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…

Over-spiritualising

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. :)

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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?

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An experience of encounter?

“Fire
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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Dear Stephen Fry, I like you, from God

Stephen old boy. God here – you know, the Almighty one, the Alpha and Omega, the LORD – or ‘the Maniac’ if you prefer. ;)

Forgive me for popping up unannounced – dreadfully rude. (The poor chap whose blog I’ve hijacked will be horrified – he likes to talk about me… on and on… but frankly he doesn’t have a clue, and the idea of me actually talking back…!!)

Anyway, I deliberately chose a blog no-one reads, so this can just be our secret eh? Some of my followers would get so cross if they thought I was talking to other people, except maybe to tell them to repent.

Now I’m not always a huge fan of the internet – far too many abysmal ‘Christian’ sites that aren’t – but I must confess I do like YouTube. Cats falling off sofas, How Harry Potter should have ended, Daleks singing ‘Let it go’ from Frozen – what’s not to like?

Lots of your stuff there too of course – my favourite still the ‘Bishop and the Warlord’ song with Hugh, though Gabriel preferred you both in Jeeves and Wooster (he says Jeeves reminds him of me. Cheeky).

And perhaps most entertainingly, that brilliant recent interview with Gay Byrne, in which you kindly and amusingly mentioned me. I know we’ve both already seen it (well, we were both there when you recorded it), but it’s well worth watching again, if only for Mr Byrne’s face after you’ve said your piece – priceless:

 

Knee-jerking

So you know the only thing that really upsets me about that interview? The knee-jerk response of so many of the people who think they represent me. Of course, it’s touching when your children stick up for you, but you know, I’d rather hoped some of them might have learnt a tiny bit more by now. I thought I’d spelt it out fairly clearly: ‘Love your enemies… turn the other cheek… don’t repay evil for evil…’ I even gave a personal demonstration, publicly forgiving the guys who were nailing me to two planks. But still so many of my followers just blindly hit back the moment anyone disses me, as I think the word on the street has it.

They think they’re defending me, but really they’re mostly just defending their own beliefs, which feel under threat, thus threatening their whole view of themselves and the world. Or else they’re simply feeling offended and responding aggressively. These are perfectly natural human reactions, but not really what I’ve been trying to teach them. (And as an aside I do wish they’d stop clinging to some of these beliefs, most of which are deeply unimportant and some just frankly a bit silly. As if what a person believed about me was really what mattered.)

(I like you)

I’ll let you into a secret. I completely love everyone of course – it’s my nature, whatever some think about me being all angry and smitey. And you can generally find some good in everyone if you look hard enough. But I must confess that I often like atheists rather more than some of my own devoted followers.

I like your honesty, your straight talking. I like that you call a spade a spade, and that you call me to account for the wrongs and evils and injustices of the world.

It may surprise and (I hope) annoy you that I don’t find your words particularly offensive. For sure, your arguments don’t really do justice to the brains I gave you, but then reason isn’t at the heart of this argument is it? It’s passionate and heartfelt, and that’s far more human (and divine) than cold logic.

I love your honesty in admitting that your atheism is as much about hating me for the ills of the world as it is about intellectual arguments explaining why I almost definitely can’t exist. (I don’t exist by the way – existence is a property of the natural order, but maybe now’s not the time for metaphysics.)

And God knows, I mean I know, you have more than enough reasons to hate me and the Bible, given your sexuality and the way the church has treated gay people just for starters. I’d probably hate me if I were you. The thing is, I kind of am you… incarnation and all that… but maybe that’s for another time…

Well said, Stephen

Anyway, I so much prefer good, honest hate to weak-tea indifference and apathy. On balance, I may even prefer it to unthinking faith. I have to confess that I like a good tussle sometimes, and I don’t always win – where would be the fun in that? That’s one of the things I always liked about the Hebrews/Israelites – never afraid to argue the toss with me.

So I hear what you say, and my response is ‘Bravo Stephen, well said! You’re not far from the Kingdom’. Because in a way, you’re absolutely right. The world is both splendid and an absolute disaster, and it certainly does look whoever’s in charge has either been asleep at the wheel or else is a selfish egotistical maniac who delights in inflicting suffering and sorrow. And I’m not rushing to defend myself here, because frankly I don’t need to and you make a point worth listening to.

