Talking about God

What follows is a copy of an exchange between myself and Henry Neufeld (proprietor of Energion Publications, inter alia) in The Religion Forum. My original questions are paraphrased from “Living the Questions” and, I believe, emanate from John Dominic Crossan; these are in turquoise; Henry’s responses are in Magenta.

H>> Because I’m editing a book titled Philosophy for Believers, and the chapter I’m working on is titled “Aristotle’s Akrasia and Self-Deception” I figured that due to akrasia I would act against my better judgment and answer your questions.

1. What is the character of your God (when you think about God, what are you imagining)?

H>> Like you, I regard God as largely unknowable. If I’m tense about the definition of “knowledge” I would have to say “unknowable.” That which cannot be demonstrated cannot be properly said to be known.

I like to remember that “know” and “understand” are close to “comprehend”, which has a secondary meaning of “include”, and that underlines to us that both know and understand ultimately require us to observe from a larger framework that the thing being described (for example to compare and contrast). And there is no such framework…

H>> But more than this, I would take two different routes to imagining God. The first is more philosophical. It is to call God “the ground of all being.” This is the conviction, perhaps, that the sensible universe isn’t up to self existence, so there must be something else. I do not regard this as a proof or demonstration. It is quite possible to attribute the self-existence I attribute to God as ground of all being to the sensible universe as well. I’m not entirely sure that the difference between those two approaches actually matters. In addition, calling this the ground of all being does not necessarily lead to the Christian God or any other kind of defined God.

Which could merely be the principle I expressed previously being applied to the universe 😉 In describing “universe” we require an hypothetical framework larger than the universe, in which the universe is just one element. For the mathematical physicist, therefore, God could be a necessary but not necessarily real concept.

I’m currently playing with a possible description of God as “the ground of all meaningfulness” myself.

H>> The other way I think about God is through the view of spiritual experience. Here, of course, I cannot demonstrate that what I experience results from an external cause of any kind. Nonetheless I have my experience. I relate my experience to yours, and I view this experience through the tradition in which I was brought up, which I abandoned and then reappropriated. It’s language works for me. And yes, I treat Christian Scripture as the collected experience of God  by the people within that tradition.

As do I. Yes, the language works fairly well for those who are fluent in it (and better if they do not mistake the terms in it for scientific ones <g>). We are able better to communicate, to share this type of experience through the use of such language (including concept-structures) and, I think, to ascertain that there is essentially one experience which is shared, rather than different experiences which can be successfully contrasted and categorised. Further, this may enable us more fully to appreciate our own experiences by being better able to describe them to ourselves.

2. What is the content of your faith (what do you believe in – merely to say you have faith is not sufficient, as Al-Quaeda have faith…)?

H>> The content of my faith is, in fact, the God that I experience. I express this in Christian language. I know that I have the experience, but I cannot demonstrate this. The number of doctrines I believe about God is very small, because I am constantly noticing that there are others who disagree with me on many, many details, who also experience God. While they differ with me on many things, I can recognize (or believe) that we are talking about one thing in different words. One of the most profoundly spiritual people I ever met was a Muslim Imam. I spent time studying with him and was tremendously impressed. We were able to connect on many points. The single most profound extended spiritual experience of my life came from studying a commentary on Leviticus written by a conservative Rabbi, Jacob Milgrom.

Do I come to believe additional things based on this experience? Certainly I do. There is a certain non-rational realm of my existence and thinking. I am frequently told by atheist or agnostic friends that I am a very reasonable person, but that I have failed to go all the way, that my rationality breaks down at a certain point. They are indeed correct. Well, I’m not always that reasonable, but I do go beyond what is rationally demonstrable.

You may enjoy my recent blogpost on the Heresy of all Doctrines <g> Here, I agree with you pretty much completely; I can share experience with people of many different faith traditions and see them to be in essence one, but do need either to adopt the language and concept structure of one of us or to negotiate a common language and concept structure (and commonly the language of “scientific rationalist” is not a very conducive means of expression <g>).

Personally, I’m not convinced that I have in fact failed to go all the way; I’m confident that the language of “scientific rationalist” is not an adequately communicative, complete and clear way of describing the whole of my experience (or that of others), and the languages of mathematics and symbolic logic are subsets of that and less adequate, although more powerful in their allocated fields. I have, at least, gone as far as the current limitations of my language, concept structures and intellect allow. I think, subject to correction.

3. What is the function of your church (for which read any religious or spiritual organised group)? (What are you coming together for? “Worship” is not an adequate answer)

H>> Community in all its aspects. More specifically, for me the church is the vehicle through which I can serve. In choosing a church I will be looking for a community impact and how I can be a part of that. This is witnessing, in my view.

The commandments being to love God and to love your neighbour, both can be practiced by yourself, but both are in many ways more productively practiced in common with others (helping your neighbour clearly gains in all sorts of ways from being done communally).

Loving God, understanding and appreciating God, comes more readily from witnessing to and sharing with others, and through discussion, debate and the refining of concepts. To me, at least.

4. What is the purpose of your worship (or other spiritual practice)? (How does God want to be worshipped? Is prayer important, and why?)

H>> The purpose of worship, as in a worship service, in my view, is the connection with God. In other words, I want to experience God’s presence and get the encouragement and strength that gives me. In prayer, I am doing this apart from the broader community, but the purpose of prayer is communion with God, not getting God to do some things that I decide God ought to do.

Nonetheless, I don’t like the structure of the question, because I believe that for one connected with God, all right action and all seeking is worship. So I worship by thinking, I worship by sharing, I worship by writing, and I worship by serving in any way. The worship service in which I seek the experience of God is really a minor part of what I would call worship. My personal time of prayer is also a minor part. It is when I am no longer on my knees that I truly enter into the worship God intends.

I agree with you about prayer, though for me prayer is also about better knowing myself in the context of my relationship with God.

I particularly like you talking of worshipping by doing things which might not normally be regarded as worship; insofar as it is done conscious of a desire to do what is pleasing to God, what is not worship?

H>> Those are my imaginings. If I expressed them in a totally Christian context, you would hear much more Christian vocabulary. That’s our shared experience and symbolism. Here I try to distill the essence.

I did post it in Interfaith <g>

Sometimes, though, I think the use of Christian vocabulary conceals rather than elucidates; we use words without really considering what they mean.

No gnosis?

I wonder how many of us have paused to consider that we might be Gnostics?

Many people have never heard of Gnosticism; some have come across the description “The Gnostic Gospels” to describe the documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945; not translated into English until 1975, they have become famous mostly for having the first complete text of the Gospel of Thomas. Others have come across reference to the second century bishop Irenaeus who inveighed against Gnosticism and whose works are now the best source for the contents of many lost “Gnostic” books. Some recall that Simon Magus (mentioned in Acts 8:9-24) was called a Gnostic by Irenaeus and Justin Martyr; others recall that the Albigensians or Cathars who were wiped out by the Albigensian Crusade of 1208-1321 were Christian Gnostics.

So what is Gnosticism?

The roots of Gnosticism seem to lie in Neoplatonic philosophy, in Zoroastrian dualism and in Merkabah mysticism. It is difficult to describe Gnosticism completely accurately, as there have over the last two thousand years and more been many “Gnostic” groups, the traditions of which have varied; some argue that all of these are merely offshoots of a much older secret tradition.

However, classically, Gnosticism had first the characteristic that salvation (or personal fulfilment) comes from esoteric or intuitive knowledge; secret teachings and/or personal revelations. Commonly the esoteric aspect involved the reading of works of scripture using a key to symbolism which unlocked a completely different meaning from that gleaned from a straightforward reading. These concepts are commonly linked to the words “Logos” and “Sophia”. This also led to a tendency to reject central authority in favour of individual understandings.

Secondly it was normally dualist, and postulated a remote “true deity” from which came emanations; a more proximate emanation from that deity, the demiurge, was commonly regarded as the actual creator and was commonly regarded as evil, sometimes identified with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, sometimes with the Devil or Satan.

Thirdly, Gnostics were either seriously ascetic or completely self-indulgent; in either case this flowed from a contempt for the irredeemably flawed material world; for them the unseen higher world of spirit was pure and true, the material world was debased and valueless.

