godisnowhere

thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Category: Theology Page 2 of 9

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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Co-mission, Omission and Community

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On Thursday night I was at a film and discussion event in Sheffield on the subject of human trafficking. I found myself profoundly shocked by some of the things discussed and shown there. It got me thinking about how we’re shocked – more often than not – not by that which we do not know that we discover, but by that which we do know that we like to pretend we do not. When we are confronted with it, almost against our will, we discover the truth really hurts.

We live in a world built on willful ignorance. Thursday night and Friday morning demonstrated this in its most democratic form. There are some who believe Conservative policy is genuinely the best thing for the country; yet there are many more who believe that Conservative policy is the best thing for their wallet. People do not want to hear about the food banks, about the incoming £12bn of welfare cuts, of the effects of the bedroom tax on real lives, and so on. People don’t want to see their factory farmed food killed, cut, diced, processed and packaged. People don’t want to know about the stories of slaves killed in the process of making garments for sale at less than £10 in our supermarkets.

We don’t want to know because we’re comfortable, and we don’t want to see our comfort disturbed. We don’t want to face what we know to be true. Yet the very fact we know it to be true betrays the selfish evil that underlies our conscious choices to take part in these very systems, processes, interactions and relationships.

Those of us that claim to be “Christians” or “follow Jesus” or whatever we want to call it have been called into a way of life that contradicts these harsh, disturbing realities. We have chosen to follow the path of fairness, social justice, equality, freedom from slavery, freedom from loneliness, freedom from poverty. There is little doubt when we look at the teachings of Jesus that he calls us into a world where we can be a part of this change.

So it is worse still for us then that we actively take part in the lifestyle of the world as it is. We do this in the name of being “culturally relevant” (at worst) or “being like those we’re trying to reach” (at best). But neither is reason for compromise. We are simply perpetuating our status as a guilty party in a system which is utterly, utterly broken.

The lifestyle that Jesus calls us into helps us to counter this reality. Granted, we are unlikely to ever be truly free from this charge. But if we follow Jesus’ teaching, if we lay down our selfish lives for the selfless Way, if we live simply, live well and love well in community and to communities, then we achieve three things: firstly we negate vast swathes of our culpability,  secondly we make some difference to the suffering and injustice of the world, and finally we find in our simplified, more worry-free lives that we have the capacity through community to care.

It is the last of these that is crucial to our new Way. Without the support of community we burn out. Without the capacity to care we simply bury the bad news and carry on as normal, willfully ignorant of the injustices of the world. And with this capacity we can find it in ourselves to resist the temptations of the world.

We find ourselves here because we have boxed our faith into Sunday mornings and into salvation. Jesus talks, time and time again (as do I, you may have noticed) about the Kingdom of Heaven. The way things are meant to be, right here, right now, if we choose to take part in that way of life. If we choose to allow our faith to extend to every area of our life; then we will find it starts to look completely different. Being “culturally relevant” will not even be possible, never mind an option.

Because it isn’t about being culturally relevant, is it? And when we enter in to dialogue with people, we find it’s actually okay to say “I don’t want to be controlled by my desire to buy clothes”, “I’d rather not fund international wars”, “Prostitution is damaging because it encourages the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people”. People are, as I have said before, inclined towards the message of Jesus. They often just don’t realise it’s Jesus who is the messenger.

Classical theology talks of “Sins of comission and omission”. Comission being the committing of a sin – such as murder, adultery, and so on. These are the sins we avoid regularly and avoid well; though we often allow the more subtle negative actions we take to slip by un-noticed.

“sins of omission” are those which are done not by doing, but by not doing. We do not feed the poor. We do not care for the widow. We do not help the needy or the oppressed. We do not consider where our clothes or our coffee have come from. We do not think about those who will suffer from the cuts when we vote to increase our savings, (that last one is probably a mixture of both co- and o-) and so forth. More than all of these, omission covers the failure to campaign, the failure to speak up, the failure to stand up and be counted against the damaging, negative ways of this world.

