And you held me

And you held me and there were no words
And there was no time and you held me
And there was only wanting and
Being held and being filled with wanting
And I was nothing but letting go
And being held
And there were no words and there
Needed to be no words
And there was no terror only stillness
And I was wanting nothing and
It was fullness and it was like aching for God
And it was touch and warmth and
Darkness and no time and no words and we flowed
And I flowed and was not empty
And I was given up to the dark and
In the darkness I was not lost
And the wanting was like fullness and I could
Hardly hold it and I was held and
You were dark and warm and without time and
Without words and you held me

(Janet Morley)

Sound doctrines are all useless

This is from my earlier book – and I realise that there’s rather a lot of material there which has never been posted. Reading something that Scott has written has prompted me to post it. It’s quite long but, if I might be so bold, I think it’s worth reading!

‘I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life)’
Wittgenstein, 1946

In much of what I have written so far I have explained the way in which certain Christian doctrines have come to be held, and the way in which the rite of the Eucharist has come to be understood. However, the most important part of Christianity is not the doctrine, or the rite, but the life lived as a result. That is the subject of this chapter.

In many ways, Jesus inherited the criticisms of Jewish practice that were first articulated by the prophets. One of their principal objections related to the way in which certain cultic practices were allowed to override the claims of justice. Consider the prophet Amos, who is generally considered to be the oldest of the prophets who have their utterances preserved in a separate book. He was active c. 750BC during the reign of Jeroboam II, at the end of a fairly long period of peace and prosperity. The prophet himself might be considered to be fairly well off as he is described as being a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees, and therefore a property owner. The people were quite ostentatiously ‘religious’ in that they paid their tithes, made elaborate sacrifices and so on, and yet there was a significant degree of corruption and social injustice. According to Amos:

‘Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions and for four I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes – they that trample the head of the needy into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the humiliated; a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar upon garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined’ (Amos 2.6-8)

Amos’ concern is with the humble and the needy, who are being excluded from the community and exploited by the wealthy. As a consequence of this injustice Amos proclaims the imminent judgment of God:

‘Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are in the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the needy, who crush the poor, who say to their husbands ‘bring that we may drink!’ The Lord God has sworn by his Holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. And you shall go out through the breaches, every one straight before her; and you shall be cast forth into Harmon, says the Lord.’ (Amos 4.1-3)

A key aspect of Amos’ criticism relates to the sanctuary of Bethel, which under Jeroboam II was being built up as a rival to the temple in Jerusalem. The priests there were being employed in the service of the king and at one point they drive Amos away from the sanctuary (Amos 7.13). As such this place was the centre of the ‘cultic’ aspects of worship, which Amos denounces: ‘Come to Bethel and transgress’. It is this criticism of the cult in all its aspects which is so unprecedented:

‘I hate, I despise your pilgrimages, and I cannot feel your solemn assemblies. When you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, nothing pleases me, from the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I turn away my eyes. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I cannot listen.’ (Amos 5.21-23)

This message is echoed in many parts of the New Testament, and is at the heart of the criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees offered there. For example:

‘And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men”.’

‘When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

And most clearly of all:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And then the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sickand in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they too will answer, “Lord, when did we see the hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

As Jesus puts it on another occasion, ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my father who is in heaven.’

The point of these references is to indicate that Christianity is not a matter of believing certain propositions to be true, still less is it a matter of being a member of a particular institution. All the language used is there to explain a picture, a way of understanding life and the world. To claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is to say something about the way life should be lived. That claim, as a form of words, is irrelevant. If ‘Jesus Christ is a neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie’ had the same result in terms of the way life was lived then it would have equal doctrinal merit.

