file000606541737.jpgThere comes a point in most people’s lives, when things have to be taken apart. Beliefs, world views, ways of understanding yourself, and what life is all about.

This is because the structures we build up become too restrictive. We reach the point where they no longer holds us properly, and that chafes.

The things you know, the experiences you’ve had, the stuff you’ve learned… you need a new framework to hold it all.

Its like in the old days when they used to keep wine in bags made from the skins of animals, called ‘wine skins’: you couldn’t keep new wine in old wine skins. Because they would split, they were only good for the old wine.

New wine had to go in new wine skins. New ways of seeing the world, require a new structure.

The same process is true of us when we are conscious of our religious or spiritual beliefs. The structures we built up, sometimes from childhood, will eventually need to come down in order to accommodate our new, wider, more mature understanding. That doesn’t mean our old structure was bad – although it can feel that way, because the restriction is uncomfortable. Really though, it just means that it doesn’t fit anymore. Like the yellow jumper I begged my parents for when I was about twelve. I loved that jumper. It doesn’t fit me now, and anyway I’m no longer convinced yellow is my colour.

The process of deconstructing a religious or spiritual world view is often difficult, sometimes very painful indeed. If you’re lucky, it’s easy. But we’re not all lucky, because these things have built in defences against deconstruction, often involving feelings of guilt, doubt, and existential dread.

For various reasons, conscious deconstruction is way better than unconscious deconstruction – (when you just go “this is all b*llocks”, and chuck the lot). The problem is that sometime later you will find yourself wishing you had a certain part, and then you have to go looking in the bins. And there’s always disgusting stuff in the bins. Much better to take it apart carefully, being aware of where the bits are, and what they do. Conscious deconstruction for the win.

I’m running a deconstruction retreat in November to help people do just that, find out more or book here. I’m planning on it being a small affair – intimate. Because this stuff is personal, and I prefer to work with small groups.

I’m also in the process of setting up a number of house conferences on the same kind of theme, a house conference is a conference… in a house. A bit like a house concert, but without a band, and fewer hairy roadies. If you’ve got a house (or other nice, friendly space), and you know some people who might like to come, then let’s talk about doing one at your place.

 

priestMy post about tipping over the certainty curve created some extra interest this week, after Thinking Anglicans posted posted a link to it on their website.

Some of the thoughtful responses to it, led me to write a little more about the process, rather than going in to the post about silence, which I had planned as the next in this series. That one will come soon.

Before I go into some more detail about the process, I should point out that I don’t mean to suggest that evangelicalism has a monopoly on certainty. All traditions have their elements of certainty, dogma or orthodoxy. However, one of the reasons I pay some particular attention to evangelicalism is a tendency within particular parts of it to prefer total certainty to mystery or doubt. In this post I will refer to a couple of individuals who clearly were not evangelicals.

So another thing to make clear is that the arc or curve that I depict in the original post is a deliberate simplification of the process, I don’t mean to genuinely suggest that there is either a very straightforward line, or that the journey is ‘one way’. Rather the real picture is more complex, and always dynamic.

The best model I have seen for understanding the complexities of this kind of process is called Spiral Dynamics, a very complex piece of work which purports to be an overarching meta narrative that explains human development. As a good GenX postmodern thinker, I’m innately suspicious of such a meta narrative, however, experientially I resonate with the process described by Spiral Dynamics thinkers.

That doesn’t mean though, that I believe there to be no value in the curve model. All of these things are limited, they are deliberate and knowing simplifications of a complex situation. They are visual aids, just as, for instance, parables are story aids to understanding similar things.

So, speaking of parables, let’s reconsider the curve, in particular the way in which the curve model maps with the parable of the prodigal son. I use this curve a lot, and the curve images I use below also highlight/map in black text, what I believe are the key stages of the way people view God/ultimate concern in a journey of spiritual development.