So in practicing the way of Jesus, we must ensure we not only remove ourselves as much as we can from the damaging, negative, anti-Kingdom practices we find the world calls us into on a daily basis. We must also stand up and make the voice of the oppressed heard. We must fight for them and with them for change. And we can do this because of the support of community.

What Jesus does, time and time again, is provide an alternative to many of the lies of our consumerist, selfish world. I hope in the coming posts to explore some of these lies/promises made to us and what we are led towards as an alternative.

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God Isn’t Here

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Following on from yesterday’s article about finding a way back to wanting to follow Jesus, I have been thinking this morning about the biggest stumbling block that I have in my walk at the moment: community. For reasons I won’t go into here, the ‘community house’ in which I live is disbanding at the end of this month, and I am going to live with friends a couple of streets away and I haven’t been back to the city centre mega-church I used to attend for over a year now. This puts the activities of meeting co-consiprators and doing some conspiring at an all-time low.

That said, I wouldn’t change my journey or where it is heading in the immediate future. I have immensely enjoyed my time in my current house, but it is rightly the time for things to move on from here. I do not regret moving from a city centre faith community to a suburban one and then finally to a locally-minded one; even if it has meant having to get used to the quirks and eccentricities of the Anglican church.

Enough about my immediate journey. What I wanted to talk about this morning was about how the churches that I have been a part of (a Welsh Baptist, independent Charismatic, Assemblies of God Pentecostal, and finally CofE) have all made it enormously difficult to feel as though viewing Jesus as my role model for now can be the central pillar of my faith.

The first question is, is that right?

I mean, is it right to have that as the central pillar of my faith? Well, people come to faith for all kinds of reasons in all kinds of ways. You’ve only got to read the stories of Jesus to see this; never mind the myriad of reasons people give in modern times, ranging from the overtly miraculous to the coincidental and finally the absurdly rational. My reasons are two-fold.

Firstly, I was born with it. I was taught Jesus was God and that God loved me. So it always made sense to listen to what Jesus had to say. Then when I hit around 21-22, I realised that I had been fed this by my upbringing and set about intellectually burning down every last pillar of Christianity that I could find in my life. I’ve been left with feelings of unease, discomfort and loneliness. It is only recently that I have found a way back to wanting to believe, and that’s what I talked about yesterday. This has been my conversion mechanic.

So on emotional grounds, yes, it is right. On theological grounds? That depends who you ask. The more “orthodox” Christians would argue that what I am presenting is essentially what they might call a “social justice gospel”, which is some kind of distortion of the “real” gospel.

This is (look away now if you don’t like it when I get blunt) total bollocks. The real gospel, the “good news” that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus himself is time and time and time again concerned with the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick, the lonely, the prisoner, the rich man too distracted by worldly possessions. Jesus doesn’t walk around saying “pray the prayer and believe I died for you and was resurrected and you’ll get to live forever, isn’t that good news!”. No, instead, Jesus has a focus on the here and now and the way the world is and how it can be so. much. better.

Of course, you counter, it would be absurd for Jesus to say that because they haven’t happened yet. And you would be right – except that he actively tells people they will be with him in paradise, for nothing more than recognising that it all hinges on mercy. The man acknowledges that he is not destined for eternal bliss, and upon pleading with Jesus for mercy, Jesus assures him that mercy is his. So the good news becomes two-fold: There is hope for those who lack and There is mercy for those who have done wrong.

Yes, Jesus’ death on the cross is important. It allows him to become the god of empathy and allows death to be symbolically “defeated” allowing us a future hope that one day all suffering will be rendered powerless. But for me it is not the reason for my faith and I will no longer be ashamed of that! The reason for my faith is that Jesus promises a better way of life here and now and that this is somehow linked with the not yet which I do not fully understand. And I’m fine with that. I’m sure many would disagree and take me to task on this. And you’re welcome to. But moving on…

Church and the Kingdom

I can see more clearly than ever now that the problem lies in the way that church communities are built: invariably around the “Saving power of the Cross” or some other similarly crux-centric salvation mechanic that effectively sidelines the life of Jesus. The Anglicans skip over it in their creed, the Baptists tell you to pray the prayer, and the Charismatics obsess about bringing the “not yet” spiritual wackiness into the “now” and perpetually celebrate their boyfriend status with Jesus in their singing.

