We don’t worship the creeds

In the song ‘Armageddon Days’ by The The there is the line: “The world is on its elbows and knees, we’ve forgotten the message, and worship the creeds”. What I want to do in this article is explain why it’s a mistake to ‘worship the creeds’.

The first point to make is a simple historical one. The creed that is presently used in church services dates mostly to the fourth century AD and the Council of Nicaea, although there were still significant changes made for another 150 years or so after that. In other words, Christianity experienced its greatest success and most transformative influence upon the world before the creeds were agreed, and certainly a long way before they were ever thought of being used in worship. There is therefore no sense in which any particular creed is essential to Christianity. Creeds are not essential, but they are helpful.

Helpful in what way? Well, they are a little bit like the instructions that come with a Lego set. They are a guide to how things fit together. In just the same way that Lego instructions, if followed carefully, allow for the particular toy to be built so that it looks like the picture on the front of the box, so too do the creeds, if followed carefully, allow us to look like the ‘picture’ on our boxes; that is, they enable us to look like children of God, to look like Jesus.

The word ‘creed’, after all, comes from the Latin word ‘credo’ which means ‘I believe’. The creeds are a summation of doctrinal beliefs, the things that a particular church believes about God in general and about Jesus in particular. Doctrines, moreover, are simply the medicine for the soul that a particular church has understood. The word doctrine is related to the word doctor for a very straightforward reason. The creeds might well be understood as a sort of ‘gymnasium for the soul’. That is, once the different elements are understood and accepted, then the soul will be healed of various afflictions and then the world and the individual’s place within the world will be seen correctly.

The creeds, in other words, aim beyond themselves. They are a tool that are used to create a healthy soul. In just the same way that the Lego instructions are not what you buy Lego to play with – you buy the Lego to play with the bricks – so too the creeds are not what you become a Christian to play around with. You become a Christian in order to enjoy life in all its fullness. The creeds are a particular tool to enable that to happen. The creeds are like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon – don’t focus on the finger!

There is something distinct about Christianity in having a role for creeds in this way, as it makes Christianity vulnerable to falsification in a way that other religions are not. Christianity does make particular historical claims, in particular that Jesus lived, was tortured by the state, died and was raised on the third day. If the resurrection was demonstrably proved false then Christianity would collapse. I say ‘demonstrably proved false’ in order to try and avoid the generalised, hand-waving, scientistic ‘such things can never happen’ sort of objection. More than this, if evidence emerged to show that Jesus was simply not the sort of person that is portrayed in the gospels, if there was evidence that he was significantly immoral in some way then, again, Christianity would collapse.

Having said that, there is a a potential misunderstanding here, and I need to deploy a Wittgenstein quotation to clarify. Wittgenstein once wrote: ‘Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe through thick and thin, which you can do only as a result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.’

To be a Christian is not simply to believe that certain things took place in history – even the demons believe, and they tremble. It is to pursue the life that those events witness to. It is to structure one’s life around what is revealed by them. To have, for example, a modern film crew with scientific support sent back in time to the third day after the crucifixion, and join St Thomas in physically inspecting the risen Jesus in such a way that all possible objections were overcome – this, of itself, would not generate Christian faith. This, of itself, would simply reveal a curious fact about the world. The leap of faith does not come here, in the believing in certain facts. No, the leap of faith comes when, in the light of what such events reveal about the nature of the world, a person chooses, for example, to take the risk of forgiving.

Which is where the really essential point about the creed becomes clear. The creeds are like Lego instructions, or a recipe for a meal, or any other particular tool. They are used for a particular purpose. Where that purpose is lost sight of and forgotten, the tools can be used for the wrong purposes, or used mistakenly. So with the creeds, whereas their original purpose is to help a particular person become more like Christ, where that spiritual aim is lost, the creeds become vulnerable to being used as a shibboleth, a way of discriminating between an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’. In other words, if you’re ‘one of us’ then you will say the same things as the majority. You will be assimilated, resistance is futile and so on. They become an instrument of power, not a vessel for liberation.

