Is there a way to keep a hold on my Christian heritage, but without a belief in a supernatural God?
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'Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is Man'
(Alexander Pope 1678-1744)
I am reluctant to call myself 'a Christian', even though I have begun to re-attend my local Cathedral, and mostly feel quite at home there. Christianity has tended to put 'God' into a box, all neatly tied up with Trinitarian string. 'There you are. That's God. Almighty. All-powerful. All male. Tick. Sorted'. I blame Michaelangelo! That just doesn't work anymore. Most people are now non-Theists as traditionally understood even if they recognise a sense of mystery in the Universe. Other traditions talk more of a 'breath' or a 'spirit' of life in all things or of God as 'being-itself' not 'a' Being (Tillich). Many of us feel we are 'in exile' or 'on the boundary'; not wanting to abandon the church altogether but unconvinced by its historic doctrines, patriarchal language and outdated values.
But I do try to follow, and to write about, 'the Way' of Jesus, as his first followers were known. Jesus is an example of a entirely human, but self-giving, life. He was not different in kind from us, though perhaps he had a 'spirit of holiness' that made him special in the memory of those who met him. I still find myself drawn to his example. He's in my DNA. A human life, well-lived, is the best that we can hope for. Jesus is a sign that 'God' is to be found in ourselves and in one another. To paraphrase: 'In us She lives and moves and has Her being' not the other way round. It's all about this life 'in all its fulness', including what we often allocate to the 'spiritual' - a journey into greater self-understanding, meaning, value and purpose.
'I still count myself in Jesus’ family (just!) because, like him, I am human too. But I often find it hard to see him in the ‘Christ’ of the church. We don’t need all these complex metaphysical ideas any more. But we can seek to be like him, walk in his Way and turn the idea of wholeness into reality; the Word made into flesh, now, in us, not just in him'. (From 'The Apostate's Creed')
Religions don't necessarily get to the heart of the truths they try to communicate. Since the Bible books were written and the doctrines of Christianity were created, we have discovered science and the rest of the Universe. Many of the assumptions made centuries ago no longer apply. But there is truth in the Jesus story, even if the story isn't literally true. It's not always easy to keep going and some of my fellow-travellers will think I am way off course. But once you turn 'God' into a thing, an object, an idol that we have made, I believe you get lost - especially if you are sure that your way is the only way. That was not, for me, the Way of Jesus.
I can thoroughly recommend '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.
I am also greatly encouraged by the many writings of John (Jack) Spong. ‘Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy’, (Harper Collins 2016). This book is a magnificent 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.
I have also just read 'Through Mud and Barbed Wire' by Mel Thompson (website: http://www.mel-thompson.co.uk/index.html). Deeply moving at this time of the 100 years anniversary of the ending of WW1. The stories of Teilhard de Chardin and Paul Tillich (my favourite!) On opposite sides in the same bloody battle and both huge theological thinkers. Interwoven with the author's own story and, at many points, with mine. Not always easy reading but well worth the effort.
All our statements about a God are metaphors and similes. As the ancient Greeks already knew centuries ago, all our ideas of the gods are images and idols; they have to be. 'If horses had gods, they would look like horses' - attributed to Xenophanes. We have to go 'beyond Theism' (Spong) if we are to find any deeper understanding of 'God'. The religious systems we have created cannot contain this deeper reality, (if there is one - I cannot be certain). It's those who claim to know all about God 'personally' or to speak directly on his behalf who worry me. Those who effectively worship the Bible, or any other human text, as if it were God. Then religions can become dangerous, authoritarian and oppressive; the very opposite of what is good for us.
This is the new icon above the nave of Lichfield Cathedral, made by the Bethlehem Icon Centre as part of the centenary of the end of WW1. I find it very moving as an image of suffering humanity. I still find many elements of the Christian story particularly intriguing and challenging. Not least the unjust killing, like so many others, that is at the heart of it; and that the things Jesus seems to have said about justice, compassion, forgiveness and care for others are surely central to how to live - what he called 'seeking the Kingdom'. He broke all the rules and social conventions, including the religious ones. A 'Godlike', inclusive, spirit-filled way to live, if you like, but all about this life, not a supposed next one.
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 human Jesus is where I have to focus. The rest is commentary and speculation.
So is there any value left in Christianity if you strip away all the outdated supernatural and doctrinal assumptions about the way the world is and just try to live life well and walk in his footsteps? Are at least some 'believers' willing to listen to and include the rest of us, not just tell us we are wrong? Is there anything left if you approach it all in a different way? Maybe; maybe not. You decide. We each have to.
The two FREE books below are my original thoughts on a humanist spirituality from a few years back. They are brief essays or sermons on two themes: The Psalms and the Parables. These parts of the Bible take us into human individual experience and our community life together so they still have plenty to say.
For me 'spirituality' is not about some mystical feeling or 'other worldly' experience. It's much more about how we think about life and give it a rational meaning than about anything necessarily 'religious'. It's a deeper dimension to our humanity, not a wish to escape from it. Conventional faith may sometimes help - I can't entirely forget my heritage - but it may also get in the way. There are new places to go and so we need to travel in new directions to get there.
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I am retiring at Easter 2019 after almost 30 years working in education welfare. Read more about why at RETIREMENT. This website will then be closed down once the final round of FORUM Training Attendance Officer courses is complete. (Places are still available for the 3 initial seminars in January - see link below).
Until then I am still committed to promoting a welfare-based and strategic approach to managing attendance, not only a focus on improving the figures. I will offer you an informed and independent voice that gives you real practical help in carrying out your statutory duties and which seeks to promote more effective solutions for those children and young people who most need them.
But there is more to life than work so you'll also find a page where I write about 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, rational human beings?
Feedback and comment are always very welcome.
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