Theology for 5 year olds…

Pauline told a lovely story tonight in housegroup…

She was talking to her 5 year old grandson, and the conversation went something like this-

“Nana- you know that place that you go to when you die?”

Pauline thought for a while, and just to test his understanding asked “What place do you mean?”

“Heaven” said he.

“Oh yes” said Pauline- what about it?”

“Well, what about the other place?”

Now we have been talking a lot about the concept of hell- where it all come from, and what we might understand by this. The whole Zoroastrian import into Judaism, filtered through non-dual interpretations of the Bible, and bashed about by Evangelical fundamentalism.  It has left us with a lot of question marks (as discussed in a few recent posts!) but Pauline’s immediate problem was the immanent possibility of having to reproduce all this into some kind of meaningful story for a 5 year old.

She chickened out a little, and asked “What place do you mean?”

“That place where they put the dead bodies” he said.

At this point, Pauline was wondering exactly where he was going . “Do you mean the graveyard?” she asked.

“Yes” said he. “How can you go to heaven if they put soil on top of you?”

A question indeed to conjure with. Pauline’s answer, I think, was rather good. She asked him to think about the bit of him deep inside that looked outside- and suggested that this bit lived for ever, but only the outside bit goes into the ground.

“Oh” he said “So it is just all skin under the ground then?”

He’s got it thought Pauline. “I suppose so.” she said. But then he thought for a little while longer and added-

“And all the bones and things go up to heaven.”

Well it is all a bit of a mystery for all of us really…

Calvin on unbelief…

Quote of the day comes from a most unlikely source- John Calvin. Not my favourite source of inspiration I have to admit-

Here it is- with thanks to Fiona!

“The Godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness from the recognition of the divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from its calamity; partly rests upon the promise of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death.

This variation arises from the imperfection of faith, since in the course of this present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith.”

John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” book 3, chapter 2, paragraph 18

Bible nasties 2- the excuses…

Following on from my previous post, I have been thinking about what more recent theologians have made of these darker passages in the Bible- how have they been explained or discounted?

(N.B. Some of the themes echo previous discussions on this blog about suffering- see here for example.)

As far as I can see it, the apologetics have gone along these lines;

Firstly, there are those folk who seem to see God as red in tooth and claw-

God is a wrathful God, whose justice is sometimes swift and unpredictable.

His purposes and his focus are on eternal matters, not temporal ones- therefore any God-action (no matter how brutal) has to be understood in this context. Suffering is temporary- this life, for all of us, is all to short- but eternity is for ever. Therefore, some shock tactics in the cause of higher spiritual causes are a price worth paying.

Some people, regimes and religions are evil, and deserving of wrath. We only escape by the skin of our teeth- because of Jesus.

After all- he made us all. He designed the Universe about us- we belong to him, and he can do whatever he likes with us.

It is easy to dismiss these kind of theological statements out of hand. It is this sort of mindset that allows people to justify all sorts of activities in the name of God- wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing. Then there are those who suggest that tsunami’s are Gods way of sorting out Islamic nations, or that AIDS is a God-plague on homosexuality.

All of this was smashed forever (or should have been) by the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew chapter 5.

But then perhaps it is still for those of us that pendulum swing too far towards the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ to remember that the Lion of Judah is not a tame lion…

The next set of explanations people reach for are the spiritual/mystical ones-

There can be no good without the presence of evil- in the same way that there can be no light without darkness. How else can we make choices for good?

‘My ways are not your ways’ declares the Lord- how can we ever understand the mind of God?

We must focus on the big picture- the great cosmic clash of Angels and Demons that are at war in these, the last days.

The light and darkness bit makes sense I think- the choices we make are sometimes murky and ambiguous in their morality- but many others are much clearer in terms of what is right, and what is wrong. But many of the passages referred to in my earlier post appear to suggest that God himself is commanding, or assisting, acts that to our modern eyes appear evil. Almost as if God is himself capable of both good and evil?

