Does liberal theology undermine Christian morality?

I’m currently working my way through Susan Howatch’s ‘Starbridge’ series of novels – a 20th-century Barchester Towers about the inner workings of the Church of England and its motley clergy in high places. The novels (starting with Glittering Images) won’t be everyone’s cup of tea with the vicar, but they’re well-observed and packed with psychological and theological insight. Not to mention some fairly frank depictions of clerical sexual misdemeanours.

Two of the novels centre on the Rev. Neville Aysgarth, a liberal churchman much enamoured of the ‘radical’ theology of Bishop John Robinson’s controversial 1960s book Honest to God. In particular Aysgarth eagerly espouses Robinson’s idea of the ‘New Morality’ – a situational ethic based on love rather than traditional rules. However, the married Aysgarth uses this idea to justify to himself what ends up as an all-but fully sexual affair with a young woman with whom he has fallen in love.

Now Aysgarth is clearly deluding himself and twisting theology to suit his ends. But Howatch does strongly suggest that abandoning traditional theology opens up the danger of falling into grave moral error. Is she right?

Journey out of evangelicalism

This matter is fairly close to home for me. Over the past few years I’ve been (as they say) ‘on a journey’ out of mainstream evangelical theology and practice into what I see as more ‘open’ forms and expressions of Christian belief.

I’m still not really a liberal or a progressive. I haven’t jettisoned all my former beliefs, just reinterpreted and re-imagined them in light of my own thinking and experience and thinking. True conservatives would certainly see me as liberal, but true liberals would see me as conservative. Hence ‘Evangelical Liberal’.

Nonetheless at times I do wonder whether I’ve gone too far, strayed too much off the beaten track. In particular I worry that I may be blithely and blindly leading others into a theological and (furthermore) moral morass. Hence the question at the head of this post, which is of genuine concern to me.

So I suppose my real underlying question is: is it possible to reject (or at least radically reinterpret) traditional understandings of biblical theology without completely undermining Christian morality? Is it inevitable that espousing more liberal or progressive theology will ultimately lead to Neville Aysgarth-style moral misdemeanours?

Or to put it the way around, what basis is there for Christian morality (on sex, death, abortion and all the other hot topics) once you question the underpinnings of a fully authoritative, inspired and inerrant Bible or else an infallible church tradition? Does the whole lot simply collapse like a house of cards?

Fearing the worst

That’s certainly the view of many more conservative Christians, both evangelical and Catholic. They fear that if you start to tinker with theology and ecclesiology, if you remove the absolute moral authority of the Bible or Church, and if you start to question traditional beliefs and values, then you are on course to moral anarchy and freefall. Remove these ancient, solid foundations and everything will fall apart, they warn.

And I don’t wish to write off these fears and warnings as unfounded or merely reactionary. I think there is a valid concern here. I think there may well be a real danger that what starts out as legitimate questioning may end up with abandoning all Christian belief and morality.

But I also don’t think that’s inevitable, nor is it even necessarily the entirely logical and natural progression that some imagine. I think it is possible to reinterpret scripture and Christian theology in fairly radical ways without taking away the foundations of morality. For example, accepting the biological theory of evolution and rejecting traditional doctrines of hell or biblical inerrancy do not I think logically lead to adultery, theft or murder.

The crux of morality

One thing we do obviously need to ask here is what we actually mean by Christian morality. For of course this is one of the very things which we may need to re-investigate if we are reinterpreting Christian theology. And herein lies some of the conservative fear – if we re-interpret morality, might we not end up with anarchy and adultery? Perhaps – but not I think without losing the essence of Christianity, which is the person and character of Christ himself.

For this as always is the crucial point for me. In re-interpreting Christian theology and morality, I suggest that we still need to cling on to the reality of Christ – otherwise it is no longer ‘Christian’ but something other.

Conservatives and traditionalists worry that if we query the Bible and/or the Church, we lose our primary sources of moral and spiritual authority. I do see this, but for me Christ alone (including the Father and Holy Spirit) is the ultimate and primary source. For sure, Christ is mediated to us both through the Church and the Bible; we cannot I think lose these things completely without cutting off the branch we sit on. But we can to quite an extent reinterpret the Bible without losing Christ, for Christ comes first. Yet I think we always need to reinterpret in the light of Christ (as we receive and understand that).

So even if we do query doctrines like inerrancy, that doesn’t mean we have to throw out everything the Bible says about (say) sexual morality, for these teachings are founded on deeper principles merely than ‘what the Bible says is right’. They are founded on the fundamental reality of God’s character of love, goodness, faithfulness, mercy and integrity. The Bible helps reveal God’s character to us, but God’s Spirit is not limited to the text of the Bible.

So there are elements in traditional morality that I think we can at least legitimately question without losing the whole wider Christian framework and plunging into a moral abyss. We can surely query (I don’t say jettison) traditional views on matters like homosexuality, or assisted dying, without that becoming a carte blanche for moral collapse into free-for-all sexual license and libertarianism.

Faithful re-interpretation

The liberal approach to Christianity rejects the idea of a changeless, set-in-stone revelation of truth for all time. Rather it always seeks to re-interpret Christian ideals within current cultural contexts. Evangelicals object that this merely ends up as kow-towing to culture and being pulled along by endlessly shifting fashions and moral mores.

I think there’s some truth on both sides of this. I believe that Christianity does (to an extent) need to be re-interpreted and above all re-incarnated within our real contexts. Some things that applied to 1st-century Jews and Greeks may not hold for 21st-century Christians in, say, Europe or the US. Some theological understandings and biblical metaphors may no longer be meaningful for us.

Yet at the same time we cannot merely re-make Christ in our likeness nor simply cut our morality to match our culture. Rather we have to welcome the creative spirit of God into our changing situations and let him be what he is, ever-ancient and ever-new. He must lead, and our task is to discern and follow. And that means we cannot slavishly follow either ‘what the Bible says’ nor ‘what modern culture demands’.

The way of God is often messy and complex, and demanding of both intellectual effort and moral courage. There are usually no easy one-size-fits-all answers.

So, does ‘liberal’ theology, or re-interpreting the Bible, undermine Christian morality? I think it can do, but it needn’t. Not if we’re careful and faithful to the spirit of Christ in our re-interpreting – though I’m aware that’s easier said than done…

Post-script: levels of sin?

Before finally leaving this whole topic of sin, there’s one more evangelical view I’d like to query. It’s a common teaching that all sin is equally sin and you can’t speak of some sins as being worse than others. According to this view, it’s equally as hell-deserving to utter a mild profanity as it is to commit mass genocide.

On one level this is nonsense – it’s clearly worse to commit murder or rape than it is to swear or watch a rude film. (It’s also arguably unbiblical – for example, the writer of John’s letters distinguishes between sins that do and don’t ‘lead to death’, whatever exactly this means.)

However, I think I see what the teaching may be driving at. All ‘sinful’ acts are merely surface manifestations of a deeper problem, so in that sense it doesn’t really matter whether that manifestation is minor or major. What matters is the underlying sickness that we all need healing of; the innate ‘wonkiness’ or crookedness that runs through every one of us, whether we’re decent citizens or lawless criminals.

I’ve said that we shouldn’t write people like Rolf Harris off as merely ‘monsters’ and therefore not like us. What they’ve done is terrible, but the potential for such evil lies in each of us. In this sense the evangelicals are right – we’re all sinners in need of grace. Fortunately that grace is always available through Christ.

So I don’t wish to downplay sin; perhaps we’re actually all worse than we think we are. But we’re also all more loved and accepted and forgiven than we think we are too. Even the worst of us is ultimately redeemable. Amen?