My only real complaint is that you’re not bringing your complaint directly to me. Come and shout at me – swear if you like, I’m okay with that. Just talk to me.

But until you do, I’m afraid I’m not going to offer justification here for the way the universe is. Because it’s the kind of thing you can only begin to understand in the context of a conversation, a relationship. Just giving you a rational, intellectual argument won’t help.

Anthropomorphic projection

Now while I’m still in secret-revealing mode, I’ll spill another. I don’t actually talk like this. I don’t generally talk at all, at least not in human language. Because I’m not actually human (well, again, there’s the incarnation thing, but let’s not complicate matters).

But you guys will insist on anthropomorphising me as though I were just some giant invisible parent/judge/headmaster/prime minister in the sky – nice or nasty depending on your experiences of life, religion and authority figures, and how literally you’ve been taught to read the Bible.

And of course that’s precisely what you do in your interview with Gay – talking of me as though I were some bonkers human dictator making a mess of running the world but expecting everyone to praise him for it.

To be fair though, I did kind of start it. To relate to you wonderful and infuriating people I’ve had to take on some human characteristics; to communicate with you I have to adopt a human persona and voice. (Incarnation again – sorry – keeps coming up.)

But then of course people make assumptions, and it all starts to get a bit messy. So, for example, to Old Testament prophets I spoke in language and pictures they could understand. But these tend not to sound so great now, when put into a 21st-century Western context.

The trouble with the Bible

So I have to confess that occasionally I half wonder if the whole Bible thing wasn’t a tiny bit of a mistake. For as soon as things get written down, people immediately start to misunderstand and misinterpret them, and use the written word to bash themselves and other people with. And when people think they’ve got the very Words of God, I’ve found that a fair number of them will just switch off their brains and their consciences and do unspeakable things, imagining that ‘scripture’ commands or sanctions it. It categorically doesn’t. I never meant the Bible to be read that way, but humans are phenomenally good at getting things round their necks.

Take the whole homosexuality thing – those parts of the Bible that seem to condemn and prohibit who you are. I’m not going to try and justify those verses, but I’d really hoped it was clear from the context that they were only ever intended for a very specific community and time, at a particular early stage of human social and ethical development. But maybe best not to get into this one now – another time maybe?

Then there’s the whole hell thing. Seriously, has no-one heard of metaphor or hyperbole?

I really don’t want people just to slavishly follow every word the Bible says. I want them (and you) to engage with it, wrestle with it, argue with it – and with me. I’m desperate for honest relationship, not slavish devotion. I’m really not asking everyone to say ‘thank you’ to me all the time for the pain and mess in their lives.

So keep up the honesty, and try to forgive my followers if you possibly can. Some of them really are quite decent sorts when you get to know them. Speak to you soon, I hope.

– G

PS Belated Happy Darwin Day for 2 days ago. The good fellow sends his love – he does like to watch QI.

Posted in Anger at God, TV and film | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

“I am” part II – the simplicity of God

Sorry if it all got a bit abstract last time – I get carried away with theology sometimes, which is dangerous for an amateur. ;)

So last time I said that God is both unknowable yet makes himself known; that though he is outside the categories of existence he still relates to us personally. Now for another mystery – the simplicity of God.

God’s simplicity

We imagine God to be immensely complex, beyond all comprehension, and of course in a sense he is. We’ll never be able to understand all of God or contain all that he is in our finite minds. Yet (paradoxically again) “I am” is also incredibly, almost childishly simple.

God is ultimately simple because is utterly one, and at one with himself; utterly united; utterly complete and perfect and whole. Much of our complexity as humans stems from our brokenness, our dividedness, our dis-integrity. God is a seamless, integrated whole.

To express this, Aquinas came up with the doctrine of divine simplicity, which roughly says that all of God’s attributes are aspects of the same unity. There is no division or competition between his mercy and his justice, his love and his holiness, his sovereignty and his self-giving, his divinity and his humanity. He simply is, and all these things are expressions and manifestations of that ‘is’.