I have little patience with the end times theorising of the ‘Left Behind‘ sort. But that is a whole different issue…

Next we have the structural/dispensational arguments-

Most of the passages described in in the first ‘Bible nasties’ post are from the Old Testament- at which point God was dealing with his people according to the old covenant– when God worked with and through his Chosen People, the Israelites.  This covenant was swept aside by the coming of a new one- brought by Jesus not just for the people of Israel, but for everyone.

Others, following on from John Nelson Darby have gone further, and argued that God has dealt with humanity in different ways over the years, which they divide into dispensations.

What this argument seems to suggest is that God used to be angry, vengeful and violent, but then he cleaned up his act. He used to act out of anger, but now he favours mercy. He used to be jealous, but now he relaxes into love.

Is this the same God? This argument does not hang together for me.

Then there is the liberal/ intellectualist excuse-

God is simply not an interventionist God at all. Sure, he started it all off in Creation, but then pretty much he stepped back and let the whole thing unfold, with a few nudges here and there from the prophets, and finally by sending Jesus as a last gasp hope to sort out his errant creation. The Bible itself is mostly myth and manipulation by previous religious leaders- and it’s application now has to be understood through our own intellect and understanding.

But what sort of faithless faith is this? And what of our experience of a God who is present, and incarnated in us, almost despite what we often are?

Here was see for the first time an attack on our primary theological source material- the Bible itself. Is it ‘true’? What does truth mean when applied to such ancient scriptures? More on this later…

Ponder onwards friends.

Bible nasties…

The Christian tradition that I grew up into stood firmly in the way of the Book.

Our understanding of faith was often reduced to an understanding of the Bible. We prided ourselves on taking it in whole- unaltered, un doubted, seamless, without contraction or error.

Except of course, the longer I have walked this path, the more I have struggled with this blinkered and partisan view of the Bible. It has been a regular theme on thisfragiletent– as I have returned again and again to chew on the words and the Word.

The position I start from these days is one of wonder and respect for the ancient writings, shadowed with other things- I do not doubt the inspiration or the revelation they contain, but what I thought I knew about the Book, I often find myself now not knowing. I find myself full of questions, to which there are often only more questions, rather than answers. For a while this seemed like a crisis of my very faith, but then became the very life of my faith- the adventure with God could begin anew.

One of the things I had to confront was the realisation that all those lovely life affirming and loving passages of the Bible that I know and love are not all that the Book contains. Rather there is much that greatly troubles me. To ignore (or at best to minimise) these passages is simply not honest. To claim that they are part of God’s plan- that all this death and suffering fits together in an organised whole- it lacks integrity with the way of Jesus- or so it seems to me.

