Why doesn’t God just save everyone? (or does he?)

I talked last time about why I’d stopped trying so hard to ‘save’ everyone, or to impart to them a particular version of the gospel message about Jesus saving them from their sins.

These next 2 posts follow on from this, but from a less personal, more theoretical and theological angle. The question I’m trying to answer is, Why does God leave other people’s eternal fate in our hands – or indeed does he?

I was listening to a friend give their ‘testimony’ the other day, the story of how they came to faith in Christ from having been a drop-out; of how he felt God calling him in his darkest hour. It struck me for two reasons – one, because it bore parallels to my own story. Two, because if God chose to or managed to get to both of us in our similar places, why not all the many others like us? And why not everyone? Why us at all?

Or to put it another way – why doesn’t God just save everyone?

What is salvation, who gets it – and why?

Firstly though, what does it even mean to be saved, and is it the same as being Christian? My rough working definition of both (which many will disagree with!) is:

Being drawn into a redemptive relationship with God in which one is gradually inwardly transformed into Christlikeness, and in which one participates in the redemption of humanity and the world.

But I’m not sure one has to be ‘Christian’ in the usual sense for that to happen, though again many would disagree.

Still, ‘Why doesn’t God save everyone?’ has long been a puzzling question for Christians. Different believers have attempted different answers over the ages, starting with the very first apostles. The views seem to fall broadly into three camps:

  1. God could save everyone because he is utterly sovereign, but for his own mysterious reasons only chooses to save some (Calvinism)
  2. God wants – and tries – to save everyone, but he respects our choices and he will (or can) only save those who are willing (Arminianism)
  3. God does ultimately save everyone (Universalism); and he doesn’t require people to make a Christian commitment in this life in order for them to be redeemed finally (Inclusivism).

Option 1 – God could save everyone, but chooses not to

This is the classic Calvinist position, based on a view of God as utterly sovereign and in control of everything that happens. I don’t like it and don’t think it’s true. Still, I acknowledge that it seems to have fairly strong backing from some of the New Testament writings – and even apparently from the words of Jesus himself.

So in John’s gospel Jesus makes two statements, ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6) and ‘No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me’ (John 6:44). Accepting for now that Jesus actually said these things, and taking it at face value, it sounds unequivocal – only those whom God directly calls can come to Jesus and receive his eternal life.

Paul of course appears to reinforce this in several passages: ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God’ (Eph 2:8-9); ‘What if God… bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction’ (Romans 9:22).

For me, there have to be alternative ways of reading these passages – or else (in the last resort) I may simply have to reject them as mistaken. Because the view of God they present seems to me so utterly abhorrent, and so unlike the God I think I know a little.

A monstrous God?

If it’s true that God simply chooses some to be saved and others not to be, then to my mind it makes him controlling, unlovable and almost monstrous. Indeed the extreme version holds that God not only actively chooses those to be saved but also actively chooses those who are to be lost or damned – which ends up in the same place but makes God seem even nastier.

How can you unconditionally and freely love someone – indeed how can you love them at all – knowing that it’s only the luck of the heavenly lottery that God has chosen to love you, and that you could equally well have been chosen for eternal destruction? How can you love someone who is actively and deliberately choosing to consign billions of your fellows – perhaps your family and friends – to hell, purely on the basis of his sovereign right to choose?

And how can God simply choose to love some and not others anyway – surely love doesn’t work that way? Unless they’re massively psychologically scarred, a parent has no choice about loving their children – they just do, like it or not. (Though Calvinists argue we only become God’s children by his sovereign choice.)

God’s will and God’s glory?

And what is the mysterious reason that Calvinists put forward as the basis for God’s choice to save some and condemn others? For some it’s simply pure will, the divine right of choice – which amounts to a meaningless tautology to my mind.

For others it’s ‘for God’s glory’. It glorifies God to show mercy to some who don’t deserve it (which could be any of us), and equally glorifies him to punish others who do (which again could be any of us). Maybe so, in a legal or even mathematical kind of way – but I find it hard to see how it would be possible to love such a God.

Indeed, the Calvinist view has understandably been responsible for causing many to hate and reject the Christian God, even to oppose him. And if such a view were true, I might be tempted to join them.

Scriptural error?

Obviously rejecting these difficult scriptural passages as erroneous does present us with some other difficulties, which for some will be insurmountable. But it seems to me that Paul was wrong about some things – most notably about the imminent return of Jesus within his lifetime – so he may have been mistaken about this as well. We don’t have to discard all of his writings just because they aren’t completely infallible or inerrant.

Another approach is to accept these ‘Calvinist’ passages, but to uncouple them from the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment that normally accompanies the Calvinist viewpoint. This softer version still holds that God chooses only some people for eternal life, but not that he consigns the rest to an eternity of punishment and suffering; rather, he merely lets them cease to exist (Annihilation not Damnation). I’m still not entirely happy with this idea, but I think it’s an improvement.

Of course, there are alternative ways of interpreting these difficult passages of Scripture (more on this next time). But even if we’re sure they mean what they seem to, and we accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word (which I’m no longer sure I do in a strictly evangelical sense), that’s not all the Bible says on the subject.

Which brings us on to options 2 and 3 – that God wants to save all but can’t, or that he does save all. Next time…

Posted in Bible, Calvinism, Evangelicalism, Salvation | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Why I gave up trying to save the world

And by ‘gave up’, I don’t mean ‘throwing in the towel’ so much as giving up a bad habit, an unhealthy addiction.

For many years I tried my best to save the world and my friends – with limited success in either case.

I tried to save my friends by telling them ‘the gospel’, convinced this was my primary task on earth as a Christian, though my awkward attempts were equally embarrassing to me and to them.

I tried to save the world by going on short-term mission, by giving to everyone and every charity that asked, talking endlessly to homeless guys, welcoming needy strangers into our home, campaigning for justice, volunteering for charity, holding prayer meetings for the world, and things of that sort.

The pressure to evangelise

Among evangelical/charismatic circles, it felt like you had to evangelise or ‘witness’; that was the Christian’s primary (almost only) purpose in this life. The time was short, the task urgent. Anyone who didn’t receive Christ was heading for eternal torment in hell, and it was every believer’s job to save as many as possible, by any means possible. We were to ‘pour out our lives like a drink offering’, sacrificing all other needs and priorities to that of winning souls for Christ.

I remember going to a missionary event and reading a sign on the wall, ‘Every second a soul passes into a Christless eternity’. I also recall some famous Christian’s dream of countless souls blindly walking the wrong way towards a great precipice, and our call to turn back as many as we could.

So almost everything was viewed through the prism of mission – meaning evangelism, meaning ‘sharing the gospel’ of Christ crucified to save us from our sins. Friendships were primarily for the purpose of ‘friendship evangelism’. Any conversation that wasn’t turned to Jesus was a missed opportunity. The arts were valued only for their missional potential as vehicles of gospel propaganda. I exaggerate perhaps, but not massively.

Accompanying this was the need to learn evangelistic techniques. You were supposed to learn your ‘testimony’, your conversion story, so you could wheel it out at any likely opportunity. You were encouraged to memorise formulas like ‘The Romans Road’ or the ‘Four Spiritual Laws’.

So I read evangelism books, went to evangelism seminars, prayed for opportunities to share the gospel and tried to work it into conversations. Without notable success.