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Sin III: the positive side of sin?

Let’s face it, all this talk about sin can be a bit gloomy and depressing. So let’s change the mood a bit and look at the bright side of sin… well, at least of confessing sin.

Christianity has a bit of a bad press over this, I think. Because of its focus on our sins, there’s a general view that Christianity wants us to feel miserable, guilty and bad about ourselves. If I was sure I believed in the devil, I’d be impressed at how far he’s managed to twist the truth on this, because I believe that the real Christian message is the precise opposite.

No more guilt

For surely the whole point of confessing our sins is precisely to release us from burdens of guilt and shame and self-hate. The purpose (and effect) of bringing our sins out into the open before God is never to bow us down with shame, but rather to buoy us up with gladness. When we truly experience divine forgiveness, it’s a wonderful thing – a sense of being set free, of burdens lifted, chains falling off and all that sort of thing.

So I don’t believe that all the biblical talk about our sin is ever meant to make us feel that we’re miserable worms who can do no good and who God only loves because he has to (and then only just). The focus is not on how guilty and depraved and generally awful and worthless we are, but rather on how utterly fantastic God is and how much he loves us and wants to free us to be fully ourselves.

Christianity emphasises sin not so that we might wallow in our guilt and shame, but only ever that we might be free from these things. It’s a hugely positive and reassuring thing. God isn’t waiting by the Smite button; he’s waiting like the prodigal son’s dad to rush out and welcome us home with open arms.

In light of this, asking us to look at our sins, to confess them, even at times to focus on them, isn’t a morbid or unhealthy thing – quite the contrary. And it’s not about beating ourselves up about these unpleasant realities, nor about God wanting to do that.

Knowing and owning our sins

The point is rather that these are realities in our lives, and if they’re not brought out into the light they have the power to go on doing harm, eating away at us, even destroying us from within like a cancer. Until we bring them out into the open, the process of change and healing and liberation cannot genuinely begin. But as soon as we do face them and honestly bring them before God, that process can and does start.

A sin confessed may not yet be a sin resolved, but it’s at least a start. The point of confessing is not so that God knows about what we’ve done, but so that we do. It’s so that we own and accept our failings and flaws and misdemeanours as things that come from deep within us, that are ours and not someone else’s. This isn’t about blame and shame, but about honesty and reality.

And sometimes it’s helpful to confess our sin not just to God but to one another, because that gets it properly out into the open where we can’t pretend it’s not a problem. Of course, it has to be people we can trust, and in an appropriate and safe context.

The positive side of sin?

We clearly all have flaws, weaknesses, problems and sins; that’s the human condition. So when we stumble and commit an obvious sin, there is at least the one sort-of positive consequence – that we can now know that this particular sin is one of our problems, something that we need to deal with. And knowing that, we have the chance to do something about it.

The more dangerous sins are the ones that remain hidden, that we’re just not aware of. For these maybe we just need to pray that something will bring them out to the light. That won’t be pleasant of course; it’s never nice to discover a new ‘bad’ thing about yourself, a new aspect to your dark side. But once it’s discovered, the process of redeeming or overcoming it can begin.

Of course, it is sadly all too possible to confess some fault and then just learn to accept and accommodate it, rather than seeking to change. We’re masters of self-deception and spiritual inertia. So we have to really see our ‘sin’ as a problem and genuinely want to change.

Yet at the same time we do need to have compassion on ourselves (and each other). We’re not going to be rid of our faults overnight. And God still completely accepts us in our deeply imperfect state, while always calling us on towards the full, whole persons we one day can be. And we also need to realise that our sinful behaviours are generally only the surface symptoms of deeper underlying issues that need locating and healing.

So let’s stop beating ourselves up for being sinners. We’re human beings; of course we’ll mess things up on a fairly regular basis. And while that may not be something to celebrate, what is to be celebrated is that no sin of ours is beyond Christ’s forgiveness, no darkness in us is too great for God to redeem – if we’ll only bring it into his light. And furthermore we can change if we genuinely seek to, and by God’s grace we already are changing.

Postscript: sin and God’s holiness

Now there’s a common evangelical view that sin separates us from God because God is Holy and cannot look on sin, nor be in its presence. And God’s perfect righteousness and justice also requires that sin be punished.

This underlies – yet I think also undermines – the evangelical gospel that the entire purpose of Christ’s death was to take the punishment for our sins, make the proper sacrifice for them to propitiate God, and that now that they’re legally dealt with God can accept us again.

I say undermines, because this makes little sense to me. If God can’t look on nor be in the presence of sin, then just because it’s ‘paid for’ surely makes no difference here and now. I still sin sometimes, and there is still some sin in me, so by that argument I must still be separated from God, even if that sin no longer results in my punishment. Evangelicals get round this by saying that God sees us ‘in Christ’ and therefore not as sinful, but this just sounds to me like divine self-deception, which I don’t buy.

While we’re here, I’d also query the evangelical understanding of sin and forgiveness as the incurring and payment of a debt. I don’t think sin and forgiveness are best understood as a financial transaction or an accounting problem. Forgiveness can’t be bought or earned, nor can all losses and wounds be ‘paid’ for in some way, nor recompense be made and restoration achieved simply by means of sacrifice, payment or penalty. No payment can restore a dead loved one; nothing can cover the cost of something truly priceless.

Now I do think there are truths buried in these teachings, but they’re metaphorical ones that have been read literally. Sin can (in a sense) separate us from God, but I think the shutting out is primarily on our side, not his. And there probably is a kind of reality that the debt metaphor points to, but the main point is that Jesus has swept all such guilt-debt away.

Shutting out reality

I’ve said I don’t believe sin to be primarily about breaking a moral law and incurring the penalty. Rather it’s about ways of thinking and behaving and relating that militate against reality and relationship, against life and love, against emotional and psychological health. So when we follow ways of sin we become less real, less human, less ourselves, and less able to relate to others and God; less able even to recognise God.

But in the light of Christ and of Easter, I don’t believe our ‘sins’ any longer shut us – any of us – out of God’s presence. What they may perhaps do is blind us to God’s presence, or make his light seem dark to us. For God is reality and he is love, and unless we can learn to accept reality and learn to love then I suspect we cannot fully enjoy or experience his presence.

Finally, God meets us where we are and uses us where we are. We’re not perfect yet and we don’t do things perfectly. Even our best and most Christ-directed efforts at the moment will have elements that we could call ‘sinful’ – less whole, less real, less good. But God still accepts them and makes good of them; accepts us and makes good of us.

And by the same coin, he accepts and uses those others who we dislike and disagree with, who are doing things the ‘wrong’ way, whether they be fundamentalists, liberals, heretics, and (dare I say it?) people of other faiths and none

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Sin II – the inner struggle

So as I started to say last time, there seems to be an essential, elemental struggle within us between what we want to do and who we want to be; between our good aspirations and our innate and often unhelpful drives.

I want to be good, loving, Christlike and whole, but I also want pleasure and popularity. Physically and biologically I desire to enjoy all the delights that the world offers, but spiritually I don’t want to be the kind of person that that would make me. And when I try to live according to my moral principles, I find myself constantly derailed by internal instincts and traits that seem to come out of nowhere.

Of course, this is exactly the condition that Paul describes in Romans 7:19: ‘The good I want to do I do not do, and the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing’.

Look at King David. He’s probably just finished writing an inspired psalm of worship when he looks out of the window, sees beautiful Bathsheba bathing, and animal instinct takes over. Before you know it, he’s committed adultery and is on course to commit murder to cover it up.

