Paul and the Faithfulness of God

I have this massive book by N.T. Wright, but have not yet read it. However, for some friends who have been waiting for me to do so and let them have my thoughts, Larry Hurtado (whose opinion I tend to agree with) has written a review, which is probably going to be enough for some, and sufficient to be going on with until I actually do read it (it’s second in my theology reading pile at the moment).
In the “one instinctively knows when a thing is right” mode, Hurtado says that Wright does not credit the concept of deity plus principal agent tradition as having influenced Paul, and if Wright indeed does not credit this, I think it is a mistake. There are a plethora of “principal agents” in Jewish writing current at the time (mostly intertestamental, but some canonical) including wisdom, memra, logos and Enoch/Metratron, and the “two thrones in heaven” section of Daniel 7:9-14. It is much more easily understood for Jesus to be understood as principal agent and then elevated just slightly higher than the Jewish concept admits than to assume that this was an entirely fresh leap of understanding.

Possibly against this is the idea that Paul gained his major strains of thinking directly from his peak spiritual experience. I am now confident that Paul was a Christ-mystic, in that some of his peak spiritual experience shared many features of some of my own, save that where I ascribed mine tentatively to and experience of God (working on the basis that writers who described the most similarity to my own experience ascribed theirs to God), Paul ascribed his to an experience of Jesus. There could have been an information content.

That said, I am also confident that not only our descriptions of our experiences but also to an extent the experiences themselves are moulded by the language and concept structures which we have internalised at the time when the experiences happened (I draw this from experience with eyewitnesses, noting their subconscious insistence on making a coherent story out of their actual observations, frequently contrary to what was actually probably observed). Paul is very likely to have had an internalised concept of the principal agent of God, and from his own and Luke’s descriptions would seem to have been obsessed with the legacy of Jesus, and his experience may have been moulded, and his language of description would certainly be moulded, by that concept. I, of course, due to my reaction against early attempts to teach me Christianity in the most trivial form, did not have such concepts internalised. I have since had peak experiences involving Jesus, but only after significant work assimilating a concept of him and on creating a Jesus-focus within meditation; their character has been somewhat different from that of the God-mysticism experiences.

There has been an information content to some of my own experiences as well. That said, I do not trust that information content to have been entirely independent of my previous concept-structures.

On the whole, therefore, my working hypothesis is that Paul was influenced in his talking about Christ by (inter alia) the principal divine agent tradition.

Fun with Fritz

Fritz Leiber was an American writer, chiefly of fantasy and SF, probably best known for his “Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser” series. One of his early books (1943) was called “Conjure Wife”. It may not have been his best work, but it’s the one which has kept coming back to me most. It’s still in print today, it seems.

Briefly, the plot involves a young scientific rationalist professor who discovers that his wife is a witch. She has been preparing a load of charms. Our hero manages to persuade her that this is superstitious nonsense, and to remove all the charms from the house and give up this practice.

At that stage, he becomes horribly unlucky (to say the least), and eventually realises that his wife’s charms have been protecting him all this while from the offensive magic of all the other witches around. That’s all of the plot I want to give away…

This came to mind last week when I was thinking about prayer. Now, I’m moving in some circles where lots of people talk as if prayer is an extremely effective force. Granted, most of them don’t actually act that way – in general, they act extremely prudently, but also pray, perhaps following the maxim that you should pray for assistance but also take all steps possible to encourage your desired outcome to happen, and accept any assistance you actually get even if that doesn’t look much like a miracle.

I am not personally particularly convinced that prayer has ever worked for me in a tangible way, and more or less stopped doing petitionary prayers many years ago. OK, there have been occasions when I have asked for something for myself since. Apart from a few occasions when I’ve received a conviction about the next thing to do (as I follow the maxim that I should pray only for knowledge of God’s will for me and the power to carry that out), I can’t say anything I’ve asked for for myself or another has actually happened.

But what if the world is something like the one portrayed by Leiber, but instead of spells and hexes, it operates on petitionary and imprecatory prayers? Maybe there don’t even need to be imprecatory prayers involved, but the side effects of one person’s petitionary prayer may be bad results for another (and reason tells me there’s a substantial probability that this is usually the case, even if I didn’t know stories like “The Monkey’s Paw”)? No-one I know well admits to imprecatory prayer, so I sort of assume the second “maybe” would have to be dominant, or at least I do until Leiber’s paranoid fantasy bites again, making me paranoid about everyone’s motives and honesty! (Just for a moment, OK?).

