form a method of thinking about concepts that allowed him to get behind the assumptions and rationalisations that the modern world operated under. You can check out what wikepedia has to say about this stuff here.

I like this quote from John Caputo;

Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell — a secure axiom or a pithy maxim — the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility.

The suggestion for we Christians is that not only are our institutions based on a whole set of modernist assumptions that are being challenged, but that the world we serve is likewise deconstructing itself about us, and we ignore this at our peril…

But here is another quote, culled from a useful article (here) by Alistair MacIndoe, from the Rock Church in Dumbarton.

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.’
N.T. Wright 1

We Emerging types have used too many destructive words- perhaps even relished them, and the feelings of superiority this has given us.

But now the real work begins- the purpose that God gave was to go and tell people about Jesus- and (to paraphrase Francis of Asisi) if necessary, use words…

How we do this- how we start to tell again the stories of Jesus, and turn people again towards his beautiful way of living in these our complex times- this is for me to work out, with my community. So we turn to that other buzz-word at the moment-


But, I am convinced that God is creative, and seeks to make and remake, not to break down and destroy. And so for we, his servants, it seems clear that we should start the spiritual cement mixers, and fire up the brick kilns. Busy times are ahead.

Things change 1

Nothing stays the same.

Things all around us a changing. Some of this change is imperceptible, because we have become so inured to it. We are sold this kind of change every time we turn on the TV- newer, shinier things- improved and updated. Our economic system is entirely dependent on our continued addiction to the new, and the rejection of the old.

There seem to have been times through history when the general pace of change in the dominant societal forces make a step-change. Perhaps most of the rhetoric about these periods of history arise from the gifts given by hindsight, but nevertheless, every few hundred years or so, it seems the order of things as we know it comes under pressure. New ways of thinking and structuring ourselves mingle with new technology in a chicken-and-egg symbiosis, and many things that seem constant and reliable are tested by the new reality.

And so the age of castles and feudal allegiances became the age of printing presses, industrial production and scientific enlightenment. Empowerment of mass population leads to revolution and democratic endevour. And we see this new reality in the shape of towns, the growth of new organisations, and even the way we seek to understand and study God.

There was a great programme on BBC two a little while ago, presented by Steven Fry, and called Steven Fry and the machine that made us.

The programme was all about the first media entrepreneur Johann Gutenberg, who is credited with the invention of the first printing press at the very beginning of the 15th Century. Guttenberg went on to print the first Bible that was commonly available to ‘ordinary’ people, printed in his native German.

This invention has been credited to bringing about a step-change in western civilisation. Suddenly, written communication went from linear, individualised copies – owned exclusively by those with the time and money to invest in such time consuming frippery – to the mass market. Nothing was the same ever again.

In 20 years, these early printing presses had already turned out an estimated 20 million books. Fry used the wonderful term benign virus to describe the impact on society.

The Gutenberg Bible could be credited with leading almost inevitably to the Protestant revolution. Suddenly everyone could study the scriptures, and everyone became their own theologian. Or almost everyone. It was resisted of course- change usually is. In many parts of the Christian world, the Bibles were banned.

The step-change described above was perhaps one of the key factors that shaped the path of a society in its tranformation from the medieval world to the birth of moderism.

It has been said that we are in the middle of our own step-change, or paradigm shift.
The modern world, with all its assumptions of rational, ordered predictability, is being swept away by a new media revolution. Where is leads us, and how God will meet with us within it, is uncertain.

Like the Luddites, or the medieval church leaders, there are some for whom such change brings conflict and destruction. They faced new industrial realities- economic forces that were bigger than individuals, bigger than families, bigger than communities. No amount of smashed spinning jennies, or smashed printing presses can alter this.

Does this make change good, or bad?

I suppose this depends on your perspective. But ultimately, it is inevitable. It has few moral or value based imperatives, but rather it is the context into which we Christians bring our own values to bear.

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