50 Shades of Grey – a theology of ambiguity.

We tend to like things in black and white. Modernism and enlightenment philosophy simply don’t like, or cater for,ambiguity.

And yet, much of Scripture is ambiguous – perhaps by design?

If this is true the fault in seeking certainty is all on our side, it could just be that we ‘moderns’ have allowed our minds to be captured by just the sort of false philosophy St. Paul warned about in Colossians 2, 8?

In a strange sort of way I enjoy Scriptural ambiguity – it allows me to think about, reflect on and, apply Scripture in my daily life. A simple and straightforward rule book would, probably, only feed my inner rebel, with disastrous consequences for both me and others!

Permitting ambiguity also means that I don’t have to trade off individual Scriptures against each other in the pursuit of truth. Scriptural ambiguity seems to find a strange parallel in real life ambiguity. How comforting, how pastoral. 

In the Bible where do we first find ambiguity and, complexity?

Thankfully Genesis Chapter 1!

You know the place where God made water and land, night and day, humans first, then males and females. Now these might be absolute states but, look at what Is not made explicit: the ‘shades of grey,’ that reside between the absolutes. Dawn and dusk aren’t mentioned (yet the they surely exist), the estuary land that is neither sea nor dry land and so on. Between the certainties resides the uncertainties, and these are just much part of God’s love in breathing life into the universe. 

And so it may be in relation to human beings?

Between the gender certainties we find a number of humans  who can be described as neither male or female. Genesis 1 could also allow for differences in sexual attraction. If we accept that ambiguity is deliberately, explicitly, woven into the tapestry of the Scriptures we might be able to accept that God made Adam and Eve, and Adam and Steve.

Being happily married to my Eve, does not invalidate other forms of covenant relationship; forms I might struggle to fully understand.

There are shades of grey as we have seen, left deliberately within the creation narrative, and it is how we work out what is going on in the areas we don’t properly understand that determines how we deal creatively, lovingly, with difficulty, ambiguity and uncertainty. I have no difficulty in relating to those who stand on the same ground as me. It is those who represent (to me) a shade of grey that pose the real challenge. So what should I, or we, do? 

Perhaps Jesus provides the answer in Matthew 5, 41: ‘and if anyone asks you to go one mile, go the second as well.’  

But be careful! Walking the extra mile might lead you into the grey, in betwixt and between areas. Perhaps these are the places where we learn to understand more but, end up knowing less. These could be the places where we come to really understand our shared humanity – which takes us nicely back to Genesis Chapter 1 (verse 26), where we read that God first of all made humans before settling on any other categories through which we begin to understand difference. 

 

 

Church, politics & the Politics of the Church.

This week the Daily Telegraph suggested that the Church of England was rapidly becoming the religious offshoot of the Labour Party. Apparently the C of E once thought of as the ‘Conservative Party at Prayer,’ is now the ‘Labour Party at Prayer.’ I hope not. The Church and Politics.

I hope the Church always takes the moral (and biblical) imperative to serve the outcast, the poor and the refugee at face value. I pray that all Christians take seriously the injunction ‘love your neighbour as yourself,’ and, a doctrine of creation that understands that each and every person is made in the image of the living God with the doctrines of creation and incarnation having real world consequences for how we live..

Politicians aren’t mandated take creation and incarnation as their guiding principles, Christians are. Enough said!

A few weeks ago an Archdeacon suggested to me that women bishops would soon be reality because the ‘conservative evangelicals’ now have a bigger prize in their sight: the prohibition of blessings on same sex couples. Church Politics.

And, in these two thoughts is contained one of the reasons why so many are turned off church and, Christianity. Many people expect the Church to be on the side of all who are subjected to perceived (and real) inequality and injustice. Perhaps such a church would be a true missionary church? A true missionary church is a church that meets the aspirations of those with a heart for those who are discriminated against – a true missionary church provides a home for those seeking to live righteous lives and in so doing introduces them to the person of Jesus (see Acts 17,22).

