It seemed appropriate to post the questions which occasioned my previous post. Here they are, in his words:
- Tell me about God: Is He a he? Is He in any way like a person? Is He conscious? Does He interact with humans? Does He hear and answer specific prayers? Does He have a plan? Is He all-loving? All-knowing? All-powerful? How do you know He’s real?
- Tell me about the Bible: Is it the word of God? Was it written by men inspired by the God you told me about? Is it history? Is it mythology? Is it perfect? Are there errors?
- Tell me about Worship and Prayer: What is it? What is it for? Does God need it in some sense? Is it a kind of meditation? Is it an art form? Why are some prayers answered and others ignored? Are 10 people praying for something better than one?
- Tell me about Heaven and Hell: Is there literal life after death? Will I be aware and conscious? Will I remember anything of my life on earth? Are Heaven and Hell metaphors for what we do and experience in the here and now?
A friend posted some questions on Facebook a few weeks ago, wanting to know what modern Christians believe. As I told him in my reply, the questions point to some of the most basic and profound theological issues. It would take a library to address them in any comprehensive way that would make sense to my very intelligent friend. At one time he would have described himself as a Christian, but now… I’m not sure what label he would accept, if anything other than “sceptic.”
Facebook is certainly not the venue to address his questions, and neither is this blog. Matters of God’s being, of how we know that being, of the nature of the Bible, of prayer, of heaven and hell — all these require more words than most people would have the patience to digest. Of course, I would end up answering the questions more in a sense of my own beliefs rather than others’. No-one can escape their own point of view, and even a sociological analysis of “what people believe” will inevitably be coloured by the analyst’s perspective.
I won’t try to answer “what?” for myself or for anyone else. You can read the various books of theology and religious studies for those answers. Suffice it to say that Christian belief today has a huge multidimensional spectrum. Even in my last parish, I could introduce you to people who held an almost fundamentalist view of scripture and theology, sitting in the same pew as others who regarded it all as one big metaphor.
What I want to address is a different question: “How do modern Christians believe?” I am indebted to Diana Butler Bass, whose book Christianity After Religion has helped me to understand some of the most important tensions in modern Christianity, and what the future might look like. The book is an extended look at the question of what it means to be “spiritual but not religious,” a phrase often heard in contemporary In its central section, Butler Bass re-frames the traditional central religious questions in spiritual terms. (Broadly speaking, “religion” pertains to matters of structure and institution, while “spiritual” pertains to more fluid aspects of living in relationship to the divine.
The traditional religious approach to forming new members follows this sequence: first we’ll teach you what to believe, then we’ll teach you how to behave, then we’ll let you belong. Butler Bass first re-frames the questions at each step:
The religious question “What do I believe?” becomes the spiritual question “How do I believe?”
The religious question “How do I do that?” becomes the spiritual question “What do I do?”
The religious question “Who am I?” becomes the spiritual question “Where am I?”
But it doesn’t’ stop there. Butler Bass turns the whole process on its head, by suggesting that people do not enter at the question of belief, but at the other end, with a community that attracts people, who then learn what it is that the community does by being among the community. Intentionally doing what others doing leads us to share an understanding of what they are doing, and what lies at its roots.
Belief in this sense grows out of doing rather than the reverse. As Butler Bass, points out, the word has a German root “beliebt,” related more to loving than to knowing and understanding.
To understand what Christians believe, you should look at how they believe.
- What drives them?
- What passions energize their lives?
- What does that look like?
- How they behave?
- What’s their mission?
A retired bishop told a clergy conference some years ago that everyone has a mission and a mission statement. “Just look at a person’s chequebook. That will tell you what their mission in life is.”
Or as Jesus put it:
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
It’s been quite a while since I posted to this blog. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and a lot has happened in the past few months, giving me good grist for the mill. But something got in the way every time I thought I might post. (Yes, I know;I’ll quit procrastinating tomorrow…)
What energized me out of my torpor was reading some preacher friends’ posts about their sermon work for this coming Sunday (February 23). The lectionary Gospel text, from the Sermon on the Mount, is Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus’ teaching about the law of retaliation. We read there the exhortation to “turn the other cheek,” a message which some people have use to deride Jesus and his people as wimps, or to characterize Jesus as completely out of touch with human reality.
What particularly grabbed me about this was the realization that five years have now passed since the lowest moment of my 26 years in full-time stipendiary ministry. The details of the event do not need to be rehearsed here. Suffice it to say that I found myself under attack within my own parish, culminating in a very unpleasant congregational meeting. At the end of the meeting, a vote was taken, which went in my favour. That was all to the good, but it left me in pain and confusion, and not a little anger at those behind the issue. I was tempted either to 1) lash out, or 2) to run away and hide. People would have understood either response, but something within me said “No. Stay the course. Do your job. Hold your head up.”
And so I did.
The ensuing months and years taught me a huge lesson about Jesus’ wisdom. “Turning the other cheek” does not mean allowing the other person to continue walking all over you. Rather we should see it as an assertion of one’s true person-hood: “I am worthy of your respect as a fellow child of God.” Either fight or flight would have given credence to the tactics and words used against me. By taking the high road and doing neither one, I believe I was able to bring healing into the parish in a way that would not otherwise have happened. I believe I took Jesus’ way in this, and for that I am glad. Much prayer and reflection went into that time, a new wilderness experience for me.
Five years have passed, and I am now retired and a long way away from the scene of this story. Nonetheless, I still bear the scars of the pain it caused me, and of the immediate damage it did to the congregation. I would not willingly walk that way again, nor would I wish such a thing to happen to anyone else. But…
Out of the ashes of that painful time came a stronger person and a stronger congregation. We learned together what it means to follow Jesus’ teaching to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Five years on, I believe I am a better person because of this experience, hard as it was, and I became a better priest to my parish.
Maybe I had to get past this anniversary before moving on with some things. I am now an Honorary Assistant Priest at the parish where we chose to make our church home. I’m on the preaching schedule and am preparing to lead a Bible Study group during Lent. My life has more shape than it did at the time of my last post, and I am really looking forward to the months and years ahead.
Thanks be to God!