I don’t find any of this satisfying. That’s not to say that in each of these churches there hasn’t been a single thing I agree with. Of course there has. But when you look at the dominant narrative it often becomes about me as an individual and my “personal relationship” with God. I find this self-absorbing and unhelpful. I want to meet with people who want to change the world. I want to scheme and dream. I want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and be a part of the coming of the Way of God on earth today. now. here.

I want to sing songs of revolution. I want to cry out to God for social change – not of opinion on marriage or abortion but social change that allows the poor to have a chance in life, that gives the widowed and the orphaned support. I want to share in communion meals – involving good food and good drink – with people from all kinds of walks of life, not have to stare helplessly at a giant statue of Jesus while I am fed a wafer by a priest, nor to stare at my feet while I consume the shot of Ribena shared out among the congregation.

Why do I want those things? Because I earnestly believe that if we come together as community intent on following Jesus we will quickly find ourselves needing to live more simply (both inside and externally), love more wholeheartedly and care more compassionately. And when we do these things we run the risk of losing our lives; only to find them in God. We won’t need to go back every week to the addictive euphoria of worship gatherings, we won’t need to satisfy our guilt with sweet, strong port. We’ll be too busy getting a sense of meaningful change in the world. Just like the kind Jesus left behind as he walked Palestine two millennia ago. And that really will be sharing the good news.

If we put social justice and compassion here and now at the centre of our faith it doesn’t have to replace the cross. The cross is the signature at the bottom of the contract:

“There is a better way. There is a new world. There is an age to come. All may know it. It is here now. It begins. Join me.”

Let’s.

 

 

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God is Nowhere

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So, there’s been quite a long silence. It’s because I’ve had nothing to say. I‘ve not felt as though I’ve been on any kind of journey with any kind of god. I have recognised that I want to be on some kind of journey with some kind of god (that’s a whole separate topic to deliver into one day).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to build up a narrative that makes sense – but not just making it up to be how i want; nor simply accepting the way that people talk about their god as though they know their god inside out.

John, one of the biographer’s of Jesus’ life, talks about Jesus’ arrival on earth as a light among the darkness. It makes sense to me that any god worth their salt would be something like that. So the first question is, is there darkness?

The answer is a pretty obvious and resounding ‘yes’, isn’t it? It tells that possibly the number one reason that people claim they cannot believe in Yahweh – the God of Christianity – is because they cannot fathom why Yahweh would allow so much suffering in the world.

People die from horrible cancers. People get raped by soldiers committing genocides. People are acutely lonely. There is a lot of suffering, or “darkness” in the world.

We don’t like the darkness when it happens to us, and we don’t like it when it happens to our family. We also find ourselves feeling empathetic when we come across others who suffer similar plights to ourselves – just look at AA meetings or cancer support charities.

So it stands to reason that we should try to do something to fight the darkness. We cannot eradicate suffering altogether, but we can do our bit. We can stand up for the poor, the oppressed, the widowed, the orphaned, the raped, the families of the murdered.

Yet in our own individual strength we are feeble. It is community which makes us strong. We can be kind to those around us and we can do small acts of kindness. But to fight trafficking, to counter racism, to stop gang violence, to address inequality – that requires communities of people united against these things.

Some would say that every community needs inspirational leaders. People we look to to inspire us towards our goal.

According to John, Jesus is that person. Jesus arrives on the earth and proclaims good news to the poor. Jesus heals the sick, addresses injustice, and declares that there is a newer, better way of doing life. Jesus calls this, “the Kingdom of Heaven” – as opposed to the Kingdom of Caesar. Perhaps today we might call this “the way of God” – early followers called it “the way”, in fact.

Having a leader is dangerous. Leaders are fallible. Jesus counters this on two fronts: he behaves impeccably, irreproachably. And secondly, he makes the Way of God the ideal to follow, rather than himself as the object of perfection. The goal is not to be Jesus. the goal is to have the same goal as Jesus. So in a sense it becomes something to share in as a community.