The problem is that a Church that is perceived to be on the side of the poor whilst also being anti women and gays looks just ‘plain weird,’ (Rosie Harper’s term).

Now, we need to be careful of always accepting, uncritically, the prevailing consensus or cultural norms. We must be prepared, where required, to look and act weird. Agreement with the majority doesn’t necessarily equate to good, as in moral or ethical, decisions. We also need to acknowledge that the consensus is frequently wrong. One of my investment maxims is to do the exact opposite of the prevailing wisdom presented by the consensus economic view!

But, we also need to be humble and discern those areas in which the emerging consensus may be correct. Sometimes God might use those outside the Church to teach us a thing or two! It could be that those outside the Church are the ones charged with telling us insiders how to mend our ways!

Theologically we also need to guard against confusing conformity of thoughts and behaviour with unity. Unity, I think, is a destiny arrived at only through working through disagreement. Jesus, in Gethsemane, prayed that we may all be one. However, he also described Himself as a catalyst for disagreement and division. In fact, he linked this directly to His vocation: A quick look at Matthew 10 verses 34-39 makes this abundantly clear. But the way to unity is not through some form of soggy relativism that pretends to respect the opinions of all (some opinions are bad opinions), bullying or appeasement.

The Church should not in any way shape or form involve itself with the politics of appeasement. Appeasers tend to pat themselves on the back for their political astuteness (pride) whilst laying the seeds for ongoing and escalating levels of abuse and atrocity.

Pilot, despite being fully aware of the errors of his ways, sought to appease the religious elite (and just consider the hatred they were then able to stir up against Jesus). Chamberlain thought that the politics of appeasement would lead to ‘peace in our time.’ As we know it didn’t. As we also know instilling hatred against Jews, gays, disabled people, gypsies and so on was core to Hitler’s ethos. Let’s hope the House of Bishops hasn’t sought to appease the conservative evangelicals through its recent pronouncements on same sex unions; if my Archdeacon friend is correct it has and, history suggests, the results might be disastrous.

So how do we move from disunity to unity? Well one way is through the process of progressive revelation and, this is a process, at least theoretically to which the Church of England is deeply committed. Progressive revelation regards Holy Scripture as the basis of all theological understanding. Progressive revelation is biblical to its very roots. But, progressive revelation also regards the Holy Scriptures as being involved in a constant dialogue with reason, tradition and experience; the Church of England calls this the Westminster Quadrilateral.

The Westminster Quadrilateral is one of the ’historic formularies’  ministers vow to ‘assent’ to at ordination. So far the arguments in the Church of England, over women and gays, by those arguing against the ordination of women to the episcopate and the marriage /blessing of gays have constructed their arguments referring only to Scripture and tradition. I am not against this as an approach, except where participants in the debate have freely ‘assented’ to understand how God progressively unveils His plan through the employment of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.  

For my part, I would prefer to live with disagreement, than to compromise the Anglican way of ‘doing theology.’ The tragedy is that this is what taking place at the institutional level, by a group of men determined to appease a powerful, vocal (and economically valuable) subset within the church. Like all appeasers the House of Bishops is blind to the consequences of its self-perceived sense of political astuteness. The Church should concentrate on doing theology and not politics. Enough said!

Mindful Christianity: Renewal and Healing.

Two weeks ago I started a Mindfulness course, in Oxford. For the previous year I had been using mindfulness as part of my prayer life, but, in very much a D.I.Y. fashion. I am glad I enrolled on the course, I have found it challenging and produroductive

I have always tried to approach mindfulness as a Christian (I can’t do it in any other way – my faith is my primary locus of identity).

In fact I get irritated by the way mindfulness is presented as  ‘Eastern.’ I often think that the current interest in Eastern spirituality, by us westerners, is simply an extension of the modern, or should I say post modern, preference for an individualised, pick and mix, consumer oriented, all truths are equally valid,approach to religion, faith and spirituality. Such an approach may provide fleeting feel good moments but, perhaps, not longer term sustenance, as it is grounded entirely in self.

