Little faith

In small group last week, we were looking at Matthew 14:22-33, which is the story of Jesus walking across the rough waters of the Sea of Galilee to the apostles in their boat, Peter asking Jesus to call him to walk on water, and Peter’s limited success. Limited in that while it initially worked, Peter became frightened and began to sink, and needed rescuing.

I commented that I had difficulty with this passage, as I could not put myself into Peter’s position. Asked why, I said I didn’t believe in the supernatural. There was a silence, and then someone said “But, you’re a Christian?” Others chipped in, and the moment passed, but I felt I hadn’t dealt with this well; in addition, I notice that we’re going to be looking specifically at the question of belief and faith next week. I think it worth clarifying the position.

Accurately, I don’t believe in physical miracles, that is to say of the “walking on water” or “water into wine” variety. Healings and exorcisms are a different matter; I have seen cures through faith, and have talked to other people’s demons as well as my own (and you should read that very metaphorically!). Communications with God are also very much another matter, including tangible apparitions. I don’t think anything physical is actually happening in these; what is happening is changes in people’s consciousnesses and the results of that, so far as I’m concerned.

Against that, I don’t actually disbelieve miracle stories as such. As miracles are, by definition, exceptionally unlikely events, I would not expect the normal rules of how things work necessarily to apply to them if they did happen, and so the presumption that everything always works along naturalistic lines would be too strong – it definitely works along naturalistic lines almost always, but the absolute statement is one which I would think it foolish to make.  I might like to be able to believe in miracles the way many of those in my faith community do, but I can’t. The nearest I can get is suspension of disbelief, an acceptance that maybe, just maybe, things will not be the way every ounce of my rational thinking says it will be.

Thus, in Peter’s position, if I stepped out of the boat I would with huge confidence expect to sink.

But that isn’t the only reason why I couldn’t put myself in Peter’s position. As someone else noted in the group, there was no obvious reason for Peter to walk on water. From Peter’s point of view, he was putting himself in danger in order that God could save him miraculously, and in Matthew 4:1-17 we have seen Jesus tempted. Note particularly verses 5-7, where Jesus is invited to endanger himself and trust in a miracle, and responds that you should not put the Lord to the test. Peter is going completely against this principle. I’ve spent years training myself not to do that, after a certain youthful enthusiasm many years ago – though that never went quite as far as one of those preaching the previous Sunday on the subject, who did actually try to walk on water…

That said, I have occasionally hoped for a miracle without any belief that one would occur, but only when every other avenue was closed to me, and only a miracle would suffice. On a very few occasions, things have, to my amazement, worked out – not always in any way which I might have asked for, but worked out nonetheless. I can’t, however, say that any of those required a physical miracle, though they have certainly required psychological ones more than once.

The thing I’ve increasingly come to recognise as I’ve studied scripture over the years is that the real message of the miraculous stories is not in the fact that a miracle has occurred, it’s something else, a deeper message which can be found (and sometimes more than one). I don’t need to believe in the occurrence of the miracle to see the deeper message. In this case it’s that one should have absolute trust in Jesus; once Peter’s trust faltered, he was in trouble.

For me, indeed, miracles which just show that Jesus (or Peter, or Paul) was something really special don’t do the job they were supposed to. Rowan Atkinson has an extremely funny satire on this attitude on You Tube. I hope readers will see this not as lampooning Jesus, but as lampooning the attitude of some, at least, of his followers. I’ve done enough studying to know that a large number of famous people of the first century and before (and a few after that) had miracle stories attached to them; the New Testament is not unique or even particularly unusual in attributing miracles to its leading characters, and (for instance) Alexander the Great, Hippocrates and Augustus Caesar have such stories, as do quite a few rabbis of the first to fourth centuries, such as Eliezer and Honi the Circle Drawer. If I accept miracles in the New Testament, I have no way of rejecting them in (for instance) the Talmud, or the Koran. Those in the Gospels, at least, do have messages beyond just “this was a very important man whom you should pay attention to” – and I don’t need miracle stories to pay attention to Jesus.

