Honest doubt and fundamentalism…

I have been listening to some of this series on the old wireless during my travels this week- Richard Holloway‘s journey through the emergence of doubt in the wake of faith. Compulsive listening for old pilgrims like me.

For those of us on a quest for honest faith, we have also to be honest about doubt. The two things are intertwined, as I have written about previously. Doubt then is not the opposite of faith, but rather the means through we we engage, wrestle and ultimately it can become the way that we move towards light.

Today the discussion centred around the issue of revelation– the idea of an interventionist God, who reveals himself to his followers through dreams, visions, prophecy, and people ‘hearing his voice’.

Some of these ‘voice hearers’ began to write down these words, and it is these words that we go to most often as we seek fresh revelation.

One little morsel that impacted me today was this one, concerning the writings of Origen

Origen was a hugely influential scholar, theologian and writer of the early church, writing in Alexandria in the second and third Centuries after Christ. His views soon were controversial- he was a universalist and believed in the pre existence of souls. He was condemned later as an apostate- but perhaps we should regard him as a theological adventurer, putting forward ideas and theories for us to chew on.

Today his views on scripture were mentioned. The gospels that were circulating at the time (and there were many more than the 4 we have in our Bible now) had all sorts of areas of disagreement and contradiction. This might be hardly surprising if we read these as eye witness accounts, or scholarly collections of stories.

We might also expect a gospel to bear in some way the perspective, the creativity, the agenda of its particular author- one person might focus on one aspect of the life of Jesus- love for example, anther might be more interested in proving some other theological issue. You could describe this as observer bias.

This is of course not a problem if you understand this as you read- in fact it can be extremely enriching to view the life of Jesus from different perspectives- this is the whole point of us still having 4 gospels in our Bible is it not? However it becomes a problem when you start to treat the text not as revelation through a man, but rather the very ‘Word of God’. Then you have to deal with the contradictions in a whole different kind of way. You have to make it all fit into one homogeneous whole. As we used to hear said- ‘inerrant; without error or contradiction’.

It seems that back in the second and third Centuries there were already disputes about the validity of scripture as the inerrant Word of God. Origen however suggested that God had deliberately allowed these contradictions/disagreements to remain in scripture precisely to remind us that it was not to be taken literally– rather it was to be engaged with, wrestled with, questioned and debated.

In this time of the rise of fundamentalist doctrine, this ancient heretic might well have some more agitation to do for this generation too…

Solas festival…

We had a lovely day at Solas festival yesterday. Well- mostly lovely anyway.

Solas is a brand new festival held at Wiston Lodge, near Biggar. It is inspired by Greenbelt festival. A few of us from Aoradh went down, and we did ’40’ again, and set a few worship/poetry things. The festival was fairly small- a few hundred attendees. It felt a bit like it was looking for itself a little- not quite sure where it was coming from, but definitely heading somewhere…

’40’ was a bit of a disaster. The organisers had allowed no set up time, and inevitably we had technical problems, which meant that the soundscapes did not work. Also the room was really noisy as the rock band playing outside the window drowned us out. The end result was that we got all hot and sweaty and nervous- with me running around trying to get the sound to work whilst also reading one of the parts!

I have since been in to hospital to have my buttocks surgically unclenched because of the severity of the embarrassment.

But the festival was good. Lots of great music, and interesting discussion. And it was really lovely to be with my friends in a new context- meeting some folk that we new, but also lots of others for the first time. This is the real value of festivals for me- the chance to meet people and allow new things to grow.

I enjoyed Yvonne Lyon as ever- and loved Juliet Turner too.

As for the talking- I enjoyed listening to Richard Holloway, retired bishop and author. He spoke really well about his appreciation of the wide wobbly spectrum of faith- from hard religion, through softer forms right through to militant atheism. Holloway himself appears to be wavering around a faith that does not require God- but remains grateful for the inherited traditions.

He also told a story about his early love of Mysticism, particularly the work of Thomas Merton. This love took him on a retreat where he sought to deepen his understanding of the search for God through contemplation and mystical experience. However it seems that things did not go well- and Richard Holloway remembers the Roman Catholic priest who was his spiritual director saying something like this- “Don’t be bloody stupid, you are never going to be a mystic- you are a writer. You need to worship with a pencil in your hand.” That made me smile ruefully!

I also listened to Labour MP Douglas Alexander, former Secretary of State for International Development. He was slick, but impressive- a future leader of the Party perhaps? Another son of the Manse who is destined for great things.

Michaela was impressed by Alistair McIntosh– unfortunately I missed most of his talk.

Here’s hoping that the festival survives in these rather challenging economic times. Lord knows, Scotland needs the opportunity to celebrate a different kind of religion…

One of the Aoradh crew uses crutches- she has Lupus, and like most people of faith who have long term illnesses, she has had a long journey in dealing with the God who heals, but has not healed her. Helen is a lovely optimistic person, who now sees each day as a gift from God, and does many things despite the pain that she gets when she moves, and the potential long recovery time afterwards. She arrived at the festival field, and within minutes a man came up to her and asked to ‘pray with her for healing’. She politely refused, explaining that this was something that she had kind of thought to do for herself over the years. We later laughed- but it was not funny really.

It was an insensitive thing to do, but what surprised me was that this kind of way of faith is present within a festival like Solas. It is a kind of faith that many of us have experienced in the past, but have been grateful to leave behind.

It is not fair to sum up a whole festival by this one encounter- after all, we are all capable of doing some daft stuff in the name of Jesus- and this man is probably a nice and well meaning bloke. However, I do think that is kind of sums up where we are in terms of developing new kinds of church in Scotland. New developments like Solas are small, fragile, and tend to be an amalgam of people with quite disparate views- who are forced together by expediency because ANY new Christian thing is worth being part of.

