Beyond Iwerne -what do I believe?

After writing two pieces on the Iwerne issue in quick succession, I thought it would be appropriate to write something more reflective for this post. Many of the posts I write are about the ideas and teachings of people I do not agree with and this always makes me think of the sheer range of Christian belief systems that exist. I also come to realise how difficult it is to place exactly where I myself stand along the continuum of possible choices for a personal theology. Do I know exactly whether I am a Calvinist or an Arminian? What is my theology of the death of Christ? Does the range of my individual beliefs and non-beliefs accord with any other individual on earth? I do not, like most other people I suspect, have precise answers to these questions. When I go on to think about the people in our local congregations, I need to ask whether it is realistic to expect any agreement about belief among the people who attend. Is it not more realistic to recognise that there is always going to be a jumble of beliefs and hopes in any group of Christians? Some of these beliefs will be rationally thought through but others may well reflect ignorance or even superstition.

There is an old observation which points out that a river never stays the same. However much we can describe reasonably consistently the scenery which we see on each bank, the actual water in the river is constantly changing. I wonder whether this image would describe my belief or faith. There are certain fixed features of a river’s setting which do not change and that might describe the overall structure of my belief system. While this framework remains the same, there are other aspects of my believing which are in constant flux. The things I feel about God are frequently changing, or perhaps one should say evolving. There are some advantages in being in a state of constant movement over one’s faith. I am always able to be receptive to new things, people, ideas or insights. Such newness will be like the water flowing along the river which is constantly refreshed, ever engaging and fascinating. For some others there is a temptation to dam up the river, to preserve all the water with the result that a large lake is formed. This is the choice that many Christians make. They have the notion that they are obliged to regard the Christian faith as something fixed, unchanging and above all to be preserved for ever. They also have an idea that there are somewhere legitimate and correct definitions of what they are required to believe. Such a belief system is the attempt to grasp on to certainty. Also by having the same lake as other people, their fellow believers, they are allowed to feel both solidarity and safety. But the costs of being in such a lake, which is inevitably stagnant, are very high. It is hard to move or grow if no new ideas and insights can ever come in. I always find myself reacting negatively when I hear these words from a devout Christian: ‘what I always say is….’ I remember a clergyman years ago telling a group of his fellow clergyman the things that he was taught at University in the 1940s. This teaching was his sole contribution to the discussion. Nothing apparently in the form of new ideas had come to him in the intervening years. A lady in my congregation also used to refer to her confirmation classes and the clergyman who led them. These took place during the war and they formed the sole content of her current thinking.

It is not easy to know where is the place of balance in-between the old and traditional and the new and changing. Such a place needs simultaneously to preserve stability and order while being open to the possibility of being refreshed and renewed. Probably I stray too far in the direction of wanting always to welcome new ideas and insights. At the same time, I probably also sit too lightly to some traditional teachings of the church. This is partly due to the way that I can, in retirement, read new things and pick up all kinds of ideas from a variety of sources. But there is another factor from my own background which means that I instinctively shrink from the sort of theology that loves its fixed definitions. Many years ago, I encountered the words of a Greek Orthodox theologian. He stated that the contribution of his church to Christianity was the idea that God is like beauty. Beauty is a concept that defies definitions. It remains maddeningly aloof from our attempts to capture it or put it in a box. We all claim that we know that beauty exists but we will argue incessantly about where it is to be found or indeed, what it is. The same thing I believe is true of God. Many people allow the possibility that God exists but they are reluctant to agree as to what or who he is. This discussion takes place not just among Christians but will happen in almost every culture in the world. When we encounter the concept of Christianity itself we also have a problem of deciding what the word is referring to. Christians may agree that what they believe is fundamentally affected by the life, teaching and death of Christ. But beyond this broad generalisation Christians find it almost impossible to come up with a statement where they are totally in agreement with one another. Some find this failure of Christians to agree a massive problem. But there is another possible approach. It might be true that God is calling us to discover him without expecting us to agree on the exact words to be used. If God is indeed like beauty, as my Greek friend suggested, then there will be a whole variety of approaches and insights. Part of the problem for such a discussion is that we have grown used to the idea that a defined Christian orthodox belief is the only way to qualify for eternal life. This approach has not been helpful. It has given far too much power to those who decide who is or who is not within the acceptable group of ‘sound’ believers. The power to include or exclude in the matter of something so fundamental has resulted in an undercurrent of fear. When this fear exists the free and joyful exploration of Christian pilgrimage becomes an impossible task.

