Monday, October 30, 2006
It is a public holiday here in Hong Kong. The temperature is 33 degrees C. So a special greeting to friends in colder places, especially in the UK, where the clocks went back on Saturday. Believe it or not, one of the things I most miss about Aberdeen, where I last ministered, is the climate.
I want today to pick up on the theme of change and begin to ask how we, as Christians, should be thinking about cultural change. Having made one very definite change, from Aberdeen to Hong Kong, it is a subject particularly on my mind.
The next blog in this series will probably be on Thursday.
4. Finding God Again: Time For A Change Of Clothes?
In my blog, Finding God Again: Changing Times, I discussed how society has changed and is changing. In the last blog, I gave what I believe to be a snapshot of how this change is working out in one context by looking at the popular series Friends. Friends, I think, captures the values and attitudes of where many people are at in our society. I also think Friends is interesting because, from what I hear, for a lot of Christians this is the sort of Christian community they would like to create: inclusive, supportive, relationship based, and accepting. Some are suggesting that we should meet in cafés and houses rather than traditional church buildings, which, of course, is where the friends all meet. But I am moving ahead of myself.
The reason I have described social change in this way is to attempt at a popular level to illustrate how much society has changed and to indicate the way it has changed. This is important because within Christian circles there is much discussion about the extent to which society has changed, what significance, if any, this has for the Christian message, and how we, as the Church are to relate to the society and culture, in which we live.
Too much of the discussion, in my opinion, takes place at a rather theoretical level and concerns definitions of words and terms. So the enlightenment, modernism, and postmodernism make frequent appearances! I have resisted discussing these terms, but given their prevalence in the discussion, I think I must at least mention them. It is now exceptionally common to hear people say that we are living in a postmodern society. I use the term myself!
Post, of course, means after. It suggests that something has happened that has meant that we have moved on to something new. It is common for social commentators to talk about 'pre-modern', 'modern', and now, 'postmodern'. People use these terms so very generally and loosely that it is very often hard to pin them down. Essentially, 'modern' refers to that attempt in the West to build a society based on scientific and rational enquiry. Certainly in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a desire to leave behind what were considered the superstitions of previous ages and to build a society that was founded on the certainties of intellectual enquiry. This was an age of grand theories: of communism, darwinism, capitalism, colonialism and so on.
It was an age that felt itself superior to what went before; previous ages were always described using negative terms: the dark ages, superstition, magic and myth. Modernity was man come of age, discovering all truth without resorting to primitive views of reality. As I write this, it is nearly Halloween: a reminder of how people used to see the world. I find it quite funny to think that many will be celebrating Reformation Day on this day. This was the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his protest against indulgences to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, effectively the beginning of the reformation. The reformation and the move to modernity go hand in hand.
Now after two world wars, the collapse of colonialism, the prospect of nuclear annihilation, and the retreat of organized religion, there is not the same confidence in grand theories, whether religious or secular. Society has witnessed a break down in certainties: to such an extent that people have turned to very pre-modern sounding practices to give their lives direction and meaning. So it is ok to talk about spells, crystals, and horoscopes even at respectable dinner parties. This is intellectually acceptable. It is less intellectually acceptable to discuss Christianity, but that is part of the hypocrisy of our age.
This is all hopelessly simplistic, of course, and exactly what postmodernism is, and how significant it is, are all subjects for debate. We probably won’t know until long after I, for one, am dead! It is distance that gives perspective in these matters. Interesting though the discussion is, I feel the sort of academic debate that takes place when we come to discuss cultural change is often an unnecessary diversion. More important than how we categorize the change at a formal theological and sociological level, is the issue of how we address the culture in which we live, whatever label we use to define it.
Whatever you may feel about the various analyses, the fact is society has changed massively and the Church has not always been able to keep up with it. Many of our practices and answers are directed to where society was in the past and the questions it was asking then, and not to where it is in the present and the questions it is asking now. This is a common observation and I, personally, find it hard to argue with it. People have moved on and we have not moved with them. But should we have? Isn’t the Gospel about timeless truths?
Christians down the ages have always felt that we have to begin with people where they are. Hudson Taylor, a missionary to China, adopted Chinese dress and culture in order to reach people in this part of the world over 100 years ago. The idea of adapting how we express our message to our audience is, when you think about it, just plain commonsense.
Business people from one part of the world selling a product to people in another know they have to present their product in a way that can be understood by their prospective buyers. I have just received a catalogue of books for Christmas from a local bookshop. One is entitled: ‘Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries’. The children of mammon are often much wiser at this sort of thing. I don’t know if you have seen the HSBC adverts on this theme, but they are very good and very funny.
One especially is my favourite. A group of businessmen go out for a meal: one is English and the rest are Chinese. The assumption is that they are in China. The Chinese host orders the meal with a big eel as the main dish. As the commentator points out, in British culture, it is considered rude to leave any food behind, whereas, in Chinese culture, eating it all implies that your host has not provided enough. So our dear Brit, to be polite, finishes the last morsel, even though he doesn’t especially like it, and the Chinese host, also wanting to be polite, keeps ordering more. Watch it at this link!
Maybe it is because I am living in a very different culture to the one in which I grew up, but I just assume we have to speak in language that people can understand and that this involves us adapting to cultural norms. Most of us can see this when we think of going from one country to another, as I have from the UK to Hong Kong, for example. But it is just as true that we need to be aware of where our own society is and what makes it tick culturally. If western society, in general, really has changed as radically as many of us think it has, then we need to ask if our presentation of the Gospel is relevant to it. Do we need new cultural clothes? I think you can guess what my own answer would be.
But others have argued that we need to go much further and that it is not enough simply to dress in different clothes. When Toyota, for example, sell a car to the west, they use western language and culture to do it. They put on western clothes. But it is a Japanese car they are selling, substantially the same as the one I am driving out here. However, what some people are arguing with the Gospel is that it is not only the sales pitch that must be changed, but the product as well. We must change not only the clothes, but the body that is wearing them.
They argue that our understanding of the Gospel has itself been shaped and moulded by the values, beliefs, and philosophies of different ages. We need to rediscover the Gospel for ourselves in the light of where we are now in our own cultural development. This will mean revaluating our message and adapting or even changing it.
Friday, October 27, 2006
It always amazes me how quickly the weekend comes around! It is quite a busy one for me this week, but we have a public holiday here in Hong Kong on Monday so that's rather nice. I will probably post the next blog on Tuesday. Thank you for reading this week and for sending me your comments. Have a good weekend!
Thursday, October 26, 2006
3. Finding God Again: I’ll Be There For You
On September 22, 1994 the first episode of Friends was aired. It was lucky to make it onto the screens. A test audience’s reaction to the Pilot was not very encouraging, concluding it was weak. It went on to become the most successful sit-com ever with the six actors concerned earning $1,000,000 an episode each by the time it finished, after 235 episodes, on May 6, 2004. Rumours continue to circulate that there will be a reunion special. Maybe not yet, however if eventually they need the money, which, admittedly, is unlikely, you can see the temptation. Meanwhile, the show continues to enjoy life after death through endless repeats and DVD sales.
What made it so successful? I would suggest that it was more than the humour, though I personally did, and still do, find it very funny. The basic idea is easily described: 'Six friends in their twenties pursue careers, love, and happiness in New York while relying on each other for support.' Some of the flavour can be got from the story-line of the Pilot. Five of the friends are in the coffee house, Central Perk. Central Perk is one of three places were the action in Friends largely takes place. A young woman enters, wet through, in a wedding dress. This turns out to be Rachel. She has just stood up her bridegroom who was waiting for her to get married. She decides to move in with Monica with whom she went to school. The group of six is complete:
- Joey, who wants to be an actor, but is a bit dumb.
- Chandler, who is an office worker and enjoys wisecracking. He shares a room with Joey. This is the second place where much of the action takes place.
- Ross who is a palaeontologist, but a bit of a nerd.
- Monica, Ross’ sister, is a chef and rather compulsive. Her apartment is the third place where the action takes place.
- Rachel, a spoilt little rich girl who likes shopping and fashion.
- Phoebe, who is a bit of a hippie, and has had a weird background and upbringing.
In the pilot, we are introduced to these six characters. The plot itself hinges around Ross, who has just been divorced because his wife discovered she was a lesbian, and Monica, who goes on a date with a man from the restaurant known as Paul the Wine Guy. Although only her first date, Monica has him back to her apartment and sleeps with him. She does this quite openly. The friends persuade Rachel to cut up the credit cards that her Daddy pays for. As Monica says: ‘Welcome to the real world, it sucks you’ll love it!’ Rachel gets a job as a waitress at Central Perk.
This gives us the four main characteristics of Friends and the lives of its characters.