But, the focus on the experiential is important. Maybe the need for an experiential spirituality is one reason for the growth in charismatic expressions of Christianity and the recent upsurge in interest in mysticism? Another reason is, probably, the growing dissatisfaction with a particular form of western Christianity, which seems to have been largely shaped, in response to Enlightenment and Platonic philosophy. Such an approach focuses on the cognitive and finds its expression in disciplines such as apologetics and historical criticism, supported by a clearly defined, reductive and conservative, set of doctrines and dogmas. 

What the western Church has failed to recognise is the extent to which it has been shaped and evangelised by the dominant secular philosophies.

Conservative protestantism has traditionally attempted to rid itself of all ambiguity. For enlightenment Christians mind, body and soul are clearly demarcated with renewal of the mind being preferred to renewal of the body and soul. David Peterson, a conservative evangelical theologian has put it like this: ‘Reading and application of Spirit inspired testimony must surely have pride of place in any ministry amongst Christians. Neither sacramentalism, nor the development of the inner life, nor a preoccupation with issues of social justice can rightly usurp it.’ Vaughn Roberts, vicar of St. Ebbs, Oxford, writes in a similar vein that ‘the Christian’s heart and emotions on the other hand, are affected indirectly, via the mind.’ The focus on the mind is, for Roberts, the ‘difference between a mystic and truly Christian experience of worship.’ So, for ‘enlightenment Christians,’ renewal of the mind is prioritised with experiential, mystic and, sacramental encounters being considered, possible, second order events.

Conservative catholicism with its almost exclusive focus on the sacraments can also be regarded as formulaic and functional. Both conservative protestantism and catholicism, because of their attempts to explain all things (just think of the various models that have been developed to explain the rationale for and, workings of the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular), have become highly functional and, dare I say it, transactional (even though both emphasise the role of grace). Conservative protestantism, at its most extreme, insists on a specific moment conversion ritualised through the ‘sinners prayer.’ Conservative catholicism stresses salvation through participation in the sacraments.

Both forms of conservative Christianity are reductive, formulaic and transactional; they couldn’t be anything else as they represent a form of Christianity shaped by secular, western, philosophy.

But, in the west many have started to be turned off by scientific and rational attempts to explain the deepest truths. This, combined with the absolute rejection of any form of universal truth, gives birth to the ‘spiritual but not religious’ category of being. The danger of this approach is that it leads to an excessive focus on the individual. Phrases such as ‘taking my communion’ show just how far post modernism can penetrate the life of the Church.

So what has this all got to do with Mindfulness?

Well, one of the most important features of mindfulness is the way that it regards mind and body (to which I would add soul) as an holistic entity. This is not to say that each is reducible to the other but rather to argue that, just as in the Trinity, each animates and interprets the other. In mindful meditation consideration is given to both the mind and the body simultaneously, through the simple process of breathing (spirit?). Mindfulness is simultaneously cognitive and experiential. Mindfulness is therefore unitive.

Before I  mediating I pray for inner healing (I regard mindful practice as the living out of ‘physician heal thyself’) and revelation. Let me give an example:

One of the practices involves breathing down into the abdomen and noting  the physical sensations that follow, pleasant or unpleasant, Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for me the experience has been largely unpleasant (this is itself an interesting reflection on spiritual practices – as most spiritual but not religious folk seek relaxation and peace as a consequence of their ‘spiritual’ practices), the practice leaves me feeling sick and nauseous. Mindfulness encourages participants to investigate why they experience certain bodily sensations. Thinking and praying about my ‘stomach sickness’ I have started to believe that it is in the very pit of my abdomen that I store residual pain and fear and, that  in allowing the Spirit to breathe into this area of my body is an essential part of my ongoing healing. No amount of sermonising or sacramentality could have revealed this or, perhaps, dealt with it. 

Mindfulness can be, when entered into prayerfully, expression of authentic Christian mysticism, but more importantly healing. Why? Because it simultaneously pays attention to all three elements of our created being: mind, body and soul. Thanks be to God.