Ultimately, Jesus claims to be God himself. Jesus claims to be the Messiah – a figure the ancient Jews believed would save them from oppression. In being God and in being separated from God through torture and death and abandonment (Jesus cries out at his death – “my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Jesus becomes a god who is not sympathetic to our plight but instead empathetic. Jesus knows what it means to feel pain.

Finally Jesus defeats death. I have no idea how, and it bugs me regularly. But if I choose to accept that it is true – and I am willing to take that chance, on balance, owing to the integrity and consistency of his teachings and the words written about him – if it is true, then Yahweh offers some kind of ultimate, over-arching solution to suffering.

The question becomes ‘why can’t everything be solved now?’ And that’s a question to which no-one has an answer. And I’m not sure they ever will. But I am willing to be a part of a community of people who have a way to answer the two burning questions that I recycle time and again: “is there a God” and “how can we stop all the suffering”. I’ve never found a better answer than this: Jesus.

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It’s Always Good Friday Somewhere

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This Friday, as we remember Jesus’ death on the cross, we remember his abandonment. We recall that he cried out to God and asked “why have you forsaken me”? We remember his torture, loneliness, and death.

And then on Sunday we switch back to the other 364 days of the year where we proclaim Christ triumphant.

Triumphant. Because that’s what Christianity has become. To its detriment.

We’ve been too busy being the world’s biggest religion. Invading countries, fighting Muslims, telling people how to think, behave and feel. And then declaring that God has given us worldly riches as some kind of crude pre-rapture thank-you to butter us up before the big day when we get to stand in front of him and boast about all the wonderful things we have done.

It’s Good Friday. God is dead.

Jesus was abandoned.

It’s always Good Friday somewhere. There’s always pain, always suffering, always evil, always doubt, always struggle.

Today as you remember Jesus going through the worst of all kinds of pain, think of those who struggle with their faith. Those who feel as though God really has abandoned them. Those for whom Gods abandonment has been self evident in their rejection by mainstream church – either explicit for their “sins” of homosexuality, or unorthodoxy; or implicit for their flaws and failings as human beings, rejected by a subculture that no longer looks anything like the man who came to create it.

We share in this responsibility. We are a community. We are all in this totally, totally together.

Remember what happened when Israel disobeyed God? When it didn’t listen to his advice and his help, and his commandments? God abandoned Israel.

God has promised, through Jesus, not to abandon us in the same way. The least we can do is return the favour.

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Leviticus

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The Bible is weird. I mean, seriously weird. I think that’s one of the reasons I find it so fascinating. On the one hand, there’s some great stuff in there about loving your neighbour and the hope of the age to come and the beauty of creation. And on the other hand there’s genocide and the ritual killing of animals and rules and regulations about not mixing fabrics, avoiding bacon and chopping off body parts that just shouldn’t be touched.

Seriously. Weird.

So I thought it might be fun to take a deeper look at some of the weird, to see if it actually makes any sense at all.

Starting, of course, with Leviticus.

We all baulk at the American televangelists that we pop up on our news feeds from time to time with their message of blessing. You know the drill – give God money and he will bless you. Not getting blessed? give more. Getting blessed? give more to show your thanks.

Or maybe you’ve been a part of a church that tells you about how you need to take up your cross, to sacrifice everything, to give your all – those kinds of phrases – the ones that evoke that familiar feeling.

Guilt.

Because that’s what the money alleviates. That’s what singing “be my everything” helps us to feel. We’re giving all that we possibly can.

We don’t believe in grace.

Sure, we say we believe in grace but to borrow from Donald Miller, what we say isn’t what we believe – what we do is what we believe. And we behave as though we are still trying to appease God.

Leviticus 1 starts with some pretty gruesome instructions on making sacrifices to God to alleviate guilt. Or, possibly, those feelings of guilt.

Because that’s what the opening chapters of Leviticus are about.

