Engine off. Clamber down to the beach. Vast white sand; Dangerous, beautiful, calming violent sea. I realise nobody - nothing - needs me right now. I'm free to do as I please. Apart from the phone in my pocket beckoning me back to the busy bustling world beyond. A quick check: no signal Power off. And with it, the heavy weight of all of life's responsibilities hidden away in a cluster of microchips, circuits and plastic - out of sight in my backpack. In go the car keys and the wallet too. No need for those here. Just you, me and the gentle hum of the sea as it sprays and sprawls the Scottish shoreline.
Or, should that be “the devils in the detail”? A blog post on why we’ve misunderstood some hebrew and greek and how “the Devil” is as misleading as “Hell”.
We all know what the devil looks like, he’s got wings, horns, a tail and a three-pronged pitch fork. He’s dark red, and has an evil glint in his mischevious eye.
We (and by we, I mean those of us with an evangelical upbringing) also all know that the devil, or Satan, or Lucifer, or the Snake, is actually a “fallen angel” who tricked Adam and Eve, tries to trick Jesus, comes back and rules the earth for a bit and finally gets vanquished at the end of time.
Except that the first of the above two paragraphs is entirely medieval conjecture, and the second is all very misleading folk-tale stuff that has somehow become what we actually believe.
What’s in a Name?
Much like “Hell” not having one direct translation – and thus being a conglomeration of several different ideas, “The Devil” has a bit of a complicated make-up. As far as I can tell, “The Devil” is made up of the following – in chronological order:
- Snake who tricks Adam and Eve (Genesis 3)
- Satan to Job (Job 1), David (1 Chronicles 21) and Zechariah (Zechariah 3)
- Lucifer (Isaiah 14)
- Satan who interacts with and is referenced by Jesus
- Beelzebub in the book of Matthew
- Belial in 2 Corinthians
- The “Evil One” in the Lord’s Prayer
- Dragon in the book of Revelation
Let’s look at these in turn.
The Snake tricks Adam and Eve into eating fruit from the tree, which then opens their eyes and allows them to make bad choices, which in turn alienates them and their ancestors from God. Of course, this is a mythical story which helps us to give spiritual meaning to our origins, and not a literal retelling.
The snake is the first attempt at explaining the idea that there’s a temptation to do things that aren’t good. But it isn’t an evil demi-God. The snake doesn’t appear again until the book of Revelation when it is again invoked allegorically.
For some time, the Christian idea of the devil has incorporated the “Morning Star” in Isaiah 14:12 – this is translated as “Lucifer” from the latin, and when used as an adjective means “light-bringing” or can refer to the planet Venus. The passage in question is concerned with Babylon, and the language seems to be sarcastic and hyperbolic praise to the Babylonian king.
Beelzebub and Belial
These are references to other deities. Quite why they’ve even made my list, I’m not sure.
The Dragon is mentioned in Revelation 12. It is described destroying the stars, attempting to devour a child, and fighting a war against the angels, with his own angels. The dragon loses the fight – and – crucially – is spoken of in verse 9 as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or satan, who leads the whole world astray”
We’ll deal with “satan” below. Devil here is “diabolos” – meaning “he who divides”.
The “Evil One”
The greek for this is “απο του” and it occures most prominently in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel. Here, we need to ask what the greek is getting at. Jesus prays “deliver us from the place of evil” rather than “from the evil one”. It’s easy to start mistranslating when you’ve got an idea like the devil inside your head. Those pesky medievil monks…
Finally, the name of the devil. Satan himself. Satan is the hebrew equivalent of diabolos, meaning “accuser”, “slanderer”. You can think of Satan as the “bad cop” or the “attorney general” character, who tries to point out to people all their flaws, wrongs and negative traits.
Satan is used in various places in Bible stories to make a point. The classic example is Job, where Satan appears to be a servant of God, and is obliged to ask God to carry out his wishes.
