Monthly Archives: November 2013

11 “Concepts create idols — Only wonder understands!”

These are some words that I have recently found on the internet but they express very well how my position within theology differs from that of conservative Christians.  I talked in the last blog post about ‘propositionalism’, the idea that valid truth has to be expressed in words, concepts or propositions.  Although I rejected the idea, my argument did not draw out a point which Gregory of Nyssa, the 4th century author of my quote, understood well.  His insight reminds us of the power of wonder, the contemplation of that which cannot be reduced to words.  The word contemplation also has a currency within Christian spirituality and prayer.  It indicates that prayer is not about asking but involves watching, waiting and listening.  To contemplate allows us to reach into the essence of something, whether it be beauty, the sublime or God himself.

I do not think that it would be exaggerating to suggest that some Christians have made the Bible into an idol.  It is held up on a pedestal and claimed to be a source of truth and guidance but the way it is actually used seems to hold it at arm’s length.  Quite often the words of scripture are used not to edify or spiritually feed but as weapons with which to beat an opponent.  To wonder at something can never objectify it in this way.  Just as objectifying another person makes it impossible for us to relate to them properly, so objectifying the words of scripture makes them into ‘idols’.

Approaching the words of Scripture with a sense of wonder is in no way to downgrade or devalue them.  But it does require us to let go of the attitude that wants to prove something or reinforce a position when we read it.  Wonder is open to the unexpected or surprising that can come from a perusal of Scripture.  Speaking personally as someone who has fairly regularly to find something new to say about a familiar passage of the Bible when preparing sermons, I find myself amazed that Scripture does go on finding new things to say to me.  Any attempt to articulate an idea in a sermon nearly always results in my having a new insight based on the passage in front of me.  Scripture is in this sense ‘inspired’, because it goes on being capable of producing new insights in me.  Because the Bible is a source of such insight, I can respect it as in some way as the ‘Word of God’.  But from all that has been said, it can be seen that that Word can particularly be grasped through this faculty of wonder.  The Psalmist captured something of this when he said: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Ps 119: 105


10 Dare To Doubt

Chris and I recently shared some thoughts on the word ‘doubt’.  For me the word is not a threatening one because I find myself with many others to be an heir to the liberal tradition of the 18th  century Enlightenment where doubt was seen as a key to knowledge.  If you did not doubt, then new truth was impossible.  The motto of this great movement of the Enlightenment was ‘dare to doubt’.  In this way doubt comes to be a tool for discovery and  for learning new things which go beyond the old certainties.  Because doubt challenges the old certainties and traditions that were around in the 18th century as well as today,  it is highly subversive to the vested interests and those who guard them.  These interests include religion, politics, philosophy and even science.

In contrast with this somewhat radical view held by the followers of the Enlightenment, the vast majority of people even today have little patience with this 250 year old intellectual revolution.  This fundamental idea that doubt is part of a creative process of questioning and discovery is unknown to most people.  People prefer to have certainties and they find these in facts that their minds can grasp.  Some facts are grasped in the course of life’s experience and others are transmitted as part of  the educational process  that most people are exposed to.  It is today a cause of regret that at school level facts are the mainstay of the educational process.  Religious education is not immune from this process and  teachers of religion, past and present, have focussed on imparting facts and making rote learning the highest form of understanding.  Knowledge of the Bible in the sense of being able to recite it and quote it has come to be seen as the mark of an educated Christian.  This way of teaching the factual content of the faith and requiring people to accept it has traditionally been understood to be the task of the Church.  The facts of the Bible and of  traditional Christian teaching have been handed on and in this understanding, doubt is seen as an enemy of the process.  Facts and the certainties they bring are the traditional currency of the Church.

The problem of this kind of teaching facts is that it is a trap.  It is a trap for people both within and outside Christianity.  Some people on the outside of faith have been taught that certain facts make it impossible for Christianity to be true.  T he ‘facts’ of science contradict the statements of the Bible eg the Creation story.  Others within the orbit of traditional Christian teaching and who are taught the ‘facts’ of Christianity are trapped in a equally mind-numbing place.  They are taught the entire body of Scripture and the Creeds are all ‘facts’ because that is the only one possible way to understand them.  Conservative scholars spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to reconcile conflicting facts in Scripture

Both sides of this argument have been thoroughly betrayed through this kind of teaching.  Behind this emphasis on fact is a philosophy known as ‘propositionalism’.  Put simply it says that truth is only contained in statements of provable fact.  This philosophy is a variation of materialism, the idea that matter is the only reality we can know.