In this story, the son starts off at the bottom left of the curve, looking up to his father (the God figure) in the knowledge that in him, all needs are met. He is developing in the place of ultimate safety and certainty. Naturally enough though, the son develops, and goes through the difficulties and frustrations, and disillusionment of adolescence. This precipitates something of a crisis – where he believes that life elsewhere would be better than what he has. And in some ways, of course, he is right. He is a child, and he recognises that adulthood is different to what he has now.

prodigal_sonSo in the story, the son leaves home, and becomes physically distant from his father – in a similar way someone may leave the certainty of evangelicalism, or any other dogmatic view of God, and become physically distant from the church. This is the beginning of his period of deconstruction, during which the proto evang-exiter may become arrogant or conceited about his or her journey. ‘I know the way to live, and it’s nothing like the old way…’

But this is not a long term sustainable way of existing. Not for most people anyway. It’s hard, and it’s quite false. There’s a sense of denial about it, and there is a very good chance that this is likely to precipitate another crisis, or series of crises. In this case the son finds himself utterly degraded, and comes to realise he is in a place of paradox. At this stage his desire to be with his father is strong, and he makes a return.

For some ex-vangelicals, ex-Christians or church leavers, there is a return to their home, although like the prodigal son, they are not returning as the same person who left. They are changed. They now, perhaps, have a more rounded, less certain view of the world (it’s not hard and fast, these journeys are not the same for everyone). And their return may not be to the fold of evangelicalism either, rather it may be a return to the church more broadly. Hence you find many ex-vangelicals in the bosom of traditions that embrace a more mysterious or apophatic understanding of God. The paradox stage.

peter1Another example is the disciple Peter (a non evangelical of course), who goes through a similar process to the Prodigal son. In this case, Jesus is the God-figure, the point of ultimate concern. In the first place Peter is dependent upon Jesus, seeing Jesus as the answer to everything. Jesus is all powerful at this stage in their relationship, and Jesus is at his miracle performing best. As things develop, Jesus plays an almost parental role in Peter’s life – he has left his family to follow him. But then crisis hits, and all of a sudden the miracle working Jesus has gone, and a new captive, powerless Jesus has emerged. This throws Peter in to a state of turmoil, and he finds himself denying the master he had followed so closely until now. At the point of Jesus’ death, Peter is at his most distant, entirely removed from Jesus. He is not arrogant at this point, rather he is broken, which demonstrates that everyone walks this path in a unique way. Peter’s re-encounter with Jesus is his experience of the mystery of un-earned grace, and he moves into a place of all pervasive love and acceptance. Does this make him perfect? No. Does it make him totally wise and enlightened? Again no. This illustrates that this is not a simple process as this curve would make it appear, this is not the end of Peter’s story. He goes through a new set of curves, crises, and moves forward. But this curve is quite clear, he tips over the edge of certainty. Mother Teresa

This kind of process accounts for the myriad stories of loss of certainty, and loss of faith, that characterise Christian ministry. The proverbial dark nights of the soul. Mother Teresa (Catholic) is an oft cited example, her doubts were made public after her death, and they demonstrate that she suffered greatly. And of course there are many others who experience the same kind of issues, and whatever tradition they come from, it’s jolly hard.

For the activist, this is a particularly difficult experience, and this is partly why I’m interested in the experience of evangelicals, who are fundamentally, part of an activist tradition. The certainty stages are much more steady ground for the activist, who often needs the reassurance of certainty to provide her/him with energy.

I suppose fundamentally my point is that for all of us, the God we grow up with, needs to die. I don’t really care what tradition you’re from, or what religion, or belief system, or philosophy. That which guided our childhood must, at some point perish, if we are to advance in to spiritual maturity. In each person the process is different, probably unique. In many, perhaps most, it involves a crisis, or series of crises. And, in my experience, inevitably certainty has to die away. It can be the work of a lifetime, and many of us never get there.

If you feel that you are going through a period of deconstruction, you might like to come on a retreat with me to talk about the process. You can express interest here.

BG1My weekday meditations series is currently focusing on some of the words of the Benedictine monk Fr Bede Griffiths, a mystical pioneer  who lived much of his life in an Indian Ashram (spiritual community).

Fr Bede, was born Alan Richard Griffiths in 1906. He became a Christian, initially exploring ordination as an Anglican priest,  but converted to Catholicism after reading work by John Henry Newman, the poet priest who had also converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, some years before. Griffiths joined the Benedictine order, and upon taking his vows, he was given the name Bede, which means prayer. After a number of years as a Benedictine monk in the UK, he moved to India, and spent the remainder of his life there. He became a key figure in what was known as the Christian Ashram movement, and perhaps more than any one apart from his shorter lived contemporary, Thomas Merton, came to symbolise the quest to engage Christianity with the religious and wisdom traditions of the East. After arriving in India, he took the name Swami Dhayananda which means bliss of prayer. Years later he was took the name Swami Dayananda, which means bliss of compassion.