To illustrate, here are twenty examples-

  1. God drowns the whole earth.
    In Genesis 7:21–23, God drowns the entire population of the earth: men, women, children,. Only a single family survives. In Matthew 24:37–42, Jesus appears to approve of this genocide and even to say it will be repeated when he returns.
  2. God kills half a million people.
    In 2 Chronicles 13:15–18, God helps the men of Judah kill 500,000 of their fellow Israelites.
  3. God slaughters all Egyptian firstborn.
    In Exodus 12:29, God kills all Egyptian firstborn children and cattle because their king was stubborn.
  4. God kills 14,000 people for complaining that God keeps killing them.
    In Numbers 16:41–49, the Israelites complain that God is killing too many of them. So, God sends a plague that kills 14,000 more of them.
  5. Genocide after genocide after genocide.
    In Joshua 6:20–21, God helps the Israelites destroy Jericho, killing “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” In Deuteronomy 2:32–35, God has the Israelites kill everyone in Heshbon, including children, and plunder the country. In Deuteronomy 3:3–7, God has the Israelites do the same to the people of Bashan. In Numbers 31:7–18, the Israelites kill all the Midianites except for the virgins, whom they take as spoils of war. In 1 Samuel 15:1–9, God tells the Israelites to kill all the Amalekites—men, women, children, infants, and their cattle—for something the Amalekites’ ancestors had done 400 years ago.
  6. God kills 50,000 people for curiosity.
    In 1 Samuel 6:19, God kills 50,000 men for peeking into the ark of the covenant.
  7. 3,000 Israelites killed for inventing a god.
    In Exodus 32, Moses has climbed Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments. The Israelites are left with too much time to wonder, so they invent a golden calf god. Moses comes back and God commands him: “Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.” About 3,000 people died.
  8. Amorites destroyed by sword and God’s rocks.
    In Joshua 10:10–11, God helps the Israelites slaughter the Amorites by sword, then finishes them off with rocks from the sky.
  9. God burns two cities to death.
    In Genesis 19:24, God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from the sky. Then God kills Lot’s wife for looking back at her burning home.
  10. God has 42 children mauled by bears.
    In 2 Kings 2:23–24, some kids tease the prophet Elisha, and God sends bears to maul them.
  11. A tribe slaughtered and their virgins raped for not showing up at roll call.
    In Judges 21:1–23, a tribe of Israelites misses roll call, so the other Israelites kill them all except for the virgins, which they take for themselves. Still not happy, they hide in vineyards and pounce on dancing women from Shiloh to take them for themselves.
  12. 3,000 crushed to death.
    In Judges 16:27–30, God gives Samson strength to bring down a building to crush 3,000 members of a rival tribe.
  13. A concubine raped and dismembered.
    In Judges 19:22–29, a mob demands to rape a godly master’s guest. The master offers his daughter and a concubine to them instead. They take the concubine and gang-rape her all night. The master finds her on his doorstep in the morning, cuts her into 12 pieces, and send the pieces around the country.
  14. Child sacrifice.
    In Judges 11:30–39, Jephthah burns his daughter alive as a sacrificial offering for God’s favor in killing the Ammonites. We remember the mercy God showed to Abraham and Isaac, but forget this one.
  15. God helps Samson kill 30 men because he lost a bet.
    In Judges 14:11–19, Samson loses a bet for 30 sets of clothes. The spirit of God comes upon him and he kills 30 men to steal their clothes and pay off the debt.
  16. God demands you kill your wife and children for worshipping other gods.
    In Deuteronomy 13:6–10, God commands that you must kill your wife, children, brother, and friend if they worship other gods.
  17. God incinerates 51 men to make a point.
    In 2 Kings 1:9–10, Elijah gets God to burn 51 men with fire from heaven to prove he is God.
  18. God kills a man for not impregnating his brother’s wife.
    In Genesis 38:9–10, God kills a man for refusing to impregnate his brother’s wife.
  19. God threatens forced cannibalism.
    In Leviticus 26:27–29 and Jeremiah 19:9, God threatens to punish the Israelites by making them eat their own children.
  20. The coming slaughter.
    According to Revelation 9:7–19, God’s got more evil coming. God will make horse-like locusts with human heads and scorpion tails, who torture people for 5 months. Then some angels will kill a third of the earth’s population. If he came today, that would be 2billion people.
Over the next few weeks, I will spend some time thinking about this a little more- considering again what we might make of these passages.
Reclaiming the Bible for what it is, not for what it never was.
Or at least trying to- I stand in a long tradition of others who have done the same.

Interfaith dialogue…

Last night we had a discussion in housegroup lovely local person who is an interfaith minister. It was a chance to meet and share our perspectives, which is always such a blessing.

Check out this clip if you want to know more about the idea of interfaith ministry-

Carolyn spoke movingly of her journey through growing up in the Church of Scotland, through working with Buddhist nuns in India, and the deep spirituality she found in the practice of Yoga. She described her experience of feeling that her spirituality was being simplified and reduced to a kind of pure essence- and how she came to believe that this essence flowed through all the different religious traditions.

If you are interested in some of the services/ceremonies that Carolyn provides, she has a website, here.