Before I go on to criticise these philosophies, whether used to attack Christianity or trying to stay within it, I must come back first to the way that people have been let down by this false teaching.  Chris has communicated in his writing his own experience of betrayal and ‘agonies of despair’ when he discovered that faith and salvation presented as a series of facts and the Bible as a text of true fact were not as they seemed.  He recognised that his own position as a barely literate young man in the 1960s had been taken advantage of by Christian leaders with a gift of words.  He had been sucked into a system which fed on people’s longing for certainty.  The evangelical machine reassured him of various things.  He knew truth, his longing for certainty could be satisfied and he was ‘safe’ in this world and in the one to come.  The moment that the bubble of this certainty was pricked, Chris had nothing with which to replace it.  He had been living in a binary universe where truth and falsehood, black and white were presented in stark contrasts.

This blog is wanting to talk about a place where we can find a place to stand which does not insist that we have to be certain about everything all of the time.  The blog also maintains that Christianity is always about a becoming and not an arriving at a destination.  The journeying image seems so much more biblical than any other and I (SP) am much happier with the journey analogy complete with the attendant doubts and grey areas of as-yet undiscovered reality.

To return to the ideas of materialism which seem to lie behind the false teaching which Chris has imbibed and have been the source of so much pain and suffering to him and many that he knows.  Materialism is inadequate on two fronts at the very least.  First it cannot make any sense of ideas of value, beauty and love.  It is a description of a universe without what we would call ‘soul’.  Facts of course exist, but as we humans experience them, they come packaged with value, meaning and sometimes beauty.  To isolate them from these attachments is to do violence to their real significance.   In this way materialism and ‘facts’ are a shallow and incomplete description of the world as we know and experience it.

Materialism is also undermined by what we are discovering of the sub-atomic universe.  Matter simply does behave in a common-sense fashion when we enter the quantum dimension.  I am not proposing to do more than hint at the way the discoveries of quantum physics undermine many of the old certainties that were grasped by classical physics.  The implication of these findings are relevant to our pursuit of truth whether as a Christian or not.  At the very least the post-modern quantum world is one where words should only be used  and statements made with a degree of hesitancy and humility.

So the 21st century world has returned to the 18th century in a significant way.  It is a world where people ‘dare to doubt’.  They do not do this in a negative spirit but in a way that allows reality to impinge on us gradually and in a many faceted way.  If Christianity is ‘true’, it is not true as a list of provable facts about life.  It is true because it brings us into touch with a reality that transforms us in some way.  The faith is something which combines a knowledge of story, experience and inner stillness that resonates with the Christ event as found in Scripture.  More of this in a future blog.







9 Why do some Clergy/Ministers abuse their power

This blog is concerned with many examples of abuse that happen and have happened in churches up and down the land (not to mention across the world).  I am concerned not only by the fact that it happens but also to offer some reflections as to why it happens.

The word abuse is one that is often associated with sex and indeed sexual exploitation with members of the congregation or pastoral clients is unhappily fairly common in the church.  I leave the abuse of children to one side because although it does happen, its occurrence is dwarfed by the incidence of so called ‘affairs’ in the church.  Estimating from guesswork and some American research I would maintain that while one clergyman or minister in forty may have sexually abused a child, up to one in eight may have behaved inappropriately with an adult member under their pastoral care.  A perusal on the Web will produce some confirmation of whether my figures are more or less accurate.

While abuse of power in a sexual way happens in the church (and I will return to this topic in another blog) , more common is the simple use of power games to bolster up a flagging ego within a Christian leader.  In summary power is abused for one of three reasons.  These are sex, money or the desire to make the abuser feel important.  When we talk about power abuse in church, we are normally talking about the third one of these.  It is a phenomenon which is similar to bullying by children.  Why do children bully?  The short answer is that they themselves have little esteem and if they can put someone else down using physical threats or dominating behaviour they get a sense of being important.  That sense of being important temporarily relieves their inner sense of insignificance and not mattering to others.  Clergy play the power game in rather more subtle ways than children in the playground but it would seem that the fundamental reasons are the same.  For whatever reason, clergy sometimes suffer a crisis of confidence and experience threats to their well-being.  The reason for this may be located in the individual’s remote past or it may be a consequence  of demoralising conditions of their work in the present.