So what changed?

The turning point

In 2001 I and my wife were on the brink of signing up with a well-known missionary organisation (who do great work), and going off somewhere like Gambia to pour ourselves out bringing God’s Word to the lost. We’d been on the orientation weekend, we’d met up with former missionaries for advice, and we were looking into funding.

I’m still not entirely sure what changed our mind – perhaps God, who knows? – but in the end we decided to buy a house in a multi-cultural part of the UK rather than going to the other end of the world as missionaries. That decision was the start of a sea change in our lives.

Over the last decade of (amongst other things) helping bring up children my life has changed, my outlook’s changed, and my faith and theology have changed. I’ve stopped trying to save the world and my friends. Why?

Changing perspectives

For one thing, I began to realise that many of my world-saving attempts were unhealthy, compulsive and short-termist. Far from being signs of devotion, they were tied into my own personal issues, and to a false model of service. I realised I needed to adjust my priorities; to stop putting the needs of all those I’m not directly responsible for before the needs of those I definitely am responsible for.

We also discovered the hard way that living to save the world and all our friends just didn’t work, and was more counter-productive than beneficial. We’d poured time and energy into friendships for the Kingdom’s sake, but had ended up with unhealthy, unbalanced relationships without proper boundaries or mutuality.

My theology was also changing. I was no longer so sure about the narrow version of the ‘gospel’ I’d learnt and had been trying to pass on. In particular I was no longer so convinced that non-Christians all automatically went to hell in the way I used to understand it.

We’re not all evangelists

Perhaps most importantly though, I realised that I just wasn’t very good at evangelism (at least the kind I’d been trained in). Over all my years of trying, I’d never successfully ‘led anyone to Christ’.

I also realised that I hated evangelising and felt deeply uncomfortable with it. And furthermore I came to see that discomfort not as a sign of failure to be ashamed of, but as a sign of God’s leading to be listened to. I’m not an evangelist, and that’s okay. What a blessed relief.

I’d dreaded evangelism for as long as I can remember. Years ago as a nominally churchgoing teenager, the idea of having to evangelise had been what most put me off making a full-blown ‘commitment’ to follow Jesus.

Of course there are healthier and better ways of sharing the good news of Christ than the ones I was taught. Clearly not all evangelism is bad or unnecessary (quite the contrary); I just think that we’ve too often bought into an unhelpful model.

So many evangelists seem to be spiritual salespeople, with evangelism a technique-centred means of ‘pushing’ God as though he were just another consumer product on the market. I don’t want to be sold God, nor do I want to sell him. And people aren’t projects; friends aren’t merely evangelism targets.

I believe that true evangelism, like true prayer and worship, must be authentic and from the heart, rather than a learned technique. It takes place when the time is right, rather than being forced or contrived.

Giving up the fight?

But have I just given up the fight and deserted my Christian duty, to others’ eternal loss? I don’t believe so.

Rather I’ve started to learn my limitations and, tentatively, the shape of my calling. I’m a rubbish evangelist, but quite good at other things which I believe are as valid and valuable as evangelism.

One body, many parts; we aren’t all eyes or ears or feet, and we can’t (and shouldn’t) all do all the tasks of the kingdom. We have different roles, and different gifts accordingly. Some folk are evangelistic, others pastoral, others good at teaching and so on. So long as we work together as a community and a body, we can enjoy and benefit from each other’s differences. If you’re genuinely an evangelist, that’s fantastic; just don’t expect everyone else to be one too.

Authenticity and creativity

Of course I do still talk to people about my faith, and contribute to ‘world mission’, but in rather different ways and with different motivation. I’m no longer trying single-handedly to save the world, nor spending my limited time and energy on things I’m unmotivated by, useless at, and not sure I really believe in.

I was never fully convinced by messages like ‘every second a soul passes into a Christless eternity’. But even if they’re true, I find them paralysing rather than motivational. Ironically, now I’ve stopped worrying that without my evangelistic efforts everyone’s hell-bound, I’m far more likely to represent the gospel, precisely because I’m not trying to do that. I’m freed up to be my full self in Christ rather than desperately trying to perform some ill-fitting and inauthentic role.

I also now feel free to enjoy and practice the arts without needing to turn them all into either Christian worship or evangelism, or to see them through the narrow prism of their Kingdom usefulness. Again, that doesn’t mean these arts are ‘unspiritual’ or have nothing to do with the Kingdom. Pretty much all art, music and story has a spiritual aspect and can be a means of grace if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We just don’t always need to spell it out by adding a Bible verse.

It’s been said that God doesn’t need our prayers, but he wants the relationship that prayer entails. Similarly he doesn’t need our evangelistic efforts, but he does desire our creative involvement in the world he’s redeeming. As we receive Christ’s love and life in us, incarnationally bearing his image in our daily lives – each in our own unique way – we participate in and contribute to the redemption of the world. And that’s evangelism I can believe in and sign up to.

Posted in Evangelicalism, Salvation, The faith journey | Tagged , , , , , | 24 Comments

Christianity and Jihad – is there such a thing as a Just or Holy War?

A recent ‘Agnostics Anonymous’ opinion piece written in a Christian magazine argued that proselytising faiths such as Christianity and Islam have always relied on war and violence to spread their message. It’s a point worth thinking about – is there any truth in it?

There is of course a contentious tradition of ‘holy war’ within both Christianity and Islam (‘jihad’). And it’s true Jesus did say ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword’. But most commentators interpret this not as a foundation for a theology of Christian violence (an oxymoron if ever I heard one), but rather a simple prediction of the subversive, disruptive and divisive effect of Jesus’ message.

Turn the other cheek

Jesus’ teaching on non-violence is clear and repeated. ‘You have heard it said “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”. But I say do not resist an evil man’.  ‘Turn the other cheek’. ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you’. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’.

Furthermore, Jesus not only taught non-violence, and indeed anti-violence, but modelled these principles in all his life and actions. When his followers apparently wanted him to enter Jerusalem as a conquering king, he chose instead to ride in on a donkey as the Prince of Peace. When Peter tried to take up arms to prevent Jesus’ arrest, cutting off the ear of a centurion’s servant, Jesus chided him ‘Put away your sword; those who live by the sword die by the sword’, and healed the man’s ear.

Jesus’ death was of course the ultimate act of non-violent resistance. He let himself be taken, making no attempt to resist capture. He offered no defence of himself in his trial or before Pilate, but submitted to abuse and humiliation. From the cross he forgave those who crucified him, and welcomed the thief at his side into Paradise. He did not repay evil with evil, or violence with violence, but rather took the evil and violence upon and into himself and in so doing disarmed and neutralised it.

The apostles Paul and Peter took up Jesus’ message: ‘do not repay evil with evil’ appears in letters written by each of them. And of course they and all the apostles lived and died by this, suffering all sorts of indignity and harsh treatment – and ultimately death – without fighting back.

And Jesus’ example has inspired countless peacemakers from St Francis who preached to the Crusaders on the front line to dissuade them from fighting, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King who famously said ‘with violence you can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder’.

Fighting the good fight?

So what of all the war-like, apparently violent language in Christianity, the talk of ‘fighting the good fight’, and ‘Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war’? We have to remember that these are, and always have been, metaphors. As Paul put it back in the earliest Christian times, ‘Our struggle (or fight) is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and principalities of darkness in the heavenly realms’. Or again, ‘though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does’ (2 Cor 10:3).