I have written before about my own encounters with the concept of universalism (here and here for example. Check out the words of the George Matheson hymn in the second of these two posts.)

Last night was a chance to reflect again on what is precious to me about the faith I have found- and to do this in a spirit of generosity and openness towards other perspectives. I believe that we have nothing to fear and lots to gain from these opportunities.

Truth sets us free- it should never lock us up into theological defensive castelations. I have spent too long behind these kind of walls. Let us celebrate what we have in common, and allow our easy assumptions to be challenged by people who look from a different angle.

So here are a few of my thoughts emerging from our discussion last night- they are not intended as a critique of Carolyn’s position in any way- more a little internal mastication of my own…

Jesus. He is the personification of all that I follow. Despite all the baggage that his followers have accrued over the years, he remains the best of what we aspire to be- for both Christians and people of other faiths.

Inherited tradition. We stand on the platform built for us by people of faith that went before. And although it is right to question and wrestle with this, it is also wise to respect it, and allow it to become a means by which God shapes us and reaches for us, as we reach for him.

Simplification/deconstruction. This has been the story of my own faith journey over the last few years. For a while I seemed to be questioning everything. But I have come to believe that our theological constructs are vehicles of faith– at their best, they are ways of travelling towards (and with) God. None of them are perfect- but what use is a car with no wheels? Spanners tighten nuts as well was remove them.

Individualism. I think that we each have the right to seek out truth for ourselves- but I also believe that we always do this in community. Our faith develops through enlightenment and inspiration, but also through discussion, shared celebration, teaching and modelling by others. I am interested perhaps most in small theologies, worked out in community, in respectful criticism of the big theologies that we inherit.

Sacrifice. At the heart of the Christian tradition is the concept of sacrificial living- a life that finds purpose in serving others. Jesus constantly challenges us to reject faith is that becomes self centred. The kind of faith that is overly concerned with self actuation, self-fulfilment and personal health and healing. These things might be by products of living the Jesus way (or they might not) but they are never the object.

Difference. We had a discussion last night about the essence of faith- which for Carolyn, and perhaps for me too, is a matter of the heart, not the head. But we humans are so different- our personalities, our gender, our education, our culture- these all skew and influence the way that we explore the concept of the divine. We spoke a little too about the gender difference- how the sorts of soft spiritualities that we had in common tend to alienate men. I think that we need both and- and that we need to trust in a God who reaches for us through many different media.

Lots of questions remain for me- I think they always will. All the business of whether or not God does indeed reveal himself through different religious traditions. The implications of this for our scripture, our theology and our eschatology.

I am determined to remain open, generous and reflective- and this means being prepared to be wrong– both in terms of what I stand on now, and what I might move towards in the future. How else are we to be real pilgrims?

But equally, I remain a follower of Jesus. This is the starting point for me for any adventure.

The rest is up to the Spirit within all of us…

Ways of reading the Bible…

Some time ago, I posted some questions about how we understand and encounter the Bible. Someone asked me to post some answers to my questions, so I had a go at this here.

It has been quite a journey for me over the last few years- trying to come to terms with a faith that I no longer had faith in, and then discovering along the way that I was not alone, and that there were different ways to approach an understanding of God, and in particular, different ways to approach our primary source material on the life of faith- the Bible.

This process has been painful, and at times I have wondered whether my faith will survive. But the outcome has been one of renewal. The Spirit of God was once again stirring the waters…

The process of change has involved a period deconstruction- a doubting and shaking loose things that had previously seemed unassailable and absolute. This is the painful bit- when everything seems to go into freefall.

The ’emerging church conversation’- carried out largely through blogs and websites- seemed to me to be comfortable with unanswered questions. In fact after every truth and every tenet, we added a question mark.

But then there comes a time when something new starts to emerge and it is time to construct again. It feels to me that this is where we currently stand. We do not need bombastic pronunciations or new religious structures- rather it feels that our heads have come out of the clouds, and we can see further.