That’s the snag with paranoid fantasy, it gets directly at the emotional, non-rational bit we all have (mine, I call “EC”, for “Emotional Chris”), and has a tendency to sideline your reason, either for a few moments or, sometimes, for a lot longer.




Postliberal exclusivism? Or just an observation?

On Wednesday evening last week, part of a very stimulating and wide ranging discussion was about Radical Orthodoxy and Post-liberalism. A little while ago I listened to Homebrewed Christianity’s TNT podcast centering on Radical Orthodoxy and Post-liberalism. Well, actually, I listened to it several times, as I liked and hated the ideas presented in more or less equal amount, and it prompted me to a fair amount of thinking.

I’ll deal with some more points in a future post, but for the time being want to concentrate on one: there is in Postliberalism a suggestion that unless you live within the system (and accept it’s language and concept structures as developed over two millennia) you are not able to have certain classes of religious experience.

That is the feature which we fixed on as the problem “du jour”. At first sight, we did not think that the varieties of religions experience (and yes, we had read William James) were or could be exclusive to any particular religious tradition. Certainly, having myself started from the point of view of looking for a language of expression for my own mystical experience wherever I could find it, I had found viable languages in Islam (Sufism), Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and a variety of other traditions, and at one point in my life could have comfortably explained myself in at least five different traditions. I have tended to look at this from an evolutionary point of view: unless a religion allows expression of the full range of religious experience to which mankind is prone, it is highly unlikely to become a major world religion. It will be out-competed by some other religion which does offer this. Certainly I have found that Christianity in its most general expression is not lacking in any area, though I grant that it is difficult to find pure shamanistic expressions.

Since the discussion, however, I have continued thinking. First, my thoughts went to an account of the conversion experience of another of the Alpha helpers, who was persuaded to try to analyse it without using Christian-speak; it was very similar indeed to my own. However, the fact that at the time of the experience this individual already believed in the basics of evangelical Christianity meant that all the expression of that experience was immediately processed in Christian categories and with some associated Christian symbolism.

This would not be at all surprising; studies of eyewitness testimony have widely revealed that probably before someone’s conscious mind becomes aware of some experience, the brain is trying to fit it to previous experience or thought patterns, and therefore eyewitnesses remember things which they did not actually witness, because that completes the “sense of the story” they are telling themselves as it happens.

It seemed to me, doing a mental comparison, that the fact that his experience fitted in to an expected pattern meant that he had considerable difficulty (to say the least) in expressing it in language shorn of specific religious terminology. He did not, for instance, experience this as panentheistic, whereas I did (at least I did after I had discovered the term “panentheism” some while later); I could not however find any substantive difference in the base experience to justify this. In this sense, therefore, I was possibly able to have a different experience from his due to lacking the language of expression, and it may be that in one sense it was wider.

On the other hand, I have reason to believe also that the bare bones of my own experience were identical to those of people who express themselves as “Christ mystics”, such as Saints John, Paul and Teresa de Avila and Thomas Traherne. Their expression of what they have experienced casts Christ in the same relationship to them as my consciousness of my own experience casts God in relationship to me. I am not able to have quite the same experience as them in relation to Christ (and I suspect this is also true of my experience in relation to that of the Alpha colleague I mentioned). It was, in fact, some considerable time before I was able to make that connection. Before that, I tended to dismiss the writings of such Christ-mystics as being fundamentally different from my own and therefore irrelevant to my experience. I now think this flows purely from the difference in our concept-structures at the time of the experience. Incidentally, other Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas and of certain passages in the synoptics, Dionysus “the Areopagite” and the authors of the Theologia Germanica and the Cloud of Unknowing seem to have been what I now label “God-mystics” more like myself. How it is that they have escaped Christ-mysticism is something which interests me, but to which I have no answer.