Your’e an ancient near eastern person, and you’re used to the system. The system says: need blessing? give some crops to that god. Been blessed? you’d better show your thanks by giving more. Not being blessed? you need to up your giving!

Sounds awkwardly familiar, doesn’t it?

So whilst it might seem gruesome and barbaric, the Levitical system of sacrifice sets out a very precise and particular list of things which aren’t good. And it sets out a very specific, particular way of becoming guilt-free.

Instead of your entire crop, just a representative portion of grain.

Instead of all of your livestock, just a dove.

That looks and sounds a lot like compassion to me. Compassion for a worldview which is broken. And a determination to fix it. So much so that eventually God decides enough is enough and renders even his own sacrifice system useless by making the biggest sacrifice of all.

And yet we still have the guts to accuse that God of barbarism.

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Advent III: A brief history of God

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God made the world.
God made the plants.
God made the animals.
God made man first (obviously)
God made woman second
The woman messed up first (obviously)
The man messed up second
God killed everyone off because they were evil
God promised not to do it again
People worshipped all kinds of Gods
The Gods were angry
The God demanded sacrifices
This God spoke to Abraham
This God wasn’t angry
This God got angry (a bit)
This God demanded less sacrifices,
but still demanded them.
God took his people out of slavery.
God looked after Israel
at the expense of everyone else.
God doesn’t mind genocide.
God told everyone how to live.
No-one listened.
God got angry.
Everyone listened (A bit)
then went back to normal life.
God got angry.
God sent Israel into exile.
And brought them back,
and then into exile again.

Then God suddenly had a change of heart and
decided in advance to murder his own son
to show us all that he loves us
(because, apparently, he hates himself?)
So now if we don’t believe him
one day he’s going to get angry
again
and we’ve had it.
forever.

(but our choice was predestined anyway)
OR

God made the world
God wanted people to love him
People thought they had to please God
God showed Abraham their behaviour was excessive
God said “don’t sacrifice, everything”
God said “I don’t desire your sacrifices”
God said “Love your neighbour, it’s that simple”
But no-one listened.
So God made things clear
God made the biggest sacrifice of all
And showed the religious people there was nothing
behind the curtain.
Nothing at all.
God was in all things
through all things
he made all things
and loves all things
and all people.
He loves me,
he loves you,
he loves the one you hate.
And one day,
we’ll all get it.
And it will be beautiful.
OR
Your own story.

 
You decide.

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Advent: Caesar Saves

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Over the next 25 days I’m going to be posting a few short, simple posts. Hope you enjoy!

——

Caesar was the Son of God. The Good News is that Caesar Saves. You only have to pledge allegiance to Caesar with a public declaration and you can be Saved!

That was the good news then.

You can provide for yourself! Then you can buy what you need. Or, even better, what you want! Just sign on the dotted line, and we’ll give you the money you need to buy what you want, as long as you do what we say!

That’s the good news now.

Both sound familiar, right?

The second one may well be painfully true. Even if you enjoy your job, doesn’t it ring a bell on some level? This is the way we are told to live. This is the way we do live. This is the way the world lives.

But it is not good news! There is exploitation, poverty, deception and injustice all interwoven into this “good news”. Sadly, it’s not news, and it isn’t good, either.

The first paragraph will sound familiar because of the language. Jesus wasn’t as original as you might have thought – at least, not in the way that he spoke.

Back then Caesar made promises he couldn’t keep. That wasn’t good news, either.

We need some good news…

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Cynical about cynicism

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It’s astonishingly easy to be cynical. I’ve tried to give up being overly so in the last couple of weeks – especially in my blogging, and I have found how difficult it is to re-train my mind to think positively, and to come up with a good blog in the absence of an easy attack on some particular area of church life.

But it occurs to me that in one particular area, cynicism is not only unhelpful but is also hypocritical. That particular area is the area of doubt. One of the most frustrating and difficult aspects of wrestling with or questioning faith on any significant level is that others, less conflicted or confused about what they may or may not believe or what may or may not be true, can trivialise doubt.

