Deciding against it

This is for Chris G-Z: why did I decide against converting to Roman Catholicism? Well, there are lots of areas that we might discuss, but there’s only one big and determinative issue: I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t what God wanted me to do. I’m quite certain if I’m wrong on that then He’ll let me know(!) but for now I’m pretty sure I’m where God wants me to be, doing what God wants me to do. That may change – in fact, if things with the Church of England really go pear-shaped then it probably will change – but for now I have no anxiety of soul on the question of denomination.

I confess

Another meme, about theology. This one might be a bit more interesting than usual.

I confess: to finding Christianity intellectually, emotionally and personally exciting and fulfilling – more than I ever dreamt possible.

I confess: to believing that most theology, especially most theology of the last two hundred years, is garbage. However, that theology which isn’t garbage is life-saving, literally. I’d like to spend more time reading that latter sort, and sharing its insights with the faithful. Most of why I think this is because of Wittgenstein, who has undoubtedly influenced me more than any theologian.

I confess: I’m fed up of working for an established church. If the institution of the Church of England ceased tomorrow I’d feel quite excited. I’d rather be unfettered by incumbency, by which I don’t mean being embedded in a parish, I mean being embedded in the clinging ivy of canon law and inherited practice. Being embedded in a parish is essential for my spiritual health, but if someone said to me that from tomorrow I would never again have to a) take the funeral of someone unknown to me; b) take the marriage of someone unknown to me; c) baptise the child of someone unknown to me; d) deal with canon law, especially with regard to churchyards – then I would sing Hallelujah. Though I should say that whilst I hate establishment, I am more and more persuaded of ‘the genius of Anglicanism’.

I confess: I sometimes suspect that I’m an evangelical ‘in the closet’.

I confess: I don’t think you can celebrate Holy Communion properly without incense. I also think that communion is the only form of worship which isn’t ultimately foreplay.

I confess: to thinking very seriously about converting to Roman Catholicism. And deciding against it.

I confess: to not believing in the Virgin Birth in anything like a literal fashion. (Though I wholeheartedly accept John 1.12-13). I believe that orthodoxy is essential, however, so this is an ongoing spiritual problem for me.

I confess: to having a very sober expectation of witnessing a revival in my lifetime.

I confess: that John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’ paved the way for my coming to be a Christian.

I confess: that I haven’t read that much theology ‘in the original’. Most of what I know about theology and theologians has come via secondary sources and conversations.

I confess: I can read Rowan Williams without struggling too much, and mostly because I think he’s wonderful, as both a teacher and as a Christian man.

I confess: that the worst mark that I ever got in any school examination was for Religious Education. In my defence, I was a militant atheist at the time, and I thought it all nonsense.

I confess: that I first started reading the Bible for myself when I was about six years old. I read through the first few chapters of Genesis before getting stuck. I have now read through all of it, at least once, but I am vastly more familiar with the gospels than anything else.

I confess: that I read and enjoyed and was much persuaded by a Jehovah’s Witness tract on Creationism when I was about 14. I then thought I’d read an alternative point of view and read Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. That’s when my atheism became militant.

I confess: that if I wasn’t a Christian I’d be a Buddhist.

I confess: to the zeal of the convert when it comes to pondering atheism. Having thrown of its intellectual shackles myself, I get a bit impatient with those who still think it’s anything like a tenable understanding for human living. I don’t think there will be much atheism in another generation or two.

I confess: to believing that theology is the queen of the sciences.

I confess: to believing that the Bible teaches works-righteousness when taken as a whole. Which I don’t think is in contradiction to sola gratia, it just describes the form that grace must take.

I confess: to finding traditional language of hell, Satan and the demonic more and more relevant and applicable as time goes on. I’m fully sold on the idea of spiritual warfare.

I confess: to not having doubted the existence of God for at least ten years, possibly more. My acceptance of God is more fundamental in me than my acceptance of my own self. I’ve tried to doubt, I’m just incapable of doing it.

I confess: to believing that my most formative theological influence may be Stephen R Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

I confess: to desiring a third section of the Bible containing works of the Church Fathers, to be given equal authority with the Old Testament.

I confess: to believing that historical Christianity failed to develop a proper theology of the body, which is responsible for most of the havoc in that regard that we now experience. We need a Christian martial art.

I confess: that the idea of lay presidency appals me. It’s either a redundant aim (because communion is celebrated by everyone) or it’s simply an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology. Priesthood is a differentiation sideways, not vertically, so what precisely is being objected to? I can’t see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.

I confess: to believing that most people, including most theologians, have got absolutely no idea how implicated in worldly structures of thought Christianity has become. The sort of people I think do have an idea about this are Fergus Kerr and Nicholas Lash, mainly because they’ve ‘got’ Wittgenstein, and someone like Eugene Peterson – because the Holy Spirit is with him, probably via Yoder.