God is Reality

‘I am’ also expresses a solidity, a reliability, a steadfastness and substantiality. This is not a God who shifts and changes, or an insubstantial spirit who is hardly really there. He is real, is Reality. He is one who can bear our full weight, the weight of all our lives, all our griefs and hopes and sins and troubles; the weight of the whole universe. We can trust him, rely on him, rest in him, put all our weight on him, cast all our burdens on him. God is.

‘I am that I am’ or ‘I am what I will be’ also acts as a salutary reminder that it is God – not us – who defines who God is. We can’t decide what kind of God we want to serve, what kind of being we want him to be. He is who and what he is; he is full Reality and he defines reality, and we dispute or argue with that at our own risk. If the kind of life we lead causes us to crash up against that reality, we may find it has hard and sharp edges, and we’re likely to cause ourselves suffering as a result.

We cannot shape and mould God to our ends or co-opt him for our agendas; he is himself and he won’t be manipulated or used. He cannot be blackmailed or bribed, bullied or browbeaten (I know; I’ve tried).

This is perhaps one of the meanings of the second commandment, ‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’. God’s name is the expression of who he is. We cannot take his name and use it for our own ends, or to justify our own causes. God defines himself and he guards his name – his character – jealously.

So we do not name God, but rather his name names us and gives us our identity, our life, our being.

God is God

God is not a proposition to be proved, nor an equation to be solved, nor a particle to be discovered. God is not a fact to be learnt, nor an object to be scrutinized and analysed. God is not an interesting idea nor an intellectual puzzle to be discussed and debated. God is not a material source to be exploited nor a power to be harnessed. God is not an exciting experience to be had for the seeker of thrills, nor an artefact to be collected by the connoisseur of rarities.

God is God. God is glorious, living Reality to be encountered, embraced, experienced, engaged with; to be known, and known by; to be lived in, founded on, related to, shouted at, grappled with, hated and loved.

God is. We can’t understand God, we can’t define God, we can’t manipulate God, we can’t own or tame or box God. God is always more, always greater, always better and fuller and freer and lovelier. God is unexpected and surprising and paradoxical and counter-intuitive and amazing.

Yet God is also knowable, because he makes himself known. Not comprehensible, not explicable, not expressible, but knowable.

Above all, God is. Everything else flows from that one simple, central, indescribable reality. God is. I am who I am.

And because of that, we who are made in his image – which is all of us – can ultimately be who we are.

Posted in Bible, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

“I am who I am” – Naming the unnameable God

So a small question for you – who is God?

Last time we looked whether God might ever say “I am Charlie”. This time I’d like to look at an almost equally famous and maybe even slightly more important “I am” that God apparently did once say…

Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’
God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM [or I will be what I will be]. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:13-14)

So then, who is God? It’s a fairly fundamental question, not just to theology but (I’d argue) to everything. But as we might expect, it’s not one with a simple answer. Or rather, it’s one with so simple an answer that at first sight it seems meaningless.

God tells Moses that his name is ‘I am’ (or ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be’). What on earth does this enigmatic statement mean? What can we usefully learn about God’s nature and character from such a tautology?

The basics: Shut up – I’m God

On the most basic level, it sounds like a simple rebuff: ‘Stop asking questions that you won’t understand the answer to’. Viewed this way, it could be a bit like a parent’s answer of ‘because’ (or ‘because I say so’) to their offspring’s ‘why?!’ of protest, or to a toddler’s endless unanswerable ‘why?’s for information.

Or similarly, it could be a reminder of who’s in charge, who’s setting the terms of the conversation: ‘I’m the Daddy; there’s a time for discussion, but now’s the time to listen.’ Or in other words, ‘I’m God; you’re not; that’s all you need to know for the moment’.

If so, it wouldn’t be the only time in the Old Testament that God speaks in this kind of way. ‘Be still and know that I am God’, as the author of Psalm 46 puts it – or to paraphrase slightly, ’Shut up – I’m in charge’. It’s essentially what Jesus said to the storm on Lake Galilee – ‘Peace! Be still’. I’m God – quit messing about and arguing back.