I also think it probable that a part of the reason why access to mystical experience became easier for me over the five or six years following my original experience was not merely the fact that I was practising every method I could find which was said to facilitate such experience, but also because I was reading writers who gave me language of description, and therefore my brain became more capable of accommodating the experience.

There is also, of course, the fact that some elements of praxis are entirely individual to a particular religion. Communion in Christianity, tefilin in Judaism and ritual washing in Islam, for instance, have no exact comparisons; these are experiences which you are unlikely to get close to in any other religion.

As a result, I think there is actually something to be said for the idea that unless you operate within the concept-structures of a religious system, you may not be able to have certain kinds of experience – or at the very least, not be able to have them so clearly or easily.


We also mentioned and tended to agree with the story of the blind men and the elephant, comparing their experiences. One (who had the ear) said it was like a cloth, another (who had the tusk) said it was like a spear. The one who had a leg said it was like a tree, the holder of the tail thought it was a rope, and another, holding the trunk, thought it was a snake. On this analogy, each religion might have an unique insight, but all of them would be partial. Another analogy from comparative religion is “many roads up the same mountain”.

Brian McLaren criticises this view in “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World”. He suggests that the evidence shows that they may well be paths up completely different mountains (let’s face it, nirvana is a very different concept from salvation, not quite the same as alignment with the Tao, but again both are very different from a personal relationship with a personal God). Granted, the mountains may be parts of the same mountain range, but still not the same. The idea is also criticised by Bo Sanders on the Homebrewed Christianity blog, also quoting the idea that comparative religion is trying for a kind of uber-religion, and taking an unwarrantedly superior tone to all individual religions.

I’m not sure I agree with McLaren on this; my comments above do indicate that there are very definite flavours, very definite details which are not the same, but as my own experience was able to be satisfactorily described in all of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism (non-exclusively) I am not so certain that the mountains are in fact different. What I am confident of is that you can’t follow several religions at the same time, just as you can’t talk absolutely simultaneously in several languages. OK, in either case you can chop and change between one and another, but most people can’t do that easily, and I think the effort is rather more between religions, particularly those which have different philosophical systems to underpin them. Also, in the case of either, praxis improves your experience, as I have indicated above. But you need to practice one at a time in order to be good at it, at least you do unless you’re a natural linguist in the case of languages. I do hold out the possibility that there may exist extremely gifted syncretists in religion – after all, Christianity as we know it is syncretic between Judaism and the Hellenic tradition at the least (and I think I can identify a few other influences there) – but there, it took, I think, St. John, St. Paul and a few others to produce a reasonable result. Even then, I think the cracks are there to be seen, and certainly most Protestant traditions don’t think the system was perfected until the fifteenth century or later.

Incidentally, don’t try to tell me that more modern movements are “going back to basics”. They aren’t, they’re indelibly printed with additional centuries of development in the history of thought, and what has been thought and has percolated into the general memory there can never be unthought. They are at best neo-orthodox, with a stress on the “neo-“, and usually an entirely new departure.

However, it may be that McLaren is right. After all, the dominant aim of Christianity, at least traditionally, is salvation, while the dominant aim of Buddhism and Hinduism is nirvana. I find it difficult to argue that those are actually the same mountain peak, even if the objectives of the relevant mystical traditions might be identical, subject to translation.

In my next post I’ll think a bit more about these two positions in theology.


Avoid Alpha?

I was interested to read Doug Hagler’s piece on finding a church at “Two Friars and a Fool”. Particularly interested because the number one characteristic which he suggested progressive Christians should avoid is any church which advertises the Alpha Course.

Now I probably qualify as progressive, possibly as radical – I have elements of both. I normally read “Two Friars…” which is progressive tending to radical in stance, and nod in agreement at what any of the three mainstay writers say. But I also attend a church which not only advertises an Alpha but runs at least three courses a year – last year, they ran six or seven. Not only that, but one of the main reasons I stick with that church (as well as attending a less “evangelical” church which is actually my local parish church, much closer to home) is in order to be a helper with their Alpha courses.

Now, it may well be that this church takes an unusual approach to Alpha. They are, for a start, an evangelically oriented church within a mainline denomination (Church of England). Also it may not carry on doing that, as the current Alpha coordinator has just stepped down. But he actually recruited me to help with Alpha despite my telling him that I disagreed with most of the content and had actually been asked to leave the previous Alpha course I’d attended. He argued that I would make sure that there was lively discussion after the talks – and I really like any opportunity to talk theology and biblical history.

