Vanity

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”

I never do. But let me explain something. Most people think that The Third Commandment means that they shouldn’t use his name as a swear word, e.g. shouting, “Oh God!” when they stub their toe instead of, “Oh Fuck!”

This is not the case (although I love the idea that God would rather them shout “Fuck” than “God”. That makes him cool in my book. But no.)

The commandment could equally be, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in ‘vanity’,” e.g. when your enemy is hurt or defeated saying, “that’s God’s wrath,” or when you win an award saying, “thank God.” This is using his name in vanity. It’s suggesting that you KNOW that God helped you win that award because you deserved it more, or because he was on your side. It’s always tickled me that God would have a favourite actor at The Golden Globes.”

Ricky Gervais theologising… I kind of like his interpretation, although I’m not sure I would have made the same call in the past. Yet there is something fitting here, even amongst the deliberate flippancy. I, like Ricky, have become very wary of people who say that they know what god does or doesn’t think on any matter. At the very least it’s arrogant. At worst it is putting your own opinions on a level (or above) that of god. And that doesn’t sound like a good idea to me…

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Jesus is welcome at my party

The wonderful Phil Jackson has written an interesting (if very long) treatise on wine, starting with John 2:1-11 (The wedding in Cana).

Phil’s opening comment has prompted me to re-look at the passage in question:

150 gallons of wine. If your Christian friends are not in the regular habit of hosting parties of the sort that 150 gallons of wine need be called upon, then speak gently to them, but they may have missed a conspicuous and central priority of the faith they profess.

I did the Maths. Those six stone jars held a lot of water. Jesus made the equivalent of 700 bottles of wine. And that for a party that had been going on for a while already. And you wonder why Pharisees accused him of being a drunk and a sinner…

Still, anyone who comes to a party with 700 bottles of free (and good) wine would be very welcome at any party I hosted. I can’t quite imagine it becoming a regular “Christian” thing though – Christians in this country just don’t seem to throw that kind of party…

A better word

Stephen Bates, the Guardian’s outgoing Religious Affairs correspondent, has written a piece for the Comment Is Free site about his journey from faith to agnosticism. Except that he doesn’t.

It’s an interesting piece, and worth the 60 seconds of your life it will take to read it, but the journey he describes is really the beginnings of a gradual slide from Theism to Atheism. Stephen is mired in increasing doubts, and has come to the conclusion that his historical faith is untenable. Which is all well and good, and all-too familiar.

The problem I have is that he implies that this state of affairs is best described by the term Agnostic (or agnosticism, if we’re getting our tenses right). And that isn’t what agnostic means. As I’ve said before, the definition of agnostic is thus:

agnostic |agˈnɒstɪk|

noun

a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

Now, the second part of that definition is actually quite new. It’s the unfortunate common usage. The technical definition is the first part: someone who believes the answer to the question is unknowable.

This is a useful label, because it is a real philosophical position. The problem is that this isn’t the position that Stephen Bates has arrived at. Or my current position. Or that of the majority of the country.

So what word is appropriate? What word best fits the position of the multitude, who either doubt, are uncertain, or have just not given it much thought? Most people seem to live their lives without having settled on a theological or philosophical definition of their beliefs, unable to firmly adhere to the tenants of any particular camp. Some minds might find this situation intellectually untenable, but the reality is that the deep rigour of thought and debate necessary to come to a resolved position escapes so many of us, at least for large portions of our lives.

We need another word. But while that is easy to say, a solution is not easy to find. One might suggest the term “irreligious” but this is both a horrible word, and altogether inaccurate. Very few are irreligious, in two primary senses. First, it is rare that an individual does not have some sense of interest in spiritual concepts, or some (perhaps semi-conscious) understanding of forces greater than themselves, be that a theistic god or the forces of the market. It seems that the default position in many of us is somewhat superstitious; looking for reason and explanation for events beyond ourselves. This cannot therefore be described as an irreligious tendency.

The second reason that the term “irreligious” does not seem appropriate is that the word literally means an indifference or hostility to religion. Now, I am sure that there are many people who are profoundly hostile to organised religion, and for whom this is an accurate moniker. It would certainly fit someone like the good Mr Dawkins. But then, Dawkins is an avowed Atheist, so this really doesn’t help us. And the rest of us are unfortunately neither hostile nor indifferent. People like Mr Bates and myself have a religious heritage, religious friends and family, and a history of wrestling with the questions of faith. None of that is indifference, and the result is not hostility. We still sympathise with religious figures, and love our religious families and communities, even though we may find much we disagree with. Even much that is deplorable.

