Simon Cross: author, activist, researcher and chaplain. Theology, spirituality, politics, wellbeing, and personal development.
Author: simon cross
Simon Cross is a community and spiritual activist, theologian, and interfaith facilitator. He speaks about spirituality and progressive approaches to Christianity, and has published on the phenomenon of New Monasticism, and Nature Connection in the Christian tradition.
Would you like to come on a retreat with me? I’m looking for expressions of interest for a short residential retreat in the North of England in the latter half of 2018. The kind of numbers and types of people I get will determine the finer details.
What would it involve?
There are two options – let me know which you’re interested in.
Meditation retreat, with teaching sessions, one to one discussion sessions, and three different silent meditation practices. This is for anyone, perhaps particularly those who want to develop a regular meditation practice of their own. Or know they need to find some silence in their lives. As well as the serious stuff, there will also be laughter, that’s more or less a given.
Deconstruction retreat, with talks and group discussions, as well as time for reflection and one to one discussions, all on the theme of positive deconstruction. This is for people who know that the faith or religion they’ve been clinging to needs to change, or perhaps just needs to die. Either way, it needs to be done in a good way. Also laughter – it’s all the more vital when this kind of stuff is on the table.
I like to do things in the outdoors, so all things being equal, any retreat will involve some time outside, obviously any access requirements will be taken into account in the planning.
An expression of interest isn’t the same thing as a commitment, and there are lots of reasons why it might not work for you (money, dates, time off work, you suddenly deciding that you hate me etc.) But if you want to explore this, go here. This is a time limited thing, for obvious reasons.
I’ve realised from the responses I got from the first blog in this series, that a lot of people who engaged with it, aren’t leavers themselves, but the parents of leavers. And so before I go on to write more about leaving, I want to write about that particular issue. Because it’s a painful one.
For a lot of church leavers, the process happens in early adulthood. There’s a natural point just around the 18 – 20 mark when young people who have remained in church through their teens (by hook or by crook) may choose to walk away.
It feels like a part of the process of growing up, of establishing one’s own identity, of coming to terms with the nature of the world, and your own relationship with it.
There’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance for some young people when it comes to church: ideas about the nature of God, of prayer, the Bible and so on, often seem to conflict with their knowledge or experience of the world. You either learn to live with that conflict, learn to overcome or deny it, or you choose to accept that what you were taught is actually wrong, and if its the latter, then it can feel like there’s little point in keeping on going to church.
For some, the whole thing of going to church can be an impossible burden, it can weigh you down, oppress you, to the point where you feel a sense of great relief in leaving.
Even if there is a sense of relief, for the leaver, this can be a difficult process, and they may need support in managing it, which is what this blog series is really about. But there’s another dynamic too – the evangelical parent.
I’ve lost count of the number of people who I’ve known who have shared, indicated, or tried to disguise their pain at the departure of their children from the tradition they had grown up in. (I wasn’t counting in the first place, but if I had been, I’d have stopped by now.)
For some parents there is an ability to rationalise it, to come to terms with it in some way. Just as they tend to when a loved one dies, previously strict ideas of God’s judgement often start to become a little woolier at this point: ‘God knows they are a good person, so surely…’ And of course this is a similar process to one which the leaver may have gone through too. ‘I just don’t believe that if there is a God, they are as mean as that…’
But still there can be a sense of dread. Nobody wants to believe that their child, their beloved, will be consigned to an eternity away from God, and lets be honest, that is what the majority, or at least a large proportion of evangelical churches teach is the case for those who aren’t Christians. And to be a Christian is to fit in a rather narrow mold.
So there’s a number of ways of approaching it:
1) You can tough it out. ‘They made their choice, I just pray God has mercy…’
2) You can deny it. ‘They are still Christian at heart, this is just a phase’.
3) You can engage with it.
Option three requires a lot of resource. Principally it requires thinking, and that means a reappraisal of your core beliefs, and it may require the conscious deconstruction of parts of your own evangelical theology. This doesn’t necessarily mean leaving evangelical church, although I’ve seen it precipitate that too. But I’ve known lots and lots of evangelicals who remain in church despite, not because of, the theology they are taught. ‘Where else would we go? Our friends are here.’