So I’ve now been doing that for just over a year. I find I don’t just keep the discussion lively, but I also provide an example of how one can be a Christian but not toe the evangelical party line – and Alpha does that. So, occasionally, do the speakers; this church doesn’t rely on the video talks which are produced centrally, but gets a different person from within the church for each talk; one result is that no two of the talks I’ve attended on any of the Alpha topics have been exactly the same.

The leadership of the church considers that Alpha is the best single tool for evangelism which they have, and that is probably correct. Doug would probably feel that this is evangelism into the narrow confines of evangelical thinking, and consider it a bad thing – but is it? I think not.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that I’m rather unusual in terms of my formation, having started as an atheist, and having to work hard over many years to find a way of functioning in a Christian community pretty much all of which will be substantially more conservative-minded than I am. I can’t give up methodological naturalism (i.e. I expect there to be a naturalistic, scientifically explainable reason for everything) even if I wanted to, which I don’t particularly, and have had to find ways of Christian expression which do not conflict with this – and I think I have found people who have reasonably compatible viewpoints in the community which tends to wear the label “progressive”.

None of the well known names in this community started out as atheists and inched their way into Christianity following an apparently uncaused peak spiritual experience as I did, however. Some started in mainline churches, but the overwhelming majority started off in one of the churches labelled “evangelical”. In other words, they started with the kind of theology which Alpha puts forward and in their own walks of faith found that the evangelical touchstones were impossible for them to assent to any more. Peter Enns is currently doing a set of testimonies of progressive scholars, the second of which is here; these are I think fairly typical. Having looked at Peter Rollins’ experiments in radical theology, they are universally aimed at people who have existing familiarity with the conventional Christian tradition and wish to move on.

I also know of no programme similar to Alpha which looks to recruit people directly into the more liberal traditions. “Living the Questions”, for instance, assumes basic Christian knowledge and seeks to move from a conventional to a more progressive stance. “Emmaus” does not engage liberal or progressive viewpoints well and generally functions as a formation programme for those who are already Christians, although it can be and sometimes is used as an entry level course, and John Vincent’s “Journey” is specifically a post-conviction radical discipleship course. I also know of no way of successfully presenting a liberal/progressive/radical gospel in easy soundbytes, such that you could use this for direct evangelism, assuming for a moment that the less conservative churches gained a sudden missionary zeal.

Thus it seems to me that the ranks of the liberal, the progressive and the radical are very largely dependent upon more conservative forms of Christianity in order to increase their ranks. In order to have more liberal, progressive and radical Christians, we need more conventional-to-conservative Christians.

In an ideal world, the move from conservative to progressive (if a person’s faith journey went in that direction) could happen within one denomination, and the Anglican tradition seems to me the best candidate for one sufficiently broad to allow this, assuming that it can avoid pulling itself apart over issues which have little or nothing to do with the centrality of the gospel. Even better would be the ability for this to happen within one church. I am earnestly hoping that I have found such a church, given their tolerance for my liberal-progressive-radical viewpoints on their Alpha course!

I also, of course, find myself in the position of accepting the “Great Commission” (“Go forth and make disciples of all nations”), while being unable to share from my own experience a path which is at all likely to resonate with those who hear me; the vast majority of people, it seems, do not have major life-changing spiritual experiences from a position entirely outside religion. Try as I might, I cannot now travel by a different route to the destination I am already at in order to produce experience which would actually be useful to anyone else. I do what I can using St. Francis’ “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” principle, but other than that, all I can do is assist others in the process of creating disciples.

So, do I have any measure of agreement with Rev. Hagler? Well, I can testify from personal experience that being theologically liberal in a more conservatively minded church without being divisive is not easy (it isn’t trivially easy in a conventional mainline church either), so if there is a “progressive” church available, perhaps progressives looking for a home will feel more comfortable there. I think, however, that they will then find difficulty in fulfilling the Great Commission.

If anyone has a magic solution to making disciples the progressive way, I want to know. But on the whole, I don’t believe in magic solutions…