Fourthly, Gnostics had a huge tendency to produce extremely variant readings of passages of scripture, sometimes diametrically opposed to the overt reading. This was particularly irritating to the early Church, because Gnostics could nod and agree to things which they actually interpreted completely differently from the expected way. Much as Conservative and Historical-Critical Bible scholars end up with completely different readings…

The works of the New Testament may well already display Gnostic thinking. In particular, Mark refers to keeping teachings secret and to additional secret teachings, the Fourth Gospel starts with a completely emanationist prologue and continues with a theology drawn from Philo of Alexandria with an emphasis on Logos and Sophia. Paul certainly talks of levels of understanding, outer and inner knowledge, and talks of Christ living in him, which plays to concepts of gnosis.

Irenaeus wrote the first major Christian attack on Gnosticism, commonly called “Adversus Haereses”, otherwise “On the detection and overthrow of the so-called Gnosis” in around 180. There have been multiple attacks by the Church since then on people identified as Gnostics – the Valentinians, the Bogomils and the Albigensians are obvious candidates. Most of these have involved major persecution.

Now I have a degree of sympathy for the Gnostics over the ages, not least because the Church has tended to anathematise, kill and massacre them while the alleged Gnostics have normally merely tried to spread their beliefs. Their characterisation of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the evil demiurge is entirely understandable to me; a vengeful and capricious tyrant with no native mercy unless persuaded by prophets of his chosen people is an entirely justifiable natural reading of much of those scriptures, and it seems to me that some relic of that spreads to the Reformed image of a God unable to exercise mercy without the bloody and painful sacrifice (possibly self-sacrifice) of his son and then condemning to eternal torment all those who for whatever reason are unwilling or unable to accept that this is what the true nature of God is.

It is wholly unsurprising to me that this image gives rise to Satanist Gnosticism which sees this God, the God of Christian fundamentalists, as evil incarnate, and the adversary, haSatan or Lucifer the light-bringer, as the true lord to be followed and revered. I understand them, but I cannot be one of them, as I think this image is completely flawed. However, were the fundamentalists to convince me that their vision were true, I would have to be a Satanist. I would have to join the opposition to this tyrannical monster.

However, who now is the Gnostic? It seems to me that all of the Protestant denominations have a Gnostic flavour, as all espouse the individual’s relationship with God, i.e. personal relationship (scripture alone, interpreted by the individual) rather than central authority. Further, the evangelical and Pentecostal strains now prominent emphasise personal experience, which goes further down this path.

None say that scripture is sufficient without external guidance – yes, I know we Protestants supposedly hold to “sola scriptura”, but every Protestant I talk with refers to interpretational authorities against what I consider a natural reading; this is an esoteric knowledge. So it’s Gnostic. Catholics rely on the Pope, who relies on theologians, which is also esoteric knowledge. So it’s Gnostic.

The reinterpretation of the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures as a mere source of prophecy of Christ is, let’s face it, completely Gnostic – Judaism doesn’t interpret it that way. You need the esoteric key to do that…

The dismissal of the whole of the covenantal relationship with Israel evidenced by the Hebrew Scriptures as, effectively, a failed experiment plays to the image of the God of Judaism as a demiurge. OK, it also makes out God to be a lot less than omniscient and omnipotent – rather a bungler, in fact. But then, so does the doctrine of “original sin”, so denigration of the deity is apparently de rigeur in modern conservative Christianity. He seems reduced to something less than God – oh, yes, a demiurge.

Are we, therefore, all Gnostic now?  Well no, I don’t think so. I think historical-critical scholarship makes clear the developing understanding of God in scripture, I think historical-mythological scholarship gives us a better way of interpreting scripture, I think there is no substitute for personal experience of God through the presence of Christ in us, through the coming of the Holy Spirit upon us. I think we cannot have anyone else’s experience; you cannot have mine, I cannot have yours. Neither of us can have Pope Francis’.  Or Luther’s, or Calvin’s*.  Or, indeed, that of Jesus.

I think all of us can learn from each others’ experiences as we can translate those into human concepts, into human words. But those words are not the experience, our relationship with God is just that, unmediated (except perhaps in the beginning), direct and transforming.

Let us be transformed together.

Not perfect yet

In conversation with an atheist friend last night, I found him taking something of the same position as an old internet forum adversary has been taking recently, only much more politely. He wondered how I could possibly be a Christian, the adversary is given to loudly proclaiming that I’m not a Christian (and, commonly, that I’m a dangerous subversive serving “another God”, by which I anticipate that as he’s a t least a token monotheist, he must mean the Devil).

So there we have it. If atheist and somewhat strange fundamentalist both think I’m not a Christian, I’m probably getting something right…

I suppose the first thing to say is that I don’t believe in any doctrinal statement as an absolute at all. As per my “The Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think it necessary not to believe in any of them absolutely, even if as a scientific rationalist (at least in one of my internal personae) I also have to believe that they are all theories and are therefore falsifiable.

I do not have a similar problem with an emotional commitment of love and trust in God, for which the historical word is “Faith”. Nor do I have that problem with Jesus, insofar as he is still a viable object of love distinguishable from God. I can, therefore, comfortably declare my devotion to and following of the way of Jesus insofar as I can, and my faith in God, my love of and trust in God. I can also declare a pervading consciousness of the presence of God, sometimes massively heightened in which case I can use the words “filled with the Holy Spirit” comfortably.

But I don’t believe in a physical resurrection on the third day (technically I remain open to conviction, but it’s vanishingly unlikely I could be persuaded, particularly as I have myself in the past felt a tangible apparition). I don’t need to; Jesus returned and continues to be with his followers in every way which matters to me without the need for something I can only see as “zombie Jesus” shambling around and walking through walls for an indeterminate period after death.

I don’t believe in an afterlife in the sense that either of my friend or my adversary think of it either. We’ll come back to that.

I don’t believe in a literal heaven and hell after death either, though I hold out the possibility of something analogous to hell in certain cases.

I don’t believe that there will at some point in the future be a “Last Judgment” at which a great separation will occur between the “saved” and the “damned” according to sin, nor that there will be a literal destruction of heaven and earth and a rebuilding of them.

I don’t believe in original sin or, indeed, that sin is a fault in God’s creation (which I remind my readers Genesis 1:31 has God pronouncing to be “very good”, a chapter and a half before the issue of sin first arrives, but when it is clearly latent and will arise).  

What I do believe in connection with those last four is this. There is in me something which is God; there is also in me something which is self-centred and therefore inimical to union with God. That part of me is an inevitable consequence of my having self-consciousness and therefore free will, and this is how I view the parable of the garden in Genesis 3, as a story of the start of self-consciousness in mankind, and it’s unfortunate side-effects.

I have experienced union with God, at least in a partial way, and long to be one with God again; this means that I wish to remove those desires and tendencies I have which are inimical to that union, which is what I regard as “sin” (more mundane sins flow from that; in the sense that there is “original sin”, that is what it is.) Jesus shows me a way to this, to a significant extent through his “Kingdom” statements – and these also show me that this union with God can be sought for here and now and, above all, communally and for the world as a whole, not restricted to humanity as a whole.

I also experience this union with God, this partial entry into the Kingdom as being an entrance into atemporality (rather than eternity); I therefore experience God as being in part atemporal, this being the state of his continuing Kingdom.

Of course, the self-centred part of me can have no place in God’s Kingdom whether on earth or elsewhere. At this point I note the author of the Theologia Germanica writing “Nothing burneth in Hell save self-will. Therefore it hath been said ‘put off thine own will, and there will be no hell’” (from F.C. Happold, “Mysticism” p.297).

Now, I have had experiences in the past which have forcibly diminished, if not completely removed, elements of my self-will, and some of these it would not be unreasonable to describe as “hell on earth”. They haven’t been forever, as in the worm never dying and the flame never being quenched (Mk. 9:48) but it has sometimes seemed that way.