But it’s that moment when the child tells the evangelical parent that they are moving in with their girl/boyfriend, or that they just don’t believe in God anymore, and perhaps they never really did – and all this reinforces to the parent that things are not how they used to be, or perhaps how they hoped they would be. And maybe it feels like a part of you has just died an aching death, and you realise you can’t ignore it any more. Or you can, but if you do, it’s going to be really hard.
For me, the only real solution is to engage. I’m not keen on denial, and I don’t think toughing it out is a long term solution. I think you have to talk, to think, to reflect/pray/contemplate, to read, and to talk some more. I’m keen to facilitate that kind of conversation, and I’m easy to get hold of. Facebook message me, tweet me, or email me. There are answers, they just may not fit the kind of way you think at the moment.
Surviving the death of the tradition that raised you.
It can be difficult growing up as a Christian, perhaps particularly an evangelical.
But if that’s tricky, for many, worse is yet to come.
For many who are born into an evangelical tradition, or were nurtured through it, a spiritual or existential crisis which eventually propels them out of that tradition is profoundly unsettling.
Often, such is the singular emphasis of evangelicalism, that to be anything ‘other’ than evangelical, is not to be Christian at all. And for an evangelical, to not be a Christian can literally mean a fate worse than death.
But there are more approaches to Christianity than the one enshrined in contemporary evangelicalism. The broader Christian religious and spiritual tradition is one that has spent 2000 years in development, and has a vast array of schools of thought. Some ancient, some modern, some post-modern.
Whatever reason may have propelled the newly ‘ex-evangelical’ from the bosom of the church, it doesn’t necessarily need to mean that Christianity as a whole is lost to them forever. And for some people, that’s important: research shows people who no longer identify as Christian, often maintain some of their key beliefs and motivations. The person of Jesus, for instance continues to get enormous respect from a variety of directions, very often people continue to believe in a god of some sort, albeit perhaps not the God they were taught about. Alternatively some continue to believe in the kind of God that evangelicalism taught them about, and they have come to reject that idea of God, often for very good reasons.
While evangelicalism does a number of things very well, it has its weaknesses too, just as every tradition does. For instance, one of its great strengths is that many of the great social reforms have come from evangelicals, and today its often people from that tradition who are actively engaged in issues of social justice. What helps to keep people motivated in engaging in this kind of activity though, is precisely the sort of thing that can cause other problems. There’s a single mindedness that spurs many on to great things, but which doesn’t always handle questions well. A crisis of faith, a period of mental ill health, profound existential angst, questions over gender identity or sexuality, disillusionment with a leader, any of these can prove to be very difficult for an evangelical church to manage, and these are frequently ‘exit points’ for the disenchanted.
And there are other things too, profound moral convictions can come into conflict with the kind of theology expounded in evangelical churches: environmental issues, human sexuality, politics, and many more ideas become flashpoints for those struggling with an evangelical identity.
So what becomes of those, who some describe as ‘ex-vangelicals’? Very often feelings of disillusionment lead to a wholesale rejection of church, and they find themselves removed from the embrace of community altogether. Some find that this suits them, that in fact church had been, or had latterly become, more of a hindrance than a help in the development of their personal spirituality, or corporate involvement in matters of great importance. Others find a new home in another tradition, yet others decide that not just evangelicalism, but all of Christianity has become a toxic brand, and they want no more to do with any of it. They say there’s nothing like an ex-smoker to bemoan the ills of smoking…
But where an interest remains, it can be very difficult for a church leaver to reconnect with Christianity in a meaningful form, years of hearing how ‘other’ traditions are, if not evil, at best only ‘kind of’ Christian, can mean that one is disturbed by the idea of engaging with any of them. Quakerism, for example, which has provided a home for many who have left the evangelical church, is roundly derided in some quarters of the church for its open stance on matters theological and social. Mystical traditions, which actually share a huge amount with charismaticism, are distrusted and seen as being aligned with ‘new age’ thinking – a huge evangelical bug bear. Apophatic or negative theologies are often thought of as ‘atheism lite’, or even atheism writ large. In other words: not Christian. Orthodox and Catholic traditions are often seen as ‘too religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ (because of course, evangelicalism has no idols…) Process theology, which offers (among other things) a new way of looking at the power of God, is considered heresy by conservative evangelicals.
