It has to do with that which I believe, and with the way in which that belief is expressed and practised; in other words with faith and religion and the (to me at any rate) apparently increasing distance and difference between the two. It’s also very subjective and carries weight only for me. That could make it very self-indulgent, but what I mean is that I’m just trying to work out where I am, and not trying to prescribe where anyone else should be.
I’ve been a Christian in an active and personal sense for most of my life. At times, especially close to the beginning of that journey, I have bought in fairly uncritically to the faith system promoted by that part of the Christian church that I encountered – the evangelical end of he Church of England. There have been times of questioning and doubt, times of learning and change but I’ve stayed with it both personally and professionally as a priest in the CofE for more than 40 years now. Retirement 7 years ago brought a freedom from the “daily round” of parish commitments and the space to stop and think and face up to questions that had been somewhat buried under timetables, deadlines and expectations, and while that’s a good thing, it has also proved quite unsettling. Hence this exercise which is something akin to the notion that “I think I’d better think it out again” (to quote a song).
I begin with what I observe in the human condition. At the moment we are in the midst of the Brexit “debate” (the inverted commas feel right, perhaps because I’m not sure how much of a real debate is going on, it feels rather more like a shouting match from entrenched positions!). That polarisation shows people at their worst – destructive, opinionated, dismissive of others, selfish, greedy for personal advance / victory, insecure and thus unable and unwilling and afraid to reach out to others. Charlie Brown in Peanuts all those years ago surely had it right ….. “I love mankind, it’s people I hate!”
The curious thing is that exactly the opposite is also true. Humanity is wonderful; creative, compassionate, self sacrificial. People are capable of a concern for justice and righteousness that can be truly costly to the individual, and that price is paid willingly and even joyously because the cause is right. The music of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and Sibelius (and many, many others) conveys sadness and pain, joy and peace in ways that truly uplift the soul. Great poets, artists, sculptors, architects and yes even politicians, diplomats, priests and rulers show themselves to be truly great in their analysis and understanding and thus bring untold good to generality of the social round.
The sheer creativity of science seems to hold together the tension between the goodness and the badness of humanity. Nuclear power is in some ways a cliched example, yet the capacity for healing, for benign power sources, for physical, chemical and biological development contrast horrifically with the destructive power of nuclear weaponry …. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”
Then there is the planet and indeed the universe in which we exist. It is at times a fearsome and even terrifying place. A place of earthquakes and tsunamis; a place of volcanoes and avalanches; a place of climatic change, however caused, which seems to threaten our very existence. Yet also it is a place of stunning beauty whether in the local glories of the hills and dales of Yorkshire, or in the mind boggling glimpses of infinity in the countless stars of a clear night, that vista itself made all the more extraordinary by the discoveries of space exploration and science.
The potential for unselfish goodness in humankind; the creativity of humanity expressed in both science and the arts; the breathtaking wonder of the natural world …….. all of these I think point beyond the mundane to “something else”. I do believe in the theory of evolution, but I find it hard to accept for instance that goodness and creativity have merely evolved out of our instincts for survival and are thus in themselves intrinsically selfish. So for me, it’s here that begins a wondering about the “other” that leads even the worst of us to have a potential for the best.
If I say “that’s where God comes in” that lays me open to accusations of looking for a “god of the gaps” and I recognise that. I can’t think quite how to avoid that. Is it so wrong to look for an explanation of the inexplicable that stands outside the very greatest of human intellects and thus acknowledges the limitations of art and science? Both of those disciplines have grown and progressed over the centuries of humanity’s existence and we undoubtedly know much more than we used to about “the world the universe and everything”. The conundrum though is that despite the evolution of knowledge, the human spirit still embodies the good and the bad. Violence is still if not (in physical terms anyway) the very first resort’ certainly not the last resort. I’m re-reading Bernard Cornwell’s “Last Kingdom” series based in the 9th century, and undoubtedly the leaders of people in those distant days were wont to kill and destroy their enemies with swords, shields, spears and axes. These days the destruction is not on the whole as physical and we have a veneer of civilisation, but beneath the veneer lurk the same attitudes and emotions; the basic mix of good and bad hasn’t changed – as recent events make clear.