Having recently stopped being severely clinically depressed overnight, I can also attest to a remarkable feeling of resurrection within myself; one day I was dead to emotion, which might as well have been dead; the next I was as if reborn with heightened emotions, heightened insight into my life, restored consciousness of the presence of God and hope. I also identify that as a deliverance from slavery and a return from exile, and can look to the rebirth, deliverance and return of others and, in time, the world.

As to what happens on death, therefore, I can envisage that sufficient attachment to one’s self-will could at that point lead to something akin to hell; as entry into the Kingdom is entry into atemporality, it could be in some sense eternal. What I expect and long for, however, is reunion with God in that atemporality, with all self-will destroyed.

Which leads me to say that I do not see resurrection in my own body (whether or not “perfected” in some way or survival as something which can reasonably be called “Chris” as a possibility. I therefore have some difficulty in “looking to the resurrection of the dead” as I seem to find myself saying regularly, except in a way so metaphorical as to be unviable.

It follows also that I cannot see the crucifixion as being in any sense whatever a payment to Satan (ransom), a sacrifice bringing back honour to God (satisfaction) or a substitutionary death and agony substituting for one which is due to us (PSA). But I can see it as exemplary in many, many ways, and I can see Jesus dying for our sins in the sense that his death and subsequent events bring to us knowledge of his Way which we now follow, as Jesus dying through or because of our sins in that individual and collective human sin killed him and as Jesus dying with us in sympathy with the human condition.

Now, not only am I confident that all of these views represent authentically Christian ones, I also consider them more thoroughly grounded in scripture than others, and most particularly more thoroughly grounded than the metanarrative which has God create something perfect which is then ruined by one man and one woman’s disobedience, requiring eventually the incarnation of God in human form who dies horribly as a sacrifice to himself to set things right, but only for those of us who believe that to be the case, others being consigned to everlasting torment; then at some time in the future the elect will be restored to a newly created world free from these problems, the old one and everything in it having been destroyed.

So yes, I consider myself a Christian. I also consider the vast majority of Christian doctrine to be in error to at least some extent, and I acknowledge that I would probably not have been accepted as a Christian by most people claiming that title between, say, about 200 CE and now. But I am not yet a very good Christian, and I don’t expect them to be either.

Arguably, there’s only been one Christian, and, as Friedrich Nietzsche, said, he died on the cross. Though Nietzsche erred; Jesus was not actually a Christian, he was a Jew.

We are not perfect, but in Wesley’s terms, we are going on to perfection.

The heresy of all doctrines…

 

Love the title? Well, when we talk about God, we are going to be saying things which are apparently contradictory, so why not start with what may be an oxymoron, may be a form of koan, may be a juxtaposition of thesis and antithesis requiring a synthesis. Or something else.

Of course, the definition of a heresy is something which contradicts doctrine in some way. Wikipedia has it as something “strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs”, but if you look at lists of early heresies from a Christian point of view, you will find that all of them are at variance with one or other doctrine, usually those surrounding the nature of Christ or the nature of the Trinity. More recent accusations of heresy will be found to be at similar variance with the statement of faith of a particular denomination or with what a neo-conservative group or individual determines is traditional belief or practice; these do not always get as far as being a formal statement of faith of a group, particularly where this is an attempt to find a common ground of universal exclusion for Christianity as a whole.

I am regularly accused of being a heretic. There is therefore a strong probability that comments will come in saying that I am just excusing myself; far from it. I would be disappointed if I were not being called a heretic, because then I would be doing something wrong; I would be complicit in excluding diverse ways of looking at something which in practice transcends any individual way of looking at things.

How can any doctrine actually be a heresy except in relation to some other doctrine? Well, of course, it can’t; what I am proposing above is itself a form of suggested doctrine, and I carefully included “all” in the title to ensure that at first glance it would be self-referring and therefore apparently self-contradictory.

[If this troubles you too much, think of it as a “metadoctrine”, i.e. a doctrine about doctrines, which is a different category and therefore not self-referring (most logical paradoxes turn out to be category errors). To me, the self-referring set is to pure maths and logic as the divide by zero error is to algebra. ]

Why might I think that doctrines should be regarded as heresy? Well, let’s start by looking at a set of Scriptural passages . Let’s start with Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then shall I understand fully, even as I have been fully understood”.

A doctrine is something which is seen as absolute; not a guideline, but a firm division. If we follow Paul, however, there can be no firm divisions in what we see now; we are seeing in a mirror, dimly (or in a glass, darkly) with the suggestion both that we are talking of an ancient mirror which was always a distorting surface to some extent and that we are talking of a “Plato’s cave” where all we can see is flickering shadows cast on a wall by the things which are the true reality. This is not the stuff of which to make any hard and fast rules, far less something of which you can shout “heresy” and prepare the bonfire and the stake (or, these days, exclude the “heretic” from among you).

Doctrines, in effect, become laws; laws as to how we are permitted to think, perhaps, but certainly laws as to what we are permitted to say (do I hear “heresy” again?). Paul has interesting things to say about laws; in Romans 3:21 he says “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it”; in Romans 7:6 “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit”; in 1 Cor. 15:56 “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law”; in Gal. 3:10 “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them”. For Paul, faith eclipses law completely, and faith is effectively subordinate to love; Paul cannot define love adequately, though in 1 Cor. 13 he writes an impassioned description. He follows in this Jeremiah 31:33 “ “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Paul considers that the law is superseded, and that the emotion of the heart, the relationship with God as expressed through Christ by the Holy Spirit, negates it.

So where is heresy to Paul? Heresy is a breach of this new law, which we have assiduously constructed to replace the old one which he conceptually tore down.

Jesus himself, in proposing the Great Commandments in Matthew 22:37-40 says that love, of God and of your neighbour, is the one foundation of law and prophets alike. Paul says we can forget all but that foundation.

Let’s also wheel out the old Protestant principle of “sola scriptura”, i.e. “scripture alone”. This is very commonly combined with “rationally interpreted”, and is not infrequently coupled with quotation of Rev. 22:18-19 and Deut. 4:2, though more commonly the former, as the latter probably rules out all of the Bible except the Torah or Pentateuch. I think this general idea can be backed up by the fact that Jesus says “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk. 10:14, Mt. 18:3). Children are not going to be capable of leaps of intellectual reasoning, so “rationally interpreted” should not, to my mind, mean the extraction of doctrine from multiple sources, attempted harmonisation of several passages or the establishment of overarching metanarratives; a simple reading should be sufficient. Doctrines are universally extracted by these means. What children are definitely capable of and known for is simple, uncomplicated emotional attachment; love and trust, and that for a person rather than for an idea or a formula. Anything beyond that detracts, as Jesus indicates – the children shall be first in the Kingdom.

Many doctrines which give rise to the loudest shouts relate to the nature of God, Jesus or the Trinity. I dealt with idolatry as regarding conceptions of God and not just solid images of God in my previous post “Bible Study 103/ Idolatry and eisegesis”; to me, concepts about God are a form of idolatry in the first place and so definitely heresy, but unavoidable if we are to talk about God at all. In the case of the Trinity, it seems to me that any attempt to put the Trinitarian concept into words other than the creeds is near-certain to fall into one of the many declared heresies. Why do we not go a step further and say that the creedal version is itself a heresy? Would not “Shema ha’Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad be as far as we should go? Judaism certainly thinks so.

I’d like to add into the issue of doctrine that of metanarrative, the extraction of a story-arc for the whole, particularly when that story-arc is then used as a straightjacket for the text.  Metanarratives are the delight of literary critics everywhere, and where extracted do sometimes cast the story (or stories) in a new light, but it’s only ever one new light; there can always be others, and they’re all valid, all adding to the meaning of the original text. Where metanarrative is used to confine or twist the meaning of the text, we should stop doing it; where it’s presented as being effectively the whole story, it becomes a heresy.  

My pet example of this is the metanarrative of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), though atonement theories generally are prone to the same fault. It’s also doctrine for most Protestants; where it isn’t doctrine (remaining Protestants, Catholic and some Orthodox) there’s a slightly more open metanarrative doctrine which has most of the same flaws but leaves another atonement theory open.