The problem with Satan is that it’s actually “satan” – a generic noun (a concept) rather than an individaul, used as an individual in rhetorical form to make a point. The word means “to obstruct, or oppose”. It can refer to any accuser, except when used with the definite article (“ha-satan”), referring to a specific character – it is that character with whom we are concerned.
Fundamentally, of all of the above possible variations of “the Devil”, the only realistic possibilities are “the Dragon”, some instances of “the evil one” and “ha-Satan“. Everything else can go into the bin of bad (folk?) theology and medieval mistakes.
Ha-Satan occures 13 times – in Job (10x) and Zechariah (3x). Let’s look at Zechariah first:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Ha-Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Ha-Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”Zechariah 3:1-2
The question we should ask ourselves is this: what is the context? An angel is telling a story to Zechariah and showing him a vision. He sees a specific character in a vision. Much the same could be said of Job. Job is a story about the different voices, ideas and tensions that we have around the nature of God and the nature of evil, and how we respond to adversity. It is also incredibly old and early on in the development of the Jewish faith.
Jesus and Satan
Fast forward to Jesus and the Greek rendering of satan (σατανᾶς) and devil (διάβολος). One crucial thing to note is that “satan” here is translated as a proper noun (Satan) but could equally be seen as a regular noun (“a satan”, “satan” – i.e. an accuser). The same is true of diabolos.
Thus, we can’t conclude from any of the traditional “Devil” scriptures that there’s a pointy-fork-holding chap called Lucifer/Satan who wants you to worship him, rebelled from God, and will torture you forever if you mess up and don’t accept Jesus as your personal lord and saviour.
Rather puts to bed the idea of hell in its traditional form too, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t mean there isn’t some sort of influence on us, an adversary, an accuser, a voice that speaks negatively to us – but perhaps that what satan truly is in many of these stories – perhaps that comes from inside us, perhaps it comes from a specific voice or personality. But there’s certainly no reason as far as I can see to think that there is some sort of demi-powerful “Devil” at work in the world.
Perhaps instead we should focus on God. Happy Halloween!
I suffer from acute anxiety. It’s often triggered by feeling like I have too much work to do, or by a conflict. It’s always ever-present for a couple of days, until it gently recedes into the background as I distract myself.
When I am anxious, or panicking, I often feel as though I am in some way detatched from reality. This is completely normal, but can be quite disconcerting. Especially as I have a habit of continually wondering about the nature of God, and my relationship with God. Anxiety makes me feel as though God isn’t there.
Today I had a difficult phone call. Difficult because it involved emotions that I don’t like having to process, memories and ideas I don’t like to think about. Specifically, relationships and problems that I cannot control nor particularly help with, but which mean a great deal to me.
Normally I cope with this by going and watching some mindless television – an effective but not particularly rewarding strategy for coping. Today, I made the effort to sit infront of my piano and play out how I felt. As I was doing so, I nursed my hurting soul, I chose to try to force a connection with the divine through my anxious state, and something dawned on me.
Jesus is always dying, everywhere, all at once.
There’s an episode in the reboot of Dr Who where the doctor “enters his own timestream” – he jumps into some sort of matter which contains all the memories and events he has ever been a part of. He is everywhere all at once, and in doing so creates some kind of beautiful paradox that saves the universe from evil.
Jesus is ressurected, everywhere, all at once.
Somewhere in the world, right now, someone is in incredible pain. Someone is dying. Someone has just been concieved, someone has just got engaged, and someone has just been born.
Someone has reunited with their long lost relative, and someone has just been fired. Someone is having a panic attack, and someone is enjoying the bliss that their yoga practises brings them.
I wonder if God is in all things, at all times, and at all times we can experience what that means. Often God is touted as the sticking plaster we seek out to make everything feel better. But more often than not, God doesn’t magically make us feel OK – instead people talk of feeling comforted. I think that’s a more helpful way of looking at it.