This is why the song that I quoted at the beginning of the article is called ‘Armageddon Days’. Where a society has lost sight of the spiritual and has reduced human beings to more or less productive and efficient economic units, political struggle and war is not far behind. The song continues: “If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today, He’d be gunned down cold by the CIA. For the lights that now burn brightest behind stained glass will cast the darkest shadows upon the human heart. For God didn’t build himself that throne, and God doesn’t live in Israel or Rome. God doesn’t belong to the Yankee dollar and God doesn’t plant those bombs for Hezbollah. God doesn’t even go to church, and God won’t send us down to Allah to burn. God will remind us what we already know, that the human race is about to reap what it’s sown. Islam is rising, the Christians mobilizing. The world is on its elbows and knees, it’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds. Armageddon days are here… again.”

Bertrand Russell’s Decalogue

I quite like these…

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

(From here, via Facebook. Relevant to Andrew Brown’s latest too.)

The sharing of joy, not the shouting of jargon

This morning I gave a talk to members of West Mersea church about the nature of outreach, in preparation for the Diocesan centenary next year. These are my written-up notes, not a pure transcript of what was said.

There is something a little dispiriting when someone in authority tries to ginger up activity on behalf of the Church of England by declaiming that ‘the Church will be dead in a generation!’. Frankly, who cares? My concern with such language is that it is speaking from a place of fear rather than faith, and that, as such, it can never be good news, it can never be gospel. This is precisely what I believe we must avoid.

It calls to mind something which I have been exploring with my house group recently. We have been steadily working our way through Olivier Clement’s ‘The Roots of Christian Mysticism’, and we came across this extremely striking passage, extracted from the Shepherd of Hermas:

Clothe yourself then in joy where God delights to be. Make it your delight. For every joyful person acts well, thinks rightly, and tramples sadness underfoot. The gloomy person on the other hand always acts badly. In the first place such a one does wrong by grieving the Holy Spirit who is given to us as joy. Then … the gloomy person is guilty of impiety in not praying to the Lord … for prayer offered in sadness lacks the strength to ascend to the altar of God . . . Sadness mingled with prayer prevents it from rising, just as vinegar mingled with wine robs it of its flavour . . . Purify your heart then of the sadness that is evil, and you will be living for God. And all those who have stripped themselves of sadness in order to put on joy will likewise be living for God.

Now here, as with the archetypal mad professor handling fuming test tubes with tongs, we need to be very careful, if we are not simply to add greater burdens to our backs. I take the point of this passage to be that when we are in touch with the gospel, that is, when we are in touch with the good news that has given us joy, then we are enabled and strengthened to act rightly. This does not mean that, for example, our sufferings are caused by a lack of faith. It is to insist that if we are to act fully, and act from a basis of faith, then we also need to act from the basis of joy.

Consider the poor ladies recently released from thirty years of captivity in South London. Imagine what they felt in becoming free, the total transformation of their lives, and imagine what sort of language might come close to expressing their emotions. This is how we are to understand someone like St Paul, and, most especially, this is how we are to understand the grounds for his writings. Consider the passage that we had last week from Colossians – the famous passage about Christ, which is very philosophical. What needs to be kept in mind is the context that comes first, when Paul writes about being drawn out of darkness into the Kingdom of the Son. It is this experience which comes first, and all the metaphysics comes later. Unless we are able to retain a connection with the liberating joy which is the fuel for that philosophical reflection then we become ‘resounding gongs, or clashing cymbals’.

People will doubtless be aware that I find Russell Brand quite interesting at the moment. Have a watch of this video, where he is interviewing members of Westboro Baptist Church:

I find this remarkable, but also quite chilling. I wonder how many people see a vaster array of similarities between my church and the Westboro Baptists, rather than the differences. Whilst I don’t see Brand as orthodox, he is much closer to my own centre of spiritual gravity.