PSA reads the Bible as effectively starting with Adam and Eve and original sin; the garden of Eden is not interpreted as in the world, but as being heaven. There is then a creation marred by sin (and implicitly irredeemable) and the whole objective is to deal with this sin. The covenant with the Jews fails to do this despite repeated application of prophets, so Christ is sent to die on the cross to pay once and for all the debt occasioned by all this sin; this pays the debt such that we can go on to heaven after death. Eventually the irredeemable material world will be wiped out and made anew and we can all then come back. All we have to do to get that afterlife is to believe that Christ did this.

I keep coming back to the problems with PSA; as bad scriptural interpretation; as psychologically damaging; as projecting a God-concept which, if true, would make most reasonable adults want to have nothing to do with God; and as I concentrate on here, as diverting our attention from a whole lot which is going on in Scripture which does not fit this story arc.

In this conception, the only points in the long story of covenantal Judaism which occupies over three quarters of the Bible were to establish original sin and mess up repeatedly, ending up a figure of pity at best, of derision or downright hatred for most of Christianity’s history and to have a few scattered verses made to point prophetically to the coming event of Christ.

In this conception, the only point in Jesus’ lifetime teachings was to convince followers that he was personally the megasacrifice which would put right everything which was wrong and give people an exit visa so they could get out of this mess. The rest, including a lot of teaching as to how we were to treat each other (and particularly how to treat people who were not like us or even, shock horror, were our enemies), is really incidental; if we are to think about it at all, it will naturally follow from believing a few simple things about Jesus.

Sometimes it actually does. Very often it doesn’t.

Another thing. If you follow PSA, you have to have a concept of God as authoritarian to the exclusion of merciful and loving; it is difficult if not impossible to square the son-sacrificing figure who does so because he can’t exercise the mercy which has been dinned into us through the Hebrew Scriptures as being as important a characteristic as is justice (which, in any case, implies “mercy” in Hebrew usage) or a figure to fear (which actually implies that you should be in awe rather than that you should be terrified).

You also need to stick with the concept of the Transcendent God, utterly separated from us and remote, to the exclusion of the all-pervading Immanent God of, say Psalm 139:7-10, or the Lukan version of Paul in Acts 17:28 as “he in whom we live and breathe and have our being”. Teilhard de Chardin was accused of being a heretic for his “Ground of all being” thinking.

You also need to consider the world as intrinsically worthless, only to be escaped by death (or, if you insist, rapture) and to be demolished and rebuilt, after which we can return, with no conception of working to bring into being the Kingdom of God on earth as Christ proclaimed was already happening.

Any idea of universal salvation is heretical too, as you have to wriggle round reports of Jesus’ statements that he had come to save everyone, no exceptions (I paraphrase from a few scriptures there).

It is hardly surprising, with this background of thinking, that Christianity as a whole is widely seen as aggressive, dangerous, unfriendly, authoritarian, corrupt, hypocritical, bigoted, chauvinist, unfeeling, inhospitable and even diabolical. Something which, in Christopher Hitchens’ words, poisons everything.

And yet I see cries of “heresy” and “He’s a false Christian” “he proclaims a false Gospel” and worse levelled against people trying to steer Christianity away from this pernicious metanarrative, this pernicious doctrine. I see pickets outside the door where some are due to speak. I fail utterly to see patience and kindness in those comments and those pickets, I do see jealousy, boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, insistence on one way, irritability and resentment. If I required nothing else to see that the heresy-callers are wrong, it would be that they display no love. They are clashing cymbals.

You can tell me what scripture says, but as soon as we start to interpret it, that isn’t scripture any more, that’s opinion.  We may differ about what scripture is, but your opinion, even if it’s that of your church as a whole and backed by a host of theologians, is not even scripture. It may be tradition – most doctrines are. Traditions change. Traditions need to, or they die.

Can I really call all of these doctrines and metanarratives heresies? After all, I may be falling into a lack of love myself.

Well, I think I can if they are held up as being THE ONLY way in which Scripture can be interpreted, THE ONLY way to think of God, THE ONLY way to think of Jesus. Doctrines may not be “wrong” in themselves as long as the theology and logic which goes into their extraction from scripture is sound, but they are inevitably wrong as soon as someone says “that is the truth and anything else is heresy”.  The only heretics are the heresy-hunters.

Beyond Lewis’ trilemma

In my continuing meditations on the awfulness which is Lewis’ trilemma, some more thoughts have come to me. To remind you, C.S. Lewis wrote:-

“I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”

I’m with other people criticising the trilemma for failing to consider other options; the obvious ones are listed at the end of the Wikipedia article as Legend and Guru. “Legend” is, I think, dealt with by the consideration that much of what we see in the New Testament is not actually people reporting what happened, it’s them reporting how they saw Jesus, how they related to Jesus, and by the time they wrote Jesus had become something much greater than just a man. I prefer not to use “Guru”, but “Mystic” will do nicely; none of the wording ascribed to Jesus by the Fourth Gospel (which is what Lewis is concentrating on) is at odds with what could be said by a panentheistic God-mystic.

However, Lewis is also being obstructive in saying, in effect, “You cannot regard Jesus as a great moral teacher”. I know stacks of people who are quite convinced that Jesus WAS a great moral teacher, but who listen to something like that and say “Well, if you’re saying that, clearly for you he wasn’t, so I’m out of here”. Twenty five years ago, I doubt I’d have stayed around to listen to anything more on exactly that basis. Those who use Lewis’ trilemma are, to be honest, inclined to sideline Jesus’ moral teachings anyhow – yes, they acknowledge that they’re there, but they’re not THE BIG THING about Jesus. They’re not what GETS YOU SAVED.

But actually Jesus WAS a great moral teacher, whatever else you think he may have been. That has a wider spread of agreement than anything else about what Jesus was – not only Christians but also their offshoots Latter Day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is and a whole load of people in entirely separate religions agree this. And Lewis wanted to tell them they couldn’t think that way? What a bozo!

Moving on, though, I see a set of historical-critical scholars trying to extract a picture of what the real, lifetime Jesus was. There are two big camps of these; those who think Jesus was a social and religious subversive revolutionary spreading a message of resistance to Rome, the breaking down of political and religious power structures, radical redistribution of wealth, non-violent action, reform of the basis of Judaism (away from the Temple-sacrifice based structure to something radically rabbinic, away from focus on details of purity related praxis towards inclusionary praxis), reform of the individual’s own world-view and the institution of radical communitarian values. And as far as I can see, they’re right.

Then there are those who see Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher prophesying the end of power structures as they then were and the coming of the Kingdom of God, the restoration of Israel and the dawn of a new age of personal enlightenment and communal concern with a restored Israel leading the way. And I think they’re right too…

But though there is some overlap, each of them wants to say “Jesus was THIS” impliedly to the exclusion of the other.

None of them I have yet read seem to give adequate weight to Jesus as God-mystic, Jesus who knew intimately a new relationship with God on a personal basis, a completely different conception of how he and we stood in relationship to a God who was immanent – no, that’s not enough stress, a God who was IMMANENT! God around us, beside us, above us, behind us, within us, in our history and in our future, all pervading, (according to Psalm 139:7-10), he who in whom we lived and breathed and had our being (according to Paul via Luke in Acts 17:28). This is, incidentally, where I think the great deficiency of the “apocalyptic preacher” school of thought lies; he was not proclaiming something in the future, he was proclaiming an apocalyptic event which had already happened, was happening and would continue to happen.

I don’t want “Either…or” I want “Both…and”

And then you get Paul and “John”, who were Christ-mystics, and the synoptic evangelists who were talking of another Jesus, a Jesus who was still present with them and in them, who had not died because they were experiencing him day by day (OK, I think they were experiencing God-in-them and mislabelling it, but let’s not be too picky here!).  Paul’s and John’s experience will have made them concentrate on sin and forgiveness from personal transformation through ecstatic experience, because that’s what they will have experienced themselves (I know, I had such a transformative experience without having any of their theological or symbolic structure to hang it on, and that’s still how I experienced it).

