Positivism, despair and the Cross…

A while ago, I wrote a long piece about my (rather negative!) reaction to the dominance of positive thinking within our culture, and perhaps more particularly within our faith based structures.

My friends will smile. Michaela (sometimes known as Polyanna) is almost universally optimistic in our family- a bit like a cross between Christopher Robin and Tigger, and me- well let’s just say I can be a bit of a donkey! But I suppose that is the point. We live in a life of variety and fluidity. Life has this way of throwing in the unexpected- to bring huge joy, sometimes followed by terrible pain and loss. Our roads are long and there is blessing and holiness in all these things- wherever the journey takes us.

We should beware those voices who push us towards a view of life, and an understanding of God, that is based on relentless positivism. There lies a danger that we live our lives towards a kind of wish-fulfilment- a seductive philosophy/theology of success and power which undermines the core messages of the Gospel… and is very much at odds with the way of Jesus.

Equally we should beware the voices of gloom who counsel us that all is lost and the end is nigh. Too many lives are walled in by defeat and damage done by life- and for these people, the way of Jesus is to seek to be a chain breaker and a freedom maker. Some of this might involve the shift of mind-set towards embracing the possibility of change- that old sleight of hand trick called Cognitive behavioural Therapy that I have practiced in my mental health career. The dominance of this approach to almost every human problem is not without good sound reason- even if the cynic in me might also point to the economics of providing short term, focused, ‘one-size-fits-all’ kind of interventions.

I had two reminders of the issues discussed above this week. Firstly, Jonny Baker quoted some lovely writing by Ann Morisy in a discussion paper about mission.

Ann’s take on mission embraces both powerlessness, the eschewing of power AND the power of positive thinking. She cites Seligman, that great doyen of the American ‘self help’ movement. As I read her article I found myself saying YES….yes…(but)…

The YES was to some of these things (my emphasis)-

When we muster an intention to do things like Jesus, i.e. to follow Jesus – even in the most modest of ways – we arrive at the portal into the economy of abundance, where virtuous processes flow and grace cascades; By doing it like Jesus (even just a tad, and even just with the intention – because there is so much grace around) we trigger virtuous processes that gain momentum.

This relevance and transformational power of faith make it urgent to articulate and promote the resources at the heart of faithfulness that lead to human flourishing. And we need others to help us pass the test of public reason – it is not sufficient for our theologians or evangelists to simply assert the virtuous processes that faith sets in train.

The other article that interested me was a post reviewing this book on the Emergent Village blog.

I have not read the book (but it is now on order.)

Root asks the questions as to what a church would look like if it were based upon a theology of despair. He starts with Luther’s theology of the Cross– and suggests the church needs to reclaim a crucial piece of Luther’s insight, which he frames something like this-

God brings life and possibility out of death and impossibility.

I am taken back again to the Cross. To the point of absolute brokenness, failure and despair. To the point where all dreams ended, all hopes vanished and all future was stolen.

In my working life, I have met many people who are in this place. If our call is simply to tell them than in three days, there will be resurrection, and all things will be made new,  then we are in danger of dishonest dealing.

  • because it is not our cross
  • and we are not gifted with foresight
  • and because our voices will not be credible
  • and because those who are broken and in mourning are blessed

Something else that is crucial to me is the possibility that ‘God is to be found in the broken places. That he is made known in nothingness and death’.

Like the Navajo rug perfectly woven apart from one flaw, which allows entry of the Spirit.

And that healing comes most deeply not through a denial of pain- or it’s manipulation into insignificance- but rather through the transformation of discovering God within our difficulties and broken parts.