We are, metaphorically, engaged in a struggle or battle, but it’s never against people or nations or other religions or any human enemies. It’s a spiritual struggle against the ‘powers of darkness’, however we understand that; the forces of chaos and evil and destruction, of disintegration and dehumanisation. And more often than not the battle is within ourselves, with our own inclinations and impulses and attitudes. That is the true meaning of ‘holy war’, of ‘jihad’.

Christians are not called to fight as the world fights. Our fight against evil is predicated on Christ’s cross, where his fight against evil took the path not of violent resistance but of acceptance, even surrender; of taking all the rubbish and hate and horror that evil could throw at him and turning it to good.

Onward, Christian soldiers?

A crucial point to remember is that Christianity was never meant to be a religion of state power and state force. It is at heart and root a religion of the marginalised and oppressed, the powerless and voiceless. The vast majority of the early Christians were not people of wealth, power, influence or renowned intellect. The way of Jesus is never the way of state rule, and the principles and practices of Christianity have little to do with the business of governing nations.

So the decision on whether to embark on armed national or international conflict is not one which Christianity generally even tries to address.

But should Christians ever be soldiers, ever engage in armed conflict on behalf of their own nation or another country? That I think is a complex and nuanced question.

Firstly I do not believe that war is ever anything but a tragic and terrible waste of life, to be avoided at almost all costs and entered into only with extreme reluctance and sorrow.

And ultimately I do not believe that the end ever justifies the means, nor that violence is ever the right way to achieve our goals.

Just war?

Nonetheless, I also have to acknowledge that we don’t live in an ideal world where all solutions can always be fully good and as God would wish. Sometimes it really is a choice of the least worst option, the lesser of two evils.

Aquinas (after Augustine) famously formulated the concept of a ‘Just War’, a set of criteria for deciding whether a conflict could be justified in Christian terms. For myself, I’m not convinced that there can ever be such a thing as a just or justified war, in Christian terms. But what there may be (perhaps) is a war that is on balance the least worst option, the lesser evil which may at least achieve some good amongst the inevitable and terrible bad.

And perhaps there may be times where the principle of defending the weak and vulnerable against the oppressor may lead us to consider taking up arms as a viable course of action. Though so often the hidden or unforeseen consequences for ill threaten to far outweigh any good that fighting might achieve even in these cases. Morally, I think I’d always prefer to opt for Gandhi’s or Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance – an option which may at times require more, not less, courage than fighting.

But even if we do feel in conscience that, on balance, armed conflict must be entered into, it must always be with the deepest regret and sorrow, with full acknowledgement that in war there are no winners and death is the only victor.

War in the Bible

I don’t have space to do more than touch on this here, but I can’t completely overlook all the war, violence, bloodshed and even genocide in the Old Testament – much of it seemingly commanded by God.

I wrote a fuller (though still incomplete) treatment under ‘Is God homicidal?’ For now, all I can say is that I don’t believe that the OT model is meant to be normative for us. I don’t know whether God really did command any or all of the bloodshed that the OT records – I very much hope not, and I think there are good reasons for thinking not.

But even if God did command violence then for whatever reason (and there are possible reasons), that doesn’t mean he does now. The world we live in is not the world the Israelites inhabited. Most crucially, Christ has come, and in his death and resurrection has put an end to violence and the need for violence. I believe that the ‘war to end all wars’ actually took place on the cross, though we have yet to heed its message.

Postscript: C.S. Lewis, Narnia and war

One of my Christian heroes, C.S. Lewis, was a surprising advocate of fighting. One of the most problematic lines in his otherwise-beloved Narnia series is “Battles are ugly when women fight” (spoken by Father Christmas in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). The sexism aside, the implication is that battles aren’t ugly normally – that indeed they can be beautiful.

Lewis directly experienced the horrors of the trenches in WW1. Yet in later years he would argue passionately against pacifism and write almost lovingly of wars and battles in the Narnia stories (4 of the 7 books contain full pitched battles).

True, these are fantasy battles in a fantasy world; the medieval chivalric ideal of noble knights fighting with valour and honour rather than the brutal realities of modern warfare. And we can – probably should – interpret them metaphorically, as battles against evil and injustice rather than a human enemy.

But Lewis’s support – at times glorification – of fighting and war, albeit in a just or honourable cause, does strike a jarring note for me. Yet so too do some of his other ideas and attitudes, which now look to us dangerously like sexism and racism. Lewis is a great Christian thinker and writer, but he’s flawed like the rest of us, and not everything he says is gospel.

And of course I’m flawed too, and my own perspective is partial and biased. I’m conflict-avoidant by temperament so of course I hate the idea of war and fighting, even in a good cause. Ironic really, as my name Harvey translates roughly as ‘Warrior’ or ‘Battleworthy’…

Posted in Bible, Controversies, Evil | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Is anger wrong?

“You have heard it said, Do not murder… But I tell you, whoever is angry with a brother will be subject to judgement” (Matthew 5:21-22)

In the last two posts I’ve been looking at the place of violence and rage in Christianity. Before tackling the big one, war, I’d like to look at the more basic question of anger. Is it okay for us to get angry and to react in anger?

Anger isn’t generally a very acceptable emotion in the church, at least not in the Anglican Church to which I belong. Anglicans, being extremely English, tend to be very nice, polite and controlled; and anger just isn’t very nice, polite or controlled.

We do get angry of course, but we tend to repress it or else express it indirectly or passive-aggressively. We tut, we give disapproving looks, we silently exclude, we post polite but pointed notices (quite often while still smiling fixedly). Often you wouldn’t even realise we’re angry at all.

Accepting our anger

Anger was a bit of a taboo emotion for me growing up. I learnt that anger was something dangerous and uncontrollable, to be avoided and buried deep down. I have deep-seated issues with anger, both what to do with it when I feel it and what it does to me when others are angry with me. I avoid conflict and argument from fear that I might lose control and inflict damage, or that I might be rejected for saying or doing unacceptable things.

For the last few years though I’ve been seeing a secular counsellor, a wise chap. One thing you learn quickly in counselling is that feelings and emotions – including anger and hate – aren’t wrong in themselves; feeling them doesn’t make us bad or nasty. Furthermore you can’t help feeling them, nor stop them from arising, and it’s counter-productive to try.

Feelings are natural (if not always proportionate) responses to events and circumstances. In certain situations you just will feel anger, whether you like it or not, and indeed that may well be a good response to what’s happening. Trying to deny, hide or repress that anger won’t help; it will only force the anger underground where it’s far more dangerous. Repressed anger is like volcanic magma bubbling below the surface, which may later burst out unexpectedly over innocent bystanders.

Furthermore, anger can actually be a very useful emotion if managed and channelled properly. It can be creative rather than destructive. Rather than destroying relationships, handled well it can lead to deeper intimacy and honesty. And in the wider world, we can use our anger to fight against injustice, inequality, poverty, prejudice.

Anger is an honest, open response. Sometimes it’s just how we feel, and it’s important that we feel that. If we can’t get angry with people or let them get angry with us, our relationship with them isn’t completely real, or really complete. Sometimes we may even need to get angry at God.

Jesus’ anger

But what are we to make of Jesus’ words quoted at the head of this post? Can he really mean that it’s wrong ever to be angry with someone? How can that be?

