thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: August 2015

Liberal Discipleship

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I was having dinner with some friends earlier this week discussing the often judgmental Evangelical culture in America, and one of them – my friend Chris –  remarked that one of the reasons that the church is in such a bad state and has these kinds of views is down to “not discipling people properly for hundreds of years”.

I think he’s right. For a very long time the established “Church” simply told people “this is how things are, this is what you have to do, get on with it, or suffer the consequences”. So people did – and when the printing press and the Reformation arrived, the access to source materials only made things worse.

Another of my friends says that “the greatest heresies come out of home groups”.  I don’t wish to cast judgement on every conversation in every home group ever, but it seems quite plausible that without good accountability, in the absence of good teaching all kinds of ideas could emerge – from the prosperity gospel God who blesses people with riches, to the vending machine God who answers every prayer with a “yes” or a “no”.

Conservative churches have, to their credit, tried to find a solution to the problem: they tend to have fairly solid structures in place for leadership and accountability, and for group discipleship. This means that people learn regularly from one another, from scripture and from their leaders.

The problem is, as anyone who has read this blog before knows, I don’t agree with conservative theology. So having a well established factory for Conservative Evangelical Christians isn’t, in my view, a solution. Not least because I think some of the heresies (I’m accusing orthodoxy of heresy? the shoe truly is on the other foot!) that rot away the core of the Church are embellished in Evangelical subculture.

The “liberal” tradition has the opposite problem – in an effort to remaining open and inclusive to all, it often sidelines discipleship and structure as “restrictive” and “unhelpful”. Yet, as another friend put to me recently – and I couldn’t agree more – Liberalism has more to offer than simply being a “refugee camp for ex-Evangelicals”.

So I want to suggest that there’s a third way. We can be Liberal in our faith and yet learn and grow to be more like Jesus each day. I’m sure many liberals reading this will be saying “Yes, I already do that”. I’m sure many do, and I’m sure some do not – much as with those in Conservative groups. I suppose what I am trying to say is that there is, in my experience, often a lack of accountability and intentionality within the Liberal tradition – and a lack of mysticism and experiential discipleship in the Conservative tradition.

The key in achieving this and remaining liberal is, in my view, teaching people how to know God – not teaching people what to know. And with that firmly in mind, I would argue that we need the following ways of thinking about what discipleship is, in order to grow and thrive as a community of Christians:

  • Accountability structure – having someone that we are are “accountable” to is invaluable. In the conservative tradition this is caricatured as a “telling off” session where sins are confessed and then absolved by prayer with an intention to change. Sound familiar? We haven’t really moved on from ancient Catholicism. What does a more liberal structure look like? I think it involves having someone we can talk with about our struggles, concerns, thoughts, ideas, plans – someone who can remind us what we said last time and ask whether we have moved towards or away from God.
  • Rhythm and routine – I touched on this in my previous post, but to summarise – having a routine helps us to find and make time to listen to, speak to and follow God. I don’t think being “liberal” precludes anyone from not being lazy about their intentions. But it does mean that we can have grace and flexibility in the way we approach this topic!
  • Mystical Discipleship (knowing God well) – often we carry our cultural (heresy!) assumptions about how to interact with God into our faith – we assume things about hands being together to pray, God being in the sky, etc. Yet we can often believe those things aren’t necessary/right/helpful at the same time. I think it’s important that we learn to experience God – whether that’s in song, in silence, in meditation, in doing, in communicating – I don’t think it matters how; as long as it works for you.
  • Theological Discipleship (knowing about God well) – that is, having a good understanding of who the God we are interacting with is. If we do not describe God then we leave God to simply be an experience, an event. In naming God and in explaining God, we give ourselves something to grasp – and something for others to grasp, too.
  • Biblical Discipleship (knowing the Bible well) – In order to know about God well, we need to know the stories of God in the first place.
  • Academic Discipleship (knowing about the Bible well) – of course, this is where I believe the majority of conservative errors creep in. There are a great many assumptions about the truths contained in the Bible that have developed because of a particular course of thinking that has stuck. We need, as liberals, to think well about the Bible and to know well how to understand it – that means understanding the context of its texts. In doing so, we can learn that it really is possible to bring together the concepts of homosexuality, women in leadership, and so on – with sound scriptural knowledge.
  • Personal Discipleship (knowing ourselves well) – this involves taking time to keep check on our own, secret, thought life – and the way in which we behave. Jesus talks about it being what comes out from inside that matters. So, whatever we believe, it is important to know ourselves well. I’ve borrowed this from counseling – the better we know ourselves, the more likely we are to be happy and to be able to change that which we are not happy about.
  • Interpersonal Discipleship (knowing others well) – of course, it is not all about us. Life involves interacting with other people too, and we need to be good at people! Jesus was a people person (and arguably an introvert, too!) and we’re seeking to better understand how to live as he did.