Along the way, I have found Brian McLaren’s writing to be a life giving. I know others have a different experience- for some his style can drag, for others his aim is too low brow, as the are more used to the theological arguments than I am- but he has taken me places that I had not dared to go alone.

(Photo taken in a semi-ruined abandoned croft house on the island of Bernera, off Lewis, Western isles. A family bible left open above an empty fire place…)

In reading his new book (slowly and in small chunks) I came across a study guide he had written, which focussed on different ways of reading scripture, and found it so helpful that I wanted to give it a plug.

You can download it here.

But here are a few highlights-

We have been shaken loose from our previous ways of reading the Bible- the ‘modern’ way- which seemed to be all about using the text as a blueprint so that we can categorise and systematise faith. McLaren compares this to the ways that the Americans use their constitution- where each word is given equal legal weight, and is enforceable in a way divorced from emotion or wider ethical considerations.

But having shaken loose- what other ways of reading the Bible are left?

McLaren lists 14 possible ways of encountering Scripture-

  1. Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.

  2. Converstional reading- where we engage with the different conversations across the generations embraced in the Bible- for example Jesus with the religious powers of his day, the Priests and the Prophets, the Jews and the Gentiles.

  3. Missional reading- in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending God’s overarching mission of blessing all nations through a called and commissioned community of people.

  4. Political/Economic reading- the skew of God’s attention towards those who suffer injustice at the hands of earthly empire involving money, sexuality, power, violence, and law.

  5. Rhetorical reading- in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.

  6. Literal reading- “…when readers of the Bible develop sensitivity to the ways poets, protesters, storytellers, activists, priests and mystics use language, the Bible is liberated from its constitutional captivity to be the wild, inspired, and impassioned collection of literary artifacts that it is.” McLaren suggests that people who say they are taking the words literally often are doing the very opposite- approaching the test through a very narrow hermeneutic.

  7. Close reading- better readings of scripture will fit in with the small details of the narrative- the bits that we easily miss that the writer chose to include in the text, which is rich in culture and traditions that we easily miss.

  8. Communal reading- the Bible is complex and hard, and the only way we can really engage with it is through the broader community- firstly in terms of “the community of the dead” where we listen respectfully to how previous generations have understood scripture, whilst understanding their skew towards a western, wealthy, white, male perspective. Secondly we look for the voices of minorities- those who have been forced to the margins. It is not ONE perspective, but rather both/and.

  9. Recursive reading- understanding of the Bible, and emphases within it change, ebb and flow across generations, and within lifetimes. This might be one of the ways that the Holy Spirit brings renewal.

  10. Ethical reading- text applied without ethics have allowed our faith to justify slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and gay people- therefore we have to accept that interpretation is a MORAL ACT, so we should test an interpretation by reason and scholarship,using our rational intelligence, and a sense of justice and ethics. How might I treat people if I follow this interpretation? Whom might I harm? What unintended socialconsequences can we predict if this interpretation is widely embraced? Could people be vilified, harmed, or even killed because of this interpretation? McLaren points to those in Scripture who have wrestled with God in the face of his seeming injustice… Job, Moses, Abraham.

  11. Personal reading- “the reader is himself or herself in the predicament the text addresses. So faithful readings are habitually humble, expectant, open, and hungry and thirsty to encounter the Living God. Even the “professional” reader and teacher of the Bible must remain forever an “amateur” too …”

  12. Mystical reading- we must “…develop the habit of mystical openness, receptivity not only to understanding from the text but to enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, not only to interpretation but to revelation, not only to intelligent engagement with the text but also to personal abduction by its message.”


Finally McLaren points to one further reading, and makes clear that he believes this one to be the most controversial of his readings.

It is the one that might make people worry about the undermining of Biblical authority

Christo-focal reading

McLaren proposes that we no longer approach the Bible as a collection of words of equal weight- but rather that we approach all other words through those of Jesus.