Dressed in the ochre robes of a Hindu Sanyassi (ascetic/holy man), which symbolise the renunciation of worldly attachments, Bede became a leading figure in Hindu – Christian dialogue, speaking widely, and writing books about Hindu and Christian spirituality.

Bede grew up relatively poor, but his natural intelligence saw him win a scholarship to Oxford University, where he read Philosophy and English Literature. In his third year at Oxford, CS Lewis became his tutor, and the two formed a strong bond of friendship which went beyond the ivory towers of academia, as they journeyed together towards an understanding of the divine. In ‘Surprised by joy’ Lewis wrote of this time in his life: “My chief companion on this stage of the road was Griffiths, with whom I kept up a copious correspondence. Both now believed in God, and were ready to hear more of Him from any source, Pagan or Christian.” As Griffiths turned towards Catholicism though, the friendship grew strained, and although they maintained a correspondence, this move proved difficult for the friendship to bear.

It was after university, but before his shift to Catholicism, that his interest in monasticism began to kick in, and he and two others tried an ‘experiment in common life’, an early new monastic attempt, living lives of self denying rural poverty, as with many such endeavours, this was not long lasting. After a while Bede made an attempt to become an Anglican Priest, but eventually, upon reading some of Newman’s writings, converted to Roman Catholicism, and proceeded to join the Benedictine order. A number of years as a Benedictine in the UK followed, during which time he was given the role of Prior. But during this time another change began to take place, as he grew more engaged with the religion and philosophy of India, following meetings with Indian Catholics, and Jungian psychology.

Bede eventually left for India in 1955, writing that he was going ‘to discover the other half of my soul’, and it was there that he eventually developed the ministry for which he is best known, integrating Christian and Hindu spirituality.

His writings are powerful, and the more so in that they reflect his ‘lived experience’. For all that Merton, his better known contemporary, gained renown for his forays into inter-spirituality, Griffiths lived it in a way that Merton never could.

It is probably no surprise that Griffiths was something of a progressive in his social attitudes, as well as his religious ones. In an article called ‘On Homosexual Love’ he wrote that homosexual love is ‘just as normal and natural as love between people of the opposite sex’. Quite the assertion for a man of his time, for he was no ‘free love’ hippy priest, nor yet an Osho type charismatic guru. Fundamentally Griffiths was just much more interested in love than anything else, advocating the development of interspiritual communities based upon the primacy of love, rather than any one particular creed.

Griffiths was controversial, both within Christianity and Hinduism: It’s true to say that when he first reached India, he exhibited something of a colonialist attitude, making some apparently disparaging remarks about Hindus and Hinduism. But while that was largely put behind him as he grew to understand India and Hinduism better, he continued to face criticism for his adoption of the Sannyasin robes, which are only supposed to be worn by followers of a guru. In Christianity he remains controversial among those who consider his relationship with Hinduism to have been problematically syncretistic.

There may well have been problems with his adoption or appropriation of these symbols, but its important to remember that symbols are just that: symbolic. We all too readily make them sacred. Griffiths was an equal opportunity barrier breaker – upsetting religious Christians as well as sections of Hinduism as he sought a way of being which transcended cultural and religious dividing lines.

In 1993 Griffiths died, as he had lived the majority of his life, in his small hut in Shantivanam ashram. To many of us who are interested in spirituality and the ongoing search for language of the divine, he was a mystical pioneer. For those who recognise the primary importance of love beyond any religious boundaries, he was a prophet. There is lots about his life on the internet, but for a really good read I can recommend Shirley Bourlay’s biography ‘Beyond the darkness’. Shantivanam, and the Bede Griffiths Sangha (community) continue his legacy today.

I’ve added some Bede Griffiths quotes to my ‘inspirational quotes page‘, and you can sign up to my free series of weekday meditations here.

file0001703193213by Simon Cross

As a child I caught a butterfly. In the moment of its capture, the tiny creature’s fluttery kisses tickled my fingers. I knew for certain it was there.