Or look at God’s climactic speech to Job. Job spends chapter after chapter complaining against God, and demanding that God answer his charge. But when God finally does, he doesn’t give an answer. Instead, to paraphrase again, God says something like ‘Look Job, you haven’t got a clue, and you wouldn’t have a chance of understanding if I did explain. I’m God, I’m beyond awesome, so stop wasting words and get on your knees.’

Who is God? He’s God. What else do we need to know; what else could we actually understand? He’s the Boss, the Daddy, the Head Honcho, the Big Cheese, the Numero Uno. Of course he’s a lot more than that, but that’s the basics; Theology 101.

But I think ‘I am who I am’ actually means a whole lot more than that…

The paradoxical God – unknowable but known

For starters, God’s self-revealed name is a whopping great paradox. One way of reading it is ‘My name is No name’. Or at least God is The One Beyond Naming – literally the Name above all names. No name is great enough for God, no name could be adequate for his beyond-describable Reality; no word or words can sum him up. He is ineffable.

“Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not” is the title of an Arctic Monkeys album, but it could equally be a gloss on “I am that I am”. We try to describe God, to list his attributes, and in some ways we have to, but we have to know it’s never quite right, never quite the whole truth – because anything we can imagine must be lesser than the full reality of God.

So some Christian mystics have instead opted for the ‘Way of Negation’ – approaching God through what we can’t say or know about him rather than what we can; through his unspeakability and unknowability. By this idea, we’re only really able to speak of God in terms of who and what he is not rather than who he is. So in this sense, and in line with my fave philosopher-theologian Peter Rollins, God’s “I am” rather becomes “I am (not)”.

All our theologies and doctrines are wrong to an extent; they must always fall short of the reality. Whenever we try to say something about God, we can’t help but misrepresent him because God is always better and greater and more real.

In this sense then God is unknowable – we certainly can’t comprehend the fullness and wonder of all he is, nor ever put it into any kind of description or explanation. Yet, paradoxically, he is also knowable, for he makes himself known to us. Though he is beyond naming or knowing, he gives us a nameless name by which we can begin to know him.

And crucially this knowledge of him cannot be merely intellectual, for ‘I am’ is not primarily an intellectual statement. Rather it has to be personal (not to mention poetic and paradoxical). This is the kind of truth, the kind of knowing, that matters most. God makes himself known to us personally and experientially even if we’ll never understand him intellectually. Our best response to God then is not analysis but awed wonder at his utter God-ness.

Personality and presence

The more we look at the phrase “I am”, the more meaning we find in what at first looked meaningless.

So the ‘I’ implies personality and rationality – and indeed relationship (for the ‘I’ is addressed to a ‘You’). God is not an impersonal force; he is a thinking, speaking, feeling, acting and relational being. (It also sidesteps the gender question; God is ‘I’ not ‘he’ or ‘she’, though I’m using ‘he’ throughout for convenience.)

And the ‘am’ further implies that God is current and present; he is here, now. He is in the present tense, in this moment, acting and speaking and calling – to us. It implies reality and presence; that God is real not merely imagined, and God is truly with us.

‘I am’ can also paradoxically imply that God has always been. As Jesus put it, ‘before Abraham was, I am’. It breaks the logic of grammar and time, because God is greater than these things – than anything in the universe, including time and space and existence itself. He could equally say ‘before time was, I am’.

When atheists say that God does not exist, we can actually agree. God does not exist, for existence is an attribute of contingent things, of created beings, of substances we can describe and quantify, things which have beginnings and ends. The infinite God stands beyond or behind all this. God does not ‘exist’; he IS.

So above all, God is; he always is, always has been; he alone is the eternal, pre-existent one upon whom all else depends for being and existence. No one else can simply say ‘I am’ and that be enough, because only God is the source, the ground, the necessary being; the beginning and end.

The Unnameable God?

There is a tradition that we should not speak or spell out the name of God, or YHWH – “I am”. This may come partly from the old, magical idea that to name something gives you power over it. And while I don’t accept this idea, I can see something in it. Once you name something, it’s all too easy to feel that you really know it or understand it or have a handle on it. Something named easily becomes something tamed, something familiar, something owned even. And surely God can never be that.