Frances Spufford, author of Unapologetic, states that ‘from my point of view it’s hard to see how a physical creature like myself could ever register His presence except through some series of other physically determined bodily states. I am not an abstract being, everything I feel I feel by way of hormones and neurotransmitters and nerve fibres.’

I agree with Spufford, do you? 

Mindfulness is one way that we can experience God, and His healing grace,  both physically and cognitively. Why not give it a go?

 

God, Genesis and Gender: A post Uganda reflection.

There is nothing like stepping out of your own context to give fresh insights into hot topics; topics such as gender.

Stepping into another context provides two hermeneutical benefits. First, it reminds us how context specific our own interpretation can be (even if Scriptures are ‘context neutral’ – and I don’t think they are –   we cannot help but read Scripture through the twin lenses of our contexts and traditions, after all even sola scriptura is a Protestant tradition). Secondly, it allows us to see how others, whose contexts are profoundly different, engage with Holy Scripture. The fact that Scripture can be read in different ways, by different groups of people, is one way in which we can proclaim the universal truth that ‘the word of God is alive and active.’ 

To be believe that Scripture should be read free of all context would necessitate belief in some weird form of Divine regression, rather than an acceptance that what we, as Christians, are charged with is partnering God in bringing a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven to earth (as we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer) and, in time, the creation of the new heavens and the new earth; this being the final destination, the end point of the Christian journey and, the direction which all Scripture points towards.

What on earth has this got to do with gender?

Well, perhaps, quite a lot for last week I stepped for the thirteenth time, but the first as an ordained minister, into a totally different context (Kabubbu in rural Uganda). A context where women (and some men – I listened to the most harrowing story of barbarism from a man, gladly now a successful teacher, by relatives male and female alike) have been historically subjected to the most horrific abuse from family members. I listened to stories of abuse, mental and physical, by fathers on their daughters. Dozens and dozens of women asked me to pray with them that their hearts be enlarged so that they might forgive polygamous and violent husbands (and fathers). Many women told me that their most fervent hope was to live a life free from men. Listening to their stories I can understand why. Tragically some, perhaps the majority, of men, continue to believe in male superiority and, as we might think of it in Western Christianity ‘male headship.’ And, how do these men affirm their beliefs? Scripture. But, what if their reading of Scripture is inaccurate, what if they like many of us, simply rush ahead, read the narrative too quickly in order to ‘mine the scriptures’ for verses that support a prior ideology or set of doctrines? 

So how does hearing the women’s stories inform my reading of Scripture?

We need to go back to the very beginning, to the very first time that human beings are mentioned, Genesis Chapter 1 verse 26: ‘Then let us make humankind in our image (if your translation says mankind I suspect that the word is used in a non gender specific way), according to our likeness.’ So God’s first move, it seems, is to create a category that is simply to be thought of as human. Let’s move ahead, to God’s second move, (Genesis 1, 27): ‘So god created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ The subdivision of humankind, into male and female, both of who are made equally and totally in the Divine image is God’s second move. The third move, Genesis 2,21- 23 reveals how God, as understood by the authors of Genesis, made the female: ‘So the Lord caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.’ Now at this stage I can hear all that are attached to notions of male headship saying ‘yes Andrew, but, whatever you say God made man first.’ My response to this argument would be threefold:

Go back to Genesis 1, 26 and ask why the divinely inspired Scripture stresses that the category ‘human’ is antecedent to the sub categories ‘male and female.’ 

Ask yourself why God stresses that (verse 27) both male and female were created equally in the divine image. Where there is equality there can be no ontological hierarchy. (I hear the arguments that ontological equality can coexist alongside functional hierarchy – let’s just say I am cynical, extremely cynical).

Finally, what if Genesis 2, 21-23, can be read as presenting a truth that suggests that in order for women to become more, men must become less (hence the removal of the rib).

If I was an abused woman in Kabubbu this might just be my hermeneutic of gender. In fact so painful was last week that, in many ways, it is my hermeneutic; what’s yours?