And I don’t want “Either…or” I want “Both…and”

Jesus WAS a great moral teacher AND a rabbi wanting to reform Judaism and call people to repentance AND a social and political subversive revolutionary AND a teacher of personal transformation through ecstatic experience AND a panentheist God-mystic  AND… well, as a panentheist God-mystic myself I have no problem at all with son of God or God incarnate. AND he was an example of self-sacrifice for others AND his death and post-mortem appearance and presence reconciled his people to God AND he shows us that sacrifice to God is no longer necessary in the ritualistic sense AND following him can lift our burden of guilt, shame and, yes, sin AND by following him we can come to God and be transformed ourselves AND in following him society will be transformed AND all this can happen, is happening, here and now and we do not need to wait until we’re dead.

AND we don’t need to try to harmonise all these into a single coherent narrative, because he overspills the bounds of anything narrow you can construct, and that doesn’t do him justice.

Lewis said we could not follow the small picture because there was a larger one, completely missing the fact that there was a larger one still.

So I probably missed some things. I suggest you go and find them – I’m still looking myself.

How can we have faith? (A3)

How can we have faith (A3)

(This post is partly based on Faith, not Belief (Alpha week 3) posted earlier, so excuse duplication)

From this point, I’d prefer not to keep harping on about what scripture is, so far as I’m concerned. However, I view most of the New Testament as the product of a faith community which developed after Jesus’ death; this is a point of view which few historians are likely to argue with.

I accept it as acccurate in portraying the understandings of the actual writers at the times when they wrote, granted that much if not all of it has been adjusted at least once by someone with a subsequent understanding, according to significant numbers of experts in textual criticism. I am not at the moment at all confident that Jesus himself would have recognised or approved of all of it. This is perhaps less commonly accepted by historians, but would still be a comfortable majority consensus.

Some of the sayings of Jesus in the gospels are accepted even by very sceptical historical-critical scholars as being authentically Jesus. None of these deal with issues such as “who he was” or “what his purpose with” or “what is going to happen in the future”. It is possible from them, however, to get a picture of an historically viable picture of Jesus the man.

What I am hearing from the Alpha programme is “believe these things”, or in other words “give your intellectual assent to these things”, those principally being that God exists, that Jesus was (and is) God, that scripture is entirely reliable and unambiguous and that the primary purpose of Jesus was to die and so save us from sin.

Aside from possible quibbles that “exists” is not the best terminology, I have no difficulty accepting the first. However, I only manage not to disagree with the second as a result of being a panentheist, which is not the understanding of “was God” which the speaker and other helpers have, or if I take it as an entirely non-literal metaphor. I have (as I mentioned) major problems with saying that scripture is entirely reliable, and have to say that it is seriously ambiguous, as you would expect from the personal faith statements of a lot of different writers. You’d expect that from a set of eyewitnesses, in fact!

Sadly, of many possible texts the Alpha writers could have used, they chose Revelation 3:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”.

Now, I am not a big fan of Revelation. Neither, I understand, was Martin Luther, but like him, I accept that it’s become part of the canon and I need to deal with it. How I deal with it is mostly to quote early Church fathers, who said that it was highly symbolic and that the key to the symbolism had been lost. I think there are huge dangers in trying to interpret it against that background, to say the least.

I will, therefore, just say that this was how the author saw things. For him, it was no doubt true; if however, it is taken as saying that all one needs to do having got this far is to be open rather than closed minded, to accept intellectually as set of interpretations of scripture and that that is “opening the door”, it seems to me to be just plain wrong. In too many cases I have seen it has seemed to me that people have had all the intellectual acceptance you could wish for and have not received any sign of a transformative experience, and it feels to me like blaming the victim.

An old ex-Jesuit friend of mine would say that if the gospel has not been adequately presented to someone, they cannot be fixed with knowledge, or in other words that the most likely explanation would be that to date, no-one has succeeded in telling them in such a way as to connect with them, and that as a result they have not “heard his voice”. I’m unsure about this. In a few cases, I have tried every permutation of telling and retelling, including stripping down the message well beyond even the point which I was at the time comfortable with, and taking them to hear others with different approaches, and the result has still been no transforming personal experience for them.

I surmise that the response may not be immediate. If so, in at least a couple of cases I have known it would have to have been either deathbed or post-mortem. I have no problem with that, and I don’t know of any scripture which does. But I don’t have any relevant experience or testimony to bring to this.

I’m afraid that to see “The Work of Jesus” at the top of a section based on Jesus’ death and the interpretations placed on it later annoys me. If Jesus is, as John saw him, the Word of God, then his “work” was primarily the transmission of his lifetime statements about how we should be in relationship to God and to each other. In the previous talk I gave my thoughts on atonement theories; to reduce “the work of Jesus” to something which God could have achieved with the burning of a small bag of grain with due formality and in the right place (had he required any sacrifice which, from Ezekiel and Hosea, he didn’t) is, to me, shocking. However, I would invite everyone to consider what they understand of the lifetime Jesus (rather than the cosmic Christ); is this a person you could commit to emotionally, as you might commit emotionally to God?

I think that the statement “we must not only trust our feelings…but instead rely on God’s promises” is at the same time a sensible corrective and deeply dangerous; a sensible corrective because yes, emotions are hard to separate between those emanating from ourselves and those emanating from God working in us (however you conceive that). Scripture taken as the testimony of those who have gone before us and have written of pitfalls which are often encountered is valuable to correct this, but at this stage we are not talking about the later walk of faith, we are talking about an initial emotional commitment.

It is dangerous, however, because it takes us back to intellectual belief in a particular conception of what it is that scripture says. I do not think that emotional commitment at all logically flows from intellectual assent; the most intellectual assent can do is remove a possible obstacle to emotional commitment; this is from my experience of talking with others. I know that emotional commitment leads to some degree of intellectual assent both from my own experience and that of others.

I’ve been confident for quite a while that where the scriptures says “have faith” it doesn’t just (or even primarily) mean intellectual belief, and that where scripture is translated “believe” that actually, “have faith” would often be a better translation. I read Faith as meaning something like “love and trust”, in other words an emotional commitment rather than an intellectual assent. Very many of us, if not all, make such an emotional commitment to another person at some point during their lives; I have such commitment in the case of my wife. I don’t, however, claim to understand her completely or even to believe any particular thing about her in an absolute sense; I love her, and if I were to find out that something about her was not as I had thought, that would not change my love or commitment (it hasn’t in the past, though occasionally I have been taken aback). It might if what I loved was not her but a mental idealisation of her which I had constructed and which proved later to be false, but that is not how I love her.

So, were she Jesus, or God, I would not be depending on “scripture”, i.e. something someone else wrote about her, to provoke me to love. I loved her because I experienced her presence and felt love returned. In fact, I didn’t come to love her like I came to love God, in a peak emotional experience which happened very quickly (this may be what “love at first sight” is), I came to love her by small steps over a period of time, a process of progressive opening of myself to her which, happily, she reciprocated.

So what I’m going to say is this: you need not look for a quick fix coming to faith, solving all problems in a single amazing moment as the only way forward (mine was amazing, but it hardly solved all problems). You do not need to assent to very many intellectual conceptions at all, though it can be easier if you at least retain an open mind about some of them. You merely need, using the language from Revelation earlier on, to open the door a little crack, not to rip it off its hinges. Then you listen, mostly with your feelings, for the response. It may not be immediate. Later, you can try opening the door more and more; my experience is that the more you can open to a loving relationship, the stronger and deeper it gets.

Try for the mustard seed of Matthew 17:20 rather than moving the mountain unaided.

Love wins – again

On Patheos, Tony Jones writes about Rob Bell talking on a Christian radio show. This clip is entirely about the Biblical attitude to homosexuality, and pits Rob (looking tired and dishevelled) against a chap identified as a theologian from New Frontiers, Andrew Wilson. That clearly wasn’t what the on air discussion was supposed to be; no doubt it was to promote Rob’s “What we talk about when we talk about God”. Don’t you just love ambushes?

I don’t view Rob as being a theologian, and I think that comes over well in this clip. What Rob does seem to me to be is a spirit-filled, convicted Christian with a gift for communication. He speaks wonderfully well in scripted situations and, I think, well in this non-scripted one too. Indeed, he sounds to me a lot like an idealised New Frontiers person might be, if neo-conservative theology didn’t get in their way. He speaks from his personal experience of God and from his personal observation of many other people, matters to which he is entirely qualified to testify.

