Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Faith

One of the confusions to which we Christians are prone is that between Faith and Belief. We have so identified faith with belief that we use them as synonyms: we speak of believer's baptism when we talk of the sacrament which marks someones start on the journey of faith and ask "what do you believe in" when really we mean "what do you have faith in?"

My supervisor, Paul, was very helpful today when I talked with him about the reaction of some people to the last few posts I had written on here. I thought I had been talking about my progress on the path of faith but found that I had caused some angst in others over matters of belief; and when people tried to engage me on matters of belief, of course the inevitable happened: we talked past each other to the mystification of both, because we were entirely missing the point. Or at least, I was.

Faith is a verb. You don't have it, you do it. It  has more to do with trust than it does with belief, although it is related to belief. It is a way of seeing the world, or more completely, a way of being in the world. An image Paul gave me was of faith as a set of spectacles. I am converted. I put on faith and see the world through a different set of lenses than the ones I was using before, and everything is different. Of course as I look at the world through the new lenses, I form ideas and beliefs about what I see, and these are largely defined by the lenses through which I am looking. Faith is never still; the New Testament sometimes calls the Christian life The Way, hinting at the fact that the life of faith is a continual journey through bigger and newer landscapes. As the years go by, I undergo a series of conversions, each time slightly changing the lenses (and sometimes greatly changing them) and each time I do so, the set of ideas and beliefs I hold are changed accordingly, to fit in with the new perspective I hold. I look at the same things I saw before, but now they are sharper, the colours slightly different, the perspectives deeper. So when I discuss matters of belief, arguments and misunderstandings are almost inevitable. I and the one with whom I am talking are looking at the same things, but because we have different perspectives, both arising from the faith position through which we view the world, we cannot quite match up our beliefs.

Discussions of belief are seldom fruitful. Giving a reason for the hope which is in you can be enriching and life giving for both the one who speaks and the one who hears.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Fall

 This is one of my shots of a Snowfall, which so damaged some of our high country farmers. Snow is neither good or bad, except in the eyes of those who perceive it to be so.
Your body and mine are made from atoms that are so heavy that in all the universe there is only one place where they could have been formed: the interior of a star is the only place with sufficiently high temperature and pressure to construct an atom heavier than helium. The fact that we are here at all testifies to the life and then extinction of a star (or stars) somewhere, someplace, some unimaginably vast time ago. The universe is a terrifyingly violent place. It proceeds by the operation of vast forces manifesting in the gathering of matter and explosions and collisions and births and deaths. Things, and I mean all things without exception, in our universe come into existence, have a presence for a while and die. The matter from which they are constructed is redistributed and reused by other parts of the universe time and time and time again. This eternal dance of being and non-being is beautiful and powerful, and it is neither good nor evil: it just is.

As the universe has evolved it has produced ever more complex arrangements of some of its matter, and some of those arrangements are living. Plants and animals have evolved on at least one of the universe's planets and the processes which operate over all the universe (well, as far as we can tell) also seem to operate with living things. They come into existence, they are here for a while and then they die, each and every one of them. In death, and also in life, the matter of which they are comprised is taken from them and reused by other parts of the universe, living and dead, time and time and time again. Plants eat each other and are eaten by animals who are in turn eaten by other animals and all, for as long as they are here, are a living larder for a billion microbes. And again, none of this is good or evil, it just is.

Some spiders eat their partners after mating, as do praying mantises. This is not murder, it is the animal manifesting  patterns of behaviour hardwired into its tiny brain and over which it has no control whatsoever. So, even as Mrs Mantis happily chows down on her bridegroom's head, she is an innocent; blameless; an unfallen creature. Further up the evolutionary tree, creatures with much larger brains and more complex behaviours also do things which, to us, seem unsavoury. Packs of young male dolphins will herd a single female and take turns copulating with her. Chimpanzees will turn on one of their own and beat them for reasons opaque to us, and gangs of them will wage war on neighbouring troops, systematically killing off the males and abducting the females. But intelligent as these creatures are, I don't think they can be accused of rape, or bullying or murder or genocide. Again, even as they are performing what seem to us to be atrocities they are innocents; they are acting on impulses with no knowledge of the moral impact of their actions; they are blameless, unfallen creatures. I have expanded on this a little elsewhere.