Indeed, going back to the story, if I were in that boat on the sea of Galilee and rather than asking to walk out to Jesus, Jesus asked me to step out of the boat, I would probably do that. I would expect to sink, but hope not to – and in any event trust that what he asked me to do was the right thing. Even if I drowned.

I say “probably”. I am only too conscious of the fact that I have other allegiances as well as to God and Jesus which, at least to date, I have not been willing to set aside and follow the Great Commandments to the letter, or the injunction to the rich young man. (I don’t qualify as rich by the standards of my immediate society, but by world standards there’s no doubt of it). My other allegiances are to my wife and family, and unlike the disciples, I balk at leaving them in order to follow Jesus.

But, to date, all I have is scriptural statements. If I were to have a personal message? I don’t know. I’d certainly argue, taking my cue from plenty of Biblical figures from Abraham onwards, but might obey nonetheless.

So, may be I can put myself in Peter’s shoes (at least when they were dry) after all. I feel the statement “Oh ye of little faith” could be directed squarely at me. As I’ve blogged before, maybe that makes me merely an aspiring Christian, or a not-very-good Christian. But I think, for some value of “Christian”, that’s what I am.


From editing work:-

“There is a story of a salt doll who encounters the ocean. It is strange and foreign; the doll cannot identify with it. “Touch and see,” said the ocean. The doll touched the ocean and gained knowledge from the experience, though a bit of the doll dissolved into the ocean. Wanting more, the doll touches again, and again. Going deeper and deeper, the doll experiences more and more. Finally dissolving in the depths, the doll and the ocean simply say “I am!” Such is the experience of holy union.”

David Moffett-Moore, “Pathways to Prayer”, Energion Publications – forthcoming.

Capitalism is an abomination, but maybe same-sex marriage isn’t…

I don’t usually stray into issues around the acceptance (or otherwise) of homosexuality and same sex marriage. However, my attention has been drawn to a couple of really excellent blog posts.

The first of these is from Larry Behrendt, on Jewish-Christian intersections. Always stimulating and thought-provoking, Larry concentrates on issues around how and why Judaism and Christianity parted company, and what we can now do to overcome the historically nasty relationship between the two ( for which most of the blame lies with Christianity). In it, Larry points out that there is a good argument for saying that the “clobber text” in respect of homosexuality in Leviticus 20 can reasonably be read as indicating “taboo” rather than anything stronger, and as being culturally and temporally specific and not of general application; he points out (particularly interesting to me) that the same word, to-ehvah used of whatever is targeted by Lev. 20:13, is used of lending at interest and of investing for profit.

Now, if that be the case, using the usual biblical translation of “to-ehvah”, I can happily proclaim that capitalism is an abomination which should be taboo. This is going to preach!

The second is from J. Daniel Kirk, an evangelical professor at a fairly conservative seminary. Now, I like listening to Daniel (who is currently a regular contributor to Homebrewed Christianity’s Lectiocast, a resource for preachers working from the Lectionary). I like reading him. But he comes from a far more conservative strain of Christianity than I can really be comfortable with.

Here, however, it seems to me that he hits the issue squarely on the nail, and with superb force of argument. Certain people, he starts out, cannot be part of the community of God. Liberals (theological and social) should not stop reading there… the argument proceeds to make the point that the trajectory of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament regularly sets aside older exclusivist statements and replaces them with new, inclusivist ones, and asks why we cannot do the same here, despite Daniel thinking that the “clobber text” scriptures probably do actually target homosexuality in general rather than, as various very inventive interpreters have been doing recently, merely certain specific actions. I am still not certain I can go along with that portion of Larry’s argument, although I do find the in-depth look at the translation of Lev. 20 very interesting.

One reason why I have not commented is that about 40 years ago, I found myself asked by a friend, who is now in a same-sex marriage, to look at those clobber texts and tell him what I thought they meant for his clearly inborn sexual orientation, as he was a committed Christian. Much as I would have liked to reassure him, I cane to much the same conclusion as Daniel does – although you can argue about them, they probably evidence an exclusion of anyone with same-sex orientation both in Leviticus/Deuteronomy and in Paul’s letters, and said that I could wish that he might consider a different religious tradition (at the time, I was still exploring many religious traditions and could best have been described as a freelance monotheist of the panentheist variety). It was not possible at the time, and all I could suggest was that he reject those passages as not applicable. I did not see the internal justification which Daniel exposes for considering them as “timed out”.