So I’m stuck. I’m tired of fudging my answers to this question. The phrase “doubter” seems clunky and non-specific. “Agnostic” is, as we have discussed, inappropriate. As is “irreligious”. What does that leave us with then? Any ideas?

Ministry

I was talking to a friend yesterday who is slowly making there way through the application process to train for the Anglican ministry. I have been very supportive to this friend over the last sixth months or so, encouraging and cajoling them through the various steps of the process. The friend raised the question yesterday as to why I was being so supportive to someone wanting to become a vicar, when I am so uncertain about the existence of god, never mind the truth and validity of the Christian faith?

It’s an interesting question. I mean, leaving aside the fact that I think my friend would make a good vicar, why be supportive of someone trying to dedicate their life to something which I doubt the fundamental basis of? Is that inconsistent? Or even intellectually bankrupt?

I can excuse myself somewhat on the fact that I doubt, rather than disbelieve. I freely admit that I don’t know what the truth is, so how can I say that someone is doing something wrong? But then, as my friend pointed out, I am not standing impartially on the sidelines, but metaphorically at least cheering them on. How can I justify being supportive of this career choice?

I don’t really have much of an answer for this, at least not necessarily a satisfying one. On the one hand I can admit that, despite my doubts, Christianity could be true. If it has the possibility of truth, then why not let people dedicate their lives to that possibility, if they themselves are convinced? I think I can also see a benefit to the church, even if the underlying assumptions are false: faith provides a solace for many a hurting soul, and Christian ministers are often (but by no means always) some of the most selfless and caring people in our society. If a friend wants to support the hurting and downtrodden in our society, why not encourage that?

I know that some people who reject the premises of faith believe that ministers are liars and deliberate deceivers, who are actively misleading their congregants by peddling a false doctrine. I don’t think that I could claim that, even if I became convinced that the Christian faith was untrue. I have met too many Christian leaders, and most of them are very sincere in their commitment to the gospel. They believe it is true and live their life by that belief. I think that is honourable.

That is not to say that there aren’t bad apples. Being a paid minister of a congregation is a position of power and influence, and I am convinced that some people in those roles are more interested in that personal influence than they are in ideas of service or truth. Some expressions of ‘Christian’ leadership are manipulative, self-serving and damaging. But I don’t in any means believe that is true for the majority, or that the roles in themselves are negative. Too many people use those positions to serve their parishioners, to play genuinely caring and comforting roles.

I don’t know if Christianity is true. There is much that I question. But it could be true, and if it is that truth is important. And even if it is not, it is a doctrine that inspires a lot of charity in its adherents, so why shouldn’t people who are seeking to go into ministry for the right reasons be encouraged? Especially if you think they’d be good at it?

What do you think? Is this an intellectually bankrupt position? Should I refrain from supporting my friend until I’ve thought this faith thing through some more? Or is this just a throwback to my previous years of faith?

Sovereign Gold?

[Warning: this is a long post, and a bit of a rant. I get a little heated here; sorry]

As I said in the last post, I find it hard to know exactly what I believe about god and about Christianity right now. But I think there are some things that I can safely say that I don’t believe. Or, at least, are things that prejudice me against the Christian faith, if they can be described as indicative of that faith.

One of the things I realised at l’Abri was quite how angry I was towards certain Christian theologies. There are beliefs within some wings of the church that I find downright insidious and damaging. Some of the ones I find hardest are those held by the Reformed or Calvinist branches of Christian faith.

Now, a friend complimented me last night on how I had managed to write the last post with a ‘profound lack of bitterness’ in my tone. I want to apologise right now if I don’t manage to maintain that attitude here. I am going to try and be charitable, but I don’t honestly know if I will manage it.

One of the biggest issues I have is with the concept of the Sovereignty of God. The idea, as far as I understand it, goes like this: God, if he exists, has to be the biggest, most powerful being conceivable. God created the universe out of his will, and sustains it out of his will. The very continued existence of the universe is because of the present, continuous will of God. But more than that, God, being the biggest, most powerful force in all of creation, is fully sovereign over all of said creation.