What we have here, I believe, is a perfect example of bad evangelism. It is one that emphasises a particular metaphysical framework, and uses particular jargon. If we say to someone outside the Christian conversation ‘Jesus died to save you from your sins’ it invites various responses: What sin? What IS sin? Why would a loving God set things up in this way anyway? In other words, the language is baroque and meaningless. It is because we know that this is how such words are likely to be received that so many hearts sink when evangelism is discussed.

What we need to pay attention to is the pattern of life which gives the language its context, and therefore meaning. It is the pattern of life and only the pattern of life that can make such language intelligible. I worry that much use of such traditional language is simply the echo of a faithful pattern of life that has now passed away. It is only when we are able to act in loving ways to each other that those who see us talk about love so much can begin to understand what we mean by it. If we continue to use such language, but act in hateful ways, then the words fall to the floor, fruitless.

If we are to engage with the world, and share good news, then we need to be rooted in our joys and not in our fears. We need to be on the path of becoming the people that God has created and called us to be. It is when we do this, when we are helping each other pursue our passions, that God can work his way through us, and we do not hinder Him.

I believe that this is part of the emphasis of the new Pope – as with his latest encyclical, but consider this:

“In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements. The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people. But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

The work of evangelism is not a sales pitch. We do not have to distort ourselves in order to appeal to the world. That, in fact, is a blasphemy. We are made in the image of God, and we each have a vocation to reveal a particular facet of that image to the world. If we allow the world to determine what is revealed and what isn’t, then we deface that image.

This applies to worship too. Worship is not oriented around evangelism – which isn’t to say that worship of itself cannot bring someone to faith, obviously it can. No, worship has to be oriented around God alone, else it ceases to be worship and becomes a golden calf, a source of poison for the community. That doesn’t mean that worship never changes, it means that the grounds for the change have to be internal – ‘what will enable this community to worship God more fully?’ – rather than external – ‘what will appeal to the outsider?’

Evangelism understood as a burden is a falsehood. As if the cry is
“what can we do to make ourselves loved again?” Evangelism will arise naturally and spontaneously, as a direct consequence of pursuing our vocations – and finding joy in doing so – or not at all. Isn’t this what we mean by being led by the Spirit? As we consider how and where to reach out to the community, I believe that our joys will help us discern our answers. Let us get to know our joys and we can then build from there.

I believe that the church does have something to offer the wider world, and I do have confidence in the faith. I watched the film Gravity recently, and I believe it is a wonderful picture of much modern life.


A human being, surrounded by the highest and most effective forms of technology available, yet utterly isolated and longing for home. I believe that this describes a great many people in our world, in our community.

What we can offer is a forgiving community, a place where people can be accepted as beings not doings. After all joy is a being not a doing. How can you ‘do’ joy? Joy comes when we experience that peace which the world cannot give, when we are at home in the world, when we are finding our purpose and point. This, in turn, gives rise to engagement in social justice – for how can we stand idly by when the opportunities for others to pursue their vocation are denied or worse? The heart of evangelism is outwardly focussed – on the welfare and service of the other – not inwardly focussed, on what might best serve the welfare of the church. In doing so, the church stands over against the world, especially a world that sees human beings as interchangeable commodities, to be used and abused as economic exigencies dictate.

We need to be about the business of sharing joy, not shouting jargon. If our inherited language retains sense then that will be shown by our lives. We need to be a blessing to the world, as salt and yeast and light, not a drain. We need to act on the assumption that God has gone ahead of us in all of our work and his gracious activity is already bearing fruit. In other words, we need to be able to join in and celebrate with the joys of the world – and it may just be that we discover and affirm our own joys in the process.


The Diocesan material followed.