So we have within us the potential for greatness and beauty, but also the potential to become something terrible, an abomination.

I’ve said it before – the biggest battle we fight is with ourselves, with the parts of our natures that militate against health and wholeness, against maturity and reality and love. We’re our own worst enemies, and we carry the seeds of our downfall around in us, the things that if unchecked will ruin us and wreck our lives. We have to master these parts of ourselves, conquer them, tame them, learn to control them.

It’s an inner fight between the chaotic forces of entropy, gravity and inertia, dragging us down and pulling us apart, and the redemptive forces of love, light and life.

Nice vs good?

Part of the problem is that the way of growth and health is just so much less immediately attractive and appealing than the alternative. All things being equal, who wouldn’t want to choose pleasurable indulgence over self-restraint, comfort and ease over hard work, power and control over quiet service? For whatever reason, that’s how we’re programmed.

And to complicate matters further, pleasurable things are clearly not always or inherently bad. If we could just say that sex and money and chocolate and alcohol and entertainment were always sinful (as we imagine the Puritans did, though they didn’t really), then we might face a fun-free existence but at least our choices would be straightforward. But of course these things aren’t always wrong. It’s often a question of context, and priority, and whether we’re master of these things or they of us.

The hard and easy paths

Annoyingly, it also turns out that almost everything good and worthwhile requires effort and commitment. But unfortunately humans seem to be fundamentally lazy, inclined to take shortcuts and easy paths that don’t lead anywhere good – again, it’s part of how we’re programmed. I mentioned psychologist Scott Peck’s idea of ‘original sin’ as the innate spiritual laziness that holds us all back from growth, from facing and tackling our flaws.

Often we’re faced with what Dumbledore in Harry Potter calls ‘the choice between what’s right and what’s easy’. It’s the choice between short-term and long-term gain, between immediate benefit and that which we have to work and wait for. It’s a right pain, to be honest. And it’s no surprise which way most of us choose much of the time.

It’s a bit like the classics – we want to have read them but not actually to read them. We want to have achieved goodness and wholeness, but without the effort and pain of the process that gets us there. We want to have reached freedom, but we don’t want to walk the demanding path that alone leads there. So we take shortcuts, but they don’t work because the process is the point; the journey is the means. There’s no quick route to redemption.

And of course, conversely, the unhealthy and unhelpful things are what we want to do but not to have done – because they leave us in a worse position, and we feel guilty to boot. We desire them, and then regret them. And of course they’re also almost always the easier, quicker, and more attractive option.

Living through discomfort

So part of the process of growing up is learning (constantly) to master those innate impulses which often unhelpfully push us towards unhealthy ways of thinking, behaving and relating.

We all have to keep on battling our many compulsions and addictions, including (counter-intuitively) some which seem ‘Christian’ – for example the compulsion to ‘be good’ in order to gain approval or make ourselves feel okay. And we need to keep challenging all our lazy thinking – including much of what we assume to be good religious thought.

As part of this process, we have to learn to live through all manner of discomfort in order to reach the goal of freedom and wholeness. We have to keep on facing down our irrational fears and anxieties, not letting them bully or control us as they wish. We have to keep on facing down our impulsive desires and sweet temptations, not letting them seduce or master us as they wish. And the childish, selfish part of us will protest every step of the way, like a toddler who no-one has said ‘no’ to before.

Often it will be a matter of taking a step back and short-circuiting our default response cycle, the almost unconscious reflex which would lead us to act impulsively out of fear or anger or lust. I think of the children’s book character Mr Jelly who learnt to master his fears by counting to ten, giving him breathing space to realise that what he thought was terrifying was really only something innocuous.

Facing the dark side

And as well as facing down our fears and desires, we also have to face up to our inner darkness and all the parts of ourselves that we’d far rather hide or ignore. We can’t overcome our darker impulses if we won’t acknowledge they exist, and we can’t master our shadow side if we pretend it’s not there.

For the truth is that unfortunately every one of us has some elements of aggression, lust, greed, boastful pride, prejudice, envy, desires to control others, meanness, enjoyment at others’ misfortune. Sadly we’re just not unmitigatedly good or lovely, but we spend much effort and energy trying to project the impression that we are, creating a ‘false self’ with which we try to fool even ourselves; even God.

So we often tend not to learn from our sins because we’re so desperate to cover them up, like a cat burying its faeces. We try to conceal them not only from others but also from ourselves, not wishing to face the painful reality they tell us about our fundamental flawedness. The human capacity for self-deception is almost endless.

We try to get rid of those things which we feel bad or ashamed or uncomfortable or unhappy about. We either bury them deep (where they remain like unexploded bombs), or else we put them onto other people who act as scapegoats for us, bearing the darkness that we can’t face in ourselves. Neither of those ways really works; neither leads to growth, wholeness or freedom.

And perhaps most dangerous are the unhelpful traits within us that we’re either not aware of at all, or that we actually think are fine and right – that familiar custom has habituated us to accept. Until we realise we have a problem, we can’t change.

Were Rolf Harris or Jimmy Savile monsters? Yes in a sense, but let’s not kid ourselves that puts them in a different category from us. They acted out of dark traits that lurk deep within all humanity and which they found they could indulge – and then cover up, perhaps even from themselves.

Letting God in

So within all of our psyches are areas which don’t properly reflect the nature and presence of God, and which indeed militate against his action and presence, pushing him away. I believe that rather than hiding these areas away, we urgently need to invite God into the very places that we most wish to keep him out of; the parts of us that most violently hate and reject his influence. These are the places that can all too easily become ‘hells’ for us, yet they are also the place where Christ’s greatest work can be done.

But of course facing up to our darkness is almost always deeply uncomfortable, and our strong inclination will usually be to flee back into comfortable, self-deceiving safety.

Can we change?

So can we ever really change? Yes, surely. But can we change ourselves? Perhaps to an extent, but we can’t ever do the whole thing on our own (regrettably for a recluse like me). We need the long-term support and patience and honesty of friends and counsellors, and ultimately the unfailing and limitless grace of God.

And of course it won’t be quick. It will be a lifetime’s work of slow, gradual, painstaking and sometimes painful redemption of our characters, retraining of our habits and responses, reprogramming and rewiring of our minds. There will be many setbacks and failures; but even these can be redeemed and turned to the good.

We’re like wonky-wheeled trolleys (shopping carts to my US friends), always tending to veer off the straight course, bashing into people, knocking things over. We need God’s grace constantly nudging us back onto the right track. But in Christ, even the wonkiest wheels can be righted in time.

So yes, sin is surely a reality, whatever exactly it might be and wherever exactly it might originate from. But the Christian message is that sin doesn’t have the final word, and nor is it the most important thing in our lives, not by a long chalk.

Posted in Evil, Grace, Psychology, Sin | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What is sin (and does it matter)?

Over the next few posts I’d like to take a closer look at two of the most troubling and controversial topics in Christian theology – sin and suffering.

As a recovering evangelical, I hesitate to talk about ideas of ‘sin’ and ‘depravity’. I’m not convinced by the (alleged) Puritan/Calvinist view that humans are utterly depraved and evil to the core, incapable of any good thing. I certainly don’t believe that enjoyment of dancing, games, theatre, cinema or sex is inherently bad. Nor do I believe that we’re less moral than we used to be.

Yet I have to acknowledge the reality of persistent moral failure in my own life, and failure to be all that I could be. More than that, I have to accept the dark side of my own nature which is with me all the time like my shadow.