I confess: that I was once sorely tempted to sign up to Radical Orthodoxy, whereas now I see it as the last flowering of precisely that worldly pattern of theology. Just what is their view of Scripture, pray tell?

I confess: to once saying I would never allow a guitar to be used in worship. I have changed my mind on this.

I confess: I’m still tempted by the thought of a PhD.

I confess: that I’d like to train as an exorcist.

I confess: that if I’d become ordained sooner I’d probably be a member of Forward in Faith. The Lord’s timing is always perfect.

I confess: that I am utterly convinced and convicted of my own status as a sinner. I don’t expect that to change in this world, but I do trust that it won’t prevent me from enjoying the next.

I confess: that when I let myself, I am prone to visions. I don’t let myself very often, because they’re very disruptive. They’re also usually about Jesus. I don’t think that in and of themselves they are theologically all that significant, although they most certainly are significant for me and my spiritual growth.

I confess: that I believe that “eternal life” is at least as much about what happens in this world as in the next.

I confess: that I have changed my mind about the role of excommunication in church discipline, mainly from reading Cavanaugh. I also confess to having absolutely no idea of how to take this forward.

I confess: to feeling closest to God when I can sing in worship, especially the Exsultet. It’s a wound to me to be apart from a congregation where singing the eucharistic prayer is natural. It seems as if the celebration is always limping and fragmentary; and I’m tempted to say it’s better off not being sung at all – that way at least there is a unity amongst the people.

I confess: this list has gone on too long. I could probably keep going all night, but that wouldn’t help anyone.

Possession and Depression

My sermon from Sunday, talking about mental illness, depression and salvation. Click full post for text. (Texts: Luke 8.26-39 and Galatians 3.23-end)

Doctor, doctor, you’ve got to help me, my brother thinks that he’s a chicken! Well why don’t you bring him in to see me then? We can’t do that, we need the eggs!

We have in our gospel today the story of the healing a man possessed by demons. I would like to say something about mental illness in general, and depression in particular. As a society we have virtually lost the language of describing certain forms of behaviour using spiritual categories – not necessarily “demonic possession” – but the realisation that theology is an essential component of understanding human life. I’m a bit of a sceptic about “mental illness” as such (see this post), and I’m greatly sceptical about pharmaceutical involvement unless there are exceptional circumstances – in my view much of what we describe as mental illness is most often a spiritual issue, and it requires spiritual treatment; that is, at root, much so-called mental illness is resolvable through faith; it is caused by bad theology and it is cured by good theology. I wouldn’t wish to deny the existence, in some situations, of an organic basis, which requires medication – but I think it is vastly rarer than the current medical practice would allow for. To flesh this out I want to talk about depression in particular.

To begin with, some forms of depression can be very healthy and right and necessary – not an illness at all, it is a time of spiritual adjustment to new realities. For example, if someone you love dies then it is both natural and necessary to experience loss – to expect someone newly widowed to be all bright and bubbly is manifest nonsense.

Other forms of depression can also be a response to a great sin, where the conscience cries out for release, and it needs a process of confession and absolution. The trouble with this is that it rests upon a robust account of sin, the idea that some actions are wrong and some actions are sins. In our wider culture sin is not named and people can flounder in great confusion and anguish until they are able to see clearly the situation that they are in – the naming is important, and the truth sets free.

Depression can also be born from a refusal to change to new realities in life, and is therefore about an inner dishonesty. In my experience this normally resolves around anger – anger is seen as illegitimate, it is therefore buried, and the soul is poisoned. The cure for this sort of depression is to let the anger out, to discover more about our own souls and pursue the path of honesty with oneself. The most helpful thing here is to remember that Jesus gets angry – and if the new reality is something toxic, which destroys life, which is injustice – then anger is precisely what is called for to confront that new reality and fight it. Anger has two children, hope and courage – and they are both very healing – for the poison is no longer internalised, it is no longer seen as part of the identity of the sufferer. They are no longer to blame. However, I should note that there is a problem with anger. I think anger is always a gift from God, and a sign of falsehood and injustice – but anger by itself does not say whether the problem, the falsehood or injustice, is on the inside or on the outside. Prayer is still needed.

