Following a crucified God

crucifixionGrunewaldWe live in a broken world. We want our world to make sense, but sometimes it just doesn’t. Sometimes the brokenness of the world can overwhelm us, and our desperate desire is to have a way of making sense of what happens, a way to put the brokenness right.

Christians have lots of words to use in such situations; most of them are called prayers. The trouble is that I know from my own life that there are particular times, such as a sudden bereavement, when the words run out, when begging doesn’t seem to be answered, and there is just silence. There are only a certain number of times that you can put your whole heart into praying such words.

The process of saying those words so often, though, and in such a heartfelt manner, changes us. It burns off the dross that we so often fill our minds and hearts with. We get more in touch with the things that we truly value – the clutter gets swept aside, and the central building blocks of our life – our love for our nearest and dearest, a husband or father, a brother or child or friend – these come into focus. And we realise just how very precious they are. For we each bear the image of Christ within us, we are each made in the image of God, and we are each so very, very precious. I think that is how God sees us. One thing that I take away from my own place of bereavement is this sense of the richness, the value, the sheer beauty of a human being, another soul. It is not easy to let something like that go.

There is often still a sense, in me, that if only we do things the right way, then the brokenness of our world can be fended off. That our bereavements and breakdowns can be set aside. If we could only say the right words in the right way then the world can go back to what it was before. This is a type of magical thinking, it is not Christian thinking. Magical thinking in this sense is about controlling the world for our own purposes, using occult means. This is one of the main reasons for Christian missionary success – if the God of these incomers can heal the sick, give people back their sight, or knit bones back together then their magic must be the most powerful magic, their God must be the most powerful God, so let us convert to their rituals. Traces of this can still be found in the Old Testament by the way – and we can trace within the Old Testament a growth in understanding of God, from being the magical figure who was under Israel’s control, to the Creator of the universe.

The central reality that is brought home to me so clearly in my own difficult days is simply this – that we are not in control. God is in control. God will make the creation in a way of his choosing. This seems an obvious thing, a trivial truth, and yet I do believe it is one that we have almost forgotten in the structure of our lives. It is certainly a hidden truth in our culture. We have become accustomed to getting our own way with most things. If we break a leg, we expect to be able to recover, and return to our previous normal life – when that is something astonishing in human history. We are accustomed to being able to see during the dark winter hours, and be kept warm and well fed. Yet, within all the insulation that we surround ourselves with, all the comforts that chloroform the soul, God is still the fundamental ground of our being, the support on which we sit. We are utterly and irreducibly dependent upon God.

Which brings me back to prayer. The heart of prayer is love; that if we bring love to the centre of our awareness, then God is able to work through us. And what is the Christian response to living in a broken world? We follow Christ crucified. In other words, we declare that God is not separate from our own suffering, He is alongside us. That through what happened on the cross, God himself takes on the burden of our suffering and starts the process of putting it right.

The cross is foolishness to a rational mind because it does not represent a complete or fulfilled life. The philosophers of Ancient Greece sought a way to live that avoided suffering, a way that would lead to a fulfilled life of great wisdom and old age. So to hold up as wisdom a way of life that leads to being executed in the prime of life is folly. Worse, the cross is a stumbling block to a religious mind because it is a scandal, an offence to a system of belief. It is a sign of disfavour by God, a sign that God hates the person to whom this is done. For God clearly acts through the crowd, and blessing in this world is the most prominent sign of God’s approval.

Christians belong with Christ crucified. We declare that God is not on the side of those who seek a worldly wisdom that gives worldly satisfactions, nor on the side of those who equate the approval of the world with the approval of God. No, we say that God is to be found with those who are broken and shattered, those who are on the edges, who do not enjoy the favour of the world. These are the ones to whom Christ came.

We live in a broken world. We each carry wounds that have been carved into our flesh, engraved upon our hearts. I believe that the only way through our brokenness is to follow Christ crucified, for Christ crucified tells us the truth about the world, and the truth about God. Yet we Christians do not simply follow Christ crucified. If our story ended there it would surely be scandalous foolishness. Our story ends with the resurrection, but notice that when doubting Thomas meets Jesus, it is through placing his hands in his wounds that he is finally convinced. The wounds are the anchor point of reality for Thomas. They show that Christ has suffered alongside us. And there is a deeper mystery here, for the way of Christ’s resurrection is to demonstrate redemption, not restoration. It is not as though the crucifixion did not happen. It is not as though Christ has been returned to the state that he was in before it happened. No, Christ bears his wounds, they define who he is – and yet, whilst wounded, he is the source of life and light and peace to all who can see him. So we follow Christ crucified, yes – but Christians follow Christ crucified because we know Christ risen, and so we have grounds for hope, and for trust, and these things give us the strength to carry on, day by day, hour by hour, as we navigate our way through our broken world.