The abuse of power by the clergy can take many forms and readers of this blog will have their own stories to tell.  The abuse of power is often accompanied by a constant reminding by the clergyperson of their ‘superior’ status or education.  The clergy who have extra titles may insist of having these used on every occasion.  Often clergy will only want to associate with the socially significant among their congregation and ignore others of less importance.  This need constantly to be in a superior place to the people ‘below’ them can be seen on examination to be an expression of inadequacy verging on paranoia.  If it were not hurtful to those affected by it, it could be almost seem as comic.  But being subtly put down by a ‘superior’ person is never funny and congregations where this happens are unlikely to flourish.  But just as the abuser may be a victim in some way of the past or present and finds it difficult to change, so the abused find it difficult to walk away because they do not know how to reclaim their power.

8 Thinking about the Bible

Since writing the last Blog post, I have come to see that the way the Bible is taught to the young is a deadly serious business. We have imbibed even through ordinary culture certain ideas about the Bible and its ‘truth’ and we indicate this assumption in expressions like ‘Gospel truth’. The fact that solemn oaths are taken holding a copy of the Bible also gives to scripture an apparent authority which makes it powerful in to our culture. Many people, including those outside the churches regard Scripture as having somehow a special even magical quality. Even if the contents of the Bible are almost entirely unknown to them, the ordinary person in the street will often claim to respect the message of the Bible.
This respect for Scripture alongside ignorance of what it is actually about, means that Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes gain a grudging audience with some individuals they accost on the doorstep. The same appeal to the ‘truth’ of the Bible is the ploy of many evangelical groups when approaching ordinary people in the street. These same individuals cannot see that the ‘evangelist’ may be involved in a very one sided and selective use of Scripture as a means of making their pitch. Even Christians who have studied the Bible find it difficult to counter the apparent confidence with which verse after verse is quoted to create the patchwork of a theological system. These systems of theological thinking seldom begin with Scripture but have arisen elsewhere and then suitable verses from Scripture have been harnessed to provide a structure on which to hang these ideas.

I was struck recently in reading an account on the Scriptural support for the two divergent systems of Protestant theology, Calvinism and Arminianism. By way of summary Calvinism taught that salvation was the gift of God alone and that we could never be sure of our salvation. Hell was a very real possibility for all but the ’elect’. Arminius taught a more hopeful version of the faith and there seemed to be the possibility that our attempts to live a good life would be a factor in determining our ultimate destination beyond the grave. The book that I was consulting examined the whole of the New Testament and found that there were almost an equal number of New Testament verses to support either position. In other words both Calvin and Arminius were guilty of selective use of Scripture. In making this statement one asks how many people have died rather than admit that the other point of view on some theological position has equal credibility from Scripture. The modern claim by evangelical preachers that the ‘substitutionary doctrine of the Atonement is the only one to be read out of the Bible is of course complete nonsense. It can be found there but they are other models and images to explain the significance of the death of Christ.

Reading the Bible to suit our doctrines has gone on for centuries and continues today. And yet it is alarming for a young Christian to find that the clergy know these things while the new Christians have been fed on a simplistic idea that the Bible is ‘true’. To talk about ‘truth’ in the Bible raises the question ‘Which truth?’ . The discussion about the gay issue or the position of women are of vital importance to many people but it is simply dishonest to claim that some ambiguous words in Leviticus and Romans sort out the problem of gay marriage once and for all. That is taking us back to magical thinking, raising the Bible to be a magic talisman rather than a witness to a profound search for God. Let us never short change those who are to be taught about the Christian faith with simplistic dishonest statements about Scripture. If we feed them this then we cannot be surprised if they become profoundly shocked, disturbed and overwhelmed by a sense of betrayal that they have given their lives believing half-truths and simplistic formulae.
Thinking about the Bible

7 ‘Your image of God must go’. Reflections on Honest to God 50 years on.

The year 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the famous book Honest to God. I cannot claim to have read the book when it first came out but I was affected by the article in the Observer which had the headline, using words ascribed to Bishop Robinson, ‘Your image of God must go.’ That headline did speak to me because even in my late teens I was aware of the problem of ‘anthropomorphism’, making God into a person, a quasi-human who sat above the clouds waiting to catch us out. In short I did not believe in a God who was like a grumpy and arbitrary tyrant. The way many people spoke about God as though he could simply turn on or off hurricanes, earthquakes as well as serious illnesses at will did not seem satisfactory. Although I cannot remember in detail the kind of God I believed in at the age of 17-18, I do know that I was never sucked into a belief system that made me afraid of God. All my attempts to pray, to worship and generally lead a reasonably good life were never done because I was afraid but because I had a glimpse of a better, fuller life working with this transcendent being. The people called Saints seemed to have got something that I wanted. Being a Christian was part of a journey towards this kind of life and God and Christ were in different ways travelling companions.
These memories of the naive Christian teenager do, I believe, summarise one version of the faith that was set before some of us in the early years of our Christian formation. Another version of the Christian faith, and here I allow myself to be the opinionated writer of a Blog, was frankly terrifying, cruel and even abusive. Some of us were presented with a Christian teaching that threatened us with overwhelming everlasting torture beyond the grave if we did not obey our earthly teachers and submit to their control. They spoke for God himself. To misquote the Anglican collect for Trinity 6: O God who has prepared for those who do not love thee, such awful things as pass man’s understanding. This teaching was not confined to evangelical churches but was being peddled in a middle of the road church primary school assembly as recently as the early 80s. Many of the children were reduced to tears by this uncompromising message. Nothing was done, because the Vicar concerned, no doubt, could quote scripture to say that this was Biblical truth. Behind this teaching is a doctrine of man that sees the natural state of humanity as one of unrelieved evil. The only way to escape such a fate was to be frightened into the kingdom of Christian belief through a process we could call ‘terror evangelism’. It also presented a doctrine of God who, even though described as a God of love, could behave in ways that appeared to be far from loving.