Christianity is about a way of living life, so that the life is lived in imitation of Christ, acting in accordance with his Spirit. In essence, it means that the faithful person lives their life in a way that has love at the centre, firstly a love for God, and secondly love for the neighbour. The first is crucial, for it is the relationship with God that constitutes the faith which Paul describes as necessary for salvation. To have that relationship with God is to perceive that the most fundamental feature of the universe is that it was created by a God of love, whose nature is revealed in the life of Jesus. ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God and he who loves is born of God and knows God.’ Much of the early Christian writing was concerned with spelling out what this primacy of love meant in practice. For example, Paul writes in Galatians:

‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’;

and in Colossians,

‘Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forebearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also forgive’;

and most famously of all, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body that I may be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.’

These are all examples of Christian virtues, but of course, these words, these descriptions do not amount to much on their own – they require a life to be lived out in order to demonstrate their nature. Our culture suffers from the illusion, ultimately derived from Platonism, that the way to God is through the intellectual path. If we could only understand correctly, then we might be saved. Christianity is opposed to this, for ultimately that aspect of Platonism is idolatrous – it is the search for a truth which can be held with certainty in our own human sphere.

The Body of Christ is made up of all those who act in a way concordant with the Spirit of Christ, ie who exercise and demonstrate these virtues. It is by actions that faith is borne forth. As Paul writes,

‘For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury…It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts…’

In this way, Christianity is very much a product of the Hebrew faith from which it sprang. In the opening chapter I argued for three elements in the Hebrew faith: anti-idolatry, relationship, and praxis. Those three elements are retained within Christianity, although the understanding of God is now lensed through the life of Jesus and not through the Law as delivered to Moses. As such, Christianity is a dynamic religion – it requires active moral judgement each day.

As Christianity developed this aspect was at the forefront. If you read the Church fathers their concerns are with this shaping of a life. The Church exists to serve the world by demonstrating this understanding of God – by acting in a righteous manner and showing the nature of love. Of course, if this is what the Church is about, how come we have ended up in such a mess?

Why not just give up?

Warning: painfully grumpy post ahead. I’ll probably recant from parts of it tomorrow, if the antibiotics do their work.

First, if you haven’t already read about it, read the story of the Rev Dr Tom Ambrose here, and then read Ruth Gledhill’s blog about it here. In particular, do read some of the comments after the deposition, and pray for Tom and his family.

OK. Regular readers will know that I’ve struggled a) with the workload of this job and b) a (much milder) version of what Tom’s been through, which has largely run its course, thanks be to God. Yet there are lots of continuing niggles, vexations and disappointments (ie me disappointing others) which wear down the soul, and in the last few days I’ve had one of those ‘straw on the camel’s back’ moments about one vastly minor parish matter which has caused offence. And frankly I’m fed up, and wondering what the point of it all is.

Let me be clear. Despite rumours of heresy I am more convinced than ever that Jesus of Nazareth is the word made flesh, that in him is life in all its fullness. It’s not Christianity I doubt; it’s not the wondrous nature of worship and sharing faith that I doubt. It’s whether the Church of England fails the Ichabod test (and I would also distinguish between Anglican theology as a whole and the Church of England as an institution in particular). Is it time to abandon ship? That’s not the same as abandoning congregations (in that sense the congregation is the ship) but there is a sense that, as Gramsci wrote, ‘The old is dying and the new cannot yet be born, in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. Is it more true to the Gospel to let this Christendom-encrusted model pass into history? I know Rowan has had similar thoughts.

Thing is, as my wife points out, I know that I wouldn’t be feeling like this if I was at my normal level of strength. And I would tend to see this as ‘the devil’s got his grip on me at the moment’. There are certainly still times when I get filled with enthusiasm about what might be possible through parish work. Yet I have to also acknowledge that I’ve begun to occasionally entertain thoughts of throwing the whole lot in and saying ‘to hell with it’, not least because I’ve never had to struggle with ill-health so consistently since I started work in a parish. I’d become an NSM priest, retrain as either a teacher or a psychotherapist and continue to pursue God with all my heart. I’d continue to read and write (and blog and take photos) but I’d no longer feel so obligated to be nice to those who are incapable of taking Christianity seriously, nor would I have to continually compromise with the world in order to keep within canon law. Or is this just an illusory dream of freedom? I’d certainly not want to join another ecclesiastical establishment; I remain profoundly Anglican in my bones.