Somewhere, millennia ago, chimpanzees shared a long forgotten ancestor with us. At some unknown time between the life of that ancient tupuna and the present day a profound change happened: in our branch of the family tree, but not, as far as I can tell, that of the chimps, the sense of self attained sufficient sophistication that the animals were conscious of two things:

1. Their own mortality. Many animals grieve the deaths of loved ones. Elephants seem fascinated with corpses and bones of their own kind as do some birds. Chimpanzees have been known to pine to death after the loss of a close friend or relative. But with us there is a development which I suspect to be unique, and that is that we individually understand that we are finite and that we will personally die.
2. Knowledge of good and evil. We have an ability which I suspect is unique to us, of being able to think abstractly, and part of this ability is being able to form abstract concepts of good or evil. We are able not just to respond to the instincts which motivate our nearest animal relatives, but to compare our own behaviour to some abstract notion or other of what  that behaviour should be. Unavoidable baggage comes with this knowledge of life and of morality, namely, the crushing existential anxiety which accompanies our senses of finitude and of moral failure. And with that anxious burden we are no longer innocents. We are fallen creatures.

 The genius of the book of Genesis is that it describes this process with exquisite metaphorical precision. In chapter 3 the old poem locates our ancestors in a garden sited at the place where the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Pishon and the Gihon all originate - in other words, a place which doesn't exist in the world as we know it.  The garden is a place of innocence, and has in its centre the trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil. Desiring to know as God knows, From the Earth (אָדָם) and his consort Source of Life (חַוָּה) eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all changes. They get what they want, that is they know, but they can avoid neither the unexpected consequences of their knowing nor the responsibility which the knowledge brings with it.

To develop the level of consciousness which we are blessed (or cursed ?) with, which to my mind seems precisely what the universe was set up to produce, means we are also fated to live with the consequent and inevitable awareness of death and guilt upon the avoidance of which so much of our human endeavour and achievement is built.

Of course, the Christian Gospel tells us that this is not the end of the story, but that's a post for another day. 

Monday, 12 August 2013

Comments

I'm not publishing anonymous comments anymore and Comments will be moderated from now on, so they might take an hour or two to appear.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Anniversary: Part 2

Stained glass window in the recently deconsecrated church in Millers Flat
About a month after the night in Lower Hutt I was baptised in the New Life Centre in Christchurch by Pastor Peter Morrow. It was a Wednesday night, and there were about a dozen of us, all young men. The women were baptised on a different night because of the effect of water on 70s clothing and the need for decency. Together, we constituted that month's crop of converts, and we all shared a common experience. All of us had known what it was to be born again, which I now see was a conglomerate of a number of things all experienced in close proximity.
  • There was a sense of release and freedom from guilt and anxiety
  • There was an affirmation of us as individuals and, for me, the cessation of crippling lack of self esteem. The Lord of the universe loved, astonishingly,  even me!
  • There was, for most of us,  one overwhelming experience of being immersed in the presence of God; of having senses and boundaries temporarily suspended
  • There was, most importantly, an ongoing sense of the presence of another; of one wiser and kinder who never, ever quite departed.
This amalgam of experience came simultaneously with a narrative, given me by the church and by my mentors. This narrative told the story of what had happened to me and linked it seamlessly with a greater narrative, one which was cosmic in proportion. So I learned of God's creation of the world and of our primordial parents created in innocence; I was told of the original disobedience through which sin and death entered the paradisaical world and of the efforts of God to draw us back, through obedience,  to wholeness. I learned of the law and the prophets offered in vain and  of God in one last desperate act of love entering the world in the person of Jesus to give himself to appease for the transgressions of all humanity and open the way back to God. It was my faith in this act of Jesus' that linked my story to his.

The narrative and the experience were inextricably linked. The narrative explained this overwhelming thing that had happened to me, and the experience proved the veracity of the narrative. I and my contemporaries read the Bible flabbergasted for it told our story. The Acts of the Apostles and the epistles described people who were undergoing revelation and renewal exactly like ours. So, it was necessary to protect the integrity of the narrative, for without it my experience might soon seem to be illusory and all the wonderful benefits I had garnered might disappear into a cloud of wishful thinking.

This confluence of experience and narrative explains why, of all the great thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries it is Charles Darwin who has most threatened experiential Christians. If evolution is true, the whole thread of the story begins to unravel, for there is no creation of perfect ancestors but rather a slow ascent from smaller and more limited ones. There is no catastrophic fall, but rather a gradual rising. There is no state of original sin, but rather the slow dawning of ever more exquisite levels of awareness. And with no fall and no original sin there is no place for the whole elaborate mechanism of substitutionary atonement. So it is Darwin who became the nemesis, rather than Einstein or Heisenberg or any of the dozen others who might be argued to pose a greater threat to a  traditional Christian worldview.