That’s not to say that God makes us “feel better”. I didn’t feel better for recognising what was happening in that moment. I felt deeper. I sensed that this is how things are, and that I can experience God in pain and suffering just as much as I can in joy and excitement – not as a remedy or a distraction but simply as a companion.
Just a thought.
It’s been a long time since I’ve regularly posted here, but I think I’m finally coming back round to it.
When I started blogging, I did so because I needed somewhere less instantaneous than the pub to think through and articulate my ideas, my struggles and my doubts. Otherwise I just found them being shut down or excused, and had no comeback.
I used to joke that I stopped blogging because I met my now wife. There’s some truth in that. When we first got to know each other we’d spend hours talking philosphy and theology. And so I didn’t have as much need for my outlet.
As always, there’s truth in every joke made. But there was something else going on too. I lost my voice. I didn’t know what to think any more, and I didn’t even know what to think about not knowing what to think any more.
I was lost.
I moved cities, moved home, moved churches, moved contexts and lost the immediacy of my closest friendships and above all the sense of meaning and purpose that I had gained living and breathing missional community.
I have had to start again.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s been well worthwhile. I needed the break, I needed the change. I can’t yet articulate why, but I know I had to get out of the life I was in, and meeting Becca was the perfect way to do that well.
I’ve come to realise that life is more complicated still than I had thought before. I found myself further adrift than ever from evangelical Christianity, from charismatic Christianity. I’ve had hurtful conversations with close friends who tell me that I’m missing out, that I’m neglecting God, that I’m not living my best life. All because the way that I see the world is different to the way that they do.
But you know what? I’ve never felt more comfortable in myself and with my spirituality.
God is like the oceans. You dive in, splash around a bit, and as you grow more confident you go deeper, and deeper, and deeper. You explore more and more. And the more you explore the more you realise just how vast this thing is. Just how unknown it is. Just how alien it is. The great paradox of God is that the more we know God, the less we know God.
My biggest hang up has probably been the afterlife. I came out a while ago as a Christian Universalist. Nowadays I’m more of a “noniversalist”. I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife. I don’t think it really matters, either. Because Jesus didn’t walk the earth to (only) die.
No, Jesus walked the earth to show us how to live well here and now. To have life in all its fullness. To love our neighbours and our enemies. To give up the sword. To sell what we have and share in common with those in need.
I can’t be sure of an afterlife. I can hope for one, I can believe or not believe in one and it won’t change the reality of the situation. But one thing I’m certain of is that I don’t have to pray a prayer to get in. There isn’t a straightforward answer. So why focus on that when we can focus on here and now?
So the question becomes not “who or what is God” but instead “what does it look like to live life in all its fulness” and, because there’s still a little Welsh Evangelical voice in the recesses of my vast bank of over-thinking, “how can we make sure everyone gets to experience that“?
A friend of mine once commented on the name of this blog. He said that the important part of the phrase wasn’t the nowhere/now here debate (if you hadn’t spotted that already, take a moment. Nice, isn’t it?) but that both of them began with the same two words.
For a long time I’ve indulged myself in writing about interesting/nuanced/convoluted/complex/difficult issues, struggles, topics and ideas that myself or others have had.
It’s been a lot of fun.
But it’s time for a break.
If at this point you and I go our separate ways, if only for a while, then thank you for taking the time to read and engage with my thoughts here.
I want to talk about my favourite Bible verse. It’s one of a few you’ll find in both the Jewish scriptures and in the New Testament. I’m cheating, of course: the verse in question is one that Jesus quotes from the Jewish scriptures. It’s this, from Mark’s gospel:
“The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.”
Or, if you prefer from Matthew’s gospel
“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
On the surface, this looks like a statement from Jesus basically belittling what many demean as the “social gospel”. He’s saying that yes, it’s a shame there are poor people; but, well, focus instead on your relationship with God.
I’ve had two or three conversations recently where I’ve heard variations on this, ranging from confusion through to excuse. It’s confusing, of course, because in all kinds of other parts of scripture, God – in both human form and otherwise – actively campaigns for the plight of the poor and compels us to do something about their circumstance.