He suggests we need to leave behind three old ways of reading the Bible that have perhaps dominated-

  1. Flat reading- where we see all Jesus’ life and words pressed down and flattened to the same level as those of Abraham, Moses,David, Isaiah, Paul, and Jude. This results in the raising of the Bible above Christ- which is a kind of idolatry. For example, it might be biblical to commit genocide by quoting Deuteronomy 7, but one could never claim it is Christ-like.
  2. Descending reading- where we start with an ideal state in Genesis, and then it all goes wrong, leading to a time when God is going to destroy everything, and Jesus is but a lifeboat for a few. Or the other decent comes from the fall too- “the problem is sin and the solution is law-keeping, with sacrifice-making as a back-up plan. The rest of the story descends from this high point, so that the life and ministry of Jesus have value to the degree that they solve the problem.”
  3. Ascending reading- “Moses’ teaching was good, David’s perspectives were better, Isaiah rosehigher still, John the Baptist ascended even higher, and Jesus was really wonderful andunique, but the crowning revelation comes with Paul and his writings.”

What McLaren proposes is something more radical- “When Jesus is the focal point of the story, he is the climax, the hero, the summit, the surprise, the shock, the revelation that gives all that precedes and all that follows profound and ultimate meaning. If we follow this approach, we’ll speak less about the Bible as the supreme Word of God and more about Jesus as the supreme Word of God. We’ll let the person of Jesus –including and integrating his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, abiding presence, and ongoing mission through the Holy Spirit – become the light in which all interpretations are evaluated, the key in which all interpretations are played, the leader behind which all interpretations arrange themselves as followers, and the meaning in which all interpretations have meaning.”

If we start to apply these ways of reading the Bible, how might our understandings change?

This my friends, is our work-in-progress…

Richard Rohr on Dualism…

My friend Maggie sent me a link to a quote from Richard Rohr the other day. We are both looking forward to hearing him speak at Greenbelt Festival in a couple of weeks.

(Yikes- a couple of weeks! Aoradh are doing various things at GB, and we have a lot of work to do before we will be ready!)

Anyway, the quote tapped into the theme of dualism- which I mentioned before- here, and has also been a central idea in McLaren’s recent book


As applied to theological understanding, this debate goes something like this-

Western civilisation has been hugely influenced by Greek philosophy, and in particular the work of Plato.

This is not a new idea- I have been in a number of emerging church discussions that have highlighted the contrast between the philosophy of the ancient Hebrews with the potential skew in perspective that comes from wearing our Western Platonic goggles. But it is an idea that appears to have become increasingly important as we seek to re-engage with the ancient scriptures, and as some of the core tenets of our faith are being reshaped.

Plato (in contrast to the polar opposite- you could say ‘dual-‘ position of Aristotle) regarded all that was of the earth as temporary, worthless- a mere shadow of the ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is not material- it is the essence behind the fumbling form and shape we humans give to things.

The end result was a culture skewed towards division. Enlightened thinkers tended to view the world as made up of the profane, and the sacred. The sacred was unchanging ultimate reality, whilst the profane was changing, shifting, worthless.

The tendency to divide every subject into two seems to have been pervasive- left/right, good/bad. evangelical/liberal etc- the dualities multiply and abound.

As these ideas mingled with the founders of the early church- who after all were at the centre of the Greek/Roman world that embodied this dualism in terms of their philosophy and origins- then it potentially had some powerful effects on religious thinking-

  • The sense of the material world being of lesser importance than the ultimate reality of an orderly, dispassionate unchanging God.
  • The resultant need to focus on winning souls, as a priority over any other religious activity.
  • The in-out stuff- the us and them stuff. We are enlightened and saved- you are not.
  • Enlightenment means becoming aware of our imperfection, set alongside the perfectness of God.
  • In the creation of this ‘ideal state’- a Christian version of Pax Romana– it is only citizens who count- only people who have converted.
  • And in return, Christians can confidently expect prosperity and blessing commensurate with being a citizen of this ideal kingdom.