Today is simply a beginning, to help people begin thinking about the process of outreach. There is a lot of more detailed work to be done. Further dates:
Saturday 1st March – study morning (10am!!) to plan the big weekend
Pentecost Sunday – a commissioning and releasing for the work
28th/29th June – the big weekend (to be confirmed)
21st September – gathering in for Harvest

“For a blunder, that’s too big” – some brief musings on the death of the Church of England

The title of this post is one of my (many) favourite Wittgenstein quotations. It comes from his Lecture on Religious Belief, when he is pointing out that religious belief is not the same sort of thing as a scientific belief; that is, it isn’t something that proceeds in steady and cautious steps from evidence to conclusion. Those that think in these terms simply demonstrate their intellectual captivity to post-Enlightenment nostrums about rationality. Their time has passed; that intellectual battle has been lost; they are simply the intellectual equivalent of Japanese soldiers still occupying tiny islands long after the end of the Second World War. So, no more about that.

I most tend to think of Wittgenstein’s aphorism when pondering the huge cultural changes that we have gone through, where we haven’t yet worked out all the implications of what is happening, or whether they are desirable or not. Most especially, it comes to mind when I think about the Church of England, and what God might actually be seeking from us in this time that we have been given.

Consider George Carey’s fearful remarks, the tired old trope that the church is only one generation from extinction. I shouldn’t let it, but such language always irritates me. Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, and I for one believe Him. So let us not get too hung up about whether it falls upon our poor mortal shoulders to save the church – or even the Church of England – for there are legions of angels working for God’s will to be accomplished. Let us, instead, work out what God is seeking to do and then try and cooperate with it.

Which is…? Well, ‘for a blunder, that’s too big’. Might it not be the case that, rather than a story about the long, melancholy withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith – and therefore a sad story of decline and death – what we have in the religious history of England over the last 150 years is, in fact, the direct working out of God’s will? In other words, that the Church of England, as a centralised and established form of Christianity, intimately bound together with the legal and constitutional arrangements of the country, that this glorious old lady has in fact achieved all that God wanted her to achieve (quite possibly the worldwide transmission of the via media approach to the faith) and that, now this task has been accomplished, what God actually wants is for her to enter her rest, and hear those most gracious words ‘well done thou good and faithful servant’?

After all, what is it that is actually ‘dying’? It isn’t the gospel itself; it isn’t Christianity in this country; it isn’t even the local church, which is often in robust good health. No, it is simply the place that a particular form of Christianity held within the national life of England. England has moved away from it, and all of the ways in which being an Anglican were tied in to the old cultural forms are now dying. What is wrong with that?

I want to stick with my deckchairs and lifeboats image, however hackneyed. I believe that we most need to recognise that the good ship of Establishment is sinking, and trying to prevent that from taking place is not simply a wasted effort on our part, it is actually a blasphemous and misguided attempt to thwart God’s will. The decline of the Church of England is not a blunder.

What we are called to do is the same as what all Christians are called to do, every where and at every time – to be faithful, to hold on to Christ alone and to be willing to let go of everything else. The centralised Church of England is sinking – what strikes me now as being worthy of theological interest is the multitude of Anglicanisms that shall follow – a flotilla of lifeboats floating away from the wreckage, seeking a new shore on which to embark on new adventures. Which is, after all, a more exciting and more inspiring prospect.

APAATW1: The Shadow of Terror

The Picture (click for full size):

Shadow of Terror

Image (c) Natalie Eldred and Sam Norton, 2013

The Thousand Words:
The roots of this image lie in the experience I had at the Sunday morning worship at Greenbelt in 2009 and in much that has been spoken about Israel at Greenbelt since then. It seemed to me that those in authority at Greenbelt were only focussing in upon one aspect of the tragic situation in the Middle East. That is, the viewpoint that was being put across was a binary one – Israel is an aggressive occupying state, whereas the Palestinian community is the martyred innocent. This seemed to me to be incredibly shallow, and it continued to vex me.