So I’m convinced from my own experience that sin is a significant reality; but I don’t always find traditional understandings of ‘sin’ particularly helpful. I’m not sure they go deep enough for a start. So I’m looking for new ways to express some of the old truths on which fundamentalist religion doesn’t have a monopoly.

Rethinking sin

Forgive the implied obscenity, but one way I look on sin is as the innate human propensity to **** things up. This includes our propensity to **** up our own lives, relationships and anything else we’re involved with for any amount of time. I use this wording to convey something of the intensity of the problem – the ‘offense’ of sin. It’s not just that we occasionally mess up a little. It goes far deeper than that, and has far more destructive consequences.

If we reduce sin merely to ‘sins’ – prohibited acts or behaviours like adultery, fornication, drunkenness, violence, theft etc – then we’re only dealing with surface symptoms and we miss the darker heart, the real roots of the problem.

So I don’t find helpful the understanding of sin merely as disobedience to a divine command or the violation of God’s law – at least not when that’s understood as anything equivalent to human law. If it is a violation, it’s more like a violation of a law of nature, indeed of a fundamental law of our own natures – of who we’re meant to be on the deepest level.

Sin is not an abstract concept, nor is it merely the breaking of an arbitrary law or moral code. It is rather the marring of the divine image in ourselves and others. It’s whatever leads to our becoming less truly human, and to viewing or treating others as less than fully human.

So sin is not so much about individual acts and words as about a deep inner brokenness. This manifests itself as an orientation of the soul away from reality, from rightness, from wholeness and health, from life, from love, from true intimacy, from openness, from mutual loving relationships. It is a self-destructive path that leads to increasing inner dis-integration. It’s an addiction to ways of being and behaving that makes us less real, less whole, less integrated, less able to give and receive love.

Failing to love

One way of looking at sin then is as the failure to love, to embody and live out of love – love for God, for ourselves, for fellow humans, and for the world and cosmos. Love is the overarching divine law (and divine attribute); sin then is whatever we do (and are) that militates against that.

Alternatively, Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga defines sin as the ‘culpable disturbance of shalom’. In this understanding it’s the shattering or violation of God’s intended peace, order and harmony, and in such a way that we bear responsibility for it.

Failure to be ourselves

I’ve written that our primary purpose in life is to become truly Christlike (i.e. completely good and loving) and fully ourselves.

So perhaps one of the most helpful definitions I’ve heard for sin is that it is ‘an addiction to being less than truly ourselves’. In this sense it is a ‘falling short’ as Romans 3:23 puts it; falling short of our real, full selves; the people we were created to become.

Sin is whatever gets in the way of human flourishing. Similarly, M. Scott Peck writes of ‘original sin’ as the spiritual entropy or innate inertia that holds us back from doing the hard work of growth, of becoming who we’re really meant to be.

For the point is who we’re becoming more than where we’re coming from. I’m no longer convinced that humanity was created perfect and fell. Rather, following Irenaeus I think that humanity was created incomplete and immature, needing like a baby to grow and develop towards wholeness and fullness. The ‘fall’ in this view was not from original perfection but was rather an attempted false shortcut to maturity, bypassing the all-important journey of growth.

Good aspirations, unhelpful instincts

So, like most of us, I have genuine aspirations to be a good, kind, loving, compassionate and ultimately Christlike person. I also want to be a truly happy, healthy and whole person. I believe that these two things are inherently bound up together; that goodness and wholeness are two sides of the same coin.

Sadly though there are also desires, drives and fears in me which militate forcefully against these good aspirations. And these unhelpful drives seem to be entirely natural, instinctive and innate – fundamentally part of who I am. They include the desires to be universally wanted, loved and admired; to experience pleasure and avoid pain; to be safe and comfortable and have an easy life; to be in control. They also include the instinct to hit back when I’m hurt, and to seek to blame others when things go wrong.

Many of these stem from perfectly natural, reasonable instincts. But if I let them rule in me, overruling my conscience, they can lead to harmful, addictive patterns of thought and behaviour. I can all too easily let myself be mastered by my urges, desires and fears, to the detriment of my character and my relationships. I know, because that’s what tends to happen a lot of the time.

Doing what comes naturally

Unfortunately, ‘what comes naturally’ – the default impulse or response – is very often the one of selfishness, greed, thoughtlessness, rage, fear, spite, envy or lust. It’s as though we’re fundamentally mis-programmed.

Our bodies crave unhealthy high-fat and sugary foods rather than the fruit and veg we need. Our souls long for love but we struggle to form meaningful lasting relationships. We find it so much easier to be hurtful than kind, critical than encouraging, destructive than creative. We find goodness boring and evil entertaining. We prefer ease to effort, comfort to character development. All in all, we just don’t seem naturally predisposed to Christlikeness.

Focus magazine ran an article a few years back which suggested that we’re biologically programmed towards the ‘7 deadly sins’ – rage, greed, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, envy. These were all useful (even vital) for survival in our pre-human pre-history, but now they’re largely baggage – occasionally useful in specific situations but generally anything but.

Furthermore these responses are supposedly hardwired into an evolutionarily ‘primitive’ part of the brain which starts kicking into action before you’ve had time for rational thought. This doesn’t mean we have to act on these impulses or can’t overcome them, but lasting change requires long-term re-training.

It’s easy to see all these traits when we look at the instinctive behaviour of animals. Humans are not just animals; but from animals we were taken and to animals we can return, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.

Cognitive biases

Another similar explanation relates to cognitive biases – unconscious, unquestioned patterns and habits of thought which we’re generally unaware of. We’re programmed this way in order to make sense of a chaotic, confusing world, filtering out things that aren’t useful and taking cognitive shortcuts to facilitate decisive action.

These mental shortcuts can sometimes be helpful. But they also include traits that are anything but – prejudices against anyone different from ourselves; stereotyping people who belong to particular groups; jumping to conclusions based on unquestioned assumptions rather than rational thought; and so on. We all tend to believe that we’re right and therefore others are wrong, and we all assume that we have far greater knowledge and understanding than we really do.

Emotional baggage

Then there are the unhelpful psychological traits which again we’re often largely unaware of. Again, these are often things we’ve learnt in order to deal with pain or troubling emotion in childhood – perhaps in response to fears of being rejected, abandoned, unwanted. We learn to project our ‘bad’, dark, unacceptable feelings out onto other people and things rather than owning them. This may turn into irrational hatred of particular groups or kinds of people, or a tendency always to blame others when things go wrong. Or it may turn inward into neurotic self-hate and self-blame.

We learn unhealthy patterns of relating to other people, perhaps manipulating them to get our needs met or clinging on to them to avoid abandonment. And all of these things lurk within our psyches, disrupting and derailing our attempts to be good, whole, happy people.

Or to put it another way, we’re all to greater or lesser extent messed up by our imperfect parents who were messed up by theirs. Call it original sin if you like, or call it evolution or psychology. Either way, we’re damaged and damage-causing people, receiving and spreading toxicity. Yet that’s never the whole picture, for we’re also made in God’s image and we bear his likeness, however blurred and blunted.

Posted in Psychology, Sin | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Authenticity vs obedience?

Should we do good, serve God and love others as a duty because we owe it to God? Or should we only do it if we can do it gladly, authentically and ungrudgingly, out of genuine love and gratitude?

Should we pray, read the Bible, attend church, share our faith, give to the poor, feed the hungry and all the rest whether we feel like it or not, out of obedience to divine command? Or should we do only as we feel called or led, following our passion and our heart rather than the law?

There are two main schools of thought on this, and I’m not sure either of them is quite right on its own. I’m calling them the ‘duty’ and the ‘grace’ schools.

