thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: April 2014

Love without God

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Godisnowhere’s first ever guest post…

The other day I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling to see the ‘necessity’ of God because even without a belief in God I wouldn’t want to love others any less. She just gave me a blank look as if I had no point. ‘Of course you can love others without a belief in God…’

We love because our common humanity is enough

We have enough reason to love others based on our common humanity and not wanting to see another suffer. As humans we are relational. We have the capacity to love. Do we “need” God in order to feel compassion towards fellow human beings that are suffering, to have our hearts broken for pain that others are going through?

We can use this common humanity to be compelled to live a life of love, without the ‘need’ for scripture or ‘God’ as a prerequisite to do so. We should love because we want to love. Do we need any more compulsion? And if we need any more compulsion to do so, is it genuinely love?

Doesn’t it just make sense?

I have found great inspiration in Christian traditions such as hospitality, simplicity, community, reconciliation and welcome. But do we ‘need’ a belief in God to understand that these traditions are incredible? I am not sure if I firmly believe God is ‘in’ them, yet I still would use them as the foundation for the kind of life that I want to pursue. I would struggle to think of many people who would disagree that these things are in some sense ‘good’.

One of these ideas is ‘Community’, which is the big word in many Christian circles. I recently went to a talk which described that our desire for community was “because of the trinity”. He explained that this is where we get our model of how to be in relationships with others. I think it would be impossible to claim that the Christian tradition has a monopoly on the idea of ‘community’. I think it is a great idea to have different generations ‘doing life’ together, in comparison to the individualistic and isolated way that many of us lead our lives today. But I don’t think that a desire for community is rooted in a complex theological concept. We are relational beings who desire love, interaction and support.

And is God an essential idea by which to be united around in a community? If a ‘Christian’ community is bound by love, why is that limited to those who would identity with the Christian tradition? This rigid separation can often serve to build the barriers and ‘otherness’ that the idea of community can break down. I cannot understand why I could not equally find inspiration of love in other contexts, people, traditions, faiths. I would therefore advocate a community that is united by a desire to live a life of hospitality, simplicity, community, reconciliation and welcome, than one which is united because of shared belief in a doctrine.

Is it “….because The Bible said”

Whilst there are many inspirational verses in scripture, often quoted to encourage a life of compassion and love, perhaps this is merely cherry-picking verses that back up our own idea of what is ‘good’ , based on our own liberal egalitarian society. Is this just tagging the Bible onto our own preferences, context or culture and onto things that we already believe to be ‘good’? And hence we make God into who we want ‘him’ to be. Loving. Peaceful. Good.

If we are relying on scriptures to stimulate our hearts to love then I fear this is a dangerous path to go down, for what else will we rely on scriptures for? If we act out of love because it is in scripture, then what stops us from following other ‘less loving’ aspects of scripture? This can lead to blind obedience to scripture, with blinkers onto our own intuition and reason. Isn’t it enough to have your heart broken with the sadness of the suffering of others, than searching to find a verse that compels us to love. I often hear people, including myself in the past, proudly proclaim that they are serving the poor “because Jesus did”. But is that the ‘real’ reason? Whilst this might be a naive and simplistic statement to make, could it not just be because we actually just want to help?

The other day a friend shared this verse with me, “In Christ, there is neither Male nor Female, Slave nor Free, Jew nor Gentile, Christian nor non-Christian”. I love the radical egalitarian nature of this verse. I also love a lot of other verses in the Bible. But are they necessary to live more justly, break down barriers and love one another? I think that there is a level of reason in treating people as you would like to be treated by virtue of being a human to whom you can sympathise with.

I could have equally been offered a verse that focuses on judgement and sin, as others have chosen to focus on. When we use the Bible to back things up, we don’t only get abolitionists like Wilberforce, or the simplicity of Francis of Assisi or the love of mother Teresa, but we get white supremacists using the Bible to justify slavery and colonialism, we get Ugandan priests using it to persecute homosexuals, we get Zionists using it to justify superiority over Palestinians and we get it to back up brutal violence of The Lord’s Resistance Army.

This is the issue I have with the use of verses to back things up.

Whilst there are so many incredibly inspiring verses, parables and imagery in The Bible, it often seems to back up what people already want. It’s an easy way of adding credence to your cause, for justifying an action you think anyway, to legitimise an opinion, whether it be a call to give up your possessions to the poor, or a call to go on a violent 12th century crusade.

It is often an obstacle for people to think ‘reasonably’, or think at all.

I haven’t ‘left’ Christianity because I no longer want to want to live a life of love, or to live up to it’s ‘moral standards’ any more. That’s just it, I do.

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Guilt II

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I’ve been doing even more thinking about guilt over the last few days. It has come to my attention that the English language is totally appalling when it comes to variety. Either that, or my use of it is paltry. In any case – I have uncovered what I think is the problem that I was left with in my previous post. What follows is a little half-baked, but I wanted to share my journey so far.