I wanted to explain how I saw the situation, and an image formed in my mind. Not being in any sense a capable artist, it remained there, unspoken for several years, until a chance conversation with my artist friend Natalie Eldred at the Dark Mountain Festival provoked the possibility that it might take shape, that there was a potential collaboration here. So, over the last few weeks, we have been chatting about this image, working out how to get what was in my head in some more communicable form – and now here it is (and I feel like a child who has woken up on Christmas morning).

Simply put, there is a cascade of terror – a pecking order – whereby each state and actor is reacting in fear to something bigger than them, and through their reactions, they in turn cause those smaller than them to cower in fear. The idea that it made any sort of sense to separate out one of the actors in the complexity as especially worthy of blame seemed not just impractical but impious. There is a paradox here. At one and the same time I wish to affirm both an innocence in all the actors involved, and a comprehensively shared guilt. In other words, what I most want to do is remove the possibility of a scapegoat. All are implicated.

The sequence could be extended, especially the left. The first shadow is that cast by the United States. Uncle Sam could be shown reacting in horror to “the Islamic World”, then they in turn could be shown reacting in horror to “scientific modernity and the Enlightenment” – and that in turn could be shown reacting in horror to “untamed nature” (thinking of the Baconian programme to ‘rape’ the natural world and master it). An alternative would be to show the scientists reacting against the Inquisition, and then a papacy reacting against – what? Their own shadow?

The other side occasioned some thought and conversation. I originally wanted to have a homosexual man on the right hand side but we agreed that it would be visually easier to convey the same point by showing a woman. In any case, the point that I wanted to make was that there are minorities in the Middle East – women, gays, Christians – whose only safe haven in the area lies in Israel. I do not wish to say that Israel is an entirely virtuous place – it isn’t – but it does have some very important virtues, that are worth affirming, and the overall picture is much more complicated than the Greenbelt analysis seems to allow.

Put simply, the Greenbelt analysis only seems to show this:

greenbelt on israel

and I want to insist that we Christians must have a wider focus – a focus wide enough to include our own fears, and the shadows that they cause to fall.


Natalie has described the process of working up the cartoon over on her blog. It has been a real education and privilege for me to see this happen, to see the artistic process up close, and a source of great joy to see one of the things that had seemed trapped inside my head come to life on the page. Humbling too, to see some awesome talent at work.

(Yes, I know this isn’t a thousand words. It’s a figure of speech…)

TBLA (extra): Why I am not a feminist

I want to try and describe one of my fundamental convictions – one that is both spiritual and political. This is a bit of a rant…

I believe that all human beings are the expression of divine creativity. That is what I understand being made in the image of God to mean. We are each words of God – different words – called to express a particular incarnation of the divine Word. We are each unique, irreplaceable, miraculous.

It is due to the inheritance of Sin that we are prevented from expressing the particular image of God that we were created to be. We each have a calling, a vocation, to express a particular facet of God (think of diamonds with infinite facets). It is the task of the human community to progressively remove all the barriers to the expression of individual creativity, that is what Christians call ‘the Kingdom of God’. We are often neck deep in crap in this our present world, but, in that case, pace Oscar Wilde, sometimes the most important thing is to testify to the existence of the stars even whilst trapped in the gutter.

In other words, for me, the principal value and orienting affirmation is about what it means to be human (hence the title of the book which I have written). We are first of all human beings, only secondarily are we male or female, gay or straight or trans, black or white or yellow, rich or poor or bourgeois. In so far as it lies within me, this is what I wish to teach and to live out in all the decisions of my life.

I would want to draw a distinction between egalitarian feminism and gender feminism, and draw the distinction in this way: egalitarian feminism is the fruit of the political enlightenment, which is all about the fundamental political equality and worth of all human beings, no matter what their background or station. It is because I accept this that I accept, inter alia, the wrongness of both abortion and capital punishment. This has its origin in the 18th century – there or thereabouts. In contrast to this, I see ‘gender feminism’. This I see as the product of particular post-war circumstances, an excess of affluence combined with a failure of nerve. Rather than seeing men and women as primarily human beings, and only secondarily male or female, gender feminism, in my view, a) sees the gender orientation as primary, and b) (crucially) sees a higher value deservedly bestowed upon the female rather than the male. In other words, the male is by definition the oppressor, and the woman is by definition the victim – even though the woman is the only oppressed class in history to have a longer life expectancy than the oppressor.