Which is taken to mean, in this theological interpretation, that everything that happens, happens according to the will of God. Effectively, ‘because He Said So‘.

In some ways, this is one of the oldest philosophies. The Greeks and the Persians, and all sorts of ancient peoples would look upon a natural disaster, such as the failure of a harvest, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption as the anger of the gods. The Mayan’s would sacrifice people to appease the wrath of the gods. It is an OLD idea.

And even today, to many of us, it is the first, most natural thought when it comes to the existence of a Supreme Being. When sickness or natural disaster, or unnatural calamity afflict us, our deepest hurt reacts, crying WHY?!?

We cry ‘why?’ because we believe there to be someone to blame, someone pulling the strings, someone afflicting us. I find it perfectly natural that reaction in so many of us is to find someone to blame; someone to direct our understandable anger at. I have done the same. I have angrily ranted and blamed God for my hurt and my circumstances in the past.

The problem I have is when you turn the understandable first reaction of a hurting individual into a cast-iron theology, into an explanation of The Way The World Is. This theological understanding of the Sovereignty of God says that everything that happens, good or bad, is the Will of God. Everything. The failure of a harvest, an earthquake, the collapse of the money markets this year, the almost-inevitable victory of Manchester United in this year’s Premiership, the Holocaust.

While it might comfort us in the midst of our pain to shake our fists at God after the death or a friend or relative, to have someone or something to vent at and direct our cries of ‘Why?!’, it doesn’t actually comfort once the blood has stopped boiling. It actually makes the questions harder, deeper. You see, to me, it seems that if you ascribe the cause of every action to God, then you have some real issues when it comes to his nature. A God who causes Holocausts and tsunamis doesn’t seem very nice. I honestly do not know why anyone would want to be involved with, let alone worship, a divine entity that sweeps thousands of unsuspecting individuals away in a ‘sovereign’ fit of pique.

We’re hit with a real dilemma here. The Christian god is supposedly described as gracious and compassionate, as the very embodiment and definition of love. Not loving, but love. Yet there are very few circumstances that the average person can imagine where killing someone could be considered loving. And what happens when we consider sickness, or poverty, or oppression, or the evil, damaging actions of individuals?

Now, the proponents of this theology would probably argue that there are also verses in the bible that speak of gods anger, and of the sinfulness of man, and of gods sovereignty. Well, yes, there probably are. I’m not pretending that there is no rational basis for this idea, that it isn’t a theology that someone of good conscience can hold. I know good people who believe this. I wish they wouldn’t, but they do. I don’t love them any less (well, much less) or value them less as human beings for espousing this belief.

But I have huge problems with the idea. Of what it tells people, of what it communicates about the nature of reality, of this supposedly-loving god. I have a friend who was raped. Another two friends who were sexually abused as children. These friends have been profoundly damaged by their experiences, by the evil, deeply wrong actions of human beings. These events overshadow their whole lives. But rather than giving them comfort or solace, this insidious doctrine lays the blame for these crippling events at the feet of god himself. It says that, because God is Sovereign and only the things that He Purposes happen, that in some way these terrible events must have been His Will for my friends lives. God ordaining rape and child abuse? No thanks!

I have a family member who has been sick, bed-bound, for 8 years now. Eight years, their whole adult life, stolen, and that of their parents who care for them too. Does it comfort me, or them, to think that god has planned this, purposed this, even if it is (somehow) supposedly for their good? No. I think that, if this is gods will, then he’s a real sadistic bastard.

(sorry, I think I might have lost my ‘lack of bitterness’ there)

If you think I’m being ridiculous here, or painting a wrong picture, then I just want to repost this link, to a very senior figure in the Reformed wing of the American church, who is effectively saying that God caused a bridge to collapse and kill people. Why? Because we’re all sinners and deserve to die, and this event reminds of the fact. Effectively, we should all fear and tremble before God, and be grateful that He is so ‘loving’ as to let us live our pitiful existences in the first place.

I’m sorry, no. Just no. I don’t know how to resolve the problem of suffering. I don’t know how to square the circle when it comes to the seeming incompatibility of the sovereignty of god and the free will of his creation. But I do know that my friends were abused by human beings, and to shift the blame to god removes comfort rather than gives it. To say that god ‘ordained’ the action somehow is seeking to find purpose in actions that are evil, wrong and damaging – actions that are inherently purposeless. And it removes the blame from those who should carry it, squarely, on their shoulders.