Hang on just a mo though. Jesus himself got angry, fairly often. Much of the time it was low-level exasperation with his disciples for being so slow on the uptake – but that’s still anger. And he railed furiously against the Scribes, Pharisees and religious leaders – expressing righteous anger at their arrogance and self-blindness, their grasping of petty power and making of petty rules at the expense of the poor and ordinary people.

We’ve looked at the famous occasion where Jesus turned over the moneylenders’ tables and drove the sellers out of the temple. John’s gospel says he was consumed by ‘zeal’ – or you might say righteous anger, even white-hot rage.

Jesus wasn’t a hypocrite, a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ person. He lived out his teachings with perfect consistency. So anger can’t be wrong per se. There are situations in which anger, properly expressed and handled, is clearly the right and godly response.

“In your anger, do not sin”

Paul perhaps sheds a bit more light with his famous lines ‘In your anger, do not sin’ and ‘don’t let the sun go down on your wrath’. These both assume we’ll get angry; it’s just part of the human condition. The issue is what we do with our anger; how we respond to it, and to the people who’ve angered us.

In your anger, do not sin. We will at times feel rage or frustration or exasperation; that’s okay, normal, even maybe good. But in the grip of that emotion, however powerful it is, we always have a choice not to act out of it, not to lash out, not to say or do something harmful that we’ll regret. We can’t stop ourselves feeling angry, but we can choose whether to act destructively or creatively with our anger.

Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath. Don’t let the hot magma of your anger harden into resentment, bitterness, a long-term grudge, a cold settled attitude of hostility towards another person. Deal with your anger before it goes underground. Use the anger not to provoke revenge and recrimination but to prompt resolution and reconciliation.

Of course we won’t always be able to resolve all conflicts straight away, but we can work towards resolution. The wounds that led to our anger or arose from it need to be acknowledged and healed, so they don’t fester and go bad.

Are angry thoughts sinful?

I’ve said that it’s okay to feel angry. But Jesus does seem to imply that even just thinking or feeling something is as bad as actually doing it – that looking at someone lustfully is equivalent to adultery, and being angry with your brother is on the same level as murdering him. What on earth is he getting at here?

I think it’s partly Hebrew hyperbole to make a point, and partly context.

The initial thought or feeling of lust, anger or whatever just comes to us – we can’t help it, so surely we don’t need to feel guilty for it. What I think Jesus means is not then to dwell on that feeling or thought; not to nurture it, let it grow and take shape, because then we’re giving it power in our lives – and making it more likely that we’ll act on it.

So when we protractedly fantasise about hurting or getting back at someone we’re angry with, we’re veering into potentially dangerous waters. We’ll probably all fantasise briefly, but if it becomes something we can’t let go of, it becomes harmful. Even if we never act out on it, it will be a bitter canker within us.

We can’t forgive when we’re holding onto resentment, or desires to get back at people. And forgiveness is such a fundamental principle of Christian faith, albeit such a hard one. There are people who hurt me years ago who I still struggle to forgive, and at times I catch myself wishing them ill. I just have to give them over to God time and again and ask that he’ll release me from this bitterness which does me no good. And I know that God wants to – and can – redeem them and me and these part situations of hurt.

Is God angry?

So much for our anger – what about God’s?

The idea of God being angry seems very Old Testament. It’s something we associate with scary fundamentalists, Bible-thumping hellfire preachers and overly strict sects. Mostly now we’ve opted for a God of love and mercy alone, a friendly and only-benevolent dad rather than a Righteous (and sometimes wrathful) Judge.

God is love, not anger. But God’s anger rightly understood arises from and is a vital aspect of his love. Even in the Old Testament God is ‘slow to anger’; but when God does get angry it’s because he cares passionately. His anger arises from things that harm or damage those he loves, or from things that damage our relationship with him and each other.

Unfortunately we associate horrific and terrifying things with God’s anger – mighty smitings, mass genocide, sending people to eternal fiery hell. But God’s anger is usually much smaller-scale than this, and with much less dire consequences.

Being a parent has taught me most about God’s loving anger. I love my children and I can’t change that – it’s my default position towards them; a simple fact of our relationship. They quite often infuriate me and I get angry with them – but that anger is always in the context of a relationship of love. My anger towards them doesn’t mean I’ll cut them off, shut them out, torture them or destroy them. And if I wouldn’t, I can’t believe that God would either.

A God who was never angry would be merely indifferent, uncaring. But God’s anger is not necessarily – perhaps not ever – the violent, vengeful anger we see in parts of the Old Testament. (I’ve written more about the Old Testament genocides here.)

So anger – ours and God’s – is okay; it can even be good. I still don’t much like it though…

Posted in Bible, Love of God, Psychology, Sin | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The cross of Christ and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

“Do you know why humans like violence? Because violence feels good”
(Spoken by character of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game)

This is continuing a series about anger, violence and war from a Christian perspective. Last time I looked at Christ’s apparent violence and rage in the incident of the ‘cleansing of the temple’. Now, post-Easter, I’d like to look at what’s been called the ‘Myth of Redemptive Violence’ and how it relates to the cross of Christ.

‘The Myth of Redemptive Violence’ is a phrase coined by theologian-activist Walter Wink, who argues that it’s the predominant myth of our culture and possibly of most cultures throughout history. Put simply, it’s the idea that violence or brute force is the primary means by which good wins, evil is dealt with and positive change is accomplished.

The myth is played out in every cartoon and in story after story – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Asterix and Tom & Jerry cartoons, Western films, superhero comics… Good has to prevail over evil by force, by fighting, by violent struggle which ends in the physical punishment and often death of the villains of the piece.

And the good side is completely justified in using violence against the bad because the bad are so bad, and their destruction is necessary to bring peace and stability. The baddies are entirely responsible for things being wrong, and things cannot be right again until they are removed – usually killed.

Roots of violence

Wink traces the roots of this myth to the Babylonian creation story, a primal myth in which original disorder has to be conquered through acts of violence to bring order. But I think it goes even deeper, back into our evolutionary origins, the violent competitive struggle for survival, from which the Babylonian myth itself derives.

Violence is part of the human animal. The instinct to fight is one of our primal survival responses – a defensive reaction to feeling threatened or frightened. And plenty else can trigger our desire to lash out and hurt – frustration, feeling thwarted or challenged or trapped, jealousy and betrayal, hunger, hurt, humiliation, wounded self-image. And the evolutionary instincts to hunt and to dominate, to compete and conquer also easily lead to violence.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong to have angry, frightened or even violent impulses, by the way – we can’t help it, though we can help what we do with them. (Nor am I saying that it’s necessarily totally wrong ever to fight under any circumstances – but I’ll come back to that in another post.)

So there are violent impulses hardwired deep into all of us, in the most primitive part of our psyches, somewhere around the same place as our sex drives. For the most part we who see ourselves as ‘civilised’ know that these violent impulses aren’t ones we should act on directly. Nonetheless the instincts don’t go away and often we just find more socially (even religiously) acceptable ways to exercise them.

Punishing the baddies – or the scapegoats

And these violent instincts are also coupled with another deep psychological impulse to put all of our unacceptable ‘bad’ onto others as scapegoats, and rid ourselves of it by punishing them for it. And this is where religion comes in and sanctions ‘redemptive’ or purgative violence against those it brands evildoers, heathens or heretics. And there we have the root of Crusades, Jihad and all manner of ‘Holy War’; of witch-hunts and the burning of heretics.