Despite the best efforts of the church, the narrative, as it was delivered to me, did become unsustainable, how could it be otherwise? Again, I can remember a time; an evening of struggle with the story of the flood and the conviction that even if it meant ditching the whole precious cargo of my new found Christian faith, I simply could not pretend to believe anything so preposterous. I gave up that particular struggle and found not the loss of my experience of God but rather a deepening. For most of my contemporaries in the faith, their Christian experience was brief, remembered now in late middle age as a pleasant though foolish adolescent episode. I was luckier. Over the years the narrative unfolded into deeper and more satisfying levels of complexity and subtlety I learned that a story can be profoundly true even if it didn't happen. So my framework in the Christian faith became bounded by liturgy and office and I was able to maintain the core of the original experience within newer narratives which, even as I told them, I recognised as provisional. Oddly, in letting the old old story go, it has come back to me. I'd tell you what I meant by that but it's late and the day has been long. I'm in my caravan in Invercargill and it's time to find a sleeping bag

Monday, 5 August 2013

Anniversary

40 years ago today, when I was 21, I sat in a back room at the Assembly of God, Lower Hutt, and was coached through the Sinners Prayer by a glittery eyed young man. I was raised a Methodist but from the time I could express my own opinion I was a fervent little atheist. My atheism was my metaphorical way of addressing my father issues, and was therefore keenly held and virulently expressed, but since about the beginning of 1972 , I became less and less certain about my professed worldview. I met some fairly impressive people who held alternative views and who were able to meet, absorb and gently return my materialist certainties. Like many in my generation I had the occasional experiment with chemically altering my consciousness and in the cold light of the day after, these experiences caused me some philosophical doubts: what,  exactly,  was the nature of this sense experience which I ardently argued to be the only source of knowledge? And, crucially,  I had a pivotal conversation with Valerie Underhill, who was later to become my mother in law. 

She arranged to see me. She sat with me in the drawing room of 80 Bealey Ave. She listened while I rehearsed my frayed certainties. Then for an hour she told me of Jesus and how much he loved me. It wasn't apologetics or doctrine. It was the deep confession of someone who knew something and whose life showed that she did. Of course I could not allow myself to believe anything so seriously uncool as Christianity but somewhere deeper than the the little sliding tile puzzle of my own logic, I knew she was telling me the truth.

So, about two months later I was in Wellington seeing her daughter. Clemency took me and my friend Alden to the church she had been attending lately and I was NOT impressed. The service was long and filled with people doing odd things. The sermon was about, and I am not making this up, how classical music was of the devil and if you listen to it you are risking hellfire. At the end of the service the pastor invited those who wanted to give their lives to Christ to come forward, and to my horror both Alden and Clemency went to the front of the church. I stood to go. I intended to leave, catch the ferry and head back home to Christchurch leaving these idiots to their own devices; but when I reached the aisle, instead of turning left for the door and home, I turned right and also went to the front. Someone led me into a back room. I prayed. And my life changed.

I am not, obviously, still part of the Assemblies of God. I moved over a period of years through various Pentecostal churches until I reached a place of equilibrium in the Anglican communion. I have undergone many, many conversions since then and now find it hard to categorise myself, but I suppose I might be called a Progressive or Evolutionary Christian. And today, I have been remembering that night, and signing that little card, which I did at about the same time of the evening on August 5 1973 as I am writing this, 40 years later. Mahatma Gandhi said Faith is not a thing to be grasped, it is a state to grow into and he is right. On that night I didn't, as I imagined at the time, pass from one state of being to another. Rather I underwent, for the first time but certainly not the last, the experience of dying to self. I knew the transitory and fallible nature of all I thought and all I experienced and recognised that I was never as I so fondly imagined, the master of my own destiny. I gave up the pretense and handed the whole sorry bundle of my own being over to whatever it was that the young man was proclaiming; or rather, over to the loving reality of whatever it was that filled Valerie Underhill. And I was met and answered and transformed.

Behind the metaphorical system of Pentecostalism is a deep and eternal truth - the same truth in fact that lies behind the metaphorical system of Progressive or Evolutionary Christianity, which is why I can see and accept the series of  transitions by which I have moved from my then to my now. I'm not sure what the pastor of the AOG would have thought of me if he could have seen me this morning, sitting on my prayer stool in silence with a great black cloak wrapped around me. But I paused for a while and thought of 40 years. It's a good Biblical span. I looked around me at my study. Everything in there is less than 40 years old. A huge percentage of the things that surround me are gifts - including in a way the doctoral certificate and the deed of ordination to the episcopacy hanging on my wall. All has come to me in acts of grace and love. Everything around me has a story, and many of those stories have their genesis in those few minutes spent in the back room of the AOG. I worked into my silence deeply, warmly, profoundly grateful for the path I have walked, and for the one who has unfailingly walked it with me.