The rational explanation seems to be that Jesus is saying – look, the poor are there, you can’t do that much about it, so focus on me instead.
As usual, there’s a better explanation than the conventional wisdom. And that better explanation comes from – as always – context.
Jesus is doing the equivalent of a shorthand reference. Much like when you or I might half-use an idiom, such as “nailed it” (from “hit the nail on the head”, meaning, getting it exactly) – we know what we mean at each stage because it conforms to a series of cultural norms.
Jesus is not saying something new or original. He’s quoting Deuteronomy 15:
“There should be no poor among you, for the LORD your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession. You will receive this blessing if you are careful to obey all the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today. The LORD your God will bless you as he has promised. You will lend money to many nations but will never need to borrow. You will rule many nations, but they will not rule over you.
“But if there are any poor Israelites in your towns when you arrive in the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them. Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year for canceling debts is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the LORD, you will be considered guilty of sin. Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do. The poor you will always have with you. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with them and with other Israelites in need.
What Jesus is doing is evoking the spirit of this passage. Now, we need to look at the original story in context, too:
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
I will admit that on first reading, I’m a bit puzzled by what Jesus is saying. He does seem to be suggesting that they should focus on him and not those in need. But if we read this along with the passage he is quoting we get a much clearer picture.
In the Deuteronomic text, we see God getting progressively more disparaging about the chances that the Israelites have of looking after those in need. He starts off with “there should be no poor”, moves on to “if” and then finally ends with “the poor you will always have with you”. In line with this, God pleads more and more intently with the Israelites to look after those in poverty.
So when Jesus says this, he’s evoking this whole passage – written in the context of freedom from debt and slavery – to a people just freed from debt and slavery – reminding them that helping the poor is such a vital part of the mission of God.
I also think there’s something else a little more subtle going on here. Jesus often rebuked the pharisees by turning their attacks on their heads. I think he’s doing the same here. The disciples think they’ve got the hang of Jesus’ teaching – so they jump in to the situation and suggest what seems like the obvious answer. Jesus reminds them of their obligation to the poor – likely reminding them of how much of a failure their society is in that regard – and reminds them that for as long as he is around, everything is a bit different. Of course they should prioritise Jesus, just like the woman does.
The big difference for us today is that we don’t have Jesus here with us in bodily form. We don’t need to use expensive perfume to prepare him for burial or to fill his churches with while we prepare for mass. We don’t have the same context as the disciples in this very particular regard. So instead we must rely on other scripture, and indeed the original passage in Deuteronomy, to guide our thinking around those less fortunate than us.
This is the same Jesus, after all, who told one man named Nicodemus to go and be born again (which we’re all told we need to do) but told the rich young ruler, and his disciples, to sell their possessions and give their money to the poor – as a prerequisite to following him and finding the Kingdom of Heaven. But to quote Rich Mullins, that’s why God invented highlighters – so we could ignore the bits we don’t like.
The church service I regularly attend doesn’t have a sermon. Instead, we take ten minutes to be silent. That’s quite a change from growing up listening to half hour sermons and enjoying loud and highly emotive sung worship. And for the last few weeks I’ve had to really wrestle with myself to keep going.
Today I almost didn’t, until the reason why became clear. I had managed to convince myself of various different reasons, all of which have some truth in them (otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to convince myself).
The first of these was boredom: silence is boring especially when God doesn’t say anything in it. Then I realised that it wasn’t necessarily that God wasn’t saying anything, but that I wasn’t listening.
Then, I decided that I wasn’t listening because I needed something different. I needed a sermon: something to engage and challenge me. I needed something that my extroversion could interact with.
All of this has been going on in my internal thoughts for the last two or three months. So tonight I decided: why not go back to the familiar? I’ve been meaning to go and see what the local charismatic church is like for some time, so why not? Sure, I know – just like every other time I do this – it will probably leave me feeling frustrated, alienated and angry. But it’s got to be better than the numb anxiety that the silence induces, right?