In the stand that this blog takes against abuse perpetrated in the name of Christianity, there is also a resistance against any imposition of fear by the Church. The physical abuse perpetrated against some individuals connected with the Iwerne camps was made possible through a culture of fear. Opposing this fear is the teaching that God always welcomes us and is on our side. Being welcomed, being accepted and being allowed to explore and discover the full wonder and depth of God’s world is the kind of Christianity that I want to own. This is also what I want to share. When we talk about beauty in any of its numerous facets, we encounter not division and argument but a mutual and shared discovery of wonder and excitement. That is the kind of exploratory faith I want to identify with, even if God and the doctrines associated with him are sometimes left slightly woolly and undefined. I leave my reader with the image of the constantly flowing river. The river that is always new is the place where I want to be, rather than in the lake which has no outlet. I wonder which place God would prefer us to be.

5 comments

  1. haikusinenomine

    Thank you Stephen. I think that our Christian beliefs are not only about who God is, but also who we are as humans. If we accept in some way the teaching of the incarnation of God in Jesus, then we can see that these two facets belong together. Of course all sorts of things can flow from that, but in terms of your discussion of the beauty of God, I would suggest that God in Jesus is offering us the chance to be “beautiful” too, however broken or marred we feel. Or another way of putting this is that Jesus shows us a God who is non-violent love, and opens the way for people to leave their violence behind in becoming truly loving. I have been much influenced towards this by the writings of Rene Girard and connected theologians, who have truly allowed new water to flow through my river!

  2. Stephen Parsons

    I like your expression about Jesus giving us the chance to be beautiful. This runs in the opposite direction to all the negative life-denying stuff that we have noted in the previous post. A theology that tolerates violence is going to keep us battered down. That was the fate all too literally of those victims of the camp leader.

  3. haikusinenomine

    Giles Fraser in the Guardian has talked in relation to the Iwerne story of his experience of being thrashed at school, and the anger it instilled in him. And this week he holds up the bishop who says he was beaten but it had nothing to do with theology, which Giles says is being in denial. He makes the connection that has been raised a lot in recent years between violent theories of the atonement and abuse, which many of us find compelling. And that the church needs to face this. What he misses out is that we need the church to explore much more the various non-violent understandings of the atonement which do not depend on a violent God abusing his Son. If the cross is essential for our human salvation we must explore positive understandings of that mystery, including the human violence which is obviously in the story, rather than criticising ideas such as penal substitution and then just leaving the cross unexplored and effectively as a ghastly meaningless accident. That empties Christian faith of a literally crucial component. A positive understanding of the cross which brings out as much as we can perceive of the divine love and forgiveness involved is so necessary but not widespread enough. Only recently my vicar said he/she “hated” the crucifixes in the church and would love to get rid of them. This speaks of being scandalised by the violence in the story and not perceiving through faith the blessings that flow from it. This is one of the areas where I have found mimetic theory so transformative.

  4. David Pennant

    Thanks Stephen. Nice post. I recalled Exodus 3:14 where God says his name is I am that I am, or I will be what I will be, which at least includes an unwillingness to be pigeon-holed. Also, we are told precious little about the coming heavenly city beyond its dimensions, but we are told clearly of the river bringing life to the nations in Revelation 22. Nice.

  5. Margaret Lee

    Excellent post Stephen. After all wherever we are in this river we don’t want to be in an eddy or in still water. A constant flow of inspiration leads us towards God.

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