There is a danger that the ticking time bomb of doctrinal warfare is always about to explode.

I am sure that the organisers of Solas this year have had a rocky road.

Pray for them- and it.

Kenny MacAskill and the problem of justice…

This morning I have been surprised by the furore triggered by the release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi- the Libyan convicted of being the mastermind behind the terrorist bombing that brought down Pan Am flight 103 in 1988- Scotland’s worst ever air disaster.

The Scottish minister of Justice, Kenny MacAskill (who had ever heard of him before all this?) made a speech that I thought was rather wonderful (check out earlier post with video footage here.) He managed to be ponderous, prosaic and yet marvelous all at the same time in a way that only certain kinds of Scottish establishment figures can.

His actions have divided opinions across the world- and perhaps particularly across the Atlantic, with key figures from the Obama government expressing their disgust. As Megrahi walked off the plane back onto Libyan soil, the ecstatic hero’s welcome was difficult for all of us to stomach- particularly the waving of Scottish Saltires.

I heard Scottish first minister Alec Salmond being interviewed on radio 4 this morning- the interviewer fatuously asked him how he was going to repair the reputation and standing of Scotland in the world. Salmond replied that the Scottish reputation for the upholding of the rule of law had been enhanced. I think he was right.

But then I am a supporter. I support the release of this man, at the end of his life, who may or may not have been a scapegoat for a particularly shameful stain on the way countries carry out diplomacy in the wake of not one but two planes falling burning from the sky… As superpowers rattled sabres and played out oil driven power games vicariously, with one side backing Iran, and the other (led oh-s0 ironically by the USA) backing Iraq.

Some good friends of mine disagree- and do so for good, reasoned and considered reasons. One of them was a young policeman in 1988 sent to Lockerbie to be part of the clear up operation.

Some people who lost friends and family over Lockerbie also disagree. These voices seem the most important

This from a Guardian article- here.

American Susan Cohen, whose only child, 20-year-old Theodora, was one of 35 students from Syracuse University in New York on the flight, said any suggestion that Megrahi should be freed on compassionate grounds was “vile”.

Speaking from her home in New Jersey, she said: “Any letting out of Megrahi would be a disgrace. It makes me sick, and if there is a compassionate release then I think that is vile.

“It just shows that the power of oil money counts for more than justice. There have been so many attempts to let him off. It has to do with money and power and giving [Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar] Gaddafi what he wants. My feelings, as a victim, apparently count for nothing.”

She added: “This is just horrible. Compassion for him? How about compassion for my beautiful daughter? She deserves compassion, not a mass murderer.”

However, the view from victims relatives this side of the Atlantic seems more mixed…

Dr Jim Swire, who lost his 23-year-old daughter Flora, said it would be to Scotland‘s credit if the Libyan was released. “I am someone who does not believe he is guilty,” he said. “The sooner he is back with his family the better.

“On reasonable human grounds it is the right thing to do and if it’s true that he is to be returned on compassionate grounds then that would be more to Scotland’s credit than returning him under the prisoner transfer agreement.

“It would mean that he can go to his family who he adores and live the last of his days on this planet with them.”

Martin Cadman, who lost his son Bill, aged 32, in the disaster, agreed.

“I hope it is true as it’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time,” he said.

“I think he is innocent and even if he were not innocent I still think it’s certainly the right thing to do on compassionate grounds.”

The issue that I still find myself chewing on is this one- JUSTICE.

What is it, who delivers it, and in cases like this, is it ever entirely credible?

In the UK, we have been seeking after a fair judicial system for a long time. Scotland has perhaps the oldest and most developed system of justice in the western world. It is founded on the premise that Justice should be administered according to the law- separate from the influence of politicians, victims, or other societal interest groups. We might question whether this is possible, but the principle is one worth defending.

As a Christian, I have been very aware that there are two broad ways to understand what the Bible says about justice. One draws heavily on passages from the Old Testament, with its rigid unyielding laws, policed by the threat of judgment and death on those who offend a vengeful and jealous God. This kind of Justice seems to fit well a certain kind of right wing fundamentalist Christianity that has dominated American Politics.

Then there is the Jesus way. The impractical, impossible, even unjust kind of justice- that is based on compassion and love. The kind of justice that came not to destroy the rule of law, but to fulfill its original purpose- to transcend it and outstrip it with something more beautiful. We Agents of the Kingdom of God should be listening for the grace notes of the Spirit that echo at the edges of justice, because that is way that Jesus showed us.

But then, I hear you say, you can not base a criminal justice system on Matthew chapter 5. Turning the other cheek to terrorists? How ridiculous!

But somewhere, the lines of justice seeking and retribution- for chains of violence and oppression that stretch back for generations- somewhere there must me someone who is prepared to turn again from retribution and seek peace and healing. Otherwise we will all be blind and toothless.

It seems to be a surprise to even himself, but perhaps one of these people is Kenny MacAskill.

Check out this hard hitting piece by Kevin McKenna in todays Observer also!

As a last word, here Richard Holloway had this to say in an interesting piece digging into the J word here

Faced with a situation like this you can’t go both ways. He (Kenny MacAskill) made the harder decision, and I hope that even those who disagree with it will admire his courage. The whole area of punishment in human life is fraught with difficulty, which is why I’ve always wanted to listen to something the great poet and philosopher Geothe said: “beware of people in whom the sheer urge to punish is strong”. While we do need to punish there is something else in the human heart that should be as strong and that is mercy.