There is another form of depression which is just as often about transference from a community, where somebody is kept “ill” – the community ‘need the eggs’ – and I believe that this story of the Gerasene demoniac is an example. Note carefully that the demoniac is kept chained in place – he is not allowed to wander into the desert and separate from the community, but is kept as one who is ‘living dead’, unclothed (no social standing) and living amongst the tombs. The demoniac is a scapegoat – note the name of the demon is ‘legion’ or ‘mob’ or ‘crowd’ – it is precisely the mentality of the mob that has infected him. In the description of this story in Mark’s gospel the man is stoning himself, which is such a potent symbol of internalising the standards of the wider society. How many people do we know who spend their time stoning themselves because they feel that they deserve that punishment? The demoniac is functioning as a scapegoat within the social system – remember the description of the rite in Leviticus, where the High Priest lays hands upon the goat and transfers all the sins of the community onto it, and it is then driven out into the wilderness. This is a very widespread cultural phenomenon, we can see many examples of it in our own time – the one serves the many by being excluded, and then the group feels better – the scapegoat is the lynchpin of the system. What is remarkable is the word for scapegoat in the Greek rite – pharmakos – you could say humans are addicted to the drug of scapegoating, and that in our society we are no longer so vulgar as to stone people, we simply give pharmaceuticals to the pharmakon instead.

‘What have you to do with me?’ says the man to Jesus. It’s as if he is expecting Jesus to be on the side of the established system, but Jesus is different, he is transformative and he breaks the system. He heals the man – not by transferring his sense of wrongness onto somebody else within the community (that would have kept the system in place) but by transferring the demons into a group of pigs who then die. The possession comes to an end. And what really reveals the complicity of the community is there is no relief, there is no delight in the curing of the man – instead there is fear, a sentiment repeatedly affirmed in the narrative. For how can the society carry on functioning without its lynchpin? The possessed man is healed but the community are most explicitly not healed – they are still possessed by the scapegoating process and do not know how to live without it. So the first thing they do is ask Jesus to leave – another scapegoat!

Christ is always acting to stop the process of scapegoating. And Paul has something to say about this too. His teaching from Galatians that we have just had is a powerful call to unity. He abolishes the three most important ways in which the human community separated out the clean from the unclean – racism, sexism and economic oppression – and he claims that for the Christian that is now irrelevant. Nobody is outside our circle – we are all sinners, therefore we are not kept clean by excluding the mad the bad and the dangerous – and the mad the bad and the dangerous are not isolated from us. We are all in this together, and so we can none of us be understood separately from the system within which we are a part. For the Christian, we no longer need a lynchpin – for the one who forms us was himself lynched.

The cure for possession is possession, “until Christ is born in us” – Jesus is the way the truth and the life, his burden is light, he sets us free… but hang on. There is a DANGER here, a danger that the Christian community hasn’t always avoided. We could simply set up a new system, where the depressed are blamed for having a lack of faith – then called more and more strenuously to really convert – it really is still all their fault and we are still not really to blame, we are still separate and pure whilst they are unclean: a new system with new lynchpins. No. That is not the faith. The whole point of being filled with Christ is that we no longer define ourselves over against other human beings – ‘we’re not like those atheists/ catholics/ baptists/ 9.30 people/ 11 o’clockers/ those who haven’t been born again – fill in your own definition here….’ We define ourselves solely by reference to our relationship with Christ – until Christ is born in us.

This is not an experience, a special holy moment, but a dawning awareness that beneath our wrongness which occupies the dramatic front of stage in our minds, we are right with God. That God loves us, that God likes us, and that God is working to heal us and drive out our demons – that is what a living faith does – it slowly takes up our wounded hearts and minds and it brings them to Christ that they might be healed. Our destiny is to sit at Christ’s feet, clothed and in our right mind, and when that happens – only when that happens – we are to follow Christ’s command: ‘go and tell what God has done for you’ – for then the whole community is healed, and the Kingdom shall come.

For Madpriest

A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery, when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.

He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.

After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight. When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side.

When he was close enough, he called out, “Excuse me, where are we?”

“This is Heaven, sir,” the man answered.

“Wow! Would you happen to have some water?” the man asked.

“Of course, sir. Come right in, and I’ll have some ice water brought right up.”

The man gestured, and the gate began to open.

“Can my friend,” gesturing toward his dog, “come in, too?” the traveller asked.

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t accept pets.”

The man thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog.

After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence.

As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.

“Excuse me!” he called to the man. “Do you have any water?”
“Yeah, sure, there’s a pump over there, come on in.”

“How about my friend here?” the traveller gestured to the dog.
“There should be a bowl by the pump.”

They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it.

The traveller filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself, then he gave some to the dog.

When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree.

“What do you call this place?” the traveller asked.

“This is Heaven,” he answered.

“Well, that’s confusing,” the traveller said. “The man down the road said that was Heaven, too.”

“Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope. That’s hell.”

“Doesn’t it make you mad for them to use your name like that?”

“No, we’re just happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind.”

The Last Oil Shock (David Strahan)

This was a rather good overview of the Peak Oil problem, from a British perspective, and despite being pretty well informed on the subject – or so I like to tell myself – there were a number of things I learnt, particularly with regard to details about Hubbert’s techniques of forecasting oil production and the influence of energy consumption on economic growth. Recommended, especially if you haven’t read anything else on the subject.

Strahan is a BBC journalist; his blog is here; a relevant Guardian article from yesterday is here.