But in all of these traditions and more, there are profound treasures to be discovered, and the ex-vangelical can find in progressive and liberal circles, in Orthodoxy and other traditions cadres of dedicated, engaged, love filled people just like them, who are struggling through life with questions, doubts, sincere commitments, phobias, and querks. As well as all the other usual collection of failures, mess-ups, and disaster zones that constitute the human race.
If you or your friends are struggling with these issues, and want to explore what kind of tradition or theology you could begin to engage with, I’d love to come and talk with you. It’s not about finding something we all agree with, after all, we all have different opinions, and our opinions change over time. That’s kind of the point.
My work and my ongoing research has led me in to contact with a wide range of traditions and theologies which represent something of the breadth of Christianity as we know it. I also identify with, and have a profound sympathy for those who leave, or have left evangelicalism. I now offer ‘house conferences’ which are basically privately hosted talks and discussions, on precisely this subject. If you are interested in hosting a house conference, drop me a line and lets talk.
Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to post a short series of blogs about ideas and places that may be worth you exploring after evangelicalism. I’ll also aim to answer questions as I go, so feel free to tweet me, facebook message me via my page, or bung me an email. I’d love to hear from you.
An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but following these six simple practises will help ensure you live a life that is healthy and fulfilled.
Lives lived in a hurry, without enough time to stop and think, are chaotic and difficult. But there are a few things we can all do, which generally make life better.
Even just doing one of these things will begin to help, doing all of them may be transformative.
If there is one practise which can change your outlook on life, it is gratitude. When we look for the good in things, and take time to be grateful for the things which have gone well, we open ourselves up to a flow of positivity. The word gratitude comes from a Latin root which also leads into the idea of grace. To be grateful, to be full of grace, is to know the divine flow in your life.
Singing: it’s the simplest thing. Do it in the bathroom, in the woods, in the car, perhaps not on the train… Although if you’re sure the carriage is empty, then by all means. By improving your oxygen intake, singing means that you physically send more oxygenated blood to the brain, and this can have positive impacts on your alertness and concentration, and it helps with your memory too. To really get that good stuff, you want to bellow it out, don’t be shy, spread the joy. Unless you’re on the train.
Singing releases endorphins and can spread a feeling of pleasure around the body. It also takes your mind of other things, and relaxes you, which in turn decreases cortisol levels.
Singing is good for you, but so is silence. Especially deliberate silence. There’s a good reason that all the great spiritual traditions have tended to include patterns of silence in their practises. Times of silence and stillness are so important for us, and yet we tend to neglect them. Lengthy periods of silence help our brains develop, while even short periods of silence have been shown to lower blood pressure. Silence also helps to ground us, taking us away from the noise that our ego enjoys. Simply: silence helps us to fully realise our humanity, and gain perspective.
Types of meditation are good ways of spending time in silence, but then so is going for a long walk in the countryside, whatever works, just do it.
Taking time to do a simple mental ‘audit’ will show you who need to forgive, don’t expect too much of yourself, some things are very hard to let go of, but don’t have no go areas either. If you can bring yourself to forgive, then do so. Time with a coach, counsellor, soul friend, or mentor may help you with this.
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Said food author Michael Pollan. He means eat real food, things you cook from scratch, and in the main, eat vegetables. Humans have traditionally relied on vegetables as the majority of their diet, with meat and rich foods as a luxury, we grew strong on those diets. Contemporary ‘western’ diets, for all their delicious luxury, cause diseases. Just introducing a few more vegetables in to your life will help: the fibre, the macronutrients, it’s all good.
Vegetables are good cooked, they’re even better raw. Raw vegetables that you buy are good, but the ones you grow are the best.
It might seem boring, but routine is a very effective antidote to the poison of chaos. A chaotic life is stressful and leads to the development of all sorts of bad habits, whereas a routine helps simplify and structure your day to day life, making it easier to make good and healthy choices. Morning and evening routines are the best ones to get established, and if you can start the day on your own terms, rather than constantly rushing to catch up with yourself, you will find the rest of the day more manageable too.