Bishop Robinson was anxious to banish these and other images of God and he now introduced the reader to expressions such as ‘ground of being’ or ‘ultimate concern’ as ways of talking about our relationship with the Divine. These terms strayed far from the quasi-human picture of God, prone to cruelty and arbitrary punishment which filled the imaginations of so many Christians at the time as well as now. But many Christians fiercely resisted this kind of language introduced by Robinson. Their reasons for resisting it were ostensibly because it was not language found in the Bible. But curiously the language of everlasting damnation awaiting those who were not members of the Church was also comforting and attractive to those on the inside of the Church, looking outwards. They had been ‘saved’ so now they were smugly safe from all this potential terror and pain. The fact that they could contemplate with apparent satisfaction such an awful fate for so many of the world’s population verges on the obscene, but many Christians then as now still seem oblivious to this example of a catastrophic failure of love and compassion.

As a footnote to these thoughts about the teaching of Honest to God, the terrible events taking place in the Philippines make it even more imperative that our image of God must change. The anthropomorphic God, the one susceptible to arbitrary moods and emotions, may well be a God that sends or withholds terrible weather events, such as Typhoon Haiyan. The God that Bishop Robinson spoke of who lives in the places of mystery and depth seems to have a very different relationship with these natural events. He does not create or prevent these weather systems. We might wish to say that the God that is presented to us in Scripture is a God, not of power and control, but one of vulnerability and weakness. Somewhere in all the pain of the homeless, the bereaved and the dying in the Philippines, God is to be found in ways we cannot fully grasp. But perhaps his presence is also found in the hearts and imaginations of those who feel moved to respond to the awfulness and the tragedy of this event. In the way we respond to suffering we can show the power of God’s transforming love in our lives. Ubi caritas, ibi Deus est. Where there is love, there is God.

6 The issue of music in Church

Chris and I (editor) have often spoken about the use of music in church. There are lots of aspects that can be discussed in this area and no doubt we will come back to some more of these in the future. The place that I want to begin at is the observation that ‘successful’ evangelical churches devote a lot of effort and money in providing a good choir and instrumentalists to lead worship. This will always be an attraction to the people who like the kind of music on offer. The tunes are catchy and it would not be wrong to say that many people find this ‘entertainment’ a good reason for attending a particular church. Without at this point making any judgement on the merit of the music or indeed the lyrics being sung, it would not be unfair to say that emotions are stirred and hearts are warmed by music in church long before the brain has been engaged with the message of the preacher or leader.
This reflection wants to focus on the possible disconnection between brain and emotion that takes place in many churches where endless singing and music during worship is commonplace. If there is this disconnection, and here the readers of the blog may have opinions, then there is a situation of true danger. The danger is that religion is permanently associated with spungy pleasant feelings aroused by sentimental music. Thus the engagement of the brain with issues of faith and decisions about life may never happen. In short religion or faith has become permanently associated with ‘feelings’ and the possibility of actually thinking about faith cannot easily take place.

Two further dangers follow from this. One is that the individuals who are swayed into automatic religious sensations and emotions when certain music is played are going to be vulnerable to the kinds of abuse that this blog is concerned about. The capacity to think critically about leaders, whether or not their preaching is good or even rational is going to be diminished. So congregations can become fodder for financial, spiritual and emotional exploitation by their leaders. What I have written is provocative but I want to create some sort of reaction from my readers. Is music sometimes used to ‘soften up’ worshippers for exploitation of various kinds or is it a genuine handmaid of growing deeper into faith and Christian maturity? What do you think?