He was being inclusive throughout, entirely in the spirit of the God of Love whom Rob clearly experiences. What I heard from Rob was someone witnessing his faith, which is what I want to hear from a Christian.

On the opposite side of the table, Andrew sounded like a theologian. I worry about the whole concept of a New Frontiers theologian – what can they find to theologise about, given that the whole of scripture has already been explained entirely adequately from their point of view, and there is no new ground to cover? I heard  from him regurgitated argument, and while he was pleasant in his manner, various points sprang out to me.

He starts with asking if Rob considers homosexual sex to be sinful (and chooses a guy with a guy as his example) and pushes the issue. I recognise the technique; it is lawyerly, and is looking to define Rob into a corner. In the process he exaggerates the difference and sets up a contrast between God forbidding homosexual sex and God positively approving it. Tick box 1 for forensic courtroom technique.

He then refers to Jesus saying of Leviticus “all things are clean” but that from the heart comes matters of morals, with clear reference to Matt. 15:18-19. I note the matters of morals mentioned there are adultery and fornication; Rob is not being a theologian and not being a lawyer, and does not therefore come back with any of the obvious rejoinders, most notably that this passage does not mention homosexuality, and that the clear topic (of blessing monogamous homosexual relationships today) is actually implicitly approved by this passage as it prevents adultery and fornication. But no, we are apparently using that passage to say that Jesus was talking about sexual morality and therefore an unmentioned aspect of sexual morality is condemned.

And then we get the sexual abstinence argument, and Andrew claiming that lots of gay men have been baptised in his church and want, in their “new creation” to cease to be sexually active. I do wonder about this, as any gay man would be far better advised to join a church which has a different theological stance from New Frontiers – who are these idiots?

Again, Rob does not come back with the comment that, from Paul’s point of view, it would be better if all of us gave up sexual activity and (probably) married status. Are the rest of us also going to be enjoined by Andrew to be celibate on that basis?

Then we have the host introducing the idea that Rob has “gone liberal”. And Rob asks us to consider what it looks like if it’s “lived out”. Again, we are looking at witness, not argument from him.

Again Andrew stresses that old ways have to be abandoned, and here we get hate introduced. Luke 14:26 is an old favourite of hardline evangelicals, and like a charm, here it comes. How can we best exclude and condemn? Rob here mostly manages to stick to the line of Luke 6:27 and love those who hate him, though he does display a little irritation. We see Andrew claiming, although he concedes it may be a matter of individual interpretation, that he is more orthodox – apparently “nearly every scholar” supports him. Not those I read, and I ask myself if I could have resisted the temptation to jump down Andrew’s throat there. I probably couldn’t have, but Rob largely does.

Here’s a good one from Andrew “Unless the definition of what freedom looks like is clearly established, we’re going to be on very different pages of how to go about it”. Really? You get to DEFINE freedom? How can it be free, in that case? But no, Rob doesn’t really rise to this one either. Despite frustration, he keeps asking for toleration and a “little wider tent” and stressing brotherhood with Andrew (which Andrew is not necessarily delighted with).

In this last section, I think we see Andrew disclosing where he really comes from; he asks Rob to consider his position, and (implicitly) how Andrew feels about being in a Church in which people are talking toleration. Clearly it frightens him. Here is the fountainhead of his aggressive, defining, excluding stance (cloaked in apparent niceness) which pervades the whole interview; he feels personally threatened and has to defend, and the best form of defence is attack and exclusion.

What is he frightened about? Well, the simple answer is “homosexuality”, and that would just be common or garden bigotry, and that’s the cheap gibe. But no, I think a clue is given earlier in the discussion when Andrew starts talking about the whole sweep of the story from Genesis to Revelation. He has his metanarrative, his template of Scriptural interpretation, his locked down definitions of what everything really means. This is why I question whether New Frontiers really has “theologians”.  I suspect very strongly that he feels his basis of Scriptural interpretation is threatened, and that means his faith is threatened because it’s based in intellectual acceptance rather than in a loving relationship with God.

Sadly, Rob does not get the last word.

Now, I am a lawyer (thankfully retired) and I suppose, as people keep introducing me as a theologian, that I should own that label too; this makes me admirably qualified to adopt a position caricatured in the gospels as that of the Pharisees, or, if you will, like that of Andrew. I try hard not to use these facets of my skill-set to be adversarial, more to be able to move within adversarial debate and promote reconciliation, but all my instincts were itching to meet Andrew on his own ground here.

Actually, however, this background allows me to understand this exchange as, on Andrew’s side, a lawyerly, theologically based attack, and on Rob’s a Christian witness which seeks to be loving, tolerant and inclusive.

And love wins, Rob. But you knew that already.

12 Step spirituality

12 Step as a spiritual programme

These are the twelve steps, slightly modified by me from those originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous (source Wikipedia). Different twelve step programmes insert different words where I have a blank in Step 1:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over [   ] – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God to be.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God to be, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to those suffering from [the source of our own powerlessness], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

They represent a development of the spiritual programme of the Oxford Group, splitting their spiritual practices down into elements and adding Steps 1 and 2 and step 12.

Where “God” appears, commonly with the words “as you understand God to be” or some variant added, all that is needed is some “higher power” than yourself; some who have problems with the whole concept of God have considered it to be the group of fellow sufferers to which they belong and on which Twelve Step programmes are based, some substitute “Good” for “God” or consider it an acronym for “Good Orderly Direction”. It is, I think, necessary for it not to be within you yourself, though some have considered it “their higher selves” with success; if possible it should not be another human being, as there are huge pitfalls there.

What you insert in the blank in Step 1 differs from programme to programme; alcohol was the original, drugs are another including specifically narcotics, nicotine, cocaine and prescription pills; obsessive behaviours such as gambling, shopping and overeating all have their own programmes, as do psychological disorders such as co-dependency and other emotional disorders. The whole list is considerable (and my link fails to include one or two I know of).

A lot of people, including myself,  have gained some freedom from these various sources of difficulty in their lives through Twelve Step and have, in the process, embarked on a spiritual programme which to my mind results in improvements far wider than the narrow specific they start with. Many people I know have effectively moved beyond, say, “alcohol” as the source of powerlessness and are mentally using “people, places and things” in its place.

It seems to me that anyone could probably find some item over which they are powerless to slot into that blank, even if they do not fit into one of the many categories for which there are existing Twelve Step groups. Many people in Twelve Step programmes feel somewhat sorry for those who do not have such a source of powerlessness which they can identify, as they feel they have gained so much themselves from following their particular programme.

However, Twelve Steppers will generally agree that in order to use a Twelve Step programme, someone must reach an “emotional rock bottom” as a result of their particular problem. Although you may be able to fit anything in to the box, it is therefore necessary for it to have taken you to that sticking point where you can emotionally commit to “this far and no further” with absolute assurance. On the plus side, there are people I have met whose emotional rock bottoms have been far, far less traumatic than my own or those of the majority of Twelve Steppers, such as one lady whose rock bottom was feeling her social standing slipping as she was becoming erratic and undependable. For her, that was “this far and no further”, and I am immensely happy for her that this was, for her, enough (once, I felt envy, but dealt with this through a Step 4- Step 7 procedure).

I leave it to the reader whether they feel this to be an useful tool for them, either individually or as part of a wider spiritual programme (which Step 11 really demands). If there really is no root of powerlessness, it is possible to start with Step 3, but commonly people are unable to give this a complete commitment unless they have Steps 1 and 2 behind them.

Alternatively, you might like to look at the Oxford Group programme. All the elements of that were in my own spiritual programme before I ever learned of Twelve Step. I admit that it was something of a surprise to me to find that I was called to share my sins and temptations with another, but I did find myself doing this on a long railway journey with a priest whose name I never asked, back in 1972. After the event, the best metaphor I can find is that of ringing a friend whose house I had never been to, and asking for directions. The first question, of course, was “Where are you now”, so I looked around and described it; directions then followed.