The reason why I do not wish to class myself as a feminist is because of this latter development. I do not accept that men are inherently oppressive. I do not accept that boys are incipient rapists. I do not accept that being a man means that you have to accept a place as a second class citizen, responsible for all the bad things of history and none of the good.

More crucially, I reject the anthropology of ‘gender feminism’. Most of it seems to me to be (to speak in Marxist terms temporarily) an expression of ‘false consciousness’. It is an ideology born from economic imperatives, a way of ensuring that the Leviathan can have the cheapest pool of labour available to it, irrespective of human cost. In other words, if a particular individual woman believes that the expression of her individual vocation means that she is a ‘stay at home mum’ then all the ideology that declares she is ‘letting down the sisterhood’ and ‘being dependent on the patriarchy’ and all the other self-righteous nonsense can get stuffed. Who is this person as a human being? Not as a woman, or as an economic unit, but who is this particular person called to be in her own idiosyncratic specificity? DO NOT PUT HER IN A BOX!

I do see contemporary gender feminism as mostly evil. I have a profound commitment to and belief in the individual, in what might enable them to flourish as a specific and particular human being, not simply as a member of a type or expression of a class. What I hate, absolutely detest about much modern feminism is that it seems to have abandoned the root principles from which modern feminism sprang (ie the political enlightenment) and has instead become captured by the secular powers, and been put to use as a ‘useful idiot’, the practical implications of its teaching simply being that vast multinationals can make an extra percentage point on their profit figures.

The principal value that I am committed to is what will most enable someone to become the sort of person that God has called them to be. There is no ideology that can tell me the answer to that – the only answer will come from a slow and patient attention to the sort of human being that they are, and loving them no matter what.

Everyone deserves the same. EVERYONE. I want each individual person to be themselves, and not try to distort themselves to fit into anybody else’s box. Where they fit on the different spectra of male/female, intelligent/simple, black/white, gay/straight, all the rest of it – all of this is SECONDARY.

I believe in human beings. I don’t want to put anyone into a box, and I don’t want to be put into a box for myself. I think that each of us has a path, and it is the sacred duty of all of the rest of us to do what we can to ensure that every single last one of us is enabled to be all that he or she can be. We won’t always succeed, but it is in the effort that we find our own transcendence.

Is the gospel an effective vehicle for the gospel?

It is a fairly standard enquiry to ask whether the Church of England (or any other) is an ‘effective vehicle for the gospel’ – whether, that is, the particular institutional forms are such as to make the gospel more readily intelligible to those who have not heard the good news. Often, the answer might be ‘it is the best boat to fish from’ (an answer that I’m less and less persuaded of).

However, that’s not where I want to go with today’s post. I want to just muse out loud on this related question: is the gospel an effective vehicle for the gospel? In other words, if a committed Christian believer understands the life of faith to be one in which meaning and integrity, joy and fulfillment can be found – is the language of the gospel the most effective vehicle for communicating and sharing this?

This is a question about language. Is the language that we have inherited to talk about our faith still in working order? Which is a question that might have been thought done to death with the progressive theologies of the twentieth century, culminating in a negative answer (and which I see as the deep root of church collapse). Yet the conservative response to that progressive agenda doesn’t seem to work much better. Wittgenstein once commented that ‘the whole weight is in the picture’ – that is, if we try and translate the customs and idioms that have grown up organically around the life of faith into some version more palatable to a modern (jaded) taste, is it actually possible to separate out bathwater from baby?