But we can’t blame this all on others; it’s in us too. Almost all of us instinctively love it when the ‘baddies’ get their comeuppance at the end of the story, however brutally or violently. There’s something deeply and horribly satisfying about the evil Nazis melting at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We feel they richly deserve it, and in their terrible (but just) destruction the world is cleansed and put right again. It’s satisfying, but not I think truly Christian or Christlike.

However, following Franciscan Richard Rohr, I’d say that this violent myth has historically infiltrated the church and Christian theology, and has long influenced our understanding of sin, atonement and judgement; even perhaps of evangelism.

The ‘Christian’ myth of redemptive violence

So according to the Christianised version, God’s good creation is spoiled by bad beings and bad people who are to blame for all the ills of the world. To restore rightness and goodness, these bad ones must be violently punished, removed, even killed.

But the ‘Christian’ version goes further. Badness has so infiltrated everything and everyone that all merit death, and not just death but also endless punishment after death; terrible eternal torture in hell. This is apparently what divine justice requires.

And we’re told the only solution to this is the violent sacrificial death of the perfect victim, God’s only son Jesus, who effectively takes on the role of the innocent scapegoat for the rest of us. This violent act alone satisfies the requirements of righteousness – and of an apparently violent, vengeful, even bloodthirsty God – and means that goodness and peace can be restored. But all those who aren’t covered by Jesus’ blood sacrifice will have to be eternally, violently punished.

This, in many ways, is the ‘gospel’ many of us have been taught, if not usually expressed quite so starkly. It’s not a gospel I’ve ever felt comfortable with; it doesn’t feel very much like good news, or a story of divine love and mercy.

Telling a better story

Now I don’t deny all of this tale. I do believe that in some sense the goodness of God’s creation has been spoiled and that all of us are subject to corruption. I’m still that much an evangelical. ;)

Nonetheless, I do reject the idea that only by violent and bloody punishment can this situation be dealt with. I can’t help feeling that there must be better ways of understanding the Christian story, shorn of its false association with the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Jesus, I’m convinced, did not buy into this myth, nor do I think he understood his own death in these terms.

Rather Jesus represented the way of non-violence and even anti-violence. He represented the way of love – not of force or brute power. He opposed the Myth of Redemptive Violence and turned it on its head. In his death, he was not satisfying the demands of a vengeful God for a violent sacrifice to restore order. Rather he was taking upon himself all the violence of the world system, of us, in order that it and we might be healed, redeemed, saved from the otherwise endless cycle of violence and revenge.

Violence breeds violence, and violent punishment is not the solution to violent crime. But in Jesus’ death something new and never-before-seen happens. The violence of humanity and of the world that Jesus takes upon himself does not – miraculously – breed more violence. Rather, his utter innocence and purity somehow overcome and disarm all the violence, meaning that there can be redemption at last for our broken and violent world and for our broken and violent hearts.

So Jesus’ death is not an act of blood sacrifice to appease an angry God. It is an act of self-sacrifice to topple the violent and destructive powers that rule us – including the power of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Jesus’ death is the ultimate act of love, a love which alone can defeat death and destruction and the darkness within every one of us.

Next time – is it okay to be angry?

Further reading (and listening)

Posted in Good Friday, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Rage, violence and Jesus – the cleansing of the Temple

So we’re approaching Good Friday and Easter again. Does the story of Christ’s ‘Passion’ fill you with joy or dread, neither, maybe both?

The Passion story is undeniably a bloody and violent one. I’m no great fan of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ for all sorts of reasons, theological and otherwise. I think that amidst the relentless, excessive bloody gore and horror it misses the heart and point of the story. But I suppose it does at least underline that, whatever else the cross of Christ was and meant, it was a brutal and bloody act of execution and sacrifice.

So over the next few posts I’d like to look at ideas of violence and anger in relation to the Christian story. We live in a violent world and we have violent tendencies without ourselves, often unacknowledged or pushed aside. And the messages we get from the church and the Bible are very mixed. Is God violent and vengeful or a God of peace and love? Should we fight terrorists or forgive them? What do we as Christians do with all our angers and hates and frustrations?

The cleansing of the temple – a violent Jesus?

I’ve said that the Passion story is violent, and most of the violence is of course enacted upon Jesus. But rather oddly, the opening act of violence in the story seems to come from Jesus himself. What are we to make of the so-called ‘cleansing of the Temple’, in which Jesus forcefully overturns moneylenders’ tables and drives out the sellers and buyers? What’s going on in this odd and rather jarring scene?

This incident seems to be the only occasion where Jesus ever used physical force or violence in any way. At first sight it seems out of character with the rest of what we see of Jesus in the gospels. Doesn’t it give the lie to Jesus’ non-violence? How do we square it with his injunctions elsewhere against outbursts of rage? Has he just temporarily lost the plot? It certainly looks that way, but I think there are other ways to read what’s happening.

No violence to people

Assuming for now that the gospel accounts are broadly accurate here (despite John placing the incident at the start of Jesus’ ministry rather than the end), there are a few things we can say.

First and importantly, Jesus harmed no-one during this action. True, he did reportedly fashion a makeshift whip, but appears only to have used this to drive the cattle and sheep out of the temple courts. And yes, he turned over tables, perhaps with considerable force, but he used no violence on any person.

I don’t know if Jesus was (and is) utterly ideologically opposed to all acts of physical force on humans in all contexts – for example, I don’t know what his position on smacking children would be. But it’s a relief to me to see that he used no actual violence on any person here, or indeed anywhere else.

And even with the animals, Jesus only used the whip to drive them out – to liberate them if you like, to free them at least for a while from being slaughtered as sacrificial beasts. You could see it as part of the whole arc of the Easter redemption story: Jesus could be saying ‘Stop killing innocent animals to cover your sins – if you want a blood sacrifice, here I am, take me’. More on that next time perhaps…

Spiritual authority and civil disobedience

Second and crucially, this was not an act of war, uprising or terrorism. It was rather an act simultaneously both of spiritual authority and of civil disobedience. Armed with only the force of his personality and voice, Jesus single-handedly took on a bunch of rich and powerful businessmen and drove them out of God’s sacred temple which they were misusing for their corrupt and exploitative ends.

It was an act of spiritual authority because Jesus was coming into his true home, his Father’s temple, the place of true worship where heaven and earth were meant to meet, the place of the divine presence, and he found it tragically infested with greed, corruption and mistreatment of the poor. Spiritually speaking, the buyers, sellers and moneylenders had no right to be there, doing what they were doing. As the ‘son’ or representative of the God worshipped here Jesus had every right to clear out the corruption and restore the temple to its rightful purpose.

And we see not only Jesus’ concern for true worship here, but also (as an inherent part of that) his compassionate concern for the poor and oppressed, the marginalised and exploited. The ‘cleansing’ is as much an act of support for the underdog as it is an act of religious zeal. For Jesus, it seems the two are one and the same. I think there’s more going on here than just this, but surely not less.

And within the world system of Jesus’ culture it was of course a clear and provocative act of civil disobedience. However much spiritual right he had to do it, he had no recognised legal authority or civil right within the temple or wider society.