If you don’t know where you are now, it is more difficult to know which direction to go in to reach your goal.

Letting go of Chains

Letting go of chains

I read in “Living the Questions” (Felten and Procter-Murphy 1998 p.5) a quotation from the author Maya Angelou. “I’m startled or taken aback when people walk up to me and tell me they are Christians. My first response is the question ‘Already?’ “.

I sympathise with that. I also sympathise with Dave Tomlinson’s description of himself as a “Bad Christian” in “How to be a Bad Christian”; he cannot (yet) do all the things he thinks a true, a complete Christian should do, so he is a “Bad Christian”.

Yes, I may well not be yet a Christian, or I may be a Bad Christian, or I may be an incomplete Christian. I have a direction, but I have not reached the destination of my journey, nor do I think I ever will. I see that Jesus encourages me to give away all I possess to the poor (Mat. 19:21), in many passages; by the standards of many in the world, I am a “rich man” and though I can imagine ways in which I could pass a camel through the eye of a needle (Mat. 19:24), the poor beast would be very unlikely still to be a functioning camel on the other side (blenders and extreme gravitational effects sprang to mind).

I have a wife and children and an aged mother, and though I also hear Jesus asking his disciples to leave their families and jobs and follow him (repeatedly, in Mark 1:17 and throughout the early parts of the gospels), I fear that as matters stand I feel my obligations to them outweigh my obligations to myself.

And yet I know from personal experience that the more I let go of ties which bind me to the world, to money, to possessions, to self-image, to status in the eyes of others, to control of my or others’ lives and to individual other people, the more my heart is lightened by letting me pursue the Great Commandments. Thus I talk of my obligation to myself.

In all these, I cannot say that I can yet “Love the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind” (Matt. 22:37). I doubt I will ever achieve that degree of surrender except, perhaps, for very brief periods. I try to imitate Jesus, to imitate Christ, as best I can, but cannot hope to count myself his equal.

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The abrupt ending, on 26th May of this year, of 17 or more years worth of decline into depression, for the last 8 years severe clinical depression, has given me an opportunity to review my life in a way impossible to me for at least the last 8 years, and with the gift (taken away by the depression) of being able to recall the emotions (or lack of them) which affected me previously. Depression, if severe, removes emotional recall as well as the ability to feel positive emotions and, eventually, all emotion.

Indeed, depression may have been growing well before 17 years ago, because despite emotional recall, I cannot remember a period when I felt so energised, so enthusiastic, so optimistic, so accepting, so grateful and so alive before at any time in my life. I have a better lens through which to view, so I can look back at my self-examination in the past (a regular exercise for 45 years) and see more.

In Acts 28:20 Paul says “since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain”. According to Acts, Paul had been arrested and bound with chains in Jerusalem when in fear of his life from the local population, and via various places, all under Roman guard and, it is supposed, attached to a Roman soldier by a chain, eventually reached Rome, preaching all the way. On his route, Felix, governor at Caesarea, was willing to let him go, but did not in order to placate “the Jews” (24:27).

So, he was bound by chains, and bound because of his preaching, his attachment to Christ – a binding, an attachment, which did not affect his ability to preach to soldiers, governors, a King, sailors and finally people in Rome, as distinct from Romans.  He was a prisoner, but his bond to Christ made him free. In Ephesians 3:1 he says “I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus”, but the translation is sometimes “OF Christ Jesus”, and we can see which of the Romans or Jesus kept him prisoner successfully, and of these which he accepted voluntarily from choice, which of necessity.

There is a talk given by a well known 12 Step speaker called Earl Hightower, entitled “How free do you want to be”.  He focuses on the 12 Step programmes’ Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”. Briefly, his argument is that by surrendering completely to God and to the programme, you will become free, and the more you surrender the freer you will be. I wonder whether Earl had been reading about Paul, or, indeed, if his predecessor Bill W. had been. We see there Paul surrendered to his relationship with Christ, effectively free despite actually being in chains; he is doing what he needs to do, he is doing what he wants to do. He seems to have achieved that every time he was imprisoned, in fact.

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Depression is like imprisonment. I’m not unacquainted with real imprisonment; as Paul found, if the spirit is free, the walls and the chains cannot bind. The insidious prison, however, is one you make for yourself; the “Open Prison” tends to have this characteristic – all the inmates could walk out at any time, but they imprison themselves for fear of what would happen if they ventured outside (in that case, generally a significantly more restrictive prison). Often the more restrictive form of open prison stays with people after they leave. Prisons generally can also sap hope and will; it is common for people to become institutionalised, so their situation, however awful, seems better than any alternative could. Life can evolve to live in volcanoes, prisoners can learn to live in Hell.

Depression sets boundaries you contribute to yourself, it cuts you off from yourself, taking away your emotions, your hopes, your mere likes and dislikes, leaching all of the colour and life out of life until the only reason the idle thought that death would probably be better doesn’t get acted on is that it would take some emotion to muster the energy, and that went years ago. Eventually, like the institutionalised prisoner, you become complicit in its continuance.

I feel I’ve just been let out of prison after 17 or more years of depression, and let out of the self-imprisonment as well. More, though – I can now see what I couldn’t see before, that there are ways of looking at my life which just haven’t been available to me for years, ways which involve actual emotions rather than just coldly logical analysis. In 12 Step terms, this is a “Step 4”, making a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself. It is not usually recommended that you share this (in Step 5) with the whole internet community as I seem to be doing, though, just another human being and God.

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So, what do I now see? Well, at the beginning I talked of Jesus commending the abandonment of money, jobs, family and, of course, security. In Matt. 10:39 we read the culmination of this; “whosoever loses his life will find it”. I see these as chains which bind us, which hold us from pursuing a loving relationship with God without condition.

I see the young Chris, fairly free of chains, entering into a relationship with the lady who is now his wife; I see him taking a job, buying a house and borrowing money to do that, doing a job which was about helping others and taking on obligations towards them; entering politics and taking on obligations to look after the people he represented; starting a family and commencing a lifelong responsibility towards children and becoming an employer and taking responsibility for the welfare of employees.

None of these was a bad thing. An accompanying sense that in order to fulfil all of these commitments, more money needed to be made was not so much bad as dangerous (at least it wasn’t pursuit of money for its own sake). A growing fear of failing in these commitments might have been beneficial in small measure, but was damaging when allowed to grow. A lack of trust that “all would be well, and all manner of things would be well” without Chris’ own endeavours was very damaging. Accepting the obligations as absolutely necessary, as things which could never be let go of, was fatal.

These were all chains, and eventually they became too heavy when there was a shock to Chris’ system. But he tried to pick himself up and push forward, despite the growing knowledge that something had broken, and that he was, after all, too weak for all of these chains. He could not; the weight became steadily more unbearable; Chris started to self-medicate with alcohol in order to cope and eventually one of the chains (a client) pulled hard and Chris allowed himself to be pulled into a stupid and catastrophic action.

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The last ten years have been horrible. I came close to losing wife and family (my wife on several occasions, only once by her leaving), I did lose business, ability to practice my profession and social status; financial security nearly to the point of bankruptcy; nearly my home; my physical health, for a time my mental health, for a time my liberty and very nearly my life. And, for over 6 years, hope, purpose and all positive emotion – and my consciousness of God.

Twelve steppers will recognise that everyone who starts seriously upon a twelve step programme has experienced an emotional rock bottom; without it, you cannot start to rebuild successfully. Mine came on the 30th of November 2006 when all of the above had either been lost or their loss seemed inescapable. Sadly, it took some time following that, from the prison of depression, to be released.

I’m now free of the chains of business and profession, clients and electors, the desire for financial security, or at least excessive financial security and if the house goes, God will provide somehow. This has been forced on me as of 25th May 2013; I don’t think I could have let go completely voluntarily. My family, I can attend to without the chains being too heavy now, and I can see that they didn’t just need a bank balance, they needed me, and me without all these other chains. It has been a painful corrective exercise, but I can now see it as a necessary one.

