Following on from the previous post about moving beyond easy answers, this kicks off a kind of Lenten mini-series about letting go of old ways and venturing into new and as yet unknown faith territory…
So I’ve reached a point in my spiritual journey where I’m really not all that interested in badge-wearing, card-carrying or flag-waving.
Those things are chiefly about self-identification as part of a movement or organisation; they’re about belonging to a group, and activism on behalf of a cause. But at the moment I don’t any longer strongly identify myself with any particular church group or theological movement, except perhaps that of the slightly bewildered, confused and seeking.
That’s perhaps overstating the case a little. I’m still basically happy to call myself a Christian (though I’d want to qualify the term in all sorts of ways). I’m still fairly happy to be part of the Anglican church, though being an Anglican itself isn’t what matters to me. And theologically I’d probably identify myself broadly with the Emerging movement, and with people like Brian McLaren, Dave Tomlinson, Alan Jamieson, Peter Rollins, Maggi Dawn and others who are exploring ways out of conservative evangelicalism into a different kind of Christianity.
But, like all those people, it’s not labels or organisations or badges I’m interested in; I’m not looking for a new cause to sign up to, a new flag to fly. The Emerging church phenomenon is a movement not in the noun sense of a coherent cause or organisation, but in the verb sense. It’s a moving away from something and towards or into something else; a change or transformation. And part of that move is away from badges to wear, cards to carry, drums to bang and flags to wave.
Badges of belonging
Most of us want to belong of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
In the early days of a new-found Christian faith in particular, belonging is of huge importance. We enthusiastically enter into a church community and the wider theological movement with which it’s associated, often without understanding all the implications or realising that there are alternatives out there.
So we sign up to all the church programmes, go on Alpha courses and attend summer conferences, join in with evangelistic missions. We learn the right answers and the correct theology. We buy all the worship music and Christian accessories that make us feel truly part of the church culture. We proudly wear the badges of identity and wave the flags of the cause. We gladly call ourselves Born-again, Bible-believing, Evangelical Christians – or whatever the labels of our particular group are.
Of course we soon find that there are others out there who disagree with us – even some within the Christian church who have different views on the Bible, theology or gay marriage (let alone the atheists outside who think we’re all delusional). We may find that badge-wearing and flag-waving can all too easily segue into name-calling, in-fighting, tub-thumping and Bible-bashing. Some of us are quite happy with this, at least for a time – the fight can be enjoyable, and the feeling of being opposed or ‘persecuted’ can make us feel like we must really be following Christ.
Eventually though we may become disillusioned with the whole thing, especially if we start to have doubts about our particular group or movement. We may start to question some of our church’s associated values, beliefs and activities – many of which are actually secondary and non-essential to faith, but have often become primary issues for members. We may not have lost our faith exactly, but find we wish to move away from affiliation to a particular church or theological system for a season. We don’t want to wear a label or wave a flag.
The Unnameable God
I’d argue that this move away from labels may reflect something of the nature of God himself. For God is (in a sense) nameless, or beyond naming. When Moses asks God his name, he replies ‘I am that I am’ or ‘I am who I will be’. God names himself as unnameable; as utterly beyond all human definition and limitation. As Paul puts it (referring to Jesus), his is the ‘name above all names’ – or perhaps beyond all names, beyond all ability to name. We cannot stick a flag in God or pin a badge on him.
God’s self-designated namelessness sets up not a merely blank, empty space but a creative space. It’s a space not of absence but what Peter Rollins calls hyper-presence – a presence too great to be contained in words; a fullness and reality beyond our ability to conceptualise. We do well not to try to fill up that space with our ideas.
The Old Testament ban on idols is surely for the same reason – we’re not to try to limit or define God with any human-imposed form or image. God is always outside the box; whenever we try to pin him down, he isn’t that. He is always other, always more.
The badge of badgelessness
Of course for us mere humans it’s all too easy for namelessness itself to become a name, for badgelessness to become a badge. For some, Naomi Klein’s ‘No Logo’ itself became a logo to display. The ‘[untitled]’ of modern art has become a title in its own right, and so has lost much of its power to challenge. That’s just how our minds work; we look for names we can latch hold of, pin down and control (or belong to).
Similarly, what starts out as a liberating reaction to a rigid or oppressive system all too often ends up becoming the same kind of thing itself, with its own hierarchy, authorities and power structure. You only need to look at the French Revolution, or even parts of the Christian Reformation. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Atheism and agnosticism are both by definition ‘non’-badges, denoting not-belief and not-knowledge, neither of which I have any problem with. Nonetheless for many they have now become strong causes and badges in their own right, with followers who will wave flags, bang drums and call names. Which is all well and fine, but not if you’re trying to move away from right answers and rigid systems.
For this blog, I deliberately chose the title ‘Evangelical Liberal’ to be ambiguous and paradoxical. I wanted to imply that the old labels and categories and distinctions aren’t working and aren’t enough – though there’s something of good in each of them. But what I don’t want is for ‘Evangelical Liberal’ then to become a rallying point for a new movement of the disaffected and disenchanted. I’m not trying to start up a new movement with a new label to display, a new flag to fly.
This blog is about moving on; moving away from the old that no longer works or helps, and moving towards the new that as yet we only barely glimpse and don’t fully understand. It’s about the process of change, growth, liberation, becoming – even if we don’t currently have much idea what we’re becoming.
We may not know exactly where we’re headed but we know we can’t go back to where we’ve come from. We may not know exactly where we stand on anything; indeed we may no longer wish to stand anywhere, but for now prefer to journey and seek. With U2, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for, but that doesn’t mean we’ve given up looking.
Naming or named?
Some of you may ultimately end up returning to a more mainstream evangelical or orthodox kind of faith (I may myself). Others of you may feel that your future lies completely outside of Christianity or indeed of any faith. I have no issue with either of those possibilities (or any other), and I hope we can continue to journey together.
I’ve said before that for me I find I can’t give up on Christ – or perhaps he can’t give up on me. Whatever I’m becoming I don’t believe that it will ever take me completely outside of Christian faith, though it may possibly take me outside many of its recognisable forms and structures. My belief – or perhaps my hope at least – is that Jesus is calling me, calling us, to new ways and new places that we haven’t yet known (but that when we get there we will perhaps somehow always have known).
I believe that there is truth, even if we can’t ever fully know it or understand it and can only approach it as a mystery. And for me this truth does have a name; but in naming it (him) as Christ I’m not seeking to define or limit truth’s boundaries, only to acknowledge its source or location.
I’ve said I don’t want to wear a badge at the moment, or to hold on to a name. I am content though to hold on the name Jesus, and to let Jesus hold on to me. For I believe that his is the ‘name beyond naming’, the one name in which we can become truly, freely and fully ourselves. If Christ gives the unnameable God a name and the invisible God an image, it’s not in order to limit him but to bring him close. And the name of God that Christ reveals above all is ‘love’, which (like ‘movement’ earlier) only has meaning when it’s an action, not merely a definition.