The interesting and difficult question that McLaren is suggesting that we need to ask in ‘A new kind of Christianity’ is about considering the faith of the Ancient Hebrews- their understanding of God. He (and others) propose that this Ancient Hebrew God was very different from ours.

For a start, many of the simple dualities that we take for granted are challenged by the stories of the Old Testament.

  • This God is not unchanging- but appears to be persuaded, and is willing to engage with the most gritty earth bound issues in way that can only suggest wild and uncontained passion.
  • Winning souls or converts is simply not an issue. The Jewish people appeared to have no idea of heaven or hell- but rather were to be a source of blessing to others in the here and now.
  • They were a people set apart- but not in the idealised sense. Rather they had a difficult and tortuous relationship with their identity and calling- constantly getting caught up in becoming too superior, too big for their boots, too independent and self sufficient.
  • There does not seem to have been the same ideal of ‘perfection’ either. God was unknowable, unfathomable, mysterious. His ways were not orderly and predictable- and so engagement with him was dangerous. Purity was about keeping laws, about living a communal routine governed by festivals and ritualised repentance/sacrifice. In this context, there was not a simple dual version of saved/unsaved- rather a process of engagement and belonging to community.
  • The Hebrews saw themselves as the ‘Children of God’, and as such were a Holy Nation, belonging to God. But they constantly incurred the wrath of God through their lack of respect of the ‘other’, the aliens in their midst. There was also a lot of war making and slaughter apparently commanded by God, which is frankly confusing and difficult to understand, and fit poorly with the words of Jesus.
  • Finally the Hebrews clearly looked to God to be the source of their prosperity and nationhood. But it did not end well did it? The succession of advancements and cataclysmic downturns that categorise the history of the nation of Israel might suggest that God is not interested solely in national or even local prosperity- that this can never be commanded, or guaranteed through orthopraxy.

Back to the Rohr Quote-

Jesus’ teaching on moral equivalency between himself and God and everybody else includes the neighbour, the outsider, the foreigner, the Gentile, the sinner, and finally, the enemy.  This is total non-dualistic thinking.  It was from this level of non-dual thinking that we find Jesus finally saying in John 17:21- 22:  “Father, may they be one.  May they be one in us as you are in me and I am in you.”Jesus lived his human life inside of a unitive consciousness, and yet he could make use of the dualistic mind to make clear distinctions, as well. (“You cannot serve both God and Mammon” [Matthew 6:24].)  And this, too, is the goal for all of us: unitive (non-dual) consciousness is the only way to deal with the big issues like God, love, suffering, death, and infinity.  But then we can revert to dualistic consciousness to make practical decisions about turning left or right, or whether to buy apples or oranges.

Adapted from Experiencing the Naked Now (webcast)

A new kind of Christianity…

I finally got round to ordering a copy of this book today.

I have found McLaren’s remarkable writing transformative to my own understanding of faith for a number of years. I very much appreciate his willingness to be radical and controversial in his theological thinking, whilst remaining humble and graceful in his response to the tirade of abuse he has been subjected to.

However, I have found myself avoiding this book. Perhaps because I wonder if he is really saying anything new- all the reviews seem to suggest that it is a gathering together of ideas he has been developing in his previous writing. As I read the ’10 questions that are transforming the faith’ I suspect I know what his answers will be, more or less.

To be honest, the hype around the release of the book repelled me a little too…

But then again- perhaps this shows just how much the theological landscape has shifted over the past 10 years. Questions that would once have been as welcome as a trump in a spacesuit are now increasingly part of a the popularist mainstream.

Does this mean that we are seeing the development of a new kind of Christianity?

I am not sure. I hope so though.

In the meantime- I am going to read the book…

By the way- you can watch 10 videos and download study material for group discussions around the themes raised in the book from The Ooze.

Here is a taster- on that difficult questions of relationships with other faiths…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “A New Kind Of Christian- Brian McLare…“, posted with vodpod

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…