1. Messy: The friends lives are all complicated. They have had issues, to put it mildly, in their upbringing, they all have their hang-ups, and their sexual relationships and love affairs are especially problematic. For the next 234 episodes the friends get into various difficult situations that provide the basis for each show. For example, Joey sleeps with any girl he meets. Monica falls in love with an older guy, but breaks up with him when he won’t have children with her. Rachel and Ross have an on off relationship throughout the whole 10 episodes including marrying by mistake, divorcing, and having a baby. Chandler isn’t good at relationships, but ends up marrying Monica after sleeping with her at Ross’ wedding (not the one to Rachel). Phoebe has problems with her twin sister, Ursula as well as her own share of sexual encounters. And this is not to mention problems at work and with parents, and many, many more relationship issues!
2. Support: In all this, however, they have each other to turn to for help and encouragement. It is this that keeps them going. So Phoebe, for example, can rely on them when she acts a surrogate mother for her brother’s children as can Chandler when he decides to change career and enter advertising. Whatever happens, they stick together and share it all.
3. Community: Following on from this, the six form a tightly knit group living either with each other or near each other. This can cause problems when they have boyfriends or girlfriends from outside the group. They enjoy just hanging-out with each other in the Coffee House or at each other’s apartments. While they have life apart from the group, but it is the group that is the focus of their lives. It is being together that keeps them going.
4. Acceptance: Although each has their own quirks and personalities, they totally accept one another. They may have annoying habits or character traits like Monica’s competitiveness and obsession with tidiness or Joey’s total stupidity, but there is no condemnation because of them. They may tease and banter with each other, but there is no question of judgement or rejection because of personality or behaviour.
So why was it so successful and why is still so popular? Well, it is extremely well-written and it is funny. But I believe the appeal of the show is that people can identify with it. People do live messy lives - not necessarily as messy as Friends, but messy nevertheless. The encouragement that they receive from one another is an ideal that we would all like. We feel disconnected and fragmented in our urban lifestyles. It is friends who keep us going and we, too, would like to have people who would support us in the way Joey, Chandler, Ross, Monica, Rachel and Phoebe support each other through thick and thin.
Friends is the sixties come of age.
The friends don’t worry about politics, religion, or ideology. These simply don’t concern or interest them. Ethically, there are no moral absolutes apart from their relationships with each other. There is no hierarchy within the group. They are all equal. They have their opinions, but they respect the fact that the others may not share them. Tolerance is taken for granted.
Why am I going on about this? Well I’ll tell you more in the next post. For now though, I would like just to ask this: if you were to create a God for Friends what would he be like? Wouldn’t he be like the Benevolent God I have described in previous posts? The ever-loving, ever-supportive, always accepting, never condemning God of much present Christianity?
And don’t you think our image of Jesus is that of someone who would be at home in Central Perk? I have no doubt at all that Jesus would be found drinking coffee at Central Perk, Starbucks, or wherever, but would he be any different to the rest of the clientele? Not if you listen to a lot of sermons, he wouldn’t. In fact, the Friends theme song could be his message as, indeed, it already is the message in many churches:
So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's D.O.A.
It's like you're always stuck in second gear
When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, but
I'll be there for you
(When the rain starts to fall)
I'll be there for you
(Like I've been there before)
I'll be there for you
('Cause you're there for me too)
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
In the next few blogs, I want to describe how I see society as having changed in the time I have been a priest, examine a specific example from the popular media that illustrates these changes for me, look at how some are describing the change at a philosophical level, and then look at the ways some in the Church, myself included, have responded to this change in the way we do Church. This will bring us to the movement I mentioned on Friday!
In other words, having written about how our view of God has changed, I want to retrace my steps and look at how society has, and is, changing. The two are closely related. Thank you to everyone who has sent me comments. They do help focus my thoughts even if it doesn’t always seem like it! I am intrigued why I can’t persuade you to post your comments here as well though!!!
I aim to post again on Thursday.
I recently preached a sermon in which I asked the congregation how many of the following, in no particular order, were around when they were growing up:
ipods and mp3 players
DVDs and CDs
internet and websites
cable or satellite TV
As the children and teenagers in our Church were meeting separately, the answer was somewhat predictable. Almost none of the above were around when many of us were teenagers and only a few were around when some of us were. The PC was first released by IBM in the year I was ordained deacon, 1981. Technological change, which was already moving apace, has accelerated since then and with this technological change has gone a corresponding social change.
Admittedly, this applies mainly to the western world, in parts of Africa, for example, life has been very much the same as usual, that is, poverty and starvation. There are signs, however, that what has happened in the western world will eventually reach the rest of the world. I was in India last year and mobile phones seemed to be the must have thing there in the way they were when I visited my family in the UK. Young people today are growing up in a culture of ‘infotainment’, technology, and communication. This culture is not value free. It communicates values as well as information. There is a philosophy and ideology that goes with it.
This technological change has come on the back of a widespread rejection of Christian values. When I was ordained, it was common to talk of secularization, but the fact remained that people still had some understanding of the Christian faith, even if it had very little effect on their lives. There were shared values based on centuries of Christian influence. People knew the stories of Jesus and the rest of the Bible for that matter.
This simply is not true any more. Jesus, for many people, is a swear word and no more. Biblical illiteracy is not just common, it is the norm. Christian explanations of reality are just not accepted. The Church is appreciated by some for the good community work it does, but it is hardly a place where people go to get answers to life’s questions. Indeed, for an increasing number of people there are no questions that go beyond this life. This life is life, and it is within this life that we find meaning. There is no need to look for answers outside of it. There really is no hell below us and above us is only sky. And for many people, this is all there needs to be. It’s not a problem.
They are happy chatting endlessly on the mobile, texting, or emailing family and friends. It is family and friends who give them all the support and encouragement they need. People find all the meaning they need in their relationships. This doesn’t mean that things don’t go wrong, it’s just that they don’t need all this heavy talk about God to deal with it. Inasmuch as people do believe in God, it is the Benevolent God, who is simply another member of their social networks.
I am a beautiful person, life is not a dress rehearsal, I want to be happy now. Yes, things can be tough at times, but my family and friends are there for me. It’s nice to think that there may be a God who loves me too, that’s kind of comforting. It’s not for you to tell me how to live my life, and I won’t tell you how to live yours. Let’s just try to get on with one another as best we can. Life’s too short to worry. Why have regrets? Move on!
This all seems very obvious as a description of where people are. Not everyone, of course, but certainly a significant number. By inventing the Benevolent God, we have shown ourselves to be both part of the change as well as responding to it. But while some may be willing, inside the church and out, to include this God as part of their world view very few want to let him/her define their world view. And that’s a big problem for us in the Church.
I ask myself: how much has God figured in my life today? To what extent have my movements, choices, and decisions been affected by my belief in him? How conscious am I of his presence in my life? How much has he become the unconscious force that shapes all I think and do?
That I can ask these questions of myself is a start and that you have bothered to read them shows you care. But, I hope, you see my point.
Monday, October 23, 2006
I hope you all had a good weekend. It is supposed to be getting cooler here in Hong Kong, I can’t say I have noticed. Temperatures are still in the mid to high 20s. I find it hard to function above 20! I do apologize for not posting over the weekend. I needed more time to think than the weekend provided, but I will try not to let it happen too often – not posting, that is, hopefully I will at least go on trying to think!
Today I post the last in the series on God which was prompted by the survey into religious beliefs in America. Since I originally started this series, I have been trying to write more fully about how far I think many of us have wandered from a balanced understanding of God. I have begun to ask how we can find God again. I am sure the key does lie in seeing God as exclusively and explicitly revealed in Jesus Christ so I want to round off the original series with a few thoughts which I will write about more extensively in future posts.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
We have been examining the four Gods that researchers identified as being believed in by Americans today: an authoritarian God who metes out punishment; a benevolent God who is less willing to condemn people; a critical God who does not interact with the world, but deals out punishment in the after-life; and a distant God who set the laws of nature in motion, but is no longer involved in events of the world. My assumption has been that it is not only Americans who have these four Gods.
I have argued that in fact there is truth in all four, but that each misses out on part of the truth or is in danger of distorting it. So, for example, while it is true, as those who believe in the Benevolent God assert, that God welcomes us and accepts us as we are, he doesn’t stop there, but has expectations of us. He accepts us as we are, but expects us to change and be changed into what we should be.
We need a bigger God than any of these different Gods. What we need is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For in the Bible, God is not defined in abstract terms as the researchers attempt to do with these views of God. This is not a criticism for the categories they use are helpful to understand contemporary religion and not just American religion. They help us to analyze our own view of God and see where it is inadequate and needs changing.
Christianity, however, is more than belief in a God, important though that is. It is first and foremost a relationship with God. This relationship is only possible through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus that we meet God and come to know him for ourselves. The God we meet is our Creator, who not only created the world, but upholds it and sustains it every second of every day. He is the Creator, who is utterly transcendent, but who has condescended to know us and love us. He is the One who has made us moral beings and who shows us how we should live. If we ignore his commands, there will inevitably be consequences, because what he has shown us is for the best because he is God and knows best.