So, Earl Hightower asks me “How free do you want to be”, and I say “exactly as free as I am; and if I need to be more free I can weaken my grip on a chain or two”. The chain I will not willingly drop is that to God; previously, among all the others, I think I had dropped it. It took 6 years to find it again, or for God to press it back into my hand. *

So, with Paul, I will happily be a prisoner OF Christ. Not a perfect one, as Maya Angelou or Dave Tomlinson would agree, with some reservations, but knowing the other chains which bind me and which I elect to hold on to.

* In conscience, I will not willingly drop the chain representing my wife either; I did effectively drop this for a period in 2006-7 and regret that; I hope there is never a stark choice of God or her, because I would probably choose her. We are joined in flesh and spirit, as Paul would put it; I cannot separate us.

Why did Jesus die (A2)

Why did Jesus die

(This is a first draft of suggestions for a second-view talk to accompany Alpha talk 2)

Why did Jesus die? Perhaps it would be too simple to say “Because he was fully human, and human beings die”. I could go on to say “Because he was perceived as a danger by the Roman imperialist conquerors, and what they did with revolutionaries in those days was to crucify them, to give them the most ignominious, painful and publically humiliating death they could both to deter others from doing the same and to belittle their importance and dishearten their supporters”.  Both of those are, of course, true.

I do not, in fact, think that he died because the Jewish nation as a whole asked Pilate to do this, nor that even a substantial number of Jews did this, though it may have been that some Jewish collaborators in authority under the Romans also wanted his death and agitated for this with the Romans. He did, after all, threaten their positions as well by being a subversive spiritual leader with some most unpopular views about whether Jewish Law should take precedence over the Great Commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mark 12:31, Matt. 22:37, Luke 10:27, Rom. 13:9, Gal. 5:14, Jas. 2:8). Recall that I see the gospel writers as reflecting a changing and developing idea of who Jesus was and why he died, and this is a matter of finding meaning in his life and death, not following his actual words. We may find that meaning, but that does not mean that it is a reality on some supernatural level.

If a crowd did, indeed, ask for Barabbas rather than for him, (and recall that “Bar Abbas” means “son of the Father”), it was probably one seeded by agitators by Pilate, who was known for doing this, and eventually disciplined in Rome for being too harsh in his governorship. We can I think therefore discount Luke’s story of Pilate washing his hands, even if we do not realise that Luke was expressing a pro-Roman view out of keeping with the earlier gospels. John, of course, repeats this, but John is frankly anti-semitic in his tone throughout; one can surmise that not only was he not Jewish himself, but was from a background which made him anti-Jewish – John Dominic Crossan suggests that he was in fact a Samaritan convert, which would also explain the favourable treatment of Samaritans in the Fourth Gospel.

My friend has put forward in a fairly simple form the argument for an understanding of the effect of Jesus’ death which is known as “penal substitutionary atonement” or PSA. This was not in fact the understanding of the early church, much of which believed in the “ransom theory”, that Jesus’ death ransomed humanity from the power of the Devil into which it had fallen due to sin, payment being made to the Devil. Another prominent early concept was “Christus Victor”, drawn largely from the Fourth Gospel, which saw Jesus as having vanquished the power of the Devil through sin by his death and resurrection.  The third early concept, which was better stated around the turn of the twelfth century was the “exemplary atonement” or “moral influence” theory, which said that the example of Christ in leading an exemplary life and being faithful even to death on the cross was an example to humanity to move towards moral change.

Earlier in the 11th century, however, Anselm had voiced the “satisfaction theory”, which argued, in the words of Wikipedia, that only a human being can make recompense for human sin against God, but this being impossible for any human being, such recompense could only be made by God. This is only possible for Jesus Christ, the Son, who is both God and man. The atonement is brought about by Christ’s death, which is of infinite value. This was then developed in the Reformed tradition (principally by John Calvin) into PSA, adding the element that Christ suffered the punishment for all sins.

It is important to say that all five of these theories have been espoused by very able theologians in the Christian Churches over the years; none is predominant in Catholicism and the Eastern churches (principally the Orthodox) do not espouse PSA at all. However, you may wish to follow where any of them have gone before.

It is also worth mentioning that none of them gives adequate weight to the picture presented by the Epistle to the Hebrews of Jesus ascending to heaven and as high priest offering his own blood spilled as a once-and-forever sacrifice to end the need for the Temple sacrificial system, an attractive concept to Jews who had in 70 AD seen their Temple completely destroyed by the Romans during a revolt lasting some 7 years, and thus felt the lack of that system. However, the writer of Hebrews was somewhat off the mark in that the Temple did not just accept blood sacrifices (there were also grain sacrifices) and though sin offerings were one part of these, there were also sacrifices for praise, thanks, gratitude and to correct ritual impurity.

Personally I cannot live with the theological assumptions of PSA though I am very happy with the exemplary atonement theory. I am unhappy with the concept that God requires of us to follow a set of rules which it is patently impossible for us to do (at least, according to Paul in Rom. 3:10) and that He cannot bend from that. Although I acknowledge the concept of sin as a separation from God, and agree that it is a problem, mere matters of conduct are not, to me, what is being talked of.

It is correct that for those who are at a personal rock bottom due to addiction, depression or otherwise and have lost their sense of worth completely, PSA offers an attractive psychological answer. On the other hand, it is perilous to approach someone who is not desperate and does not feel much sense of sin and attempt to convince them that they are wretched and depraved; it is also cruel if you manage to convince them of that but it proves that they can’t take the leap of faith required. In Mark 2:17, after all, Jesus says “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”.

I am also prone to point out that if you read Ezekiel 18:21-23, repeated at 27-28 just in case the message didn’t get through the first time, you find “If a wicked man turns away from all the sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has committed he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live” This is a formula entirely separate from the sacrificial system, and in my view does away with the need for any separate process for dealing with sin.

In Hosea 6:6 we read “For I deserve steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” which is echoed in Matthew 9:13 from the lips of Jesus and again in Matthew 12:7. The word “love” can be as well translated as “mercy” in those passages, and the word “burnt offerings” as “sacrifices”.

I find it odd, therefore, that the satisfaction and PSA pictures consider that a God who enjoins his people in the 8th century and then the 6th century BC that repentance, turning to God and living righteously are sufficient to wipe out sin and that he requires mercy, not sacrifice, cannot forgive human sin without the sacrifice of his own son, or, in a way, himself (the picture looks somewhat better if it indeed himself who he sacrifices, but this would be a heresy called “patripassianism”).

We may, however, get a further clue if we look closely at the words of Paul’s theologising in Romans 3. I will concentrate on one phrase in Romans 3:25-26 “whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus”.

Note, it does not make us righteous, it proves to us that God is righteous where humanity might think that he is not. He himself still does not require anything from us other than that we repent and turn to God, but we may require from him a demonstration of his justice and goodness, and that was achieved by sending his son and in a fashion himself to die as badly as it was possible for humans to die; in this way he shared our anguish, our pain, our death.

An exemplary atonement, healing one aspect of our separation from God, our sin.

There is more. I’m a mystic; it was through a mystical peak experience that I first started the journey which has resulted in me writing this (had I not had it, I’d probably still be the evangelical atheist I previously was, and several other less-than-ideal things as well). As a result I have a deep and compelling consciousness of the omnipresence of God, the immanence of God. Yes, I also have a consciousness of his transcendence, but the consciousness of immanence and omnipresence is stronger. As a result, I find the following consideration to be gripping; you may be able to reach the same conclusion otherwise.

In Matthew 25, vv 31-46 there is a long passage including “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me’. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ “ (34-40). I remember that his brethren were precisely the outcasts of society, that your neighbour was whoever you came into contact with irrespective of race, colour, gender or, yes, religion (recall the Syrophonecian woman (Mark 7:25-30) or the Samaritans? (Luke 10;33, 17;16, John 8:48). Friend or enemy, all neighbours, all brethren. They are all men, and what we do to them we do to Christ. I take this very seriously indeed.

In the first century, Christ was crucified by men who sinned at the behest of other men who sinned; today he is crucified again every time harm is done to any human being anywhere. We, humanity, crucified him by, not for, our sin, and we are still doing it every minute of every hour of every day.

This too is exemplary.