Set a get up time, and stick to it, everything stems from there. To establish a bed time, work backwards in 90 minute slots, to allow for natural sleep cycles. If you are someone who can get up early, then good for you, it will allow you time to develop some healthy practises. But if you’re not an early bird, then save yourself some stress by establishing a good night time routine which involves preparing the things you need for the next day before you go to sleep.
Make my daily meditation a part of your daily routine, by signing up here. It’s free, and it arrives at 7 AM every weekday.
Recent reports that show a growing number of young people identifying as having ‘no religion’ are evidence not of growing secularism, but actually of a society which post secular.
New research, by Prof Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, details percentages of 16–29 year olds across 22 countries who identify as having ‘no religion’. Of the countries studied, only eight had a majority of young people who self–identify has having a religion.
In the UK, the figures are clear, and follow a common narrative: Seventy percent of British young people identify as having no religion. This is not, contrary to some press coverage, a shock statistic. The movement in societal terms has been clear for some time, Brits, particularly young ones, have increasingly identified as having no religion.
The Church of England records what it describes as the ‘Usual Sunday Attendance’ at its churches, and noted by 2013 that the percentage of English residents who attend church had halved, from three to 1.5 per cent of the total population over a period of forty years. Similar trends are to be found within various contexts, including in America, where church attendance has historically been high, and where a growing proportion of the population are now reporting that they have never attended a church service.
But not attending church, or having ‘no religion’ is certainly not the same thing as having no beliefs, as other studies have shown: According to one report, approximately 30% of those who belong to no religion at all, claim to believe in life after death (something that not even all church going Christians necessarily believe).
Further to that, 7% of self-professed atheists believe in angels; and approximately one in four of the UK population believe in reincarnation, including one in seven atheists.
This social change has occurred during a period of time in which British culture has become notably more diverse, with a growth in the number of religious and cultural identities reported in surveys. Some of the ‘new’ religious identities are ‘joke’ or ‘parody’ religions, but not all. Some of the new religious identities, even the more playful ones, that have come into existence, have at their core a sense of Tillichian ‘ultimate concern’, making them genuine in a theological sense.
At the same time as this change has taken place, social attitudes have altered to become more tolerant and accepting of diversity, with an acceptance of, or preference for, spirituality over religion: other research has shown that ‘nones’ are generally ambivalent towards the church, regarding it perhaps as more inconsequential than negative. Its not so much that the church has been violently rejected, or rebelled against, just that it has been found to have little meaning. It may be useful in certain times (major tragedies etc.), but on the whole it has little of importance to offer, and certainly doesn’t endow the attendee with the kind of symbolic capital that it used to.
This social climate, which allows for or encourages a liquidity or plurality of belief, underlayed with a marked decline in the size, scope and power of the mainstream religions (particularly Christianity), rather than being purely secularist, is indicative of post secularism. Within a postsecular society, religious thought continues to play an important part, actively shaping ‘social life at different levels and in a variety of forms’ (Habermas) but no longer acts as the dominant or defining narrative.
Rather than seeing the total destruction of religious activity and belief as one might expect to be the result of the process of secularisation, what we are actually seeing is the changing shape of belief, and its movement away from the contained or institutionalised form. For Christians, this may pose a challenge, but should not necessarily be unwelcome.
On this day in history, approximately 2000 years ago, a Jewish revolutionary and mystic known as Jesus of Nazareth died after being executed by the Roman authorities. In his mid thirties and of a peasant background, Jesus was a charismatic figure and is believed to have amassed a small army of followers who welcomed him to Jerusalem where he provoked the occupying powers in a series of political ‘stunts’. After a few days of increasing tensions, he was captured late one night and swiftly tried. His execution is thought to have taken place at approximately 9 am, on a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
He left behind no writings, and founded no religion or political party, and yet is regarded as one of the most influential and controversial people to have ever lived. His teachings of non violent political resistance and radical ‘love for others’ inspired some of the greatest political thinkers, and some of the worst, from the intervening centuries.
Generally speaking ancient genealogies don’t include women, they are a tool of patriarchy. But something interesting occurs in the genealogy of Jesus found in the New Testament book of Matthew.
There are five women in “Matthew’s” genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Of these, four were definitely what we might now consider to have been sexually exploited.