But then the butterfly grew still, content to sit in the darkness of its small prison. I grew concerned, was it dead? Had it somehow escaped?

I peeked in, and through the dappled daylight caught a muted glimpse of wing. Folded and shadowed, it looked a different beast, but I knew it was the same thing.

Time went on and I grew bolder, opening my hands wider to get a better view.

And then it happened: I opened them to look in, and the butterfly flew off.

And as I looked at the butterfly skipping through the air, I knew that it was right. It belonged in the wind, not in the stuffy silence of my closed hands.

So I followed the butterfly’s meandering maze, and it led off me in a dazzling dance.

© Simon Cross 2018

bible1

An evangelical pastor, who was going through something of a evang-exit process of his own, once asked me if I thought evangelicalism was a cult. My response was “no,  it lacks many of the markers of being a cult, but I think it is, to some extent, an addiction.”

This sense of being addictive is strongly linked to its association with certainty. There is definitely a sense in which people positively want certainty at particular points or stages in their lives, in some ways they even need it. But the danger that this comfort blanket is never dispensed with, and one becomes addicted to, or reliant upon it. And this is tough, its a tough process to go through. I recognise it in myself at times too, I can feel uneasy at times living with uncertainty, and I know that in some ways I’m a certainty addict too. And part of the recovery from any addiction is to recognise it, as long as we deny it, we will never be free from it.

So in the natural process of spiritual development, there comes a stage for an individual or community, where their maturity must lead them to recognise the problems of certainty. And due to the strong link between the tradition and the condition, this is very often a first stage exit point from evangelicalism, or indeed from any social structure that relies upon certainty as a founding dogma.

The diagram below shows a curve which represents movement from spiritual knowledge, to spiritual wisdom, from certainty to uncertainty. We are all somewhere on this curve, and the general idea is that as we mature, we move upwards from bottom left and then tip over the top, and begin to fall down the other side. But as anyone who has fallen down a hill knows, this process can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience. Particularly if there is nobody to help you.  Very often we get stuck at one point on the curve for a protracted period of time (clinging on).

certainty2

On this journey, the point marked as the Christian ministry stage is the most productive place, this is where a lot of the ‘work’ of the church gets done. This is also where the majority of adult evangelicals are too, and it reflects the remarkable and laudable productivity of that tradition. Bluntly though, it pays churches to keep people there.  Keep people certain, and they will remain productive. Let areas become gray, and you have trouble on your hands!

And of course once people do tip over, they can sometimes demonstrate the apparent folly of their move by becoming insufferably arrogant – looking down on those who are at the stage they have just left. ‘I pity the fool…’ as Mr T might say.

 

Very often, what precipitates a movement from the more comfortable stages at or around the top of the curve, is some kind of crisis. Possibly the death of a loved one, or maybe an episode of mental or physical illness. This is important, because it’s once again about certainty. Crises can also move people forward or backwards on this curve, it’s not as linear as the diagram makes it look, its not simple, its dynamic and complex.

After tipping over the curve, to save their sanity, the individual may need to leave the church or deconvert altogether. This is difficult for all concerned, those who are at a stage of certainty can look on in horror at this process, wondering what has become of their friend/loved on. The person undergoing the transition feels the intense discomfort of leaving their addiction to certainty behind, as well as their community, and to some extent free falling into an abyss. It’s notable that many people who have gone through this process eagerly pick up some new form of addiction, or obsession. Witness the very many young progressives with a strong penchant for cigars, whisky, real ale, or a particular genre of music, or even a new religious tradition for instance. Now this departure is not always necessary, a wise pastor or parent may be able to help people who are part of a community or family to go through this process with support, with the potential result that they may remain part of the tradition, but with a new understanding of its dogmas. If all concerned are comfortable with that, then great.

But that’s not usual, generally the process leads people out of fellowship in some way. And that’s difficult, and often painful. There is though, a word of comfort for those looking on: this is a natural process. And it’s not the last word, towards the bottom of the curve is a greater acceptance, a universalising sense of self which recognises the value of a variety of spiritual expressions, and often even finds renewed energy in Christianity. People at this point are moving beyond the duality which is at the core of certainty to a very positive place indeed. But it takes time, sometimes it takes a very long time indeed, to get there.

Next time I write about this