Harrumph! My wife thinks I’m going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. As I say, when I feel better physically I’m sure I’ll feel more positive spiritually. But I think this is one of those ventings of spleen that is better out than in.

Margrave of the Marshes (John Peel and Sheila Ravenscroft)

This was fascinating, although it must be confessed that my musical taste is probably the polar opposite of John Peel’s. There’s a very funny (for me) moment in the book when Sheila is recounting his dislike for Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits and U2 and I’m thinking ‘they’re all the ones I really like!’ On top of which I have never heard ‘Teenage Kicks’ which seems to have represented everything he liked. Totally different worlds. (Actually, scratch that – I also went to boarding school so I could recognise a lot of what he described, and I could really relate to his shyness.)

However, the most interesting aspect of Peel’s life seems to be the way in which, through pursuing his own interests (= his vocation) he fostered a community and enabled them to experience a sense of belonging, overcoming alienation and loneliness in the process. That seems a holy task. (It also seems to be what Mad Priest has accomplished in a different medium. I’m sure he has a copy of ‘Teenage Kicks’ 😉

Socrates or Jesus?

(Originally written just after I had started writing this blog, on July 17 2005, but I thought it worth tweaking and updating and bringing up front. The ‘book’ has now become LUBH.)

Where have I got to?

After such a long time of first writing, and then thinking, and then reading and then thinking some more, have I come to any conclusions? Am I ever going to write this book?

Well, I do feel that I have been climbing a mountain, an intellectual mountain to be sure, but a spiritual mountain as well.

For this book that I am compelled to write is really a way of resolving a conflict within myself. The origins of the book lie in an experience that I had around the time of my twentieth birthday, which moved me from being a militant atheist to one who could not deny the reality of God, and one who is now a priest.

That transformation moved me spiritually in a way that I suspect I would never have been able to achieve on my own, and really the last fifteen years can be seen, in one light, as my trying to catch up intellectually with what happened in that summer of 1990.

I think I have now caught up – or at least, if I have not in fact gained the summit of my personal mountain, that summit is now in sight.

The best way to describe the reality behind these words is to talk about the difference between two paths to God, the Platonic path and the Christian path.

The Platonic path has its roots in Socrates, and his attitude in the face of death. He embraced the conflict with the Athenian authorities, and used that conflict – engineering the death sentence – in order to display his teachings about the irrelevance of death. For the true philosopher has an immortal soul, which is not affected by death. Indeed, the best life, the truest, most virtuous and most authentic life, is one in which a person prepares themselves for this death by removing all the ‘attachments’ to the world from their emotional life, restricts the objects of their concern to the realm of the Forms and seeks, ultimately, to ascend to a contemplation of the One, which, in one neo-Platonic phrasing, is the journey of ‘the alone to the Alone’. This is a journey for an intellectual elite; it is a journey undertaken in solitude; it is a journey which is self-directed and under the control of the individual will, properly trained. Those who become ‘perfect’ attain to the One. And the One does not care whether you make this journey or not.

The Christian path, in contrast, has its roots in Jesus’ attitude in the face of death, best revealed in the Garden of Gethsemane: “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death… Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” Jesus is afraid of death; he is not facing the prospect of crucifixion with philosophical detachment. Yet he surrenders his will to God. Moreover, this surrendering of the will was characteristic of Jesus’ mature life, and it was this surrendering which was taught to the disciples. This surrendering bears fruit in a community of loving friendship, exemplified in the Last Supper: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing, but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” So the Christian journey is one that is undertaken within a community of friendship; it is a journey for everyone; it is a journey which is centred on the abandonment of self-direction and a radical dependency on divine grace – for God cares very much whether you take this path. It is the journey of love: ‘Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God’.