Yet even though we go wrong and let down him, ourselves, and others, he never gives up on us, but keeps loving us and reaching out to us. Supremely, he has reached out to us in the death of his Son who by his death has made forgiveness possible for us no matter how bad we are or how bad what we have done has been. The life we live now matters and one day we will have to give an account of it. There will be a day of reckoning that none can escape. However, Christians believe that Christ is on their side and will see them through, but they accept this humbly as a gift and not as a right.
As long as we are here, we work for the good of all creation and all who are part of it. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. We are more than simply passing through, and we long for the day when God will recreate the heavens and earth and bring his work of creation to completion. In the meantime, we worship him as our God and trust him as our Father. We know there is more that we do not know than we do, and long for the day when we will no longer see through a glass darkly, but see face to face, when we will know even as we are fully known.
We will inevitably stumble and fall. We will make mistakes, take wrong turnings, misunderstand, get it wrong, and sin. But we believe in a God who is greater than all our failings, a God who is capable of helping us to stand and who will one day perfect his work in us.
The Christian view of God is of great God: a God whom we can never fully understand. There will always be more to know and more to discover about him. But we do believe that we can know something of Him and that what we do know is true. This truth we find in the One who said: I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one can come to the father but by me.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Friday, October 20, 2006
The weekend is here. It's been a bit frantic this week so only a short blog today. I hope to post the next blog in the current series over the weekend and then the last in the series on God on Monday! I am sorry if you have been experiencing some technical difficulties this week. Hopefully, all is back to normal now!
I have just got back from another assembly. I take assemblies at one particular school every Friday, and this term we have been going through characters in the Old Testament. You know the sort of thing: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua and so on. This is where the Benevolent God and much modern day Christianity really comes off the rails. God slaughtering people or ordering their slaughter. The people of God taking over the promised land and destroying cities. You may remember it from Sunday School days. You probably haven't heard much about it in Church recently.
Today it was Elijah. The people of Israel have been engaging in some inter-faith dialogue. They have been trying to be sensitive to the culture in which they live and understand the faith of the people around them. So much so that they have been incorporating some of the insights from contemporary religion into their own. Elijah, who let's face it is something of a a reactionary, challenges them and accuses them of forsaking their own faith and betraying the one true God.
They have a show down. Elijah challenges them to a religious competition. Elijah wins and all the leaders of the oppostion are slaughtered. Read all about it in 1 King 18. It is ages since I last spoke on this passage and it is with some embarrassment that I find myself telling the story now. It doesn't fit somehow. This sort of thing is not supposed to happen. This is not what we believe about God. No wonder we take refuge in the New Testament.
Until that is we come across verses like this from St Matthew 13:40-43:
'Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!'
Much to our discomfort it sounds as if Jesus wouldn't be excessively uncomfortable with Elijah's approach. Perhaps yet another signpost indicating we are going in the wrong direction.
Have a good weekend!
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
I have written in previous posts about Changing Our View Of God. Today I want to summarize and move on to a new series that follows from it, which for convenience I am calling Finding God Again. I am going to take my time on this one so probably only one or two posts in the series each week. But I will write about other matters in between and reply to any comments there may be.
Changing Our View of God: Summary
I have tried to describe some of the key ways I believe that our view of God has changed over the time that I personally have been actively involved in Christian ministry. The reasons for this change are simply put. We wanted an end to patriarchy and for there to be a greater openness to the feminine with more priority given to women’s issues. We wanted less emphasis on sin and more emphasis on the goodness of creation. We wanted to define ourselves in an inclusive way by what we are for, not in an exclusive way by what we are against. We preferred to see Jesus' death as an example of how we should live rather than as a response to how we have lived. We wanted acceptance and forgiveness rather than judgement and condemnation.
I have suggested that because of this, we have, at the very least, modified our view of God to take on these concerns, while some have gone even further and have changed their view of God altogether. Out with the Authoritarian God I have written about and in with the Benevolent God, a God who addresses our concerns. A God who is both male and female. A God who created a good world. A God who showed us in the ministry of Jesus that we should welcome everyone and anyone without passing judgements on them or their lifestyle. A God who is less concerned about sin and more concerned about love. A God who never gets angry with us and never gives up on us.
I have suggested that there are problems with this for anyone who still holds to a view in which the Bible is, in some way at least, authoritative. For in the Bible, while there is truth in the above description of God, it is not the whole truth or anything like it.
The problem is that, in the Bible, God is described in predominantly male categories. God may indeed have created a good world, but we screwed it up and now it shares in our sin. Jesus did welcome everyone, but he also had some hard things to say about people and their behaviour. Jesus’ death is predominantly portrayed in sacrificial terms as being because of us and for us. And in the Bible, to put it at its simplest, God does get angry and punish people.
How are we to reconcile these two different views of God? Can they in fact be reconciled or must we choose between one or the other? The problem is not so much of a problem for those from a liberal Christian background. If you do not see the Bible as normative in the first place, there is no problem in rejecting those parts of it that are not congenial to your view of God. However, for those of us from a background in which the Bible is taken seriously, the problem is much more acute.
I wish now to talk as one from such a background. I have written of how many of us from such a background found the Authoritarian God of our background oppressive and, frankly, at times repulsive. We have for some years been on a journey trying to find a nicer, kinder God. Most of us have ended up with a version of the Benevolent God. Many of us are happy with this, and are keen to introduce this God to those who still haven’t made the journey and to those who are outside the community of faith altogether. I feel sure we were right to embark on the journey. I am just not sure we have ended up in the right place. I don’t want to go back to where I was, but I am not sure here is any better. Well, no, that’s not quite true: it is better here, actually. People are a lot nicer and kinder for one thing. Sadly, however, just because the place you get lost in is nice doesn’t mean it is the place you should be.
I do go back and visit the old place from time to time. I meet with Christians from a very evangelical and traditional background. People who sincerely and devoutly believe in the Authoritarian God and I just don’t feel at home. I went to a very successful local evangelical church recently. The people there were all kind, sincere, deeply committed, and spiritual. Do you know the piercing sound chalk sometimes makes on a blackboard? It goes right through you and you can’t stand it? Well that’s the feeling I get. It’s unfair, it’s not even rational, but I know I just can’t stay there a minute longer.
I am listening to some mp3s of a well-known Christian speaker at the moment. I agree with just about all that he has to say. I think he is right on in his analysis. But I end up sympathizing more with those he criticizes than those he supports. Now you are probably thinking that I have some real issues that I need to deal with. No doubt you are right. But I don’t think I am alone. In fact, I know I am not.
I keep referring to ‘we’. Preachers often do this so they don’t sound so egotistical by saying I or too direct by saying you. So ‘we think’ really means, ‘I think’. And ‘we need to repent’ really means ‘you need to repent’. But this is not what I am doing. At least not all the time!
Over the last 15 years or so a movement has been growing rapidly principally, but not exclusively, in the US. It is now making its presence felt in other parts of the world as well. It is a movement of people many of whom share my experience and perspective, and who want to move towards a new way of being and doing Church.
I have only become consciously aware of this movement comparatively recently, but I realize that for quite some time I have been a part of what it stands for. I wish I had known about it much earlier as I would have appreciated sharing in the conversation. I feel it is as if we have been going in the same direction but with them on the A road and me trying to keep up on the B road! Tragically for me, now I have caught up and our paths have crossed, I feel we are all going in the wrong direction!
I’ll begin to tell you more in the next post in this series!
Monday, October 16, 2006
I have just got back from speaking during assembly at a local boys' school. I always wonder how much anyone understands what I say, let alone cares! You can only hope. This is by no means a problem just with teenagers, though it is perhaps particularly acute with them, as they are growing up with a worldview not always understood by those who are older. This is about more than the traditonal age gap problem where the assumption is that as they get older, they will eventually become more like those they have the gap with!
No, it's about how we talk to those, and they are not just teenagers, who have a worldview in which, for example, what handbag Victoria Beckham is wearing at the moment is much more important than the question of the origin of the universe. The answer apparently is that it is, coincidentally, like the bang that started the universe: a big one.
Handbags are big in every sense of the word at the moment. Here in Hong Kong, I am reliably informed, women buy on average three handbags a year. So it's important to get it right. Mind you, given the size of accommodation here, I have no idea where they keep them all, especially if they are like Posh's latest.
The point is a serious one. How do you talk about God to someone who really does care more about the size of their handbag than their relationship with him 'in whom they live and move and have their being'. I am not meaning to be patronising about this. A great deal of time and money is spent on designing, making, and promoting handbags. If we as Christians just dismiss it as a waste of time, then we are not engaging in any meaningful way with those who have spent hours over the weekend looking for their next must have consumer item.
Talking about God may mean some of us having to learn a lot more about handbags.
Appropriately, then, today in my series about God, I come to the Distant God. I hope to be back on Wednesday for the next in the series on Changing our View of God. I hope your week is good!