To blame sickness, or natural disasters on god is perhaps understandable in emotional terms, but in theology or philosophy it simply creates a monster of a deity – an angry, vengeful, petulant god, not in any way deserving of love or worship. If god causes tsunamis and earthquakes, if he afflicts people with sickness deliberately, if he purposes, directs and ordains rape, child abuse, murder, then there is nothing loving in him, and I for one don’t want anything to do with him.

Like I said, I really don’t know what I believe when it comes to the existence of god or the problem of suffering. It may be that the cruelty and hardship of this world are all because of the selfish actions of human beings and the natural movements of tectonic plates – that it is all random and senseless. It may be that god exists and weeps for the brokenness of his creation. I don’t know.

But I do know this – there are some doctrines of some parts of the Christian church that paint a picture of a deity that I want nothing to do with. I don’t find them believable, good, or consistent with the idea of a god that is meant to be the very definition of love. I can’t believe they are true, but if they are, I want nothing to do with them.

Why GAFCON matters

Train WreckI was quite flippant about GAFCON (the Global Anglican Future CONference) in my last post. The thing is, while I acknowledge that this is something that will bore or bemuse the vast majority, I think it is actually a hugely significant event.

The BBC and the broadsheets certainly think so. Dave Walker, over at the church times, shows some of the huge amount of press comment being generated on this at the moment.

The BBC especially love to talk up disharmony in the Anglican church. last night we had Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark Cathedral, who does for the left what Chris Sugden is for the right of the communion. Between them Auntie can pretty much guarantee that someone will get slagged off, insulted, or described as heretical. Why we never hear moderate, nuanced Anglican voices on PM or Newsnight I don’t know, but then I guess there is nothing a liberal, atheistic media would love more than a real schism in the state church.

So, why does GAFCON matter? Well, despite the fact that the end result of this conference may not be what the commentators are hoping, the fact that GAFCON is happening at all is momentous. The Anglican Church has historically managed to tread a difficult tightrope, maintaining Communion with people of widely different perspectives of theology and praxis. It has often done this through fudge and compromise, but it has done it. As much as they would probably rather not be, Colin Slee and Chris Sugden are ordained in the same church, committed to the same central tenants, recognising the same authorities.

The issues of homosexuality and women priests are not the only ones on which there is a variety of opinions in the Anglican Church. There are Calvinists and Arminianists, Charismatics and Cessationalists, the Anglo-Catholic High Church and the non-liturgical Low. All these and more have managed to remain under a single banner, despite disagreeing, often vehemently. Through fudge, compromise and a glacial pace of change the Anglican leadership has managed to tread a middle way that keeps even those at the far edges in step, never quite reaching the point of breaking away.

Yes, there have been leavers: my current employers for one, and the forbears of my churches movement as another. But for every group that has decided to part ways, there have been others of similar sensibilities who have managed to work within the wider body, enriching it and being enriched as a result.

GAFCON matters because here is a group that is actively talking about alternative structures and relationships, about reaching points of no return. That raises the dreadful possibility of all the fundamentalist evangelicals jumping ship. Many, I know, would say ‘good riddance’ but, as an Aeronautical Engineer, I can tell you that if you lose the end of your right wing and keep the left then you are not going to be able to fly straight. In fact, that lack of stability may well see you crash and burn.

If the GAFCON attendees leave the Communion, the moderates, even the Evangelical moderates who sympathise with the cause (if not the manner of its implementation) will not follow. But the resulting Church will be unbalanced with far more leaders of liberal persuasion in high office than would be healthy.

The other reason that GAFCON matters is because it enables the media to continue to paint the Church (and by that, I mean far wider than just the Anglicans), as illiberal, out of date and obsessed with sex. The resulting image is not one of a love of Christ for the world, but of angry, bigoted reactionaries intent on making society like themselves or departing from it to as great a degree as is possible.

GAFCON makes the Church seem backward and irrelevant to the world. It might actually split the Anglican Communion. It matters, and I sit here and watch with horror and a morbid fascination. Its like watching a train wreck, on live TV…