The duty school

The duty school says that we should do all of these things regardless of whether we feel like it or feel called to it. We should do it because we are commanded to, and we owe it to God our creator and redeemer to obey without protest, whatever the cost. ‘Authenticity’ is a false idol in this view; it matters not whether we feel we’re being ‘true to ourselves’ but only whether we’re being true to God’s word.

In this view, we may not feel like it but feelings will eventually follow obedience. We may feel no love for a particular person, but as we obediently act lovingly towards them, the feelings of love may come over time. We may have no desire to perform some deed of Christian duty, but as we do it we will grow in gladness and joy. We may feel no gratitude to God, but as we faithfully express gratitude for God’s provision we will eventually start to feel it.

So the duty school is perfectly happy with the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’, because there are some things which are simply our Christian duty and obligation – end of. And the duty school can of course quote endless Bible passages to support its view.

The grace school

The grace (or really grace-only) school by contrast dismisses the duty school as an old-covenant, legalistic, letter-of-the-law way of doing things. Instead, the keystones are God’s grace, Christ’s freedom and our honest authenticity to who we really are. Obeying out of duty is (in this view) a compulsive and childish behaviour based on the need to win parental approval.

So according to grace-only, we obey God and serve others out of honest gratitude and love, or we don’t serve at all. We love because we’re overflowing with Christ’s love, not because we’re told to love; and if we’re not overflowing, then we don’t love until we are. We serve freely and out of freedom; if there’s a whiff of guilt or compulsion, or of seeking to appease or win favour, then we’re better off not serving at all.

In this view the words ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are dirty words; they are burdensome and guilt-inducing, leading not to freedom but only to burnout and breakdown.

Grace-schoolers can of course also back up their position biblically. ‘If I give all I have to the poor… yet have not love, I gain nothing’. This verse suggests that merely doing good dutifully – even great good – is of no benefit if it is done out of compulsion rather than freely out of love. Or again, ‘It was for freedom that Christ has set us free’ – we are no longer bound by codes and laws, by have-tos and shoulds.

Uniting the two schools

So which school has got it right? Both and neither, I think. There’s a truth on both sides of the coin, but the whole truth comes only in a marriage of the two, in which both are slightly changed.

So I think there is a truth that certain things are right and good and necessary, whether we feel like them or not. I think there is a truth that in many cases feelings will follow if in faith we start to act in ways that we know to be right – and that if they don’t, that’s not the be-all and end-all. And I think that we do sometimes need to set aside our ‘authenticity’ for the sake of others.

Yet I also believe very strongly that the heart of Christian living is love and joy and freedom and genuine gratitude – things which cannot be imposed or commanded or worked up, but which have to come in their own time and under the right circumstances. I believe that Christ wants us to be free friends, not compelled servants.

And I believe that guilt and fear and compulsion and appeasement are not good motives for Christian service, and that sometimes it may be better to desist from such service for a time rather than to continue in these life-sapping ways. I do believe that ‘should’ and ‘ought’ are generally unhelpful words.

I also do believe that it’s important to know who we are and to live out of the truth of that. In the apostle Paul’s body metaphor, if we’re an ear we do not need to feel guilt that we’re not a hand. We’re not all evangelists, or pastors, or teachers, or worship leaders, and that’s okay.

Above all, I believe in grace. But that doesn’t mean we don’t bother or try, that we sit back and make no effort. On the contrary, it means that we do try but that it’s okay to get things wrong, to mess things up, to fail – and then have another go, and another. It means we don’t have to be perfect all at once. It’s one thing at a time, one day at a time, with lots of setbacks and lapses. We have a lifetime’s journeying to complete, and we need to learn to be human before we can even start to become saints.

So duty on its own can be (though isn’t necessarily) merely legalistic or compulsive. But grace-alone can be merely lazy, a theological excuse for not doing anything that we don’t feel like. Like the liberal love vs evangelical truth dichotomy, the better way is in the marriage of the two sides.

Faithfulness vs obedience

Rather than the word ‘duty’ or ‘obedience’ then, I’d prefer the word ‘faithfulness’.

Obedience implies a master-servant relationship, or an overly authoritarian parent-child relationship. Faithfulness however suggests a more equal and free relationship, that of friends or even lovers.

Furthermore, faithfulness suggests a degree of personal sacrifice and effort (even obedience), but on the basis of love rather than mere law-keeping duty.

I love the biblical line ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’. This is often read by the grace-only school as meaning that God doesn’t need dutiful obedience; it’s rather all about our hearts. But I read it differently. As I see it, it’s not abolishing obedience or duty, but rather changing the character, nature and basis of obedience and duty. Our ‘duty’ is love, which cannot be compelled. It is mercy, which has to be offered freely – but which may cost us dearly.

The greatest command then is a huge paradox, something I think we’ve often missed. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart… and your neighbour as yourself’. Love is the most important thing in the universe, and it is our greatest duty. Love can be and is required; yet at the same time it cannot be compelled, coerced or even commanded in any normal sense. Love can only be asked for, and offered – or withheld.

And that, I think, is the nub of Christian faith.

Posted in Love of God, Religion, The faith journey | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

What use is Christianity?

 “But what manner of use would it be ploughing through that blackness?” asked Drinian.   “Use?” replied Reepicheep. “Use, Captain? If by use you mean filling our bellies or our purses, I confess it will be of no use at all. But as far as I know we did not set sail to look for things useful but to seek honour and adventures.”
C.S.Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

One criticism that’s often levelled at Christianity is that it’s just concerned with ‘spiritual’ and non-practical things – with life after death, and theories of salvation, and mysticism. In this sense, the argument goes, it’s not a practical, real-world, real-life faith.

But it seems to me that Christianity is very much concerned with real life, and with the whole of life. It’s by no means only interested in the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ aspects but also with eating and sleeping, work, sex, relationships, leisure time and so forth.

I love the Message paraphrase of Romans 12:1 ‘Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering’. This is an intensely practical, physical, even earthy, understanding of worship.

Yes, praying and singing songs of praise can also be worship. But where the rubber hits the road is in the moment-to-moment details of our daily lives – that’s where we’re really becoming Christian, becoming Christlike, or really not. It’s where we make the little decisions and choices that over time form our characters. Christian salvation doesn’t happen only in heaven or in our ‘spiritual’ lives, but is enacted and embodied and worked out in the nitty-gritty of the daily grind.

Way of life

So Christianity is very much about the here and now of our practical lives. It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily prescribe exactly how we should do all these everyday things. It doesn’t give us practical, step-by-step instructions for every aspect of life, because that’s not the point.

I once met a Muslim convert from Catholicism who said that he’d been attracted to Islam by the rules. ‘There’s a rule for everything!’ he enthused. ‘Even for how you go to the loo and wipe your bottom’. I don’t know if this is true, but if it is I can sort of understand the appeal – though personally I’d find it deeply restrictive.

The most ‘practical’ religion is arguably Witchcraft, or at least the forms of witchcraft which seek to control and manipulate supernatural forces in order to achieve practical goals – e.g. cursing enemies or healing friends, making crops grow, assuring fertility or victory in battle and so forth. In some ways, it’s a very technological approach to religion – essentially using it as a mechanism to get what you need. (Of course, quite a few people do approach Christianity this way, but I think they miss the point by doing so.)

For Christianity certainly doesn’t have rules for everything; nor does it offer specific techniques which you can follow to achieve particular desired ends. Rather it’s a broad framework in which to place all of life’s practical situations. It’s a ‘Way’ to follow – but we each have to find the specifics of the way for ourselves.