Why bother with a church that isn’t spiritually serious?

One of the long themes in Scripture is the divide between the priestly class and the prophetic class. Each of them expresses something of the divine purpose and each has a particular besetting sin to which they succumb when they lose touch with a living faith.

The priestly class upholds the form and ritual that has been mandated and commanded for worship. The prophetic class demands that the life of the nation must honour God through establishing social justice. When Jesus attacks the traders in the Temple he is acting prophetically. When he attends synagogue ‘as was his custom’ he is conforming to the priestly pattern.

By mentioning these things I merely wish to say that I am aware that an over-emphasis upon the priestly responsibilities at the expense of wider questions of justice is a temptation of the religious professional. My concern with regard to what has happened at St John’s Waterloo is that the priestly element to worship has been completely forgotten. That is, it’s not so much that Canon Goddard has done something wrong, it’s that he didn’t have any awareness that it was wrong. It is that absence of awareness that concerns me most.

After all, one of the most essential parts of a spiritually serious faith is the notion of the sacred. That there are some things which are more important than others, some places that are more important than others, and that these more important things are marked out as distinct and different in the life of the faithful. They are, indeed, named as sacred. Do not treat these things in the way that you treat other more mundane things. It is this difference in value between the sacred and the mundane that is the principal means by which a wider sense of value is inculcated. It is impossible to have a Christian virtue tradition, in MacIntyre’s terms, without some sense of the holy and the sacred.

In the life of the Church of England, this has included land – certain land, and certain buildings erected on that land, have been consecrated. That is, they have been dedicated to the worship of the God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They have been set apart for that purpose. They have gained a quality of holiness. It would be fitting for us to take off our shoes before entering into the holy space, as Muslims do before entering into a Mosque, and as Moses did before the burning bush.

With the consecration, certain acts become prohibited – and those prohibited acts are those that profane the sacredness of the space. Specifically, any act of worship which is not of a Christian character would count as such, whether that service be Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or Mormon. The sacred space has been consecrated to Christian worship – any other form of worship that takes place in that space is a breach of that consecration. This is not to say anything whatsoever about those other forms of worship, whether good or bad, it is simply to say that if such worship takes place in a place that has been made sacred for Christian worship then this is profanity, sacrilege and blasphemy. It must not be done, on pain of self-undoing.

(Now there are some exceptions to this blanket prohibition when it comes to ecumenical co-operation with other Christian denominations, when, as I understand it, it is possible to gain approval from the relevant Bishop to allow, eg, a Methodist service within an Anglican church. These points also do not apply to other non-consecrated spaces within a church complex, such as a church hall.)

Now there may well be times when, as a prophetic act, it is necessary to act against such a consecration, yet surely such an act would need to be done with a full awareness of the nature of the intended act, and a fully prayed through understanding of the likely consequences. I see Jesus in the Temple precincts as the paradigm form, and I see that as the specific reason why he was executed.

Now I have no desire to add fuel to the pyre on which a witch-hunt can find a conflagratory fulfilment. I think Canon Goddard might simply apologise and promise not to do it again, and that would be the end of it. What most appalls me about this episode is, as I say, the seeming unawareness that there is any issue here, and the way in which the discussion has been presented in terms of ‘hospitality’. If such language is to retain any sense then it must involve some level of respect to the host; most especially it must involve offering respect to those things which are considered by the host to be of utmost value, those things which are considered holy. The language of hospitality is simply inadequate as the governing description for what has happened. There is a barren and atheistic secularity to such reasoning that I find shocking amongst clergy, and it is this that makes me wonder – what is the point of a church that isn’t spiritually serious? That does not treat holy things as holy but rather, as simply incidental details to be discarded at the behest of any passing good idea?

I think a church that no longer has a sense of the sacred, and therefore of the boundaries of behaviour by which to police the sacred, has failed the Ichabod test, and the Glory of the Lord has departed from it. The consecrated space has become just another building, and then it doesn’t matter what happens within its walls one way or the other. God has left the building.