When I think of “guilt”, I think of doing wrong by something or someone. Usually that someone is God, or, at least, God’s law or the Church’s law.

Wait, the Church’s law?


The Church has turned Paul and Jesus’ teachings on a good morality into a law. On the surface, salvation sola fide is taught. On a deeper level, you must conform. For if you do not, then you risk the fires of hell, or, at the very least, social exclusion.

So there’s religion-guilt. That is, there is the feeling of not conforming well to the standard of the Church. Then there is faith-guilt – that is, the feeling of not conforming to God’s standard. Then there is people-guilt – that is, when I recognise someone is hurt or offended by my (lack of) words or (in)actions.

There’s also crime-guilt. If I break civil law, I can be found ‘guilty’ of a crime.

Guilt and law seem to be intertwined.

Civil law leads to legal guilt.
Religious law leads to sinner guilt.
Church law leads to “sinner” guilt (note the quotes).
Social ‘laws’ lead to ‘people’ guilt.

Paul talks about how in Christ’s death on the cross, the law is fulfilled. If this is true, then there is no need for sinner guilt, or indeed “sinner” guilt.

Guilt under civil law is not a personal feeling of guilt. This is encompassed under social guilt (i.e. you can be convicted of theft without having remorse, but if you feel remorse it is because you recognise that you have harmed someone in society through your actions).

So, the guilt with which we are left that is necessary, valid and helpful is social guilt, which really, isn’t guilt at all but remorse. This makes a lot more sense to me. Remorse is the recognition that things weren’t as they should have been.

In the Old Testament, the Law brought about a lot of guilt but not a lot of remorse. The difference here is stark. It was possible to be guilty of sin, and atone for that sin via a sacrifice. Far be it from me to say there was never remorse. I’m sure it is more complex than that. But certainly, the system became systematic, normalised, day-to-day. It became meaningless and without remorse.

Similarly, Christian confession – either Catholic or collectively during liturgical services can fall foul of the same problem. It becomes run-of-the-mill and begins to lose its remorse because it is required. It is precisely because it is required that it loses its power to be transformative.

I think this is what Paul is getting at when he says that because of Christ, we are no longer bound by the law. With the law “dealt with” our guilt is no longer comparable to civil law, nor religious guilt. It is reduced down solely to the guilt we feel as a recognition of the consequences of our actions – remorse. When we leave behind the law, we lose the moral absolutism that can rob us of this recognition.

Perhaps that’s why Paul says that we can be made right with God (free of religious/sin guilt) and yet goes on to beg us to live morally upright lives. There’s a temptation to use the new-found freedom to do whatever we like. But at the end of that path, as the prodigal son quickly discovered, lies only darkness and despair. Instead, we must live in harmony with one another – we must love one another. Not because we are obliged to by guilt, but because we are consistently reminded to do so by our remorse. And that isn’t a bad thing.


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Guilt, Shame and Aspiration

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Lately I have suffered from another fairly significant, prolonged bout of depression. Unlike previous times, it hasn’t taken the form of a crippling bed-riddening total lack of motivation. I’ve been able to continue on “as normal” to the outside world pretty well. I doubt that many would even know how low I have been feeling (such is the social pressure to always respond to ‘how are you’ with ‘I’m fine’).

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot during this time about where the depression comes from, why it’s here, what I can do to mitigate it, and if I can even move beyond it altogether. Of course, my thoughts turned towards God and what he has to do with all of this. I’ve come away with two observations:

1) Prosperity gospel is attractive, but terrible for the soul

 I watched a video this morning of a relatively famous american pastor at the climax of his sermon – accompanied, of course, by dramatic music, whooping, cheering, and the like – talking about how we mustn’t be held back by things which have happened to us in the past. Initially, I thought he was right. I still think the core of that message is obvious and right and good and true. However, the manner in which it came across – the context – troubled me.

I found myself wanting to live in this “victorious” lifestyle. I found myself wanting to have security in my finances, “blossoming” relationships, a “positive” mental attitude, and so on. But such desires are dangerous, for they disconnect us with Jesus as he is portrayed in the gospels. To me, it is clear that Jesus had many broken relationships (not through his fault), little by way of money and security, and a heck of a lot of bad stuff piled on top.

Jesus doesn’t call us into prosperity. He doesn’t promise material, financial or any other kind of blessing common in this world. He instead encourages us to store up “treasures in heaven”.

I experience this whenever I take part in something good and see good things happen. I don’t think that’s exclusive to my Christian faith – but that’s another blog post altogether (which is, incidentally, on its way), but I do recognise that it is good, and it usually involves sacrifice on my part before I experience it.

When you’re depressed, or at least, when I’m depressed, I find that my motivation disappears. I don’t have the “capacity” to sacrifice of myself. This means that I want easy answers, easy solutions. Instead of working on relationships I want them to fall into place. Instead of working hard and discovering what the Kingdom of God looks like, I decide what it looks like, recognise I haven’t got this fantasy ideal, and then end up feeling worse.