To take one example, is it possible to talk about ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption’ in the same way any more? To be redeemed (from slavery, debtors prison etc) had a very concrete sense that was generally understood. Such things are still around – and it wouldn’t surprise me if we have debtors prisons again before too long – but I do wonder whether the metaphor of ‘salvation’, understood in a sort of ‘spiritual transaction’ sense, has any mileage left in it. The language of penal substitution – as used in Alpha – seems to have a useful purchase when used in a context like that of a prison, but elsewhere?

What I’m inching towards is a sense that the ‘end of metaphysics’ has implications for the language that we use for sharing faith. In a culture that has become determinedly secular, disenchanted and post-sacred, language that depends upon such associations for its weight will inevitably gain diminishing returns. So I wonder whether there needs to be a recasting of Christian language in post-metaphysical form, one which doesn’t presume anything metaphysical.

However, this seems to have more than a whiff of the Don Cupitt/ Sea of Faith approach – which has always seemed a very watery option to me. Something that is full of thumos seems to be what is needed, something chthonic. What is needed is a sensitive translation – not word for word or even concept for concept but something which is true to the underlying Spirit whilst sitting very lightly to the text (or the action).

Is it simply that we are ripe for a new religious movement?

TBLA(6): Pecca Fortiter

One of the key theological insights that I hang on to, which came to me from Bonhoeffer (articulating the Lutheran tradition) is ‘Pecca Fortiter’ – ‘sin boldly’. There is, I think, a right way to understand this, and a wrong.

The wrong is the one that Bonhoeffer chastises in ‘Cost of Discipleship’, which is ‘cheap grace’. This way of understanding the phrase effectively means – do what you like because you’re covered by grace anyway. It becomes an antinomianism only half a breath removed from a complete licentiousness. One of my favourite quotations of Wittgenstein: ‘If what we do now makes no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with.’ What we do matters in the long run and this way of understanding the action of grace seems to me to do away with all sense of better and worse, all that speaks to us of quality, or excellence, or holiness.

In contrast to this I would argue for a way of understanding ‘pecca fortiter’ which is centred upon relieving us of our burden of guilt and sense of failure. It is true that we cannot earn our way to heaven; it is also true that everything that we do is going to be tainted by our sin and failures. What this phrase means in this context is that we should not let the fear of failure prevent us from seeking to grow in faith. Of course, what we do might be a fearsome failure, a spectacular example of what not to do – but there is no place where we can go that will take us away from the love of God revealed in Christ. So long as we are constantly seeking him, constantly seeking to grow closer to him, then we can trust that he will hold on to us and no matter what sort of mess we find ourselves in, he will be able to pull us out of it. So I take ‘pecca fortiter’ to be a realistic maxim of encouragement. We have the authority to judge the angels, yet we will not be able to exercise such judgement unless we have grown in maturity ourselves. It is through being set free from the fear of failure that we will learn and develop that capacity for judgement. We are rather like toddlers learning to walk – we have to try and fail many, many times before we can start making strides.

In other words, if a group of Christians, after a great deal of prayer and reflection, come to the conclusion that a radical change in behaviour is led by the Spirit – then a fear of the consequences (or a reference to keeping the rules) is not enough to say that it is wrong. That group of Christians themselves have the authority and the right to test that particular spirit and to see if the changes tend towards holiness and righteousness or otherwise. This, after all, is what happened in the first-century debates about circumcision and kosher food laws. I think the same applies to our struggles over sexuality today. Put simply, we need to trust the baptism of our brothers and sisters.

TBLA(5): radical non-judgement

One of the most salient teachings of Jesus – and one of the very hardest to follow – is ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’. I see this as the expression of a core spiritual truth; that if we live as ones who are forgiven, not from merit but from grace, that we are enabled to share that mercy and forgiveness and grace with others. It is about the divine love overflowing through us. To judge – and I take that in the sense of ‘to condemn’ – is to separate ourselves out from that overflowing grace and thereby to invoke a solemn judgement upon ourselves. “The measure that you give will be the measure that you receive”; “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” – these are expressions of the same core spiritual law. I do sometimes wonder whether this is the only thing that needs to be known and lived in order to be a Christian.