Now, both Larry, in his more general thinking, and Daniel have provided ways in which the deselection of these passages as relevant to us here and now can be justified, and add to my earlier conclusion – that Christianity understands God as loving before anything else, and that he would not support the condemnation of exclusion of anyone on the basis of something they were born with. They have done it without the need to hold anything other than the highest view of scripture, as well. My thanks to both – and I wish I’d had their analyses 40 years ago!

A religion for the extrovert?

Last Sunday, I heard a sermon in which was the comment “We have a sign on our door saying ‘No admittance except on party business'”. Had I heard it out of context, my first impulse would have been to walk up to the preacher’s house humming the Internationale.

However, the context was in a sermon around the theme of festivity; the encouragement was always to be in a state of communal celebration.

I’d prefer to be always in a state of cerebration. Actually, I mostly am in that state. The thing is, that isn’t because of any lack of wish to be happy or joyous – I’d love to be able to do that when in company with lots of others. The trouble is, I’m just not constructed that way.

On a Meyer-Briggs personality test, while three out of the four categories are ones which I have historically fallen on either side of the dividing line (I’m currently borderline between INTJ and INFJ, though I’ve occasionally registered as marginally S or P), I always register as an introvert, and where the test delivers a percentage, 85% is usual. This makes me really very introverted, such that contact with groups of people saps my energy quite quickly, and I need time alone to recharge (it’s the other way round for extroverts). As a quite separate issue, I’ve always tended towards social anxiety from an early age (and this isn’t always a characteristic of introverts, though they often go together) and for the last 20 years or so I’ve suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. The result of that is that in the presence of lots of people, particularly if it’s in an unstructured format, I feel ridiculously anxious and, truth be told, threatened. I can be in a group of old friends who pose no threat at all, and I still feel threatened.

This makes it extremely difficult for me to cope with communal celebration. In fact, it makes it impossible for me to enter fully into the spirit of the more free-form types of worship – the closer to charismatic things get, the less comfortable I become. That said, I currently attend an evangelical-charismatic Anglican church, which is a trial I put myself through every Sunday. I have reasons entirely unconnected with the style of worship for that, of course, but in addition I keep hoping that continual exposure will lessen the anxiety and allow me to be more festive, more celebratory in company.

In a previous post I mentioned that I seem immune to the forms of religious experience which are drawn from communal activity; while I suspect that having had a peak solitary mystical experience may have in effect burned into my psyche the pathways for that type of experience to the exclusion of others, a simpler explanation is that I’m very unlikely to have a significant religious experience when I’m very anxious (one of the things I find essential to the mystical contemplative path is the stilling of the mind and the emotions). Celebrations are loud and unpredictable and full of people, and all of those make me anxious.

The trouble is, I feel that this kind of exhortation from the pulpit is asking of me something I just can’t deliver, and making me feel that there’s something wrong with me – and this isn’t limited to church. Time and again I’ve found extroverts wondering why I shy away from large gatherings and encouraging me to be more outgoing, as if I were deliberately making a choice to be antisocial. I’ve become used to terms like “party-pooper”, “stick-in-the-mud” and “misery-guts”. It seems to me that the standard position of the extrovert is to think that everyone should be an extrovert, and if they aren’t either they’re deliberately being unpleasant or there’s something wrong with them. And it also seems to me that in order to be clergy in an evangelical setting, you have to be an extrovert.

And yet, as I understand it, around half the population are introverts rather than extroverts. Granted, I’m probably towards the maximum introversion consistent with actually functioning in society, but it seems to me that a church model which is going to make half the population uneasy and maybe ten to fifteen per cent acutely uncomfortable needs some thought, at the least.

So, why do I continue attending? Well, it seems that for the time being at least, this is where I can be most useful. Or, alternatively, this is where prayer has lead me, and it isn’t yet indicating going anywhere else. His ways are not our ways, it seems…