Yet at the same time, God does make himself close and even familiar to us, does put himself in that place where we can relate to him and so disrespect him. In some senses, perhaps he even chooses to make himself undignified and vulnerable to us. It’s another of the odd paradoxes of God that we’ll probably never understand – the sovereign servant, the vulnerable almighty, the familiar unknowable. He is who he is and who he will be, not who we think he should be… of which more next time.

To be continued…

Posted in Bible, Theology | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Jesus is Charlie?

The ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan and hashtag can hardly have escaped many people’s notice this last week. It arose in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings, as a sign of support and solidarity – of personal identification with those murdered by Islamist extremists, and alignment with their values against those of their killers. Since then it’s gone viral and been picked up by millions around the world.

Now when I first saw it I briefly misread the ‘Je suis’ as ‘Jesus’. And looking again it struck me that, run together in the hashtag #jesuischarlie, it could equally be read as ‘Jesu is Charlie’. And of course, that got me thinking…

Obviously on one level this is just a random and slightly silly bit of wordplay. ‘Je suis’ could always be re-read as ‘Jesu is’, and I’m fairly sure that’s not meaningful. E.g. ‘Je suis un haddock’. Not that anyone would actually say that. Unless they were a haddock I suppose.

And yet, I wonder if God does sometimes speak – at least to me – through mishearings, misreadings and even terrible puns. There are certainly plenty of examples of the latter in the Old Testament prophets. I forget the details but I think it’s in the first chapter of Zechariah where God asks the prophet what he sees, and it’s a bowl of ripe figs, which happens to sound like the Hebrew word for ‘destruction’ or something cheerful… look it up for yourself if you’re interested ;) .

So, running with this for the moment, is there any mileage in the idea that ‘Jesu is Charlie’, or indeed in similarly misreading the other recent imitative hashtags ‘JesuisJuif’ (I am Jewish) or ‘JesuisAhmed’ (after a Muslim policeman also killed by the same gunmen)? I think there just might be.

The principle of identification

So primarily it’s the principle of identification. All around the world ordinary people are choosing to identify with and stand alongside the cartoonists massacred by radicalised jihadists. Surely it’s at least a possibility that Jesus might choose to do the same, to say with all these others ‘I am Charlie’?

For identifying with us is at the very heart of what Jesus does; it’s even arguably core to who he is. We recently looked at incarnation and some of the reasons why the Almighty God might have chosen to become ‘a slob like one of us’. And chief among these reasons for me is complete identification with us at the very deepest level.

And perhaps Jesus identifies with us first and foremost not in our strength but in our weakness, our sorrow, our brokenness, our vulnerability; not so much in our success (though he does that too) as  in our defeat and failure and loss, even our death.

There’s the deeply challenging story of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, where Christ proclaims “whatsoever you did to the least of my brothers, you did it to me”. Again, it’s total identification, and above all with the ones in greatest need. It seems that if we feed the hungry, care for the sick, or champion the oppressed we do it not only for Jesus but somehow to Jesus. And conversely if we reject them we reject the Jesus who not only loves them but in some mysterious way is them. And indeed is us. And is Charlie.

Jesus is – a blasphemer?

Many of course would look askance at the idea that the holy Lord Jesus really identify with cartoonists who penned profane, obscene, even in some views blasphemous, drawings. But I think Jesus may not be so fussed about blasphemy or profanity as many of his followers are. And I believe that Jesus identifies with us in all our humanity, even in our flawed and sinful humanity. ‘He who was without sin became sin for us’. Though Christ himself is sinless, he identifies with sinful people, if not perhaps with everything they think, say or do.

I’ll admit that I’m not completely comfortable with all of the ‘blasphemous’ Charlie Hebdo cartoons. To me they do seem unnecessarily offensive, and frankly just a bit juvenile and facile – some of them make Viz look like the last word in sophistication. But nonetheless I’m still broadly happy to say ‘I am Charlie’, because I’m not identifying with everything the cartoonists did or drew but with their core humanity, with their right to live and to speak and write and at times to be stupid and offensive, in common with all humans.

And I suspect that Jesus too would be happy to identify with them. Jesus after all was notoriously short – even downright rude – with religious authorities, with religious hypocrisy and bigotry. It was in many ways this tendency to offend religious sensibilities, and to say things deemed as blasphemous, that got him killed. In this sense at least Jesus really could say ‘I am Charlie’. Perhaps he might even have done a stint at the magazine had he been on Earth today.