However, for my purposes in this sequence, the conclusion that I draw is that if a Christian brother or sister has prayed through a situation and come to a particular discernment then it is not for any other Christian to stand in judgement and condemnation over them. To start denouncing a fellow Christian as a sinner is a) to state the obvious, but b) more importantly, to demonstrate a failure to understand the gospel, and thus, to exclude oneself from the Kingdom.

This is not to say that all discrimination is abandoned, that ‘anything goes’ – it is simply to affirm the profound spiritual respect which we are called to offer one another as fellow baptised Christians. We are all sinners, and we do not get to heaven through our own merit. Possibly a divergence of view will lead to a failure of shared communion – ‘let them be to you as a gentile and a tax collector’ and so on – but that can be done in a Christian spirit or in a judgemental spirit. Only one of those is Holy.

So this is absolutely key to the discussion about marriage. That is, if we are to truly and mutually discern what is God’s will for our community today, we need to be able to listen with holy ears to things that might otherwise shock us. I do not believe we need to be afraid of this.

Self-denial, desire and the cross

This is by way of a follow-on to my last post.

Self-denial, in the modern psychological sense of that term, I do see as a potential good. I see it as a corollary of the ‘self-control’ which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5). I understand it to be the suppression or elimination of one facet of our nature in order to facilitate the development or growth of another facet which is even more important. So, to take a trivial example, refraining from extra chocolate pudding in order to preserve bodily health is a form of self-denial in this sense – bodily health being more important than the pleasure to be gained from the pudding.

In other words, the self-denial is not an ultimate good but an intermediate good – it is something which transitions to something else. Where my suspicions are aroused with the language of ‘self-denial’, and the equating of this with ‘taking up our cross’ is that I see a punitive and sacrificial theology behind it, by which self-flagellation is seen as a form of spiritual purification. I do not see it as an accident that those who are most concerned with this question are also most associated with the doctrine of penal substitution. That is the nature of the God that they worship, whereas I believe in a God who desires mercy and not such sacrifice.

So in the specific context of discussing gay relationships – and hetero ones come to that – I think that what I would most want to emphasise is that nobody on the outside can actually judge what is going on on the inside, save by some expression of the fruits of the Spirit mentioned earlier. It may well be that for some people, a denial or suppression of their sexuality is indeed of God, for such suppression enables them to become more the person that God originally created them to be. Yet for another, it seems equally plausible to me that to not deny themselves but instead to enter into an emotionally intimate and loving relationship is itself what will enable them to become the person that God is calling them to be. I don’t think anyone can rule from the outside which is the best path for a particular person to take (a wise spiritual director might help a soul to make that decision for themselves perhaps). Of course, this ties in with one of the least-listened to but most dominant aspects of Jesus’ entire ministry – Judge not.

My principal point, then, is not to say that ‘self-denial’, in the modern psychological sense of repressing desires, has no place in the life of the disciple. I do not believe that, and, indeed, I see that form of self-denial – if integrated with a wider theological understanding of the nature of God and what it means to be a creature – as a holy endeavour. Yet I would still maintain that there is a difference between this and ‘taking up our cross’ despite what would appear to be a superficial similarity of language. I see the taking up of our cross as essentially about enduring the hostility or criticism of a wider society when we choose to follow God. It is not about this psychological repression – unless, of course, that psychological repression is itself driven by social disapproval, as has no doubt happened in myriad situations, especially sexual ones.

So, to sum up: self-denial has a place in the life of discipleship, especially when theologically informed, but it is not the same as the taking up of a cross. Taking up our cross necessarily means accepting and enduring the rebuke of society, in all its various forms. The cross is imposed upon us by a sinful and adulterous generation, it is not something that we choose in order to get closer to God.