Rather than giving us specific rules and techniques for everything we’ll ever encounter, Christianity is concerned with transforming our hearts and renewing our minds. For then the right way will be ‘written on our hearts’. Then we’ll approach all aspects of life with the right attitude and in the right spirit. We don’t need to be told exactly how to do the washing up; rather we need the Christ-renewed heart that will do it with a good grace, as an act of worship or service and not under compulsion.

What use is Christian faith?

So to go back to the original question, what actual use is Christianity?

For many people, if Christianity can’t guarantee you happiness, or health, or victory over enemies, or security, or freedom from trouble, then it’s not worth bothering with – it’s of no practical use. I can sympathise with this view; sometimes it feels like Christianity makes a huge set of near-impossible demands but (in the short term) gives little in return. But again, I think that’s to miss the point.

I quoted C.S. Lewis’s Narnian mouse Reepicheep at the start, reminding the Dawn Treader’s crew that adventures and heroic quests are not undertaken for their practical value, but for their spiritual. Their purpose is not to prolong life nor to make it comfortable, but to enhance and fulfil it. There’s no practical ‘use’ in the adventure they’ve embarked upon – it won’t bring them food or wealth. It’s possible that it may even cost them their lives; yet it will (paradoxically) make them more alive. It will make them more whole, more real – and more human; more themselves.

We could similarly ask what ‘use’ is love, or music and art, or story and poetry, or sport, or conversation with a friend? What use is climbing a mountain or running a marathon or swimming the Channel? Or what use is writing a song, or watching a sunset? No use whatsoever – yet these are precisely the kinds of things that make life worth living. They don’t keep you alive physically, but they keep your spirit alive. They feed your soul, not your stomach.

We could also ask what use is prayer, especially if we don’t get answers (or not the ones we want). It’s all too easy to treat prayer as merely a practical exercise to get what we want from God, but as I said before I believe that’s to miss the point. Prayer is, in a sense, a waste of time – but it’s a glorious waste of time. Prayer may often change nothing practically, but in another way it can change everything.

Love divine

It’s a bit like romantic love. When we fall in love, the world doesn’t objectively change one iota. But for us it changes beyond recognition. Suddenly everything is full of colour and beauty. Our senses are sharpened; we see and hear afresh. Life has new meaning and purpose.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I think Christianity is very like falling in love. It’s something that makes no sense from outside. But to those caught up in the divine love, it changes everything; it changes us. Nothing’s changed, yet everything has changed.

That’s why I don’t think we should ever seek to completely eradicate the ‘magical’ element in Christianity, however embarrassing or awkward that is for sensible, scientifically-minded modern people. Without its strange, supernatural, numinous core, Christianity just becomes yet one more moral and ethical system for living a decent life. Which is frankly a bit dull.

And the greatest and most numinous and most central mystery of all is the mystery of divine love. It is the mysterious love we cannot earn or explain but only experience; the love which welcomes and transforms and redeems us.

What’s the use?

So how practical is Christianity? It depends what you mean by that. As I’ve said, in one sense it’s entirely practical, focusing on the details of our everyday bodily lives and relationships as the locus of redemption.

And what use is Christianity? Again it depends on what you mean. It is of very little use in many of the senses that we humans value – filling our bellies and purses, guaranteeing us health and wealth, happiness and security. The ‘use’ of Christian faith is simply that it is the way of reality, of redemption, of healing, of life, of love, of becoming real and whole and human and alive. And there are no rule-books or technique-manuals for that.

Posted in Incarnation, Salvation, Spirituality | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

What use is the Bible?

Of what real, practical use is Christianity and the Bible?

This question arose a little while ago at a small group I attend. A very good friend expressed the view that the Bible isn’t really a practical book, and by extension that Christianity isn’t a particularly practical religion.

Now my friend is one of the most practical people I know. (Hello Dan if you’re reading this!) He used to fix planes and now runs his own small business. He’s a man of science and sound sense. So when he suggests that the Bible or Christianity isn’t entirely practical, it’s a point worth pondering – because he really is practical. And I think he has a point.

A practical Bible?

What actual, practical use is the Bible? It’s a fairly mixed bag. The Old Testament is very practical if you want comprehensive instructions for building a tabernacle (though you can probably get a flat-pack one from Ikea now). It’s also got some very practical instructions for 15th-century BC religious desert nomads – including some handy household tips for getting rid of mildew by sacrificing pigeons.

Perhaps more usefully for us, the book of Proverbs offers some sound practical wisdom for everyday life – admittedly alongside slightly less helpful advice on beating your children.

More broadly, the Bible of course also has a lot of generally sound guidelines and principles for life – the 10 commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s ethical teaching and so forth (though most of these need a fair bit of re-contextualising and interpreting to be truly helpful for our situations now).

But the Bible plainly isn’t a ‘practical’ book in any usual sense. It’s not a DIY manual, nor does it offer a lot of help with fixing your car or installing computer parts. It doesn’t help you choose the best mortgage, pension plan or insurance deal – well, besides offering ethical advice against dodgy investments and usury. And given that the most recent parts were written nearly 2000 years ago in a pre-industrial agrarian society, it’s clearly not going to offer direct practical guidance on many aspects of modern life.

Not that any of this stops a certain kind of well-meaning but misguided Christians from producing books on the Biblical Diet, or Biblical DIY, or whatever. And of course many people do try to use the Bible as a practical manual for all aspects of living, but I think this misses its real purpose.

A wicked book?

Of course some would say that the Bible is so full of abhorrent teachings that it’s of no use whatsoever except as bonfire kindling. It’s racist, sexist, homophobic and violent, the horrible ravings of a homicidal maniac.

Suffice it to say here that I too struggle with many elements in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, but I don’t think that it’s an evil book. It has certainly been (mis)used by many for evil, but unfortunately that’s a danger that goes with the territory – all ‘scriptures’ and manifestos can be abused. It’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t abuse it. And as part of this we do need to be pretty careful in how we read and apply it – we clearly can’t just assume that something that may have been appropriate for desert nomads in 1500BC is equally applicable to us now.

It’s about relationship

Where I believe the Bible really comes into its own is in revealing and addressing the human heart and human relationships – with each other, with ourselves, and with God. For by and large these things haven’t changed and don’t change. It’s what another friend from the same small group calls ‘Bible in a nutshell’ – i.e. that it’s all about relationship. (Hello Phil if you’re reading this!)

The world is unrecognisably different from how it was just 100 years ago, let alone 2000. The practical challenges of life have changed beyond recognition. But people themselves are not all that different, deep down. We’re still made of the same stuff and subject to the same weaknesses and flaws – rage, envy, prejudice, greed, lust, pride, selfishness and so forth. We still have the same deep needs to be loved, to be significant, to be forgiven, to belong. We still experience loss and loneliness, bereavement and grief, joy, suffering, jealousy, hope, longing.

And it’s these shared human experiences, these flaws and needs and feelings common to all of us, to which the Bible continues to speak so powerfully and relevantly.

It’s about Christ

Okay, the Bible isn’t just useful for teaching us about ourselves. To state the utterly obvious, it’s also uniquely able to point us to Christ and so show us something of God, of what he’s like, what he does and wants and asks of us. Without the Bible we’d clearly have very little clear idea of Christ’s life and teachings and character. In that sense it’s of immense and unparalleled importance, regardless of whether or not it’s of ‘practical’ use.

Nonetheless, the Bible isn’t enough in itself. It tells us many vital things about God but it does not (cannot) tell us everything, for God is beyond words and description and ultimately beyond comprehension. It shows us something of God but it does not (cannot) contain him.