So is it possible that this act above all others provided the authorities with the justification they needed to execute him just a few days later (in the synoptic gospels if not John)? I’ve looked at other reasons why Jesus ended up on the cross, but this certainly seems like a strong contender. And if so, is it a deliberate act of provocation on Jesus’ part, to bring about the end he has foreseen?

And it’s a lovely divine paradox that an act of spiritual authority can also be one of disobedience to worldly powers-that-be. God is not (as we sometimes imagine) a God of the establishment and the status quo, but a subversive, even rebellious deity who opposes the oppressive ruling powers – and pays the price for doing so.

Jesus and anger

Finally, was Jesus angry in this episode? Yes, surely. ‘Zeal for his Father’s house consumed him’, as John’s gospel puts it (quoting Psalms). It sounds as though a brief flame of righteous anger overwhelmed Jesus. You could almost say he was, in a sense, out of control – ‘berserk’ in the old original sense of divine battle-madness. I don’t know.

Yet throughout, he committed no physical violence on people nor inflicted any real harm. We cannot base a theology of holy war, physical punishment or violent civil disobedience (such as bombing abortion clinics or offices of satirical magazine) upon this episode.

I’ll come back to ideas of anger, hate, war and violence in later posts, arguing that anger can be a positive force but that violence is never a Christlike use of anger.

So how about you – what do you think about this odd incident of the ‘cleansing of the temple’ and what it means?

Posted in Bible, Easter, Good Friday | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Spiritual = Physical + Emotional + Relational + …

All of life is spiritual.

Religious types (and I include myself) often have an unfortunate tendency to over-spiritualise certain things, and under-spiritualise others…


Many of us are quick to imagine spiritual causes behind things that go wrong, or to (mis)read random events as supernatural ‘signs’. This is one kind of over-spiritualising.

Another kind is to over-spiritualise our religious practices, to exalt them to some higher plane than everyday activities. So we often make an overly big deal of prayer and fasting and Bible study, of ‘quiet times’ and church attendance and the rest. We set them apart from the rest of life as though these alone were the truly ‘spiritual’ things. We over-spiritualise ‘Christian’ things, and under-spiritualise everything else – eating, sleeping, working, sport, art, secular music, talking, friendships.

I think this is sometimes because we’re afraid that we’re not spiritual enough, and only by doing ‘Christian’ things can we show (to ourselves and others) that we really are Christian. And also perhaps we’ve imbibed the message that spiritual things have to be different to, set apart from, normal things.

But I’d like to suggest that, on the contrary, ‘normal’ things, including physical things, are spiritual things. All of life is spiritual.

Physical is spiritual

Our spirits or souls are not some separate ethereal part of us. Rather they’re the sum of all we are, physical and emotional and relational and all the rest – plus perhaps an indefinable bit more. We are an interwoven whole, not compartmentalised into ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’. What we do with and to our bodies has an impact throughout our whole being (and vice versa).

This means that looking after ourselves – and each other – physically is spiritually important. It’s a spiritual discipline to get enough rest, to eat healthily, to exercise our bodies. (Though not everyone can, and that doesn’t make them unspiritual.)

Furthermore, eating and drinking, washing, going to the loo, sex, sport, clothing and all the other business and play of our physical lives – all these things can be spiritual activities, acts of worship even. They are not (or need not be) a waste of time. Everything in our life is important. We can’t escape our physicality, and nor do we need to.

Jesus had a physical body, and he wasn’t ashamed of it and he didn’t ignore it. He ate and drank (and fasted); he walked and climbed; he worked with his hands, he touched and held; he slept; he bled and died. Presumably he also went to the lavatory. The physical incarnation (and physical resurrection) of Jesus is hugely important, sanctifying our own physical bodies and natures, meaning that our bodily life can also be spiritual.

And of course everything in our lives – including spiritual experience – is mediated to us through our bodies, our physical senses, our hormonal and nervous systems and our physical brains. Even an ecstatic experience is something we have in the body, or at least in our brains.

Emotional is spiritual

Our emotions are also a lot more important, and more ‘spiritual’, than many of us think. In an important sense, we are our emotions; we perceive life through the filter of our feelings. However much we want to believe ourselves to be rational beings, that’s only ever partly true. How we feel about things, and about ourselves, shapes our reality – often far more than does our rational understanding.

We’re not just bodies that act and we’re not just heads that reason; we are feeling beings, and in many ways it’s that which makes us human. We talk about people as ‘unfeeling’ when they seem to lack human qualities of warmth or mercy, empathy or compassion. Of course, love and compassion are more than emotions; they are also acts of will and sometimes go against our natural feelings. But they are not less than emotions.

For sure, we can’t ever rely on our feelings to be proportionate or to accurately represent the facts. And of course, we’d be unwise to always act on our feelings – murderous rage or adulterous lust for example. We’re not slaves to our emotions.

But the point of feelings is not to tell us the facts nor necessarily to instruct us on how to act. Their point is simply to show us how we feel.

Accepting our feelings

We need to learn to listen to our feelings, even the ‘bad’, uncomfortable or taboo feelings – the ones we’re best not to translate into action. We need to acknowledge how we really feel about things and not just ignore our feelings. Feelings matter. I’m convinced that our emotional lives, how we handle our emotions, forms a huge part of our spiritual lives.

If we merely suppress or repress our ‘bad’ feelings in order to get rid of them, we don’t deal with them but rather store up problems for further down the line. Repressing feelings leads to anxiety or depression, and may ultimately lead to outbursts of uncontrolled action where we do finally give vent to our suppressed murderous rage or inappropriate lust. (Which links back to Emwazi and Jimmy Savile last time.)

Or of course, rather than repressing our bad feelings we might seek to project them out onto others, onto scapegoat ‘baddies’ – as we do when we turn people like Emwazi or Savile into the monsters who we imagine are not at all like the rest of us.

But feelings in themselves are never bad or good; they just are. We need to accept them as part of who we are, and listen to what they can tell us about ourselves, our needs, our fears, the things we may need to work on.

Relational is spiritual

And feelings are closely linked to relationships. A lot of our feelings (pleasant and otherwise) come to us in and through our relationships with others, and it’s unusual to have a relationship with someone that doesn’t involve feelings of some kind.

Relationships matter, because people matter. And relationships matter because we are all fundamentally relational beings, even the most reclusive of us (= me).

We might wish we could be spiritual in isolation – I’ve certainly often felt that I would be a much better Christian if it weren’t for the pressures and temptations and problems of living in society with other flawed and infuriating human beings. I think I’d have made a great desert father, or St Simeon Stylites living on a pillar. And solitude can be a great thing. But as a permanent state, it rather misses the point of Christianity.

The essence of spirituality is love, is relationship, is caring for (and being cared for by) others. The whole context and locus of spirituality is human society (and wider society – I’d include animal society and the whole planet for good measure). We need to withdraw from society at times to pray and contemplate, but only so we can ultimately return and live with people.

Discovering who we are

It’s in relationship with others that we discover who we really are, and see all our good and less good points brought out into the light. I’ve discovered all sorts of pretty uncomfortable things about myself through being a (not particularly fantastic) husband and through being a (sometimes terrible) dad that I’d never have realised if I’d just been a recluse. And that’s good, because now I know about them I can do something about it. I guess it’s what they call ‘character-forming’.