In talking this over with my better half, I realised that at the root of all of this wasn’t so much that I was bored, or that it doesn’t suit me. It was this: I am scared of encountering my true self.
I love a good “worship session”. It has a sort of nostalgic glow to it: the feel-good factor of all that singing and loud noise and emotional guitar and teary eyed backing vocalists and…
So. Much. Noise.
In that noise, I can drown out everything that I don’t want to hear and hear only that which I do want to hear. So it’s not surprising that those are the environments in which people most often (claim to) hear from God; because we all want that.
What’s much, much more frightening is having to spend ten minutes with myself. Wether or not God is present. In that ten minutes I am forced to remember so many things I would rather forget: I am anxious, I am broken, I am fragile, I am scared, I am worried, I am paranoid, I am useless, I am awkward, I am so many things I would rather forget.
I am loved.
That one hit me like a ton of bricks just now. I’ve been doing the silence all wrong. I’ve been using it like some beaten down Christian who has just said the confession and remembered all of their sinful nature and all of their horrible characteristics. “I know I shouldn’t be that way, but I am that way.” And then I dwell on it.
The problem with unguided silence is that it allows those of us with a predisposition for depression and negative thinking (my CBT counselling used to call this ‘warpy thoughts’ which I’ve always found to be simultaneously both moderately insulting and amusingly fair and accurate) to perpetuate these myths freely. Then they spiral deeper and deeper into my perception of myself so that next week I come back needing to unravel yet more negativity, only to pile more on.
So, I thought, should I not go? Does the silence only cause me harm, right now? But the thing is, that isn’t the fault of the silence. The silence only exposes me to myself. And I only have three choices: avoid myself, defy myself, or permit myself.
So far I’ve been avoiding myself. Mobile phones really can do wonders for distraction and diversion – as can a pen and paper, or indeed an ornate stained glass window if the other two fail to be of significant enough interest. But all that’s done is left me feeling more and more frustrated.
Defying myself hasn’t worked either. If I sit there and try to just listen, or breathe, all I can do is realise just how physically anxious I am (for reasons other than all of this); just how alone I am; just how silent God seems. I can’t force myself to be positive. I lack both the energy and emotional will right now.
What I can do, what I have thus far failed to do, is to permit myself. The story of God seems to be one of a relentless pursuit of unconditional love. And I have experiences that tell me that God loves me – and other experiences that tell me that I am not an awful person. Experiences that tell me I am fun, friendly, interesting (It’s amazing how hard it can be to write a list of positive attributes about oneself and not cringe for a good five minutes afterward) – and so on.
I could, if I so chose, dwell on those instead. That’s not an easy challenge, but it is a worthwhile one. I cannot change who I am – at least not overnight. I cannot force myself to stop being anxious or to have the attention span of a wise old monk. But I can start to be kind to myself and to allow myself to be me. Even if it is only for ten minutes a week.
This last week I had someone email me referring to a situation that I am heavily involved in – and indeed responsible for – as “a shame in every sense of the word”. I won’t go into the situation itself, mainly for personal reasons but also for sake of confidentiality. But it made me realise something.
I struggle with shame. A lot.
A huge amount of my childhood memories are the kind that bring the rush of blood that comes with the feeling of embarrassment. Often they’re really stupid, little things. Like the time I for no apparent reason refused to ask to be let down from the table at my Aunt’s house and ended up spending ages sat there feeling confused at myself. I look back on it and I think “I have no idea” why I did that. But, well, I was about 6.
Or there’s the time that I repeated a joke from a birthday card to my mum’s friend who was stood chatting to her in Tesco – that I naively didn’t realise was a pun of a very sexual nature. Of course, it dawned on me fairly quickly – but too late to save me from that all too familiar feeling.