As Jesus put it, ‘You diligently search the Scriptures because you believe that in them you have life; yet these same Scriptures point to me’. The primary purpose of the Bible is not to point to itself but to point to Christ, who alone is the true and living and eternal Word of God. Jesus, not the Bible, is the one in whom we have life and redemption.

So the Bible is not the destination but the signpost – yet as such it is still certainly of great use to us.

An impossible religion?

Nonetheless, if we’re honest a lot of the teaching in the Bible seems wildly impractical, even implausible – loving enemies, laying down your life for others, loving the seemingly unlovable, forgiving those who’ve done you terrible harm. And that’s just for starters, and leaving aside all the really weird supernatural stuff about spiritual gifts, healing the sick, speaking in tongues and so on.

So is Christianity really a practical religion – or one that’s even at all possible to follow? Perhaps it depends what you mean by ‘practical’ and ‘possible’. It’s certainly not easy. As G.K. Chesterton famously said: ‘Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried’.

It seems to me that in large part Christianity is impossible; yet ‘what is impossible with humans is possible with God’. We can’t do or be all the things that Jesus sets before us, not by a long chalk. But by God’s grace and with God’s help we can make a start.

Next time then – of what actual, practical use is Christianity?

Posted in Bible, Religion | Tagged , | 35 Comments

Why fundamentalism is not the true expression of religion

Many people view fundamentalists as the real representatives of religious belief. That’s certainly what Richard Dawkins seems to think, along with some of my good New Atheist friends.

I can see the reasoning. Fundamentalists are the ones who apparently take their faith really seriously. They’re the ones with utter, dogged commitment to their beliefs, often regardless of evidence. They’re the ones who accept and follow their holy texts literally and unquestioningly, without a shadow of doubt, regardless of how abhorrent or unpalatable those texts might be in places.

Fundamentalists appear to be firm, strong, unwavering, faithful; not woolly and wishy-washy, half-assed and mealy-mouthed. You might hate what they do and stand for, but in a way you have to admire them – or so goes the argument. They’re the real deal – religion in its true colours (which of course are black and white).

And by the same token, non-fundamentalists are not really believers at all. They’re not much more than religious parasites riding on the backs of the true faithful. Indeed, they’re little better than traitors to their faith (which of course is how many fundamentalists view them).

And from a New Atheist perspective, moderates and progressives muddy the waters and prop up irrational, harmful religion by a reasonableness and niceness which are entirely inconsistent with their ridiculous beliefs and barbaric scriptures.

I understand this viewpoint, but I don’t agree with it.

Fundamentalism as a sign of weakness

It’s my firm conviction that far from fundamentalism being the strongest and surest form of faith, it is generally the weakest and least secure. Far from fundamentalism being the truest, purest, most authentic form of faith, it is on the whole the most immature version. And far from fundamentalist literalism representing the best understanding of faith’s core tenets, it tends on the contrary to be based on huge over-simplifications and often tragic misunderstandings of them.

Fundamentalism (at least in its extreme form) is the most vocal and indeed violent form of belief, precisely because it is the weakest, least secure and least mature. It shouts and fights to defend its viewpoints because it must; for to accept that it might be wrong on any point would (it fears) be its death and ruin. To the fundamentalist or extremist mind, any question of its version of truth is a deadly attack that must be resisted by counter-attack – for the sake of its own survival.

So fundamentalism will not accept the least shade of doubt, or nuance, or shade of grey, or alternative position – because it cannot; it has not the maturity or strength to. It cannot brook the least non-literal interpretation of holy writ, lest the whole edifice come crashing down about its ears.

By contrast, those who have grown up into a deeper, more mature faith can accept all manner of doubt and uncertainty, all kinds of nuance and alternative interpretation. They are free to listen to other viewpoints, from those of other faiths or none, without feeling threatened or undermined. They are free to question the tenets of their own faith, and even to question their scriptures. To the fundamentalist, and sometimes apparently to the atheist, this appears to be a sign that they have lost or compromised their faith. I believe the precise opposite to be the case.

Fundamentalism isn’t all bad

Now I should make a couple of provisos here. Firstly, I believe fundamentalism to be an important, even vital phase to go through in spiritual development. It is not the end goal and ultimate expression of religion, but it is a necessary first step. The problem is when people become stuck in it, unable to grow past it at the proper time.

Secondly, by no means all fundamentalists are violent, immature or unintelligent. Some are deeply good, kind and thoughtful people who for one reason or other are holding on to a simple (even simplistic) theology. I disagree with this theology, but many fundamentalists are far better than their theology. (I’ve written more about understanding fundamentalists here.)

More than merely moderate

But if fundamentalism is by no means the truest representation of religion, does that mean that moderate or liberal religion is then the ideal that we should be aiming for? Not necessarily.

I’ve said before that I don’t like the term ‘moderate’, and I don’t think that being or ‘nice’ or ‘reasonable’ is the pinnacle of religious faith. The best and truest religion is of course not unreasonable or irrational, but it’s much more than merely reasonable or rational. It’s not nasty or deliberately offensive, but it’s so much more than merely nice or inoffensive.

So where fundamentalism is black-and-white, merely moderate or nice religion is shades of grey. But the truest religion is the full spectrum of living colour.

Fundamentalist religion is at worst narrow, restrictive, exclusivist, controlling and directly opposed to human flourishing. Moderate religion is I think more psychologically healthy, but it can sometimes run the risk of becoming amorphous and attenuated, lacking the power to make much actual difference. The best and truest religion, I would argue, actively promotes and contributes to human freedom and flourishing. It is shown to be true by its power to change lives and so change the world.


The best and truest religion embraces and encompasses all of life and people and the world, rather than being limited to a narrow ‘religious’ sphere. It welcomes and enjoys diversity, variety, creativity, imagination. It doesn’t hide itself away in a clean safe enclave, but engages positively with the arts, sport, politics, other faiths, and indeed everything and everyone.

So what is ‘true’ religion? For me, it’s simply the way of Christ; it’s true Christlikeness. It’s hard to sum up in a neat definition, but it’s easy to recognise when we see it – as we do in different ways in the lives of people like Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Gandhi (though of course not himself a ‘Christian’). And of course we see it most clearly of all in Jesus Christ himself.

True, Christlike religion is beautiful and exciting, subversive and dangerous, life-affirming and liberating and humanising. It transgresses social boundaries and conventions, breaks rules that are designed to dehumanise, overturns age-old systems of oppression and control. Its goal is nothing short of an entirely renewed, redeemed cosmos and an entirely renewed, redeemed humanity – a world based on mutual love and care and self-giving and forgiveness.

So if our religion is merely safe or dull or establishmentarian then we may well be missing the mark. And if our religion seeks to label and exclude, to condemn and dismiss, to control and dominate, to set up barriers and fences rather than tearing them down, then it is not Christlike at all. And so it is arguably not true religion at all; certainly not the truest.

Crucially, true religion humanises both its followers and also those who are not part of its ‘group’. Rather than seeking to condemn or exclude or shun outsiders and unbelievers, it reaches out to all with transforming love. And rather than imposing its ‘truth’ on others, it listens to and learns from them.

Not another club

So please don’t get me wrong. I say all this not to set up another exclusive religious club, labelling it ‘true religion’ and shutting out everyone else – the fundamentalists, the moderates, the atheists, the believers in other gods.

If there were a club or a church for ‘true religion’ it would only have one member – Jesus Christ. No-one else has ever come close to fulfilling the requirements; no-one else has been able to love completely and unceasingly and faultlessly – even MLK and Mother Teresa. But fortunately Jesus doesn’t keep it as an exclusive club. He opens it wide to all of us.

