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This series of weekly reflections is intended to support those who are still hanging on to attending (or even leading) Christian worship, if only just, because the conventional doctrines and beliefs no longer work for them. I also hope they will be an opportunity for those, like me, who hadn’t darkened the doors for years, to give it another try, if they can find an inclusive, open-minded and accepting welcome somewhere.
Evangelical and fundamentalist churches always have their beliefs on their website, sometimes running to hundreds of words. Other kinds of churches have their Creeds, so here's mine!
My reflections are like a film 'based on the book' or 'inspired by real events', not just a carbon-copy of the original. I believe Jesus was focused on sharing a vision of a new humanity, not on creating a new religion in his name. He was all about life and how to live it. This image is from Sri Lanka after the dreadful bombings. Jesus stands with us, here on earth, in our suffering, pain, loss and violence, not up in heaven watching. So my journey starts with Jesus when he was still remembered as a radical teacher, healer and prophet who lived on in people's personal/spiritual experience, not as the second member of an eternal Trinity.
You don't have to be 'religious' to give these Notes a try. All religions and their scriptures are human creations. We devised our belief systems - so we can change them. Indeed we must do so or they become irrelevant and unbelievable. I offer a questioning, experimental and essentially human perspective on the set lessons for the Christian year. For those looking for different angles and ideas, whether you are preaching yourself or just interested in 'hearing' something new.
'Perhaps we have buried the real Jesus under a mass of later ideas that have squeezed the life out of him, leaving only a hollow idol of a Christ, not a living 'Lord' who shows us how to be fully human. (From Pentecost 7, 2019)
I value the Christian past, especially great art and the music of composers like Thomas Tallis. I enjoy Cathedral worship beautifully done. I find Christian history endlessly fascinating and probably know as much about the Bible as most clergy! This is my heritage and I am not ashamed of it. I don't want it to die.
But the past was contemporary at the time. What we see as traditional and unchangeable was once innovative. Our understandings always have to be revised in the light of new knowledge. Christianity has tried to put 'God' into a sealed box, all neatly tied up forever with Trinitarian string. 'There you are. That's God. Almighty. All-powerful. All male. Tick. Sorted'. That just doesn't work anymore. All our statements about 'God' are metaphors, similes, poetry and imagination. They do not actually describe any such deeper reality. The ideas are all our own creation.
Religious language may still be useful, as long as we recognise what we are doing - fitting a spiritual framework entirely of our own devising onto human experience. Everything was understood in terms of a 'God' in the past: now we have to add a new scientific and more rational language. But human life goes on. Questions still have to be answered. Meanings have to be discovered. So we have to read our ancient sources and traditions in a new, less literal way if they are to be any help to us.
The Bible was not 'written by God'. Even those who wrote it make no such claim. It has to be reinterpreted not just repeated. The gospels are not meant to be read as if they were newspaper reports. They are creative portraits of Jesus, woven to express each writer's faith in him. They each need to be understood in context, not stitched together to make a fictitious comfort blanket.
Diversity, including of beliefs, is to be celebrated not discouraged. We should be enjoying the complex harmony, not expecting everyone to sing in unison! It's like great music, but with a variety of ideas and insights alongside each other instead of notes. Sometimes it grates; it can be challenging. But what glorious synthesis can be achieved in the end!
Listen to this short piece by Tallis, sung at Prince Harry and Meghan's wedding, and see what I mean! (You can even watch how how the lines intertwine). Each singer has their own different tune. If they were all singing the same notes at the same time, it wouldn't sound half as good!
I recently visited the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The centrepiece is a massive circular war memorial with two group sculptures. Each of them shows muddied and frightened figures gently bearing away a dead and naked man from the battlefield. A school party was there and one of the children asked her teacher, 'Is that Jesus'? The answer, of course, is 'Yes'. Indeed that was in the mind of the sculptor. That's how Jesus still lives, as we find that his human story echoes our own. That's the Way I try to follow.
OTHER PEOPLE'S BOOKS:
'God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism' by Anthony Freeman, (SCM 1993, Imprint Academic 2001). A short, clear and no doubt still controversial summary of the idea that 'God' does not have to mean what it usually means for Christianity to still have value. Let go of the old God and you may find a new language that actually makes sense in the modern world. Unless we find new ways to tell the Christian story it will simply be ignored by those who cannot believe its claims anymore.
‘Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy’ by John Shelby Spong, (Harper Collins 2016). This book is a radical reinterpretation of Matthew’s Gospel. Spong asks us to get back to the original context, steeped in Jewish liturgical life. Much of Christian orthodoxy has to go if there is to be any chance of finding a faith about Jesus that is compatible with what we now know to be true about the world and about ourselves. The gospels are each a response to the life of Jesus, not just a tape recording of what he 'actually said'. That makes a huge difference to how we can approach them today. There is an equally fascinating book on John's Gospel: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (HarperCollins 2013). It clearly can't be read literally - so what kind of gospel is it?
It's not a theology book but Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (several editions) is a magnificent retelling of the human story which tells us so much about who we are. Any religion has to take account of this history, not try and explain it all some other way.
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I have now retired from most of my face-to-face school attendance and absence training, but I still offer my STUDY, AUDIT AND TRAIN PACK by email. I also still WHITTER on education issues now and again and deliver occasional courses for FORUM TRAINING.
My HOME PAGE now reflects my other main interest. Can Christianity and its central figure mean anything to those who are not convinced that conventional ideas of 'God' take us where we need to go as modern, thoughtful human beings? Can faith be radical, rational and inclusive?
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