The funny thing about those two memories is that while I can to a large extent rationalise the emotions and see myself in a kinder light, I find it hard not to wish I could just go back in time and fix them. I felt this way too about the events of the last week. They’ve left me unable to concentrate, unable to focus well, and generally meant that I’ve felt disappointed in myself and ashamed of my actions.
The upshot of all of this is that my anxiety, which had calmed down hugely, shot through the roof again. And all, ultimately, because of shame.
I think for a long time I’ve confused shame with guilt. My friend Alan, an author and theologian, spoke about this with me in the pub once. There’s quite a subtle difference. Guilt is that feeling you get when you know you’ve done something wrong – or, more accurately, when someone points it out to you. In my particular scenario I had managed to find excuses for why I did what I did. And they were great, until I was called out on them.
But what happened next was that I couldn’t let go of the guilt. I read the email over, and over, and over again. Until it made me hate myself. It was like I wanted to feel guilty, for some reason. But that repeated guilt, that’s shame.
Shame is what happens when we prolong guilt beyond its remit. Guilt is what you feel when you have an affair. Shame is what you feel when you’re reminded of it every day. Jesus had a thing or two to say about that in his encounter with the adulterous woman, and I think it’s a great example of a couple of things:
Firstly, shame is not OK
Shame is not OK. Get that in your head. If you’re anything like me, that’s a hard pill to swallow. I quite like being down on myself and beating myself up when I do wrong. It’s an easy way of channeling the emotions. But it’s not good. It leads us to continually regret something that we cannot change. And it leads to us feeling helpless.
The reality, of course, is quite different – we can acknowledge our guilt and then we can go about making amends.
Secondly, it’s not OK to shame someone else
Of course, our making amends might not be received at all. Certainly that’s what has happened in my case. I have started to work on making thing right (not least because the person concerned is not the only beneficiary of what I was doing), but it certainly feels as though the door has already been shut.
The key part of the Jesus story above, for me, is that she knows she has done wrong. And now she’s being publicly humiliated for it in what her society thinks is some kind of just punishment. But Jesus steps in and levels the playing field. He reminds her accusers that not one of them is free from cock-ups themselves. And they all disappear. Because we all know we’re not perfect, and when we’re confronted with that, we usually soften up a bit.
Once and for all
We know that the Christian narrative is one of the removal of guilt, right? I’m less sure that’s true – I think it’s more a removal of shame. Jesus doesn’t suggest at any point that we can become guilt free. As Paul says, “shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? by no means!” We’re not presented with a reality where we can just pray for forgiveness and automatically feel no more guilt. If we can manage that, then we didn’t feel guilty enough in the first place.
Guilt is good. Guilt is what makes us recognise we’ve done wrong. It’s shame that Jesus comes to do away with.
We see this consistently in his life, teaching and crucifixion. In Jesus’ life, he has many encounters with those shamed by society – the woman in the story above, the tax collector, the woman with the perfume, to name just 3 examples. In his teaching, he reminds us to forgive others as we would like to be forgiven. And in his crucifixion, he removes the perceived need to make continual sacrifices for all of our constant wrong-doing.
My situation still doesn’t feel great. I find it hard to accept that there’s no need to feel ashamed because I’m constantly hoping for affirmation from the person involved. But I have to move away from that, because no matter how hard I try – they may never change. But I can. We all can. Shame, and its perpetuation, is something I see so much of in my friends and family, yet it is not a welcome part of the Kingdom of God.
I’ve seen far too many Christians, some who are very dear and close to me, perpetuate shame in the name of God, usually in the name of condemning some sort of sin. We forget all to easily that sin condemns itself with its consequences. But we are called to be a people of grace. So let’s lift those consequences a little, shall we?
In today’s post I want to talk about our willingness to hold, suspend and ignore belief in favour of knowledge, facts and truth – and why it doesn’t make much sense to me.
Closed hand, open mind?