‘True’ religion is not something that I and my group have, and that you and your group lack. It’s something none of us have, but that we can all seek and aspire to. It only comes with maturity, with long following in Christ’s footsteps – and it is not fully realised this side of eternity.

We all have some fundamentalist tendencies – it’s part of the human condition. And we all bring our own flawedness and brokenness, our psychological and emotional unhealthiness to our religion. All Christians and all churches and religious groups are fundamentally flawed from the very outset. Yet that need not be a cause for despair or disengagement, but rather for hope. Christ’s grace is there for all of us, calling us on from where we are to where we can be in him.

So fundamentalism is not the true essence of religion; but then neither perhaps is merely nice, moderate liberalism. True religion is something we’ve mostly only barely glimpsed. But when you do glimpse it, you probably won’t want to settle for anything else.

Posted in Fundamentalism, Liberalism, Religion | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments

Stages of faith – the flight-path of a relationship

One of this blog’s central, recurring ideas is that faith has a life cycle with recognisable phases or stages (an idea originally developed by James Fowler).

It’s an idea that’s helped and supported me through the experience of my own faith and theology changing – at times changing quite drastically. Rather than this being a negative sign that I’m losing my way or backsliding, the ‘stages’ framework allows me to see it as a potentially positive sign of growth and development. That I no longer believe quite the same things as I did when I was a new Christian (or no longer believe them in quite the same ways) needn’t be a bad thing; quite the contrary.

Faith is a journey, and journeys imply movement and change. Faith is not a static state of being. Rather it’s a living and dynamic thing, and living things have a life cycle. Alan Jamieson likens the stages of faith to the life stages of a butterfly – from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis, to the ultimate beauty and aerial freedom of the adult butterfly.

Faith is also a relationship of course, and relationships too have their own kind of life cycle, or journey, or progression, or flight-path.

In particular, faith has close parallels to two specific kinds of relationship – that of a child to its parents, and that of a lover to his or her beloved. I’ve talked about the parent-child relationship elsewhere, and the changes that take place in that relationship as the child develops from utterly dependent baby to mature adult via the learning phase of childhood and the often stormy phase of adolescence.

So this time I’d like to look at faith as a love relationship between two adults.

Falling in love

When we fall in love, the world changes for us. Birds sing more sweetly, the sun shines more brightly; all the clichés become true. For a short time everything is blissful – except when we are parted from our beloved, or if our love is not reciprocated, in which case everything is terrible.

Spiritually, this is the new-convert stage of faith, which for some does feel like falling in love with God or Jesus. We’ve been given something amazing and special; the world is a different and wonderful place; we want to tell everyone about the new love and meaning we’ve found.

This early phase is often full of joy and excitement and discovery. We make all those ‘I’ll always love you’ promises; vows which arise from deep emotion and conviction but have yet to be tested in the grinding mill of everyday life.

At this stage, the romantic relationship is also completely exclusive, and other people – particularly old friends and family – can feel shut out. It can feel a little like that for old friends of new Christians too. Suddenly this person doesn’t want to spend the evening getting drunk with them – no, they’re off to a Bible study or prayer meeting. They don’t want to talk about the stuff they used to; no, they’re banging on about Jesus again. And the way they talk about their faith and salvation often unintentionally makes others who don’t share these beliefs feel excluded and inferior.

Beyond the honeymoon

Moving on, at some point the new relationship may be sealed in the official public commitment of marriage with a wedding service or, in the relationship with God, a baptism. There follows a brief honeymoon, and then the rest of life together begins. And it’s not always a smooth ride.

We even talk of the ‘honeymoon period’, meaning the initial phase of any new thing (new relationship, new government, new job etc) when everything’s lovely, before full reality sets in and we encounter difficulties. Marriage is like this of course, and the relationship with God is too.

The thing is, the initial experience of being in love is overwhelming and all-consuming, but it doesn’t and can’t last forever. That’s as true of our relationship with God as it is with human romantic relationships. At some point the glorious euphoria of that initial epiphany has to fade and give way to normal life – albeit normal life that now has a new aspect and purpose (and person). That’s not backsliding or ‘losing the fire’; it’s just how relationships work.

So we’re likely to experience some initial hiccups and conflicts along the way as we negotiate the details of shared life.

As time goes on, we start to see friends more often again; the relationship opens up and becomes less exclusive. And gradually we settle into the routine of married life, work and chores, hobbies, raising kids and so on. Similarly in the relationship with God, we settle into routines of church-going, prayer and Bible-reading, and whatever ministries or Christian work we’ve signed up to or felt called to.

The dangers of familiarity

In the midst of all this though, as years go by, much of the joy and spontaneity and fun can gradually leak out of the relationship like a slow puncture. We’re used to each other by now; we know each other’s ways, and things we used to find endearing or interesting can now seem merely irritating. Familiarity can all too easily start to breed contempt, or boredom.

This can be a dangerous or at least a testing time for a long-term relationship. For some there may even be extra-marital affairs, or else just the slow ‘creeping separateness’ leading to a coldness where the two former lovers have no more interest in each other, nothing to say to each other even. (I’m not saying it needs to be like this; just that it quite often can be.)

It’s the same with God of course. Years of faithful (or at least regular) service in a church community can start to feel like drudgery. Reading the Bible and prayer feel like chores. Prayer doesn’t even seem to change anything much of the time, and the Bible doesn’t seem to hold any new insights. We’ve heard it all, seen it all, done it all. Why bother – what’s the point? Why don’t we just go and have some fun outside of church, get drunk, enjoy some of the old things we used to do?

This stage of the relationship can be a crisis point. Not all marriages survive it, and not all relationships with God survive it either. We need something to restore and renew the relationship, or at least something to help us through this stage.

Christians (particularly charismatic Christians) talk a lot about ‘getting back our first love’. There’s a verse in Revelation about it, and many worship songs have been written about it and sermons preached on it. I think there can be more and less helpful ways of understanding it.

Renewing the relationship

If by ‘getting back our first love’ we imagine we can return permanently to the initial euphoric state of being ‘in love’, then I’m convinced that this is unrealistic and impossible, and will inevitably lead to disappointment. We simply can’t go on feeling ‘in love’ all the time; that would be like trying to have Christmas every day.

It’s like when we first learn to swim or to ride a bike, or master some other difficult and demanding skill. We feel exhilarated, euphoric, on top of the world. But before long this new skill has just become part of our normal experience. We can’t go on being that excited about it forever.

I think a more helpful understanding of ‘returning to our first love’ is that of renewing, refreshing or revitalising our love and our relationship. We can find fresh ways to keep walking the same paths, with renewed commitment and fresh vision. We can find new meanings in the old familiar things.

Rather than seeking permanently to be ‘in love’, we can perhaps learn occasionally to fall in love afresh, as we seek and discover new things about our life partner – or about God. But of course a lot of the time will just be learning to enjoy and appreciate and support each other without needing any great rush of emotions.

I know a few older married couples whose tender and mutually accepting relationship gives me tremendous hope for how things can be. Similarly I know some elderly Christians whose faith has survived and has become beautifully simple, even childlike. They don’t have all the answers and their prayers are by no means always answered, but they have a deep sense of trust, based on a long-matured and personal knowledge of God through good and bad times.

So yes, faith changes over the years, just like any relationship. And this is a good thing, something to be enjoyed not feared. We don’t have to beat ourselves up about it, or try desperately to ‘get the fire back’. It’s okay to grow up.

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