On the question of what is permissible in church

The Daily Telegraph has a story about a church in London which has been hosting an Islamic prayer service. There are more details here, presumably written by the person who shot the video.

First point: do not believe everything that you read (or see or hear!) in the newspapers (I speak with authority).

That being said, unless the video is demonstrated to be a forgery, I think this is a serious breach of ordination vows – specifically the declaration made at ordination and then repeated at each new appointment that “in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon”. I believe that there are other elements of Canon Law that are relevant.

I believe that our words matter, and when ‘Allahu Akhbar’ is chanted in a church, then this is a quite straightforward example of blasphemy – it is a profaning of Christian worship – and sacrilege – a profaning of the place of Christian worship. To argue otherwise is to indulge in syncretistic nonsense of the worst sort. The different faiths, whilst they have all sorts of family resemblances, are not simply different paths up the same mountain. It matters that Jesus was crucified, and to preach Christ crucified is to say that Jesus was killed, which the Koran explicitly denies.

I can see all sorts of arguments for pursuing peace, hospitality and friendly co-operation with those of non-Christian faiths and no faith at all. What I cannot see an argument for is abandoning our own distinctive identity, with all that binds it together.

Fundamentalism, fairy tales and the beating of dragons

Wittgenstein once wrote “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, the dominant understanding of the ‘arts and sciences’ in our culture is that science does the ‘hard’ stuff, the important stuff, all that provides real knowledge, whereas the realm of the arts and humanities is merely a question of what entertains us – and are we not entertained?

This over-emphasis upon scientific truth has taken two specific forms. The first is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that is an outlook called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else is rejected. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That is the voice of positivism, and when positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, it is radically constricting our capacity for true wisdom. If the serious questions facing our civilisation are ultimately questions of value, then such an approach can produce nothing to say on this subject. The root problem of our time is the way in which the over-emphasis upon science in our culture has crippled our ability to see clearly and exercise a proper discernment and wisdom in our lives.

The other way of over-emphasising science is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation is more important that anything else. This is fundamentalism, and this is the outlook shared by both Richard Dawkins and those who take a literalistic approach to the Bible. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution. It is, in truth, a direct product, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens – the Bible is put through a scientific meat grinder because what is wanted from the end is a scientific sausage. Where particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others, and where science is seen as the most valuable, then, in order to preserve the value of the Bible, it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, and it utterly misses the point about Jesus. If you look into the origins of fundamentalism, in America, the end of the nineteenth century the beginning of the twentieth, it is very explicit – they defend their views by saying this is the scientific approach to the Bible. Richard Dawkins and the fundamentalists agree on what sort of text the Bible is – and I think they both completely miss the point.

Scientific knowledge and awareness, compared with the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, is comparatively trivial. In fact narrative is the most important way in which our understandings are formed. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose scientific credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Similarly, the legend of Frankenstein expresses the same truth, as do any of the myriad stories with a white-coated mad scientist, crying out “I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. These all describe the consequences that come when science is given more value than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed. As the story has developed in the telling, the scientist is replaced by a monster, then by a robot, and eventually by computers and ‘Terminators’. In each case what is missing is the emotional core, the ability to exercise a human judgement.

Simply put, science is ultimately trivial. It can act as the robot helper, collecting samples and sifting evidence, but on the question of wisdom, of what we are to value, of how we are to live, science – the scientific method and the culture which it has fostered and within which it is passed on – science is silent, and can never speak. Although the scientific stance is an important part of a wider wisdom, the converse is not the case. This is a moral blindness, and our scientific culture is systematically blind when it comes to questions of morality. I therefore call our society asophic because it is blind to wisdom. Science’s technological genius is providing us with tools, but the way that science has been taken up in our culture has removed our ability to see what to use those tools for. Our sense of what is right, our sense of what is of value, our sense of what is human and what is humanly important – these have all been ravaged by the dominant culture, like crops consumed by a plague of locusts.

Science cannot help us to determine what it is that we most value, or how to distinguish between different values. Our delusion that it can is the fatal flaw of our civilisation, with a single great consequence: we have forgotten what it means to be wise. Our scientific endeavours must be made subject to wisdom, both intellectually and practically – it is only in this way that we will be able to deal with the problems we now face. To become wiser, we need to become reacquainted with the wisdom traditions of the world, and most especially our own, Christianity. To quote from another of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

(Courier article – adapted from part of my book)