Tamar, was a widow in a very precarious social and economic condition (no status or inheritance and in danger of remaining unmarried) and at the mercy of her father in law, Judah. The patriarch was reluctant to let his third son Shelah marry his twice widowed daughter in law (She’d already been done out of conception by her second husband the now infamous ‘Onan’). Without any other obvious means of survival, Tamar tricks her father in law into impregnating her by posing as a prostitute. The self-righteous Judah at first condemns Tamar, but when he realises that he is publicly on the hook for her condition relents and acknowledges his paternity. One might say that Tamar is hardly a ‘victim’, she was clever enough to trap Judah after all, but she lived at a time when women were little more than property, what choice did she really have? (Matthew 1:3, Genesis 38)
Rahab “the harlot,” who assisted with Joshua’s invasion of the promised-land. Rahab was a ‘genuine’ prostitute, a foreigner living in Jericho, a woman who used what little she had to try and get by. I don’t imagine she grew up looking forward to a life of selling sexual services in order to survive, but she had a family to care for, and she was certainly keen to escape from Jericho when she eventually got the chance. Needless to say the male Hebrew spies took advantage of her ‘hospitality’ when visiting the city. (Matthew. 1:5, Joshua 2)
The final woman in Jesus’ genealogy is his mother Mary, a young woman, probably only a girl by our standards who was betrothed (not yet married) when she found herself pregnant. What message we are supposed to extract from her inclusion in this #MeToo list, one can only speculate on. For whatever reason, Jesus often found himself referred to as ‘Mary’s son’ – in a patriarchal society there’s something odd about that…
Starting on Easter Monday (2nd April 2018) my new ‘Email Meditations’ series. Weekdays only, maximum of three paragraphs each day, on some sort of thought provoking topic. Sign up here (it’s free) if you fancy coming on the journey with me.
I love the Greenbelt festival, ‘the best festival you’ve never heard of’, I love seeing my friends there every year, I love the way that the programming is consistently adventurous and provocative. I love the way that it tries really hard to do important things, despite limited resources.
This year’s lineup (as of March 2018, there’s plenty more to be announced) is already classic: combining festival regulars like Martyn Joseph, every inch the troubadour, and spoken word comedy music duo Harry & Chris, with inspired choices – particularly this year’s headliners Russian artist activists ‘Pussy Riot’.
Greenbelt has been working hard to ensure that more female voices are heard throughout the festival. Last year’s festival was strong on female representation, including GRRRL – In place of war, who went on to feature in Songlines magazine some months after their Greenbelt appearance, demonstrating the festival’s ability to get ahead of the curve.
The poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy is another ‘big female name’ for 2018, and for some another controversial voice – although not for anyone who is in any way a Greenbelt regular I’d guess.
There are loads of other brilliant names already on the bill: 6music favourites Ibibio Sound Machine, Duke Special, I’m with her, Jack Monroe and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires (who were a brilliant find at Greenbelt 2017) to name but a few.
Still to come, announcements on the spirituality/faith programming which remain a core part of the festival’s identity, as well as much more. But on the strength of the ‘first’ announcements alone, the 45th Greenbelt is shaping up to become a classic. Tier one (discounted) tickets are available until the end of April.
There has been a lot of positive feedback from the Lent reflections I’ve written, and I’ve enjoyed doing them too. To such an extent in fact that I’m now in the the throes of setting up a new project, a daily email sent out Monday – Friday with a reflection or meditation to start your day. If you’ve not spotted the Lent Reflections, and would like to join in, you can still do so. Obviously we’re a few days into Lent already, so you’ve missed a few. But not too many.
You can subscribe to the Weekday Meditations list here, Lent meditations subscribers will NOT be automatically added to that list. If you want to get in on the Lent action, see the previous post to this one.
If you are looking for a reflective resource to use through Lent this year, please feel free to sign up, here, to my (free) series of Lent reflections.
The series will not be posted here on the blog, rather they will be emailed out daily at 7am through the six weeks from Ash Wednesday.
At Easter the project will come to an end, and subscribers won’t receive any more emails.
The reflections are short, and are based on six topics: Loss, Grief, Doubt, Emptiness, Waiting, & Gratitude. All quite solemn, as befits the season. They’re intended to draw us, together, into an inner journey leading up to Easter.