So, to summarise: the Platonic path, as I understand it, is an individualistic and intellectualistic project to achieve the contemplation of the One and thereby to achieve immortality. The Christian path, as I understand it, is a Eucharistic and moral project to transform the world in the light of eternity, and thereby gain eternal life.

In the Platonic path, the intellect is dominant.
In the Christian path, surrender of the will to God is key.

(Christianity is not about the abandonment of intellect. It is about surrendering the intellect – and the intellectual products like our ego and the deadly sins that go with the desire for ego-preservation – to a higher power.)

To return to my militant atheism: it was a manifestation of the mainstream of our present culture, in which the modernist project of triumphant Reason – atheistic, self-sufficient, controlling, technocratic, inherently totalitarian – has largely succeeded in eviscerating the Christian alternative. As I am, temperamentally, an intellect-dominated person, that Modernist idolatry took deep root in my understanding. Although I would not have had the words to describe it accurately until very recently: my understanding was Platonist, in the sense that I have described.

That triumphant Modernism was built upon the re-incorporation of the Platonic path within Western Christianity itself, from which came the evils of the Inquisition, Scholasticism, the Crusades, the Wars of Religion and, ultimately, the Holocaust.

Really what my journey has been about is seeking a way to reconcile my intellect with my guiding spirit, my soul, that which is of God within me – to achieve an integrity between a part of myself which was ‘touched’ by God – and is therefore undeniable, for it is deeper within me than my understanding can reach – and an intellect which, every step of the way, has resisted the implications of that touch. To achieve integrity, to find that peace which the world cannot give, I have had to dig deeper and deeper into my understandings, to uproot what it is in my intellect which is opposed to that touch of God and to slowly and steadily surrender my will to God. Of course, I resist even now, for I am mulishly stubborn. Truly the Will is a terrible master.

I believe that, in essence, what I have to say in my book is to share the fruits of this journey that I have made: to, as +Richard put it, ‘speak the word that [I] have been given’. To offer a truly prophetic critique of Western Christianity – prophecy not as a prediction of what will come (although there is that) but prophecy as a demand to return to a proper worship of God, and thereby to alleviate the sufferings of the widows and orphans of the world. For God is a jealous God and a righteous God.

I am conscious of the way that sounds grandiose. Left to myself, my ego would seek to protect itself from such a reckless endangerment – for such boastful-sounding words are hubristic, and I believe deeply in nemesis, although I give that pagan concept a different name. If there was a way in which I could have a quiet and peaceful life I think I would choose it, yet ‘not what I will’.

I think much of Jonah fleeing to Tarshish; I think much of Amos: “I am but a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees”; I think much of Isaiah: “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips”; I think of Jeremiah: “Ah Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth!”. If I have a ‘guiding text’ which hovers at the back of my mind as I think and write, it is this:

“Hear the Word of the Lord, O people of Israel;
for the Lord has a controversy with the inhabitants of the land.
There is no faithfulness or kindness,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
There is swearing, lying, killing, stealing, and committing adultery;
they break all bounds and murder follows murder.
Therefore the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish,
and also the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air;
and even the fish of the sea are taken away.

Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse,
for with you is my contention O priest.
You shall stumble by day,
the prophet also shall stumble with you by night;
and I will destroy your mother.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
because you have rejected knowledge,
I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
I also will forget your children.”

(Hosea chapter 4).

The Psalmist writes that ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’, and in truth, the more that I reflect on our world and the corruption in our mother the church (it is so corrupt that it no longer can see the corruption), the more afraid I become. I think apocalyptic thoughts.

And yet, and yet. Jesus tells us repeatedly: do not be afraid. For perfect love drives out fear. And we are called to love, for ‘God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.’ God is a God of mercy and of grace.

And I remember – at this time of both literal and metaphorical darkness – that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overwhelm it.

I hope, in my book, to give an account of the light and hope that is in me.