I wonder if you have ever come across the concept of “closed hand” and “open hand” theology? The basic idea is that there are some ideas which cannot be negotiated (closed hand) and some which can (open hand). For example, Jesus being the Son of God would be considered “closed hand” by most Christians, but creationism is considered “open hand” by most – in this country anyway. “Open hand” ideas can be held more lightly than “closed hand” ones.
In my years of deconstructing my faith I started to tear down all of the open hand ideas that I had, and followed swiftly with the closed hand ideas – I’m not sure any longer about penal substitution, the existence of the devil, the idea that anybody is condemned to hell, and so on.
I have also found myself increasingly willing to accept scientific and situational explanations for everything. Feeding 5000? sharing food previously kept selfishly. Walking on water? stepping stones. Demon possession? a crude and offensive depiction of epilepsy. Jesus’ death on the cross as atonement? symbolism.
So my closed hand has become smaller and smaller as my mind has become more and more “open” – or so it would seem to a someone both liberal and cerebral.
The thing about belief is that there’s got to be a point to it. Otherwise we’re just creating a fantasy world for the sake of it. Now, questions of truth aside for a moment – let us consider the way in which we believe.
The term “suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a philosopher-poet. Loosely, it refers to the willingness of human beings to pretend something to be true in spite of one’s doubts, for the sake of enjoyment and happiness.
Ever been to a church? sounds familiar doesn’t it. People pushing aside obvious explanations in favour of more convoluted ones used to support their pre-existing idea of God: healing that doesn’t seem miraculous; coincidences that seem like, well, coincidences. That sort of thing. All the while covered under the blanket protection from any kind of critique: “you just don’t have enough faith”.
This kind of approach makes many people, myself included, want to suspend our belief – not our disbelief. We want to explain everything as rational so that it doesn’t seem quite so, well, crazy…
A healthier approach to belief
Whilst I do happen to think that the kind of church context I’ve just described is all-too-common; I think we can end up taking it too far. If we deconstruct everything, we have nothing left to build on.
Let’s say for a minute that, like me, you are inclined to believe in God. But not just God – the God who also sent Jesus to the earth. Jesus then explains to all of his followers that God is love and that fundamentally we must love God, ourselves and one another.
Let’s stop it there. Because after that, it gets complicated, doesn’t it?
I come from an Evangelical background where the “closed hand” extends beyond here into Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the afterlife [and curiously ignores a lot of his social teaching – but that’s for another day]. Yet I now find myself in a Liberal context where each of those things are held as a very much open question.
I want to suggest that there’s a healthy way of discerning between what we choose to explain, and what we choose to believe. I think it comes down to the question of why we want to explain everything away.
For me, the answer to that question is insecurity. What if I am wrong? What if God isn’t real? perhaps if I reduce God down to something lesser – a God who does not perform miracles; a God who does not intervene; a God who does not raise from the dead – perhaps then I don’t have to be so insecure about my beliefs. My doubts will be lessened because there will be less to doubt in the first place.
So back to my earlier thread – let’s say God is real, etc. Why wouldn’t I want to believe that there’s a life to come, that Jesus is coming back, and that he raised from the dead and that we will raise with him? Why wouldn’t I believe that God incarnate could walk on water, heal the sick, fight evil and so on?
Because it’s too hard to believe some of those things in an ever secularized world where I can alienate myself more and more from the stories of faith found in the circles where disbelief has been well and truly suspended. Perhaps, just perhaps, I am throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
After all. I believe in God. I believe that there is something beyond this. This is not all there is. There’s more.
I believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s more than meets the eye to this universe and its stories and tales and myths and legends and science and faith and – all of it. There’s more. Moreover, I believe that this “God” has a way to interact with us and chose very specifically to be a part of the world in Jesus.
Pretty wacky stuff, isn’t it? So, why wouldn’t I go a bit further and believe in heaven, hell, resurrection, and so on?
That’s the question I find I am constantly now asking myself. I have no answer other than to respond by choosing to recognise that I’ve already come this far. So I might as well go that bit further.