Jesus is – a jihadi?

But what of the final unthinkable – could Jesus identify with the Kouachi brothers and other jihadist killers? This seems a huge stretch. Still, cautiously I’d have to say yes I think so, in a particular sense. For again, Jesus identifies with all of us as people, in our flawed and broken humanity – however bad we are, however vile our attitudes or violent our actions. That does not mean he condones those attitudes or actions.

For me this is part of what the cross is about – Jesus identifying with us at our worst. Again, he who was sinless ‘became sin for us’. On the cross he took on all our vileness and violence, became for a time both the recipient and representative of it. And in that darkest place, rather than cursing those who beat and killed him he forgave them. He loved his enemies even as they tortured him, and he calls us to the same hard path.

So I do not believe Jesus would say ‘I am Charlie’ in an exclusive sense that means ‘I am not those who are against Charlie’. Jesus is all of us, in his incarnation and crucifixion. I do not believe Jesus takes sides in our conflicts; rather he seeks always to reconcile, to resolve, to restore relationship.

The only way of peace ultimately is through forgiveness and reconciliation, not through further violence and vengeance, a cycle which never ends. I don’t know what this path of peace looks like when we’re dealing with radicalised extremists who only want to kill, not negotiate. But I believe we cannot ever afford merely to vilify and hate, nor must we divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’, or ‘I am Charlie and you are not Charlie’. That is not the way of Jesus.

But then, maybe I’m just a haddock.

Posted in Heresy/blasphemy, Incarnation, World events | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

2014 – review of the year

So, a slightly belated Happy New Year to you all. Before we move on to new things, how was 2014 for you?

For me it was a fairly challenging year that I’m not entirely sorry to bid farewell to. Continuing government cuts meant some unsettling changes at work, and I’ve been further inducted into the Dark Arts of Marketing. And the protracted saga of selling our home of 13 years, buying and moving into a new one felt a bit like pulling teeth and took the best part of the year. I also took a year out of regular church commitments, and my attendance became sporadic at best – which I attempted to justify here

Highlights of my year included pilgrimages to two places of personal spiritual significance – the Harry Potter Studio Tour (only half joking ;) ) and the lovely St Hywyn’s Church in Aberdaron, North Wales. This was the church of 20th-century poet-priest R.S. Thomas, and it’s a beautiful place where you kneel at the altar to hear the waves breaking and the cry of seabirds. I’ve decided I want to be buried there, though hopefully not for a few years.

I also happily rediscovered live music, both rock and classical.  The former took me to the very civilised On Blackheath festival in September (Frank Turner, Athlete, The Levellers, Imelda May). The latter saw me at the London premiere of UK composer Jonathan Dove’s brutal-beautiful choral work in commemoration of WW1, For an Unknown Soldier (my write-up here if you’re interested).

2014 news round-up

Meanwhile the earth limped on, somehow managing to evade Armageddon for another year. And out in the wider world, there were one or two news stories that even the most hermit-like of us are unlikely to have missed.

The Middle East and Syria continued to be a horrific bloodbath, with no obvious solution in sight. Islamic State and Ebola reared up in competition to be humanity’s deadliest scourge. We had the tragic suicide of Robin Williams – which who among us can afford to condemn?

On a happier note we landed the Rosetta probe on a comet – a remarkable technical feat, albeit raising questions of how much money it’s justifiable to throw at scientific missions.

Apparently we had a World Cup (which I happily missed completely), ending in defeat for the host nation, and locally a Scottish Independence referendum with an arguably similar result.

In the smaller Christian world, Vicky Beeching came out as gay, and Archbishop Welby confessed to having doubts. And possibly the best Pope of all time continued to be a thorn in the flesh of his own Catholic establishment.

Business and finance news… sorry, I neither know nor care. Except that the financial crisis has continued to hit the poorest hardest, and some of us are starting to wonder if there’s any alternative to unfettered capitalism.

Book and film of the year?