Relationships are where we’re tempted and tested and stretched, where our worst comes out – our envy, hate, prejudice, selfishness, lust and so on. But they’re also where we can develop and express our best, where we have the opportunity to show Christlike mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, generosity, welcome – above all love.

Relationships are where we love and where we let ourselves be loved. I’d suggest we’re not fully ourselves until we’re part of some kind of mutual, sharing community. Which could be a family, or friends, or could be (but doesn’t necessarily need to be) a church.

All this – plus a bit more

So spiritual = physical + emotional + relational. All of these parts of our ordinary, everyday lives are hugely important and, I believe, spiritual.

That’s not to say that the spiritual is only ever limited to these things of course. The spiritual is also surely just an indefinable bit more than these things, the “+ …” of the title; something other, extra, above and beyond. And there can be spiritual experiences and encounters outside the normal run of everyday events.

But ordinary, everyday life is not unspiritual. It is, if we choose to see it so, a sacrament through which we receive grace; an act of worship in which we participate incarnationally in the redemption of the world, humanity and ourselves. So get out there and live it. :)

Posted in Incarnation, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

I’m a monster, you’re a monster – reflecting on ‘Jihadi John’ and Jimmy Savile

There’s been a lot of talk about monsters recently on news and comment channels. So Jimmy Savile, abusing his celebrity status to prey sexually on vulnerable children, was a monster. Mohammed Emwazi aka “Jihadi John”, beheading innocent civilians and aid workers in the cause of a global Caliphate, is a monster. And there are countless others in both paedophile and terrorist camps whom the media – and many of us – are eager to label as ‘monsters’, and so write them off as non-human.

A lazy label

Now I agree that what both Savile and Emwazi have done is utterly monstrous. And if someone’s behaviour is monstrous then is it not fair and accurate to label them a monster? Have they not forfeited their right to be treated as fellow human beings? Perhaps yes to an extent, but also no.

The problem with the ‘monster’ label is that it’s lazy, lets us too neatly off the hook, and actually solves nothing. It just means we can conveniently write off these characters as utterly, originally and irredeemably evil and (crucially) not at all like us.

But can we be confident that that is genuinely the case? Are we really so utterly different in kind to them – can we guarantee that we could never, ever under any circumstances or provocation have become what they have become, or have done what they have done? I wish I could, but I’m not so sure. There but for the grace of God… ?

Absolving ourselves of responsibility

Labelling Savile and Emwazi as monsters also means we are nicely absolved of any responsibility for trying to work out what might have led to their actions. It further absolves us of any responsibility for any aspects of our society, our shared values and behaviours and systems that might possibly have contributed to or enabled their becoming as they are. They are simply evil monsters, and must always have been that way; end of story.

And in a strange way, it actually absolves the perpetrators of blame. We don’t blame lions for tearing up gazelles. We probably wouldn’t blame a vampire for sucking blood. Dangerous animals and monsters act according to their nature and instincts. They can of course be exterminated without mercy, but they can’t be held morally accountable for their actions.

But I believe that Savile and Emwazi are responsible for their actions. Which means we have to see them (and treat them) as fellow humans.

Who’s responsible?

So of course in an important sense, Savile and Emwazi are entirely and solely personally responsible for their own actions. They chose what they chose and did what they did, and they alone are finally accountable for that.

And yet… it is rarely if ever the case that people are born entirely evil, emerging from the womb as predatory paedophiles or violent terrorists, nor that these traits and behaviours emerge in a vacuum. That’s not to provide excuses for what such people have become or done. But we do need to understand the reasons and causes if we are to help others not choose these destructive paths, or indeed make sure that we ourselves do not. We can’t afford just to shrug and say ‘they’re monsters, they don’t need reasons’.

So… might there be any ways in which aspects of our societies or systems or governments might have contributed to Savile becoming a predatory paedophile, or to Emwazi becoming a machete-wielding jihadist? This is not to simplistically blame easy targets, to unhelpfully point the finger at scapegoats. But we can probably all think of possible social or political factors that might help to push certain people towards destructive lifestyles, given particular personality traits or (de)formative life events.

Please hear me that I don’t seek to justify the actions of jihadists like Emwazi. But I do wish to understand them, and I don’t wish to evade all responsibility that our country’s actions may have for the rise of radicalised jihadists. We need to understand, for our own sake.

Acts of war?

Emwazi’s and Savile’s cases are very different of course. Most people would agree that sexual predation is utterly wrong, full stop. By contrast, it’s possible to imagine certain contexts or cultures or times in which Emwazi’s acts (while undeniably sickeningly brutal) might not be seen as utterly evil.

In Britain, the ‘Christian’ state routinely tortured, beheaded and burnt dissenters only a few centuries ago (and many have pointed out that Islam is 600 years younger than Christianity). In parts of the world, extreme violence and brutality is simply part of life, a way of survival. And of course, in war, bloody and brutal acts have always been the norm, though recently we’ve had the Geneva convention to keep that within limits.

Emwazi clearly believes that he is engaged in a war on the evil west, something that Bush and Blair’s ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric – and actions – can hardly have helped. In his mind, presumably we are the evil ones, the enemies of true faith and godliness. Peter Kosminsky, director of BBC drama Wolf Hall, interestingly suggested that Islamic State fighters are idealists – fighting for what they see as a holy and righteous cause against the forces of western wickedness. Of course we perceive it very differently.

Now I happen to think we’re right to see Emwazi’s beheadings of civilians as monstrously evil. But in that case, we may need to see some of our own countries’ acts of war and aggression – such as drone strikes that kill civilians – as evil also. We may still decide that they are necessary of course, but we should at least know that we can’t lay claim to all the moral high ground here.

Seeing the other as human

I would argue that the most important factor in both Emwazi’s and Savile’s actions lies in their being able to see their victims as non-people, as less than human. It’s what Nazis did with Jews, and Hutus with Tutsis who they called ‘cockroaches’ during the Rwandan genocide.

If you can see someone else as non-human, whether as a monster or a pest – as unworthy of respect or kindness or fair treatment – then you can commit any brutality or perversion on them without compunction. You can even believe that they deserve it, as Emwazi clearly feels about his victims; or that they are ‘asking for it’, as Savile perhaps imagined about his.

So let’s not follow their example by dehumanising them in return. Whenever we dehumanise others, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done, we diminish ourselves.

The evil within?

I said earlier that no-one’s born evil. But in the Christian story at least, we’re all born ‘evil’ in one sense. There are lots of different ways of interpreting and understanding this, and I no longer really go along with classic ideas of original sin. But we’re surely all born selfish, with instincts and biases towards certain attitudes and behaviours that are not conducive to mature, healthy mutual relationships. There are destructive (and self-destructive) tendencies in all of us; in some senses we’re all our own worst enemies.

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” If no Christian reading this has ever looked in a way they shouldn’t at someone they shouldn’t, I’d be very surprised. I’d be equally surprised if none of us had ever experienced murderous rage.

Of course, crucially, most of us haven’t acted on these impulses. But… if we’d been subject to certain pressures or weaknesses, or we hadn’t been properly socialised, or maybe had just been in a position to indulge our impulses without sanction, is it not possible that some of us might have crossed the line from destructive impulse to destructive action?

In any case, Jesus inconveniently doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between thought and action. ‘Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart… anyone who is angry with his brother is subject to judgement’. Hebrew hyperbole perhaps, but there’s clearly little room for complacency.