For me then, that searching for a power, a force, a spirit that expresses itself in the glories of the natural world, and which transforms the purpose in humanity from a mere instinct for survival to a sometimes self sacrificial generosity to others finds a resting place in “the God who is seen in Jesus” (to quote David Jenkins).
I’m currently reading (yes, two books at once!) “Jesus, a new vision”, by Marcus J Borg, which I am finding both helpful and challenging. I read Chapter 5 this morning, entitled “The Shaping of Jesus”. This was somewhat coincidental with trying to write this piece, and whether serendipity or the Holy Spirit, I find it extremely relevant to my question and very useful. So I’m going to quote it extensively as he develops the idea of Jesus, whom he describes as a mystic, and as one for whom “God was not simply an article of belief, but an experienced reality”
“Speaking of God:
The notion that God can be experienced is foreign to many in the modern world. Atheists of course deny that such experiences are possible, and agnostics are sceptical. But even many Christians in our time find the claim strange. To a considerable extent, this is because the most common Western concept of God, shared by Christians as well as by many atheists and agnostics, is that the word ”God” refers to a person-like being separate from the universe. Because this “superbeing” is not here, but somewhere else, “out there”, beyond the universe, God is not a reality that can be experienced.
The term commonly used for this way of thinking of God – as being separate from the universe – is supernatural theism. This form of theism seems orthodox to many Christians because of its familiarity (from the Bible) …….. but when taken as a concept of God, as the meaning or referent of the word “God”, it is misleading and inadequate, for it is only half of the biblical concept of God. It speaks only of God’s transcendence, God’s beyondness.
The Bible also speaks of God’s presence everywhere and in everything. …… Paul suggests that God is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) …… God is not somewhere else, but right here, all around us, the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. ……. God is everywhere, God is omnipresent ….. this is God’s immanence. …… for orthodox Christian theology through the centuries, God is both transcendent and immanent, both more than the universe and present in the universe.
A term increasingly used to name this way of thinking about God is panentheism (which) affirms that everything is in God, even as it also affirms that God is more than everything.”
He goes on then to discuss the ways in which God might be experienced, but while that’s well worth reading, I think I’m making a slightly different connection here. I wonder if the transcendent God of supernatural theism is the god defined and described in creeds and doctrines and which the church (in its many different guises) has sought over many centuries to own, control and administer in its sacraments. The immanent God of panentheism is perhaps the elusive Spirit of John 3:8 “the wind / spirit / pneuma blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”. This is God who far from being a remote tweaker of knobs and puller of strings is in us and around us, that power / force / spirit that is ever nudging us from the bad to the good, from the destructive to the creative. Above all this is the God “who is seen in Jesus”. It occurs to me that this sounds very like what I have read of Celtic theology – which was of course “defeated” many centuries ago by the imported orthodoxies of Roman christianity. That begs one of the great “what if” questions of the history of Christendom … if only the Council of Whitby had found a different result!
If I find myself becoming slowly more at ease with my understanding of my own faith as a Christian, the other side of that is an attitude to the CofE and to the institutionalised church in general which is becoming increasingly less comfortable. If I look back I think there has been an undercurrent of unease with church / religion somewhere in the back of my mind for much of my Christian experience. I will and do accept that the CofE (which is of course the outfit that I know best and which has had the greatest influence on my spiritual life) has the right to decide on and order its way of doing things. What I now begin to accept (and it feels a touch pathetic that I only really begin to accept it after nearly 45 years of close involvement with the church!) Is that it doesn’t in any sense control the work of the Spirit. The institutional church has the potential to be of great value to the cause of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes it fulfils that potential and I hasten to add that I have at times drawn great spiritual benefit from it. It feels a bit like going to the gym though ….. it’s not the only way to stay fit!
More to be said on this theme, but that’ll do for now!