There’s always a catch
Of course, there are 2 significant critiques to this that I can’t let be ignored. The first is that this all falls down if we take away the idea that God is the Judeo-Christian God. Of course that’s true. I happen to believe in that God because I believe that God has had an impact on my life; because I have seen patterns; because I have come to believe that it is that God who is talked about in the Bible and that I have had similar experiences.
I cannot prove what I believe. That’s why it is called belief and not knowledge. But I can decide to believe it – that’s my prerogative. You may disagree if you wish!
Secondly, where does this leave our critique of the church and its willful suspension of disbelief? I think there are a couple of things here. Primarily, suspension doesn’t excuse terrible theology. Just because you want to say something is true because it is “written in scripture” and you happen to have a very particular way of seeing it – does not make it true.
I don’t mean to pick on a particular ideology, but if we take the example of creationism: It’s a poem, written as a description of the idea that God made everything on purpose. It’s not meant to be a treatise on the development of species across the globe.
The other upshot of suspension of belief is that it leaves no room for doubt. Doubt is a vital part of our journey of faith. Doubt and faith are not opposites. Faith and knowledge are opposites. Doubt is a sign that our brains have not ceased to engage with a topic. Doubt is a sign that we are open to new ideas and ways of being, to change, to improvement, to a better understanding of the world around us.
Doubt is fundamentally good. And yet it is sidelined and ignored by a great many in the world of Christendom.
I have come to the conclusion that faith and knowledge need to remain separate – and that doubt is incredibly useful a tool in this. I have also come to the conclusion that if I am not willing to eliminate my belief in the God if Jesus, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, then I ought to consider accepting some of the rest of the story.
Why wouldn’t I want there to be a new earth, where God reconciles all things, where there is no more pain, suffering, poverty, disease, hunger and torture? Why wouldn’t I want to see those who lived all to short a life given life eternal? Why wouldn’t I want to have belief in the idea that the blind could see and the deaf could hear and the mute could talk?
It’s too good a story to not believe in.
“Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”
The quotation above is from a story of a madman told by Friedrich Nietzsche. Its purpose is to illustrate the notion that we have murdered God in our minds, that we no longer have a place or a need for God in our world.
This Good Friday I want to invite you to imagine something with me. Imagine a world where there is a God. That might even be a difficult first step for some of you reading this; but bear with me.
Imagine a world where there is a God – a God who is unseen yet seen, unheard yet heard, a God who cares about each individual person and loves them without condition. The kind of God you’d want to believe in.
Now I want you to imagine that God as a person. And that person living on this earth and showing others what it looks like to live in harmony with God and with the world around them.
Think about what it would be like to be around them. Perhaps you might even choose to learn from them, to follow their teaching, to subscribe to their news feed, to listen to their podcast, to read their news columns, to go to their events and even, if we were lucky, sit at the meal table with them and enjoy their company.
We know our politicians can’t bring us the hope we want; we don’t trust our religious institutions, we know corporations can’t help us and stuff can’t satisfy us. We know military might and space exploration give us purpose only short lived. We know that none of these things offer true hope of change, of a better world.
But this person – this godperson – they are making their mark and you’ve got this feeling you can’t explain. It’s that thing in your gut that says this, this is different. I can feel it. I believe in them.
How great would that be. To have that feeling. To know that person. How great would that be for you – and not just for you but for those who you know need them so more more than even you, in your darkest moments, do.
Now imagine that a bunch of people who the God-person pissed off had them killed. How much lesser a world? How much worse? How much less hopeful? How much less desirable than the alternative?
Yet this is what we choose to do in our hearts and minds each day. Nietzsche was right. God is dead, and God remains dead. To many of us, most of the time.
You’d expect at this point that I might try and wrap this story up with some kind of happy ending. But I won’t because actually, God is dead to us. And we killed him. We made him unnecessary, unimportant, redundant. And we’re okay with that and I want us to think about why we’re OK with it. And, well, the ending… that’s a story for another day. It’s important to sit in the midst of the darkness, and fully appreciate it.