4. A Distant God
For the past few weeks, we have been considering the four Gods identified by researchers from the Baylor Institute of religion in America in their survey of American religious attitudes. They found that Americans believed in four different kinds of Gods regardless of what their religious affiliation was. We looked first at the Authoritarian God and the Benevolent God. Both these versions of God are much involved and engaged in the world and expect their followers to be also. Last week, we looked at the first of two versions of a God who is not involved in the world. The Critical God we saw only got involved at the end of our life to pass judgement on us and to reward or punish.
I argued last week that while we should reject the suggestion that God is NOT involved in the world, we should not also reject the idea of judgement based as it is on the teaching of our Lord himself.
Today we come to the final version of God, the Distant God. The researchers say that ‘believers in a Distant God think that God is not active in the world and not especially angry either. These individuals tend towards thinking about God as a cosmic force which set the laws of nature in motion. As such, God does not “do” things in the world and does not hold clear opinions about our activities or world events.’
In the Bible, God does not simply create the world, he upholds it as well. It isn’t that he has started it off and left it to get on with it, he is intimately involved moment by moment so that if he were not, it would cease to exist. God both creates and sustains his creation. As such, Christians have to reject the God of much popular culture which, while not wanting to reject the idea of God altogether, believes in a God in a way that makes very little practical difference.
This is a ‘having your cake and eating it’ sort of philosophy. This kind of approach realizes that there are good, sound philosophical arguments for the existence of God. But believers in this God want a God who doesn’t bother them too much. He doesn’t give commands and so doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t do anything in the world so there is no need to pray to him or to worry about him doing anything out of the ordinary. It is a very convenient sort of God, and Christians are right to reject it.
But have we rejected too much and gone too far the other way? Christians today want God to be involved in the world and want to be involved themselves in the creation and its affairs. We want a God whom we can speak to whenever we want and who is always there for us. A good mate in fact! It is true that in the Bible God is a God who cares deeply about us, who loves us so much that he sent his Son into the world for us, a Son who also taught us to call God our Father. Nevertheless, this is the same God who is Spirit. In other words, who is a God who is also different to us, whom we cannot see and live, who dwells in light inaccessible, whom we can only speak of imperfectly. This is a transcendent God who condescends to know us. And who, while he has made us in his image, remains over us and above us.
Christmas will soon be on us again. Until we see how utterly and completely transcendent God is, we won’t begin to see how incredible the miracle of the incarnation is, whereby this God became one of us and dwelt amongst us. We are but ‘dust and to dust we shall return’. It is only when we realize how weak and feeble we are compared to this God that we can begin to comprehend how absolutely amazing it is that this God should love us and care about us.
While it is right to approach God as our Father, we should also do so with fear and trembling, knowing that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. Our worship all too often is in danger of becoming a conversation amongst friends instead of the humble honour that creatures owe their Creator. We need to rediscover a sense of reverence and awe in our worship and liturgy as well as, dare I say it, fear.
Friday, October 13, 2006
Just a short post today. I thought that after some large posts a short pause might be helpful! I can't resist commenting on this, however:
It is a timeline of key world events. It is a site that people consult for information. It has the death of Muhammed on it, but not the death of Christ. In fact, it doesn't have Christ on it at all, even though it uses a timeline based on the life of Christ. They try to pretend it isn't by using BCE and CE, but that's still based on the life of Christ whether they like it or not. This is where we are in our culture at the moment. And this is the culture in which we are called to proclaim Christ.
Have a good weekend everyone, and I will see you on Monday!
Thursday, October 12, 2006
6. Changing our View of God: God and Judgement
Today we come to what I believe to be an extremely important area in our changed view of God. In each of the other areas I have looked at, it can at least be argued that they are based on evidence within the Bible and Christian tradition itself:
- God did make us male and female and we are all one in Christ Jesus
- God is the Creator and he did declare his creation good
- Jesus did include everyone in his ministry and ate and drank with sinners
- Jesus’ death on the Cross is an act of love and does show us how we too should live
The problem in each of these areas is not whether what is being said is true, but whether it is the whole truth, or anything like it. However, the removal of any notion of judgement and any reference to the wrath of God amounts not simply to a concentration and an emphasis on one part of the truth, but to a complete reinterpretation of the nature of God. We really do end up with a very different kind of God. This is the God that most of us have wanted and have opted for, but it is right to pause and consider just how different the God we believe in and preach is from the God of previous ages. I don't think we realize how far we have moved in this area.
I will post the next in the series on God on Monday, and then take up the theme in this series, Changing our View of God, on Tuesday. Thank you for sticking with me this far. I look forward to your comments!
Changing our View of God: God and Judgement
The judgement of God, that is, belief in a God who judges people and either punishes or rewards them has either been rejected altogether or is now seen as being of no more than peripheral concern. Most of us are explicit or implicit universalists, that is, we believe that God after death will welcome and accept all. We certainly don’t believe that nice people who don’t believe in Jesus will be excluded from God’s kingdom, that would be unthinkable. In believing this, we don’t always realize how drastically we have moved from the New Testament. We may be happy to have done so, but it is important to acknowledge the fact. It is, then, perhaps worth reminding ourselves at the start of what the New Testament attitude is to the Judgement of God.
Take, for example, one of the most well-known and popular of the verses in the New Testament, John 3:16:
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
This is sometimes described as the golden verse of the Bible. It continues however:
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.’
What does John mean by this? John 3:36 seems to make it plain:
‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.’
In Acts 17:30-31 Paul is recorded as saying to the Athenians:
‘While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’
What he means by this Paul spells out in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10:
‘This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.’
These are not just isolated verses, but are to be found in every strand and at every level of the Biblical narrative. Nor is it the case that Jesus says anything different. In St Matthew 25 there is the famous passage in which Jesus says that those who give food, water, clothing and so on to one of his disciples gives it in fact to him. It is a powerful passage and is often used at this time of the year in Harvest Festival services. What we perhaps miss in the passage is what Jesus says will happen to those who don’t:
‘Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ (St Matthew 25:41)
And, again, this is not untypical of the language that Jesus uses.
I could multiply examples and that’s before we get to the Book of Revelation where in 14:10 we are told that unbelievers ‘will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.’
I am deliberately giving these examples and labouring them because we forget how intrinsic to the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament is the idea of God’s wrath and judgement.
This was already changing when I became a Christian. People were being attracted by John Lennon’s vision of ‘no hell below us, above us only sky’. And if 'all you need is love', what place anger and wrath? It was not always so. For hundreds of years Christians had believed in and taught that one day there would be a judgement and that God would reward some and punish others. Some far too eagerly. For it has to be said that at times in the history of the Christian Church, Christians seemed to believe more in hell than they did in heaven and seemed to get a sadistic delight out of the thought of people being punished and tormented.
We, however, were having none of that. We quickly saw where the world was going. A society which had got rid of the death penalty, as Britain had, was hardly likely to approve of a God who had not. We focused instead on the passages, where Jesus was nice to sinners and not on those where he consigned them to 'outer darkness' where there was ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Such discussion about judgement that did take place, took place where there was no danger of anyone from outside listening in and hearing. If that seems cynical, look at any evangelistic book or booklet put out by mainline churches. You won’t hear much of places, again to quote Jesus, ‘where their fire never goes out and the worm never perishes’.
In theological circles, a major revision in Christian teaching was taking place. It did not get too much publicity as the secular press found our revision of sexual ethics and the role of women far more juicy and reportable. But this revision was, perhaps, far more significant because it was changing the whole tone of Christianity and excising a major character trait in the Biblical description of God.
We were extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a God who got angry and punished people. Indeed, as we were not convinced they were sinners in the first place, there was not exactly a lot to punish them for. Yes, there were some bad people, people like Hitler, for example, but these were the exceptions. Most were just ordinary people, like you and me, doing their best, often in difficult circumstances. How could a loving God possibly justify inflicting pain on someone simply because they didn’t believe in him in the way he wanted? Such a view surely belonged to a less enlightened and more primitive age. Others argued that this was the God of the Old Testament, but that Jesus had shown us a different view of God. This was self-evidently not true, but it played well to the masses, and it was what we wanted to believe was true. So you now will hear plenty of sermons about what Jesus meant by eating and drinking with sinners, you won’t hear many about what he meant when he said they would be thrown into ‘outer darkness’.
This was not only about a theoretical change in doctrine. We rewrote our liturgies to remove as much as possible any reference to God’s judgement. We left passages about God punishing people out of the lectionaries so that we didn’t have to suffer the indignity of hearing them read out in church. That would be so embarrassing! The Psalms had been used in Christian worship for hundreds of years, as they had and are in Jewish worship. But these contained loads of verses about God punishing people. We did not want to stop reading them altogether because they had nice to things to say as well. We got round the problem by enclosing verses about judgement in brackets so we knew not to use them. Old hymns were revised and new ones written to reflect what was supposed to be a more positive view of God. Nor were these changes confined to the more liberal wing of the Church. You won’t find many charismatic worship songs about the judgement of God.