And that’s the crux of it – ambition. Depression rids me of ambition because my ambition is skewed. It doesn’t come from not having wealth, health, or perfect relationships. It comes from feeling as though I have fallen short of my own desires for myself. Instead of having the sustainable house and camper van, I live in a shared house and drive a Toyota Yaris. Instead of having a thriving business, I have a relatively successful one. Instead of having lots of friends I have a few friends who I see a couple of times a week. Yet none of these things are inherently terrible. They simply fall short of my own standards.

And to top it all off, one of those standards is to be free of depression. Catch 22, anyone?

1) Religious guilt

It’s not just my own standards that falling short of causes me to end up feeling depressed. I was having a drink recently with a friend and we were talking briefly about religious and middle class guilt.

It’s not something I thought I suffered from, particularly. Until I stopped and thought about it.

I have definitely reached a place where I no longer feel guilty about screwing up all the damn time. My sin doesn’t get me down in the way it used to. I used to think that was a giant leap forward from the religious guilt with which I have been conditioned from a young age. Now, I’m not so sure. Instead, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty any more.

The guilt is still there.

It’s amazing what theology can do to the mindset. In choosing to understand the cross not as a substitutionary atonement for my sin, I complicate my relationship with God immensely. Instead of being “free from sin”, I instead see myself as still burdened with the consequences of my actions.

Now, I don’t think it would be right to simply readjust my theology so that I fall in line with more “orthodox” thinking. That wouldn’t be being true to myself or to what I believe is (might be) true. I believe that Jesus’ death on a cross was God’s way of showing the world that there was no greater sacrifice to be made, there was nothing that could be done to make us right with God – because that’s not how it works. That’s not what we need to do.

Instead my understanding is that Jesus’ death enables me to be totally free from the need to do anything religious in order that I might instead do things the way God would have them done out of choice and freedom.

But this means doing things – which is in my view totally consistent with Jesus’ teachings and with further writings. He doesn’t imply an idle faith. He doesn’t imply it’s okay to sit back and relax and enjoy life because of grace. He doesn’t even imply that if one does that, one “gets away” with it. Quite the opposite. But we won’t go in to that here.

So back to the guilt – I feel guilty because I feel like I am falling short of a standard. Instead of the standard being the Law, the standard is love – a far higher standard. I recognise all of the ways in which I am unloving. To my family, my housemates, my neighbours, my colleagues, my clients, my friends, those who contribute to the things which I buy, and so on.

God is Love and I aspire to be like God, like Jesus – and to love those around me. Yet I fall short of this frequently and often. Yet instead of having God as my “judge” – as in the cross Jesus demonstrates God’s willingness to remove the guilt (or, if you want to believe the traditional view, removes the guilt in the very act of Jesus’ death) – I have as judge others and myself. Yet I find myself in a place where I am conscious of my every move, because God instead of judging my adherence to a code, says that he will only claim he knew me if my life is lived out in a particular posture – the posture of love.

What if I am falling short of that standard? It is far, far easier to come to terms with my own standards. I can begin to learn and accept that these standards are too high. But where does the religious guilt leave me? I want to be more loving, but I seem to fail endlessly. And there seems to be no answer to this right now…

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The New Year

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So this is the new year
… and I don’t feel any different
you’re still not here
we’re still nowhere near
the place I wanted to be.

They say time heals,
but the pain is still real.
And I was once found,
but now I know I’m lost.
Wandering around the desert.

Will I find hope again?
I think so, over the horizon
Somewhere there’s life.
But you’re not here (or there?).
Either of you.

Okay, so it’s a new tax year, technically. But it’s still a new year. And it got me thinking.

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Jesus Said: Reprise

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Jesus said to the man,
“Go, sell everything you have.”
And the man grieved.

Jesus said to the man,
“You’ll be with me in paradise.”
And his friend laughed.

Jesus said to the man,
“Get up and walk.”
And the teachers scoffed.

Jesus said to the woman,
“Your sins are forgiven”
And they were dumbfounded.

Jesus said to his disciples,
“Sell your possessions”
And they did.

Jesus said to Saul,
“Why do you persecute me?”
And he stopped.

What does Jesus say to you?
Will you? Do you? Are you?

Something to think about.

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A Liturgy

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I’m toying with some ideas for the end of the Omega course. One of the current ones is to use the model of the traditional eucharistic service to explore our doubt and our questions; and to open us up to the ridiculing of our own traditions and ideas.

Here’s a taster liturgy. Hat tip to messieurs Palin, Cleese, Idle, Chapman, Gillam and Jones.

Good Morning
A blessing! A blessing! A blessing!

You’ve got it all wrong.
You don’t need to follow anybody.
You’ve got to think for yourselves.

You’re all individuals.
Yes, we’re all individuals

You’re all different
Yes, we are all different

You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves.
Yes, we’ve got to work it out for ourselves

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