Those are just some starter thoughts – but I do think that those of us who now find ourselves, often as recovering Evangelicals, in the Liberal tradition – can find ourselves feeling without discipleship, and without structure. As I’ve outlined above. I don’t think that needs to be the case. If we begin with Mystical Discipleship, and then help one another to understand what it is we are experiencing, we can build a framework, a way of seeing the world, which is both inclusive to all and helpful in enabling us to grow closer to God.

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Bad Habits

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I recently finished reading a book called “Voices of Silence”. It’s an incredibly gripping read documenting the experience of the author’s journey getting to know various Trappist monastic communities, mostly in America.

For those of you who don’t know who or what a Trappist is, they are an order of monks. Trappists are big on silence (hence the title) and ceded from the Cistercians some time ago, owing to a desire to be more “orthodox” in their practises and adherence to the monastic way of life. The Cistercians in turn are strict Benedictines, who had similar feelings about their predecessors.

So you’d expect me to be pretty damning about them. Overly religious, obsessed with ritual and rule, boring, detached from the world, pointless, etc. Malice aside, some of those sentiments do indeed have traction. But that’s not what I want to write about today. The book gripped me – its stories staying with me even now two months after finishing the read.

What drew me in was their desire for authenticity. Yes, there were many older monks described in its pages who resisted the most feeble changes and modernisations at every turn, but even they found themselves redeemed in later chapters. Broadly, the monks we meet along the way recognise two key truths about life that I think are invaluable to us all:

  • We cannot force God to meet with us; we cannot demand a voice or an answer to prayer
  • Routine, rhythm and simplicity are not intended to restrict, but to bring to life

What struck me the most about their lives was that they are in a sense no different to yours or mine. They grieved, wept, laughed, cried, conversed, argued, were filled with joy, sadness, fear, loneliness, experienced community, and so on. The ideal of a monk is to leave the distractions of the world behind and to focus on a prayer life with God. From what I could tell, this was no easier a task inside the monastery than outside of it – it turns out that people cause problems and those problems follow you everywhere you go.

They did have a heightened focus on the divine, of course. But that heightened focus often served only to amplify their experiences. To return to my two points above:

We cannot force God – monk, priest or “lay person’ – we have no control over God. We are not here to demand his attendance in our lives. That is up to God. It’s a level playing field, and don’t ever let any Christian tell you otherwise. I don’t care how many times a day they meditate or read their Bible or whatever. Meeting with God requires both sides to take part. You might be struggling with this. I know I have. I forget on a near daily basis to bother to pray. But that doesn’t mean I don’t meet with God in all kinds of ways. Which brings me to…

Routine, rhythm and simplicity are life giving because although we cannot force God to meet with us, we can give ourselves space to meet with God. We can make a choice to avoid where possible the lures of the other masters of this world – the master of money, the master of power, the master of status. We can choose instead to bind ourselves to Yahweh and to recognise that the Kingdom of God is a far greater way of life. Deliberately taking time out on a daily basis to remember this isn’t exactly going to do us harm – not if it is done well. We may never meet with God in doing this, but that’s a risk worth taking, isn’t it?

My girlfriend often jokingly mocks me for my love of monasticism. It is true, I have an immense admiration for men and women who are prepared to sacrifice what the world sees as the more fun aspects of existence, and instead seek to be with God as frequently as possible. I think it’s the wrong approach, but I respect it nonetheless. That said, the rhythmic, ancient traditions it holds dear have been a source of great strength for me.

I have found that in my life, when I make daily space to meet with God, then I appreciate not only those moments, but also the rest of the day – the little things – like when someone smiles back, or a tree looks particularly beautiful – are easier to enjoy and appreciate when one is postured towards God.

I have found that in trying to live a simpler life – both outwardly and inwardly, I have less to worry about, less to think about, and less to distract myself with. Leaving me with two things: more space to meet with God, and more space to love others. Someone once said those were two of the most important elements to life.


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