My reaction to this was to find a new spiritual home among the doubters. I gobbled up anything written by the likes of Pete Rollins, Søren Kierkegaard, Kester Brewin and other writers and theologians. I read poetry by fellow strugglers. I spent hours dismantling faith arguments, and I even gave up God for lent. In part, these were genuine attempts to reconnect with some kind of spirituality and some kind of faith.

But they were also done to make a point. I wanted to show all of those who trivialised my struggles that I wasn’t alone. I wanted to show them that I could carve my own way in the world without their trite statements and their optimistic outlooks. I wanted to wind them up with my “a/theism”. I had become totally cynical about belief.

The upshot of this is that instead of creating a positive space for doubt, I colluded with others over the death of Evangelical/Modern Christianity. Instead of showing grace to those who misunderstood me, I showed contempt. And in return I created more distance, more misunderstanding, and further problems.

Moreover, having moved on from the depths of this, I find myself now struggling with even the most basic aspects of church or faith, precisely because of my cynicism. On one level, I can see great value in this. It is cautious, reserved and unlikely to allow me to commit to something I shouldn’t. On another level, it means that I find myself doing mental gymnastics trying to justify taking part in church over the most basic of theological discrepancies.

Maybe this is all just me. But I have had many a conversation with cynical and struggling friends, and the one thing I can see consistently happening is an inability to engage further with church. The cynical me says “so what”. But the part of me that is trying to shed that way of thinking reminds the rest of me that the church is what I’ve got – whether I like it or not. The church is at the very least a small part of a whole bunch of people who are pursuing the same God that I am pursuing. At the very most they are my co-pilgrims though life.

Worse still I see this affecting my relationship with “God” (quotes used for effect, of course). If I posture myself negatively towards the world and towards my ability to interact with God, then I wonder if maybe, just maybe, I am taking the easy route out. Or not the easy route, but an easy route.

The other easy route is to believe, to not question, to commit without over-thinking, to be sure of my faith and not allow it to be probed, prodded, ripped apart and reassembled. But perhaps there is a better middle way? I’m just not sure yet exactly what it looks like.

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Left vs Right and the Third Way

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I recently caught up with a friend who is living and working in China. They were telling me about how there has been a law passed recently that forces people to visit their parents on a regular basis. The reason for the law? People of younger generations are less and less inclined to care for the welfare of their elderly relatives, and people are becoming increasingly isolated and depressed.

China’s solution? Legislate to force people to stay in communication with their relatives. A fairly typical Totalitarian (and stereotypically left-wing) response to a crisis: legislate, enforce, resolve. Except that it doesn’t really work, does it? We know that when someone is forced to do something, that doesn’t mean they want to do it. They will do it out of obligation or duty, and ultimately out of fear of the consequences of not doing so – especially in a totalitarian regime.

This reminds me to an extent of the Old Testament law. There was a LOT of legislation, a lot of very specific sub clauses to a lot of different laws. So perhaps there is an alternative?

In our country, we have the same problem of isolation and loneliness, but we trust that the individual has the right and responsibility to do what they want and will ultimately choose to love their family well. We provide basic support for those who are alone, but we do not go out of our way to shift people’s thinking. That’s because we do not live within a society where we are controlled or manipulated on anywhere near the same level.

… which reminds me of Christianity. We’re able to do what we want, how we want, when we want. In the words of Paul “everything is permissible”. But, not everything is beneficial. There are dangers to both approaches – legislating means love cannot be a part of it, and leaving things to happen naturally often means love is left out due to a lack of care, incentive, or ultimately selfishness.

There is a third way: the way of Christ himself. Christ came to earth with intention, he laid down some basic principles (Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself) which were enough to get at the ethos of the law. He calls us not to remain as we are – selfish, unyielding and egocentric. He calls us to remember the other before we remember ourselves. He calls us into a change of heart, of attitude and of lifestyle.

And of course we know that if we follow this path, we will see a prosperous society. When we look at “healthy” or “inspiring” churches or faith communities – we see a tight-knit society which values young and old alike. That’s how we ensure that the elderly among us are looked after and loved. And it’s how we can begin to solve the other ills in our society, too.

 

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