While these were changes within the Church and the community of believers, there was a consequent change in our attitude to those outside. Take, for example, the hymn, ‘Thy kingdom come, O God’. Originally the last verse read:
O’er heathen lands afar
thick darkness broodeth yet:
arise, O Morning Star,
arise, and never set!
This was revised so that the first line read, ‘O’er lands both near and far’. In the past, missionaries had gone out to non-Christian lands, lands afar, expressly because out of love they had wanted to save the lost. The heathen, they believed, were in grave danger of being lost to the fires of hell, and it was the Christian’s duty to do all he or she could to save them. And it is often forgotten how many missionaries were women. I owe my own Christianity, in part, to a female missionary to China whom I never met.
Nowadays, of course, those formerly known as heathen are now our dialogue partners, members of other faith communities. When I first went to theological college, I was part of prayer groups praying for missionaries who worked amongst those we thought of as pagans who had never heard the Gospel. These missionaries were the heroes of the faith, those who had sacrificed all, quite literally, for the sake of the Gospel and those for whom Christ had died. How quickly things changed.
It was not long before missionaries came to be seen not as ambassadors of Christ, but as agents of colonialism and western imperialism. They had knowingly, or unknowingly, helped spread the values of the west, which had resulted in the political oppression and exploitation of those they had gone to. These victims of the Church and missionaries did not need to hear the Gospel because they already had their own light, their own way to God, every bit as valid as that of the Christian west.
It wasn’t long before not only did we not pray for missionaries, but missionaries themselves ceased to exist. Instead of missions to the heathen, we sought to undo the sins of the past by working for fair trade, involving ourselves in development projects, and fighting unjust governments, even if the regimes that came in their place were no more just than those they replaced. Digging wells took over from distributing Bibles. ‘Peace and justice’ not ‘peace and forgiveness’ became our theme. Of course it did, for forgiveness implies sin and judgement about it, and peace in the past meant first of all peace with God, not peace amongst nations.
It is, perhaps, worth pausing to spare a thought for these missionaries so maligned by modern Christians. Did they always get it right? Of course not. Did they sometimes mix western values with the values of the Gospel? Of course they did, just as we do all the time. Did they love Christ and care passionately for those they went to? You only have to read their biographies and writings to see that they did. Many died at the hands of the very people they went to save. We talk about how Jesus loves everyone. They demonstrated it by giving their lives out of love for those they were sent to. They believed they were being sent, and wanted more than anything for people to become Christians. We are not sure it is even valid to ask anyone to become a Christian if they have a faith of their own. Who is exclusive and who inclusive? Were not the missionaries being inclusive in offering Christ to everyone and anyone, and aren’t we being exclusive by refusing to offer him to people because we respect the faith that they already have?
We see it as ignoble to be motivated by the thought of saving people. And we would think that, wouldn’t we, because we don’t believe there is anything to save them from. They are not sinners, they are not going to appear before the judgement seat of God, they are not going to be punished after death, Jesus loves them just as they are. What more is there to say? God is our friend, not our judge.
Let’s hope to heaven we are right for we are going to have a very long time to regret it if we are wrong.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Thank you to those who have sent me some very thoughtful comments in the past couple of days. It helps me shape not just future blogs, but also my own thinking. I know you are busy people, and I really appreciate you taking the time both to read and react to my ramblings!
Today, I am picking up the next in the series on Changing our View of God. It is on the theme of God and the Atonement. The atonement, as you will know, is about the meaning of the death of Christ and what, if anything, it achieved. I am focusing on its relationship to sin. I will post, all being well, the next in this series, on Thursday. It will be on Judgement, which, if anything, is even less popular in today's church than sin!
Changing our View of God: God and the Atonement
As a teenager, in a church where the predominant view of God was that of the Authoritarian God, the most important festival in the Christian Year was Easter. I remember the Rector once preaching at Christmas and saying that, basically, while it was all very nice celebrating the birth of a baby, the most important events in the life of Christ were his death and resurrection . It was Easter that was at the heart of the Christian faith.
This was because, on the Cross, Christ had died for our sins. The resurrection was effectively the proof that it had worked. It was taken for granted that the death of Jesus was about sin, not just in the sense that it was a sin to have crucified him – whoever it was who was ultimately responsible for crucifying him – but because, in some way, Christ was dealing with the problem of individual human sin in his death. In a real way, he was dying for you and for me.
This understanding was at the heart of what are known as the four spiritual laws, and which I remember learning:
- Law 1: God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
- Law 2: Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
- Law 3: Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
- Law 4: We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.
You can see a flash presentation of these laws here: http://www.campuscrusade.com/fourlawsflash.htm or read them more fully here:
At first sight, these may seem to be incredibly simplistic, but that was rather the point, they were designed to make spiritual truths easy to understand. And they are longer than St Paul’s summary in 1 Corinthians 15:3: ‘For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures’.
Despite all attempts to make it more complicated in recent years, in essence, this understanding of the death of Christ is still embedded in the Eucharist Prayers used by Anglicans and Catholics alike. Take, for example, the Eucharist Prayer that we used at my church last Sunday, it contains these words:
‘And so, Father, calling to mind his death on the cross,
his perfect sacrifice made once for the sins of the whole world.’
While, however, the understanding of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin is quite clearly there in the Bible and liturgy for all to see, it is more often than not passed over when it comes to preaching and teaching. Part of the reason is, as I wrote last week, that we are not at all sure we believe in individual sin as such any more and, that, even if we do, then not that much. Why have Christ dying for something that isn’t that serious in the first place and which requires us to believe it even exists?
It was inevitable that the idea of someone dying for sin in the way animals used to be sacrificed for it was going to cause us problems. We were struggling with the big bang and the origins of the universe, with the theory of relativity and quantum physics. The idea of Christ dying as a sacrifice for sin like a lamb once died seemed to belong to a very outdated worldview. What is more, having moved to a benevolent view of God, we also had a major difficulty in understanding why Christ would have to die for sin. Why God would need anyone to die for sin? Surely, God being God could just forgive sin if that is what he was disposed to do. Why go through the act of having Christ die for it?
There was a distinct air of unreality about how Christ’s death was explained. It was something that was believed and regarded as necessary, but no-one seemed to know quite why. It all seemed rather irrelevant or at least very distant and removed from our lives in the present. Furthermore, as we were moving away from an emphasis on sin, it only seemed natural to move away from an emphasis on Jesus’ death as being for sin. We couldn’t understand it, and didn’t like the sound of it anyway. And as we were busy getting involved in this world through politics and social action, we started exploring other ways of looking at Jesus’ death.
We really liked to think that Jesus died because he took on the ‘powers’ in his own day. This justified us taking on the powers in our own whether these powers were personal or abstract. So the fact the Jesus challenged authority and was nailed to a Cross meant we could challenge the authority of (allegedly) unjust governments and corporations safe in the knowledge that this is what Jesus would have done. It meant, too, that we could challenge more abstract powers that we believed enslaved people, powers such as institutionalised racism, sexism, and capitalism.
Jesus had died not as a sacrifice, rather he had sacrificed his life for what he believed in his struggle against all that undermined human life and prevented it being lived to the full. We had new saints now. Not the old saints who died because they tried to tell sinners about personal faith and forgiveness in Jesus, but people who stood up to injustice, men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was dead, and Desmond Tutu, who isn’t.
Much of the old language was still used, but it was given a radically different meaning. Fighting the good fight of faith did not mean resisting temptation in one’s own life and experience, praying and reading the Bible for daily guidance, and sharing the faith with friends and contacts, but opposing right-wing regimes in South America and South Africa. More recently, it has also become about tackling the effects of globalisation and the causes of global warning. The fact is that having de-personalized and de-invidualized sin, we didn’t need Jesus to die for it.
Jesus’ death is a very good example, perhaps even the supreme example (although not everyone would want to go as far as that), of someone taking on the powers of this world while at the same time giving us an example of how we should live. As Jesus served so we, too, should serve.
Having reinterpreted Jesus’ death this way, many have wanted to go back and condemn the traditional, historical view of the death of Christ, which, in some sections of the church, is still believed in. Probably most don’t. As I have said, it is far easier to just not teach it or discuss it. There are, however, no shortage of voices, even within evangelicalism, which claim that there is something profoundly wrong and disturbing about seeing Jesus death as a sacrifice for sin. The suggestion that it was a sacrifice in which Jesus experienced the anger of God gets a very angry response.
Let us allow that there is truth in this modern re-interpretation and that Jesus did take on the powers, even if the powers that Jesus took on in the Bible were primarily spiritual rather than political ones. And it is clearly true from a Biblical perspective that Jesus’ death does give us an example of how we, too, must live and suffer, even if what the suffering is for in the Bible is different. Nevertheless, can we still either dismiss or ignore the idea of Jesus death as a sacrifice? And isn’t the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice the dominant view of the death of Jesus in the New Testament?