I’ve argued elsewhere for “I’m okay, you’re okay” rather than “we’re miserable sinners”. But in another sense it might be as true to say “I’m a monster, you’re a monster (but by God’s grace we’re okay nonetheless)”.

In Christ, mercy is available to each and every one of us, however far we’ve fallen, however monstrous our thoughts or deeds. Christianity is for bad people, not good. I know I need Christ’s mercy – can I deny it to even Savile or Emwazi if they seek it, or if Christ offers it?

Related posts

Posted in Controversies, Evil, Sin, World events | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

An experience of encounter?

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ… My God and your God.”

(Blaise Pascal, 1654)

Recently I wrote about God being a reality to be encountered, experienced, embraced. Wonderful in theory – impossible in practice? I’m not so sure…

I’ve hesitated to write this post. What I want to describe is personal, even slightly private, and I’m not sure it can meaningfully be put into words. And I’m aware it may sound both boastful and plain bonkers – and maybe it is.

Three strands of faith

First, some background. I find it helpful to see faith or spirituality as consisting of three interwoven strands – theological, mystical and practical. This blog is mostly about the theological – thinking through aspects of belief; exploring and trying to express something of the mystery of God in human language.

The mystical is more important to me, though I talk about it less. It’s this idea of encounter with the divine; of directly experiencing something of God’s reality.

And the practical is the outworking of the mystical and theological in daily living and relationships. It’s surely the most important of the three, though it’s the one I fall down on.

Experiencing God in worship

It’s the mystical I want to focus on today. It was experiences of (I believe) encountering God in charismatic worship services that first showed me Christianity could be more than just a set of odd doctrines and religious practices. Rather, at the heart of it all was a living, life-giving, meaning-bringing presence.

It seemed to me that singing those simple, sometimes trite but heartfelt choruses I touched and was touched by something beyond myself, beyond the mundane; something utterly good and real. That experience affected me deeply. And it’s largely this that keeps my faith alive now, when I’ve lost my certainty about so much of the church’s teaching. My heart still believes and desires God, even while my head doubts and struggles.

So for all my scepticism I’m a worshipper, more than a theological thinker – perhaps more than anything. For me, God truly is a reality to be experienced and embraced more than an idea to be discussed, even if my experiences of God’s reality are sporadic glimpses and much of the time it feels like he’s not there at all. And even if talking about the theory is so much easier than ‘practising the presence’.

But just occasionally, beyond explanation or expectation, the veil lifts and for a brief space it seems heaven breaks through. A recent such experience is what prompted this post.

An experience of encounter

As I walked home from work one evening, I began to pray, and somehow this time the prayer seemed to come from a deeper, more real place than my usual uninspired, rather rote prayers. It was a prayer of dissatisfaction, even desperation. I was longing for reality; to be real myself and to encounter the unbounded Reality of God.

So I found myself praying for my whole being to meet with the fullness of God, unlimited by my preconceptions and prejudices about either God or myself; for all of me (including the parts I don’t know or understand) to encounter all of God. I sought to bring myself to God as I was, good and bad, to meet with ‘him’ as he is, asking for God’s grace to bridge the unfathomable gulf between us. I prayed to know God, beyond what I can understand with my finite mind – longing to be completely filled with and immersed in him, my whole being filled with his whole being.

Now this is entirely subjective and I may be mistaken, but it seemed to me that my prayers were answered. As I walked the concrete streets towards New Cross Gate, the dreary urban landscape seemed transformed, transfigured by an oceanic presence within me, a presence of sheer overwhelming goodness and rightness. These are the terribly inadequate words I wrote down afterwards:

Awe and wonder

“Awe and wonder… An all-consuming flame of light, life and love, in which I am burnt up yet emerge more alive, more real, more me than before… not just an experience that I passively watch and that fades, but something I truly participate in and that truly changes me… everything I want is somehow in this encounter, or at least it forms the foundation and context of everything else I desire…”

But it’s impossible to express this kind of thing in words. And reading these words back, they give almost entirely the wrong impression; make it sound both more than it was, and also less.

The experience or encounter itself was largely wordless, or not really about words. It felt like a revelation, but of what exactly I couldn’t say. It felt incredibly important, but hard to explain why. There was no verbal communication from God; just this vast sense of divine presence. And how can anyone describe that? To me it was a sense of elation and elevation; of being fully alive, awake, lifted, filled, completed. And also of being somehow known and completely accepted.

And of course such a feeling is wonderful, yet equally of course the feeling is not really what it’s about. What is it about? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s simply as Julian of Norwich put it:

“Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Keep yourself therein and you shall know and understand more in the same. But you shall never know nor understand any other thing, forever.”

The problem of bliss?

And then I reached the station and boarded my crowded commuter train. Suddenly I was surrounded by people in the most ordinary, everyday setting, and I was still in the middle of ecstatic experience (for want of a better term). I felt that they must surely sense it – was the glow inside me not visible, tangible? And I couldn’t help feeling that I should somehow communicate what I was experiencing, invite these people I didn’t know to partake of this reality beyond any words or categories.

But I couldn’t, or at any rate didn’t, and I’m not sure what would have happened had I tried.

And as the immediate glow of encounter began to fade, there came the worries about what to do with it, about it; what I might have to do or change as a result of it. And it struck me that these experiences can be both transformative and troublesome, stirring up difficult questions to which there are no easy answers.

Was it real? Was it important? What if anything did it mean? Does it (or should it) change anything? Should I seek it again? If I do, would it just be because I wanted the ecstatic feeling – would I want to encounter God if the feeling was missing or was unpleasant? I can only guess at answers to most of these.

Is there a formula or technique for bringing about such an experience, a particular kind of prayer? No. And if there were, that would surely indicate that it was not genuine.

What now?

As to whether it was real, I can only say that it was real to me. But of course such a subjective experience can never be a proof of anything. It may have been an illusion, a chemical imbalance, a psychological aberration. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.

And if the experience was genuine, does it invalidate my normal, rote prayers; my normal, low-level experience of God? No, I don’t believe so – these are still the everyday daily bread of my spiritual life.

Does it invalidate other people’s prayers or experiences, requiring that they too should have some ecstatic encounter? Emphatically not. We all experience God in our own ways. But I think some kind of encounter with God is open to all, though it may not be the same for you as for me.

Does it vindicate my theology or my practice, a divine blessing to show that I’m along the right lines? No – if anything, the opposite. In the light of a real experience of God (if such it was), everything I’ve written seems vastly inadequate, unimportant, flawed, foolish. I want to say with Anselm, ‘all my works are as straw’.

Back to normality

And then of course, everything all too quickly returns to normal. Mountaintops aren’t places we can stay, as Peter found at the Transfiguration, though it would be great if we could live in the light of what we’ve known there. But that’s not easy; as C.S. Lewis put it, the air isn’t as clear down here.

I went to church the following Sunday (which I don’t always), and oddly I found it much harder to engage there, to meet with God in the context of a very charismatic worship time. Why? Perhaps just because of personality, and because in this context there seemed much more of an agenda, words and theologies we were supposed to agree with that I didn’t. (I’ve been back again since and found it easier.)

So for now it’s back to normal; but perhaps a normal that looks just slightly different to before. Back to writing the straw. ;)

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