So what was your book, album, film or TV series of the year? Though I haven’t finished it yet, my book choice will probably turn out to be Lamentation, the latest in C.J. Sansom’s superlative series of Tudor detective mysteries with their hero the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. The danger and atmosphere of the troubled period grab you by the throat, and the plot revolves around heresy hunts and religious tensions between traditionalist Catholics and reformist Protestants in the last days of Henry VIII.

Film of the year… I’d hoped it would be Hobbit 3, and it had some great moments, but I got bored by all the CGI silliness and computer-game fighting.

TV series – spiritually speaking, it would have to be Rev, or (at the risk of losing all masculine credibility), Call the Midwife. I’ll add Doctor Who and Sherlock in too from sheer personal bias.

Music – I’d hoped that the new U2 album might deliver something good, but looks like that didn’t work out. Bastille and Biffy Clyro have been my bands of the year, and for classical I’ll shout out for Jonathan Dove again.

Blogging on

Meanwhile, this blog has been going exactly 4 years now, and I thank you all very sincerely for bothering to follow it. I’m well aware that blogging always runs the danger of being merely a vanity project, so please nudge me if I’m getting self-indulgent.

Over the last year we looked at a range of subjects, including whether God has a perfect plan for your life, whether and how we can hear from God, and what to do with our uncertainties. I also investigated the cheerful topics of suffering and sin, and revisited the ever-uncontroversial subject of homosexuality.

I rather ironically ended up arguing with atheists under a post titled ‘Stop arguing with atheists!’ And the other most active post this year has been an old one, ‘Hating God’, which appears to have attracted a sizeable new audience of people feeling aggrieved with the Almighty.

Looking ahead… a recently reduced commute means I can’t blog as much, which may come as a relief to many. But as always, I’ve got a massive backlog of posts awaiting the cold light of day. Here’s a short selection if you’d like to see any of them move up the publication schedule:

  • Series on the Bible, inerrancy and other fun stuff
  • The myth of redemptive violence
  • To believe or not to believe?
  • Why I gave up trying to save the world
  • Why doesn’t God just make everyone Christian?

In the meantime I wish you all an excellent 2015. Please keep commenting – it gets a bit lonely otherwise! ;)

Posted in TV and film, World events | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Christmas round-up

Well, here it is, Merry Christmas… the annual season of shopping madness, mass consumer frenzy and over-indulgence, family re-unions and soaring divorce rates, TV re-runs and daft specials, terrified turkeys and terrible jokes, oh, and some kid in a manger.

In the news, it looks like Pope Francis has set a new standard in painful Christmas get-togethers with his papal address to the Vatican Curia… good on you, Frank… I have a feeling it’s what Jesus might have done, never one to mince his words…

And in a small ray of Christmas hope, apparently the annual London homicide rate is set to fall below 100 for the first time in over 40 years, clearly proving that we’re getting better as a species… if we could just ignore reports of Islamic State brutality and all the other litany of human inhumanity which doesn’t stop for Christmas.

And as it is the season of repeats and unwanted gifts, I’m hereby generously bestowing on you all my previous posts that have anything whatsoever to do with the Christmas season:

Merry Christmas and bah humbug
A jaded look at the festive season, and why I both hate and love Christmas. Join me in a spot of seasonal bah-humbuggery.

Questioning Christmas – the gospel accounts
Why are Luke and Matthew’s nativity narratives so utterly different?

Questioning Christmas – was Jesus really born of a virgin?
And does it really matter? I investigate, and conclude quite possibly to the first, and probably not to the second.

Questioning Christmas: The Star of Bethlehem
What was the star that Matthew’s Magi followed – supernatural, astronomical, astrological, theological or all of the above?

Incarnation and imagination – and a defence of Christmas carols
Why it’s okay for carols to be historically inaccurate.

The nightmare after Christmas – the dark side of the Nativity
The other side of the festive season – massacres, mental illness and another mother called Mary.

The horrors and joys of Christmas music
In which I lambast Christmas tunes and then add to the horror by contributing a couple of my own.

TEL-approved Christmas music
And finally, a fine selection of seasonal alternatives to ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’, mainly classical if you like that sort of thing.

Merry Christmas one and all!

Posted in Christmas | Tagged | 4 Comments