While we may not now understand the idea of sacrifice, is it possible that the problem lies with us and not with the idea? And is it possible that instead of the first Christians being primitive and outdated in their understanding of Jesus’ death, that they got it right and we have got it wrong? And if we are prepared to sacrifice this, aren’t we sacrificing Christianity itself? Are we left with anything that makes Christianity in anyway unique?
Monday, October 09, 2006
Happy Monday everyone!
Today I am going to post the third in my series on God. We come to the Critical God and issues of judgement and the after life. This fits rather well with where I am in the series on Changing our View of God and I will be writing about God and Judgement later in the week. It is perhaps here more than anywhere that the modern church departs from the beliefs of previous generations. I was reading the other day a prayer in the old Book of Common Prayer. It is not only the language (so beloved by some) that is different, it is the the whole theological air that it breathes (ignored by all). I doubt, for example, that the Commination Service has been used in a church near you recently. As the sub-title explains this is a service 'Denouncing of God's anger and judgement against sinners.' Do those who argue that we should still use the Book of Common Prayer because of its 'beautiful language' ever stop to think about what the language means, I wonder.
Anyway, it may be appropriate to begin this week with a prayer from the service, which I do think beautiful and not simply because of its language:
O MOST mighty God, and merciful Father, who hast compassion upon all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made; who wouldest not the death of a sinner, but that he should rather turn from his sin, and be saved: Mercifully forgive us our trespasses; receive and comfort us, who are grieved and wearied with the burden of our sins. Thy property is always to have mercy; to thee only it appertaineth to forgive sins. Spare us therefore, good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed; enter not into judgement with thy servants, who are vile earth, and miserable sinners; but so turn thine anger from us, who meekly acknowledge our vileness, and truly repent us of our faults, and so make haste to help us in this world, that we may ever live with thee in the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
3. A Critical God
In this series on God, I have been looking at the four views of God identified by researchers of the Baylor Institute through a major new survey into the religious beliefs of Americans. So far, we have seen that there was an authoritarian God and a Benevolent God. While, in many ways, these two views of God are very different what they have in common is that they both see God as being intimately involved and engaged in the world. One who tells us what we should do and who punishes us if we don’t, and One who accepts us as we are and who forgives us if we foul up. The next two views, however, do not see God as having much of a role in the here and now. The first of these is the Critical God.
‘Believers in a Critical God feel that God really does not interact with the world. Nevertheless, God still observes the world and views the current state of the world unfavorably. These individuals feel that God’s displeasure will be felt in another life and that divine justice may not be of this world.’
On this view, this world is a theatre where we play out our lives as best we can and then, in the next life, we will receive either reward, for having done well, or punishment, for having done badly. My experience is that this is not a popular view of God amongst religious believers, and this is confirmed by the survey. Only 16% of Americans were found to believe in this sort of God. It goes against much contemporary Christian teaching in which God is seen as being active in his world, caring passionately about what happens to it and to its creatures in the here and now. Furthermore, contemporary Christians don’t believe in hell, and if you remove hell, or at least remove what it stands for, then judgement rather loses its meaning anyway. Judgement, after all, implies some sentence to follow it.
The Bible certainly does portray God as active in history and in the world. He has an opinion on what happens now and intervenes to bring about his will. He doesn’t just leave it to us only getting involved at the end. He’s there at the beginning in the middle and at the end. One of the most damning things that can be said of anyone in the modern church is that they are ‘too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use’. Consequently, Christians are much involved in social action, politics, and the affairs of this world. We pray for leaders and world events. We busy ourselves in issues of peace and justice.
Much of this is a reaction to the Christianity of previous generations, which upheld the existing social order and argued that religion and politics don’t mix. The Gospel was about going to heaven when you die and not about the world in which you live. Hell was a reality and often portrayed in sadistic terms. It seemed as if God got pleasure out of burning people in its fire. As for this world, it was destined for destruction anyway, why waste time trying to improve it or preserve it?
But have we perhaps gone too far in the opposite direction? Are we now so involved in earthly affairs that we have forgotten that there is a heaven and a hell? The Bible does warn us that we all must appear before the judgement seat of Christ to account for the deeds we have done in the body? The Bible does not only speak of rewards it also speaks of punishment too. While rightly we have rejected primitive views of hell as a place of torment and pain, we should not forget the passages of the Bible upon which they are based. This world is God’s and it does matter. But heaven matters too, and we should not give the impression it doesn’t.
While we may not like the idea of a critical God this should not lead us to reject the idea of a God who does have an opinion of us and of what we do, and who will one day pass judgement on our lives. This may seem scary and frightening, but if we are to believe in Jesus, this was exactly what he taught. Perhaps in our desire for a God who approves of us and of what we do, we have forgotten that there is a distinct possibility that he may not.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
I had not intended to post anything on the blog this weekend, but I am going to respond to one or two of the comments I have received by other means. I am doing so like this so that others can share in the discussion! I hope eventually that I can encourage you to leave comments here, although I appreciate that not everyone is comfortable with doing so.
It is clear that some are still operating in a climate where the Authoritarian God is still the dominant view of God, and so you rather like the idea of the Benevolent God. You are in an environment where all that the Church seems to be able to do is condemn people. Quite naturally, you see there are problems with this view of God, and want a God more sympathetic to people and more able to respond to them as they are, where they are.
This is why some of us felt the need to try and move away from believing in an Authoritarian God, and why we found the idea of a Benevolent God so attractive. But in many parts of the Church, this Benevolent God is the God that people believe in. This is the God of the public face of much of the Church of England, for example. And the fact is that people are not being attracted either to (him) or to the Church. If I can do what I like, and there are never any consequences, why do I need a God? If all I need God for is moral support, I can get that from my friends and family. This God really is just a heavenly teddy bear, Freud’s crutch for weak people. Ultimately, and paradoxically, this God doesn’t have a whole lot of relevance to people, despite all the attempts to be relevant, because all (he) seems to say is, ‘I accept you just as you are’. Well, if that’s the case, so what?
Others are worried about what would happen if we moved away from the idea of a Benevolent God, wouldn’t we just end up back where we started? Are there any real alternatives? In my series on God, I will be writing of the two other views of God identified by researchers in the US, but these are not likely to prove any more attractive.
The choice, then, seems to be between a God who always condemns everyone and a God who has nothing much to say accept ‘welcome’. This may seem somewhat simplistic, but, in essence, isn’t this precisely the choice the Anglican Communion has got itself into with its battle between traditionalists and liberals?
I don’t want to say too much more until I have worked through the two remaining categories in the series Changing our View of God: ‘God and Atonement’ and ‘God and Judgement’.
I will post the third in the series on God tomorrow. Then the next in the series, Changing our View of God, on Tuesday.
Thank you again to all who are reading and commenting.
Have a good week!
Saturday, October 07, 2006
Have a great weekend whatever you are doing, wherever you are!
See you on Monday.
Friday, October 06, 2006
I must apologize for the way these blogs are beginning to grow. I will try to be more concise in future. There is a pattern to what I am arguing in each of these blogs so if you have read the previous blogs, you will probably be able fill in the detail yourself! I have argued that we have been redefining our view of God and that this is to be seen in several key areas. Today we come to ‘God and Inclusion’. I want to follow the same pattern of argument as in previous blogs: examining where we were, why we changed, where we have ended up, and what there is about where we are that suggests we may be in the wrong place.
God and Inclusion
When I became a Christian some were in and some were out. There were people who were not readily welcomed into the church. My own church background in England meant the exclusion of certain groups of people. Certainly homosexuals (we hadn’t got round to seeing this as a happy condition then and so we did not use the word gay). But whole other groups were absent as well. You didn’t get too many working class people. The church was predominantly white. And your family life had to be of a particular kind. There were not that many single mothers, divorcees, or people who were living together.
As a young curate conducting weddings, it was still common for some people to lie to me about their addresses when coming for to make a booking. They pretended they lived at separate addresses when they knew that you knew that really they shared a house or flat. The assumption was that the Church would disapprove, and more often than not, it still did.
It wasn’t that we disapproved of blacks and working class people as such, we simply just did not have the experience, language, or inclination to reach out to those different to ourselves. Gays, divorcees, and single mothers were more of a problem. We usually coped by saying that you must love the sinner, but hate the sin, but in reality it was rather hard to distinguish the two. How do love someone whose lifestyle is part of whom they are?
Not only was the church exclusive by intention or otherwise, we were judgemental. We had opinions about people and how they behaved. We thought we should have. God had, after all, given the ten commandments and, presumably, he gave them because he expected them to be kept. We could get away with this attitude while society shared our fundamental values which for many years, in the UK at least, it did. But then things began to change.
It is normal to date this change to the sixties. But for most people the sixties were no big deal. You had to have money if you wanted free love. However, it is true to say that seeds were sown that came to harvest, I would say, in the late seventies and eighties. I certainly noticed attitudes changing as I worked in a College for most of the eighties and early nineties.
Homosexuals became gay, living together became both common and acceptable, divorce became a valid choice, supported by legislation, for those in unhappy marriages, tackling poverty became a subject of political concern, and multi-culturalism became both a fact of life and government policy. Society changed radically.
What were we to do? Some were quite clear. We must stand by traditional Christian teaching and uphold moral standards. Others of us were not so sure. We were horrified to discover the damage that some of our Christian teaching had inflicted on people. We felt the pain that many had suffered because they were single mothers or gay or divorced. We were ashamed that they felt the Church had turned its back on them. Was it any wonder that they now turned their backs on us?
And then there was an increased awareness of the poverty that many were living with especially in the inner cities and the prejudice many of other races experienced inside the Church as well as out. We were challenged to reach out in love, and we all know that love is all you need.
But how were we to do this without betraying our Christian standards. With the poor and the blacks it was relatively easy. We just needed to change our attitudes. We discovered that in the Bible, God was often on the side of the poor and oppressed. Jesus himself said he had come to bring good news for the poor so that was alright then. And in the Bible, we were encouraged not to make distinctions on the grounds of race and colour. It took a little time to unlearn old habits, but we tried hard and we meant well.
It was a little harder when it came to gays, sex outside marriage, and divorce. For not only did Christian tradition teach one particular view of morality, the Bible seemed to be rather clear as well. Then we made another amazing discovery. Jesus had welcomed and accepted everyone. He was a friend of sinners, of tax-collectors and thieves, and defended his friendship when criticised by the upholders of traditional morality - the Pharisees. What is more, he specifically told his followers not to judge others.
Not only that, Jesus taught that we must forgive people their sin. Indeed, failure to do so was even a greater sin. And he gave us example after example in his own ministry: from the way he dealt with the woman caught in adultery to the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Son.
The message was clear. We were to welcome people regardless of who they were and what they had done, without making judgements about them and always being willing to forgive them if that’s what they asked. God’s love was unconditional and so should ours be.
Once we started befriending sinners, we discovered that we rather liked them. They were not horrible people after all, but often very nice people, normal people, people just like us. We realized that we had been somewhat hypocritical because we had focused on certain behaviours which we had classed as sinful and had then excluded people because of them, but we had accepted other behaviours, even though they were equally sinful: anger, discrimination, gossip, hypocrisy, for example.
And then came the obvious question. What if those we now welcomed weren’t sinners after all? What if homosexuality, sex outside marriage, and divorce were ok? That would remove a whole lot of problems. So we started asking whether these were acceptable life choices. And that’s roughly where I think we are in the Church. We want to welcome all people equally without question. We want to show people the love of God who welcomes and loves all unconditionally. We know there are still issues, but it’s not for us to judge (unless, of course, someone is sexist or racist that would be going too far!)
And all this has the advantage of fitting very well with the popular culture in which we live. For, in popular culture, people should always be allowed to make their own lifestyle choices. One in which friends are ‘always there for you’. And where the ideal is to love someone ‘just as they are’. Our message is, of course, that this is just what God is like and what God does. He truly is a Benevolent God. He doesn’t condemn, he understands. He feels for us.
For some of us, it was wonderful to discover that God was like this. Our experience of both God and other Christians had left us wondering whether really God was very nice. We believed in him, but we did not always like him. We tried to obey him and serve him, but we were always more than a little afraid of letting him down and of what the consequences would be if we failed.
And we didn’t always want to be telling people off for behaviour that we didn’t think should exclude them from coming to church in the first place. Indeed, many of the so-called sinners seemed an awful lot nicer than the so-called saints. So, of course, we embraced the idea of the Benevolent God. We ourselves needed him as much as anyone.
A Benevolent God and an inclusive Church; people left to seek the truth for themselves, to discover for themselves what is right for them in the context of a loving, caring, supportive community. It’s an attractive proposition.
So why isn’t it attracting anyone?
Theoretically, people should be flocking to churches that believe and teach this. But they are not. If anything they are, if not exactly flocking, then at least visiting churches and groups that are far more exclusive.
And the behaviours we went from condemning to condoning seem to be at least part of the cause of social meltdown. Visit the centre of any city at night and you will find crime, drugs, prostitution, drunkenness, and young people addicted to a lifestyle, which will one day hasten their death. I mean visit them, don’t just look at the statistics, see for yourself. The norm in western society is now broken homes, teenage pregnancies, sexual disease at epidemic levels, and depression and suicide amongst people whose lives haven’t even begun. This is not to condemn. This is reality. And the Benevolent God can only sit by and watch.
And maybe the best thing for us to say to a teenager, full of drink and drugs, lying in a pool of their own vomit, after a night of clubbing is not God loves you just as you are.
Thursday, October 05, 2006
My original idea was to post a series of weekly blogs on God. Then as I got thinking and received comments, I felt that it would be a good idea to explain why I felt one particular view of God was in the ascendancy and why, despite having been greatly influenced by it myself, I felt dissatisfaction with it. As I started writing, I discovered that I had more to say about it than even I had thought! Well that’s what blogs are all about, I suppose.
So I will continue to post the original series on God weekly. But I am also going to run this as a parallel series alongside it and, hopefully, complementary to it. This will be called: ‘Changing our View of God’.
Let me recap. I have argued that in the past we had an Authoritarian view of God, based on the Baylor Institute’s analysis of American religious beliefs, but that now, increasingly, Christians, especially in my own tradition, were embracing a view of God that the researchers described using the term Benevolent God. My own opinion is, however, that even those who today adhere to a view of God, which is Authoritarian in character, have themselves been more influenced by the idea of a Benevolent God than they sometimes imagine.
The purpose of this series is to examine in what ways our view of God has changed, and to ask why this has happened, and whether it is, after all, for the good. In doing so, I write, not as one outside the change looking in, but as one who has been part of it and profoundly affected by it. So in questioning what is going on in the church, I am also questioning myself.
Yesterday, I wrote:
‘It is as if we took a road because we discovered we were in the wrong place, but the road we have taken has led us further away from where we should be.’
I am interested to know the extent to which you agree or disagree.
Changing our View of God: God and Creation
‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.’ When I became a Christian many in the church were deeply suspicious of the world at large and of any involvement in it. The world was a dangerous place for Christians with the Devil waiting to catch and ensnare Christians at every opportunity. Certain activities were regarded as worldly and to be avoided at all costs. Dancing, television, popular music, film, theatre, and pleasure in general were seen very negatively. You needed to be very careful when it came to alcohol, and pubs and bars were best avoided even if you didn’t drink!
The task of Christian mission was to save people from the world, trapped as they were in it. The Gospel was about saving individual souls. There was not much point trying to change the world because the world was evil and would one day be destroyed. Involvement in politics was ok, perhaps, for certain Christian individuals, but that involvement was as an individual. It was not for the church itself to get involved. This was something of a bizarre position for Anglicans to hold given that the head of the church was also the head of state, but Anglicans seemed to manage it. It was axiomatic that religion and politics did not mix.
Creation itself was fallen and anything physical was regarded with deep distrust. The body was a source of constant temptation. It was to be denied and controlled, not indulged and enjoyed. Sin often equalled sex. We were always told that sex was a wonderful gift from God, it just never sounded that wonderful, and it went without saying that it was only to be unwrapped within marriage.
It was quite some time later that I read the wonderful book by David Lodge: ‘How far Can You Go?’ In it he describes how Catholics in the 1950s would play a game he called, ‘How Far Can you Go?’ to determine what was and what was not permissible physical activity between unmarried Catholic couples. Although my background was anything but Catholic, it was interesting to see that Catholics shared the same value system and problems!
Protecting the environment, helping the poor, getting involved in social action were very low down the list of priorities, if they featured at all. In the Youth Fellowship I attended (which was large and successful) the most important issue was how to deal with the problem of lust rather than that of global warming.
Just to describe how it was is to describe how much it has all changed. While it may not have been as stark for everyone as it was for some of us, the principles were fundamentally the same. It seems a different world, as indeed it is. There are doubtless many reasons for the change. Without question, the rise of the permissive society had something to do with it. Our attitudes back then appeared somewhat ridiculous in the light of the changing values and beliefs within society as a whole. It wasn’t though that we just gave into temptation, we at least tried to find a theology to justify our changing perspective. Then, suddenly, we discovered that God had created the world and that God had made it good. It wasn’t the Bible that was negative towards the creation and the body, but early Christian theologians who had allowed alien philosophies into the Church in the mistaken belief they were Christian.
I have to say that for me this discovery came when at Theological College, we called it Bible College back then, but theological sounds so less narrow now. I was studying New Testament, and we were invited to compare Hebrew and Greek world views. The Hebrew world view was life affirming, positive about the world and the body, while the Greek view was life denying and negative to the world and anything physical. The Bible we learnt came from within a Hebrew world view. It was only later that the Church came under Greek influence. The Greeks really did have a lot to answer for.
It was they who had taught us that the body and the physical world were evil. It was they who had mistakenly led us to believe that salvation was about escaping from the body and this world and going to heaven when you die.
Discovering this was a form of liberation in itself. The ‘truth’ was so different. ‘The earth was the Lord’s and everything in it.’ (Psalm 24:1) ‘God had given us all things freely to enjoy.’ (1 Timothy 6:17) Jesus had turned water in to wine. (St John 2:1-11) He himself had been accused of being a glutton and drunkard because of his love of food and wine. (St Luke 7:34) And while it was put with the utmost delicacy, the fact he had hung around with members of the opposite sex suggested we ought not to be afraid of doing the same. (see, for example, St Luke 8:2-3) ‘Jesus is Lord creation’s voice proclaims it!’ I wonder how many of you remember the hymn.
What about sin? Well, sin is always an embarrassment. The idea of original sin, as I wrote the other day, was largely rejected as the creation of Saint Augustine. If creation was fundamentally good, then why should we go on such a guilt trip? Indeed, wasn’t it true that many people were more sinned against than sinning? And wasn’t sin more institutional than individual? Why tell poor, hungry, oppressed, people they were sinners when they were being exploited and treated unjustly by multi-national organisations and the rich and powerful in this world?
And what was the use of talking about spiritual things to people suffering from hunger and violence? Shouldn’t we be trying to share the good things of creation and put an end to the abuse of the world around us? Evangelism was joined by social action as the responsibility of the Christian, and then evangelism itself was defined as being about the whole of life and the whole of the person. It was about telling people how much God cared for them, loved them, and wanted to help them. God was on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the lonely, and the bereaved. Far from scolding them and telling them how much they had sinned, he reached out to them and came alongside of them. And the church ought to too.
The big sin used to be sex. Now it was sexism together with racism, elitism, capitalism, and a whole host of other ills.
Many of us now found ourselves teaching precisely the opposite of what we ourselves had been taught. The incarnation by which Jesus became one of us replaced the atonement by which he died for us as our favourite doctrine. God really was a Benevolent God who had made a good world.
But sin didn’t go away just because we stopped believing in it or, at least stopped talking about it. The reason Saint Augustine believed in original sin wasn’t because he was ignorant and unknowingly influenced by pagan philosophy, he believed in it because the Bible had a lot to say about sin and seemed specifically to say that the reason Jesus had died had been as an offering for sin.
The more we involved ourselves in politics and social action, the more many of us found that the problems of this world seemed to be more than social and political, they seemed to have a spiritual dimension. And some human beings rather than being good people more sinned against than sinning, even when all due allowance had been made, seemed very nasty and bad. We may indeed eat, drink and be merry, and enjoy all the fruits of creation, but we still die. Is it possible that, after all, death may have something to do with sin?
And yet in many sections of the Church the idea of individual human sin has become an alien concept. Indeed, the idea of God giving up his Son to die upon the Cross for us and for our sin is even described by some as a form of cosmic child abuse. Yes, we have our parties and our fun. We enjoy the fruits of creation. We believe in a Benevolent God who is on our side. We rail against social ills and join in political action. We just don’t know how to save anyone.
And all the evidence is that people do long for what we used to call salvation. A visit to the self-help sections of the bookshop reveals a desperate emptiness in the lives of many who have tried all the pleasures that life has to offer and have them wanting.
The creation itself while amazingly beautiful also has a dark side, a dark side that despite scientific discoveries, technological achievements, and medical advances refuses to go away. For if the creation really is so good, why is the world so bad?
We wanted to tell people that God was the Creator who loved them, that the creation was good, that salvation was about the whole of life, and that the body was not evil. We wanted to avoid any suggestion of dualism. We wanted to impress people with our political intelligence and our social action. What we have failed to do is to explain the persistent existence and power of evil. We have failed to tell people how they can escape from the powers and demons that possess, control, and destroy them.
The Benevolent God may be nice to us, he’s just not much use.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Yesterday, I tried to explain how we had come to move from a view of God that I described using the term Authoritarian to one that I described as Benevolent. (Please see the ongoing series on God for more explanation of the use of these terms). I said that the change had been both a theological reaction to a wrong understanding of God and a pastoral desire to reach out to people. Sociologically, it had taken place against changes in society that made belief in a benevolent God both more desirable and more palatable. I expressed alarm and concern about where this belief was going. It is as if we took a road because we discovered we were in the wrong place, but the road we have taken has led us further away from where we should be.
In order to explain the reason for my alarm, and why I think we are lost, I think I need to try and explain, in greater detail, what belief in the Benevolent God normally entails and how we, myself included, moved, often for the best of motives, from one view of God to our present view. My argument is that it has involved a redefinition of God in certain key areas:
• God and Gender
• God and Creation
• God and Inclusion
• God and Atonement
• God and Judgement
These are not the only areas, but as I sit here in front of the screen and think about them, they do seem to be among the most important. I would argue, if I was being more analytic, that the change has affected every area, but I do believe these are the key ones.
Today, I would like to comment on the issue of God and Gender. I know I am in danger of letting the sub-series get out of hand. This is meant to be by way of a commentary on the previous two weeks’ posts on God! Never trust a preacher to be short! So without further ado:
God and Gender
On an authoritarian view of God, God was always male. Use of the male pronoun was not only convenient: it expressed something that was believed to be essentially true about God’s nature. It followed from this that ministry, too, was male. Christian leaders, priests, and teachers were male, and authority, naturally, should reside in men, both in the church and in the home. It was as obvious to accept that authority was male in the past as it is obvious to reject in the present.
Society, though, was moving to a more egalitarian view of the sexes. And it was with surprise and delight that we discovered that God had both a male and female side. After all, when he created humankind, he had made us in his own image: male and female. So that God should be understood as being both male and female in character while, of course, ultimately being above gender altogether.
What was more, new study of the Gospels revealed Jesus to be very positive in his attitude to women - and was not the first witness of the resurrection a woman? Paul, traditionally seen as anti-women, was rediscovered as a champion of women’s ministry. He was someone who included women amongst his co-workers. Indeed texts such as Galatians 3:28 (‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’) revealed that, in fact, Paul was a proto-feminist all along. We just hadn’t noticed it for 2,000 years.
This emphasis, I have to confess, I found both appealing and helpful as I tried to minister in places where women had been ignored and excluded. It was a useful corrective to the abusive attitudes of the past and a good foundation upon which to base outreach to women in the present who were both intelligent and successful in their own right.
Nevertheless, I have always found the fact that Jesus only chose men as apostles somewhat difficult. And passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15 are a bit of a problem. This is not because I see them as necessarily binding on us today, but because they don’t seem to fit with the feminist revision of the New Testament, appealing though it may be. If Jesus and Paul really were proto-feminists, why no women apostles and why should women keep quiet?
In practice, this does not bother people from more liberal parts of the church as much as it does those from more orthodox circles. I think it should, because you can’t claim Jesus as your champion unless you can explain all the evidence. You may not feel Paul’s or even Jesus’ practice is authoritive, but you should be able to be make sense of the evidence. It is one thing to say Jesus did not believe in women having authority, and then to argue that, for whatever reason, you disagree with him, and another to ignore one strand of the evidence in favour of the one that suits your position.
This issue is obviously far more serious for those, like myself, who not only want to know what the Bible says, but see it as, in some way, normative for Christian belief and practice. Those of us who approach the Bible this way have tried various ways around the problem. First, there were those of us who went down the path of reinterpreting the evidence. They argued that the Bible does not say what we previously thought it said. This led to countless attempts to explain those parts of the Bible that do not immediately support a feminist line. Secondly, there were those who tried to explain the difficult passages by trying to contextualize them. They argued that this was what was only what was believed then, not necessarily what should be taught now. After all, Jesus and Paul had to work within the historical and cultural limitations of their time. Thirdly, there were those of us who simply admitted our embarrassment and left it like that.
What we have not wanted to do is to lose the positive emphasis we have discovered. For it is essential to believing in the Benevolent God that (he) is a God who loves all equally. And if we were also to present God to the society in which we lived, (he) had to be sympathetic to attempts to raise the status of women.
The change from an exclusively male God to the God who was both male and female, while being defined by neither, who was a God of men and women was, therefore, essential.
Some have stopped short of dropping the use of male language to describe God, but this seems to be based more on habit than logic.
Of course, this change appealed to us. The male authoritarian God often came across as repugnant. It was a welcome change to find a God who cared, who felt, who nurtured, who was Mother as well as Father. And, of course, we preached it. Were we right to do so? Yes and No.
Yes, because the Authoritarian God was often, and often still is, horrible. Personally, I was horrified when I discovered the way the church had treated women in the past. My own experience taught me that women were not only as clever as me, but often many times cleverer. Furthermore, in my own experience and need, I had found that it was women who more often than not had answers when men couldn’t care less.
No, because as I will attempt to explain in the future, I am not sure the genderless Benevolent God is much better and, more importantly, I am not sure he, she, or whatever isn’t any more than just pure wistful thinking. It may be the God we want to believe in. The question is whether this God actually exists. Increasingly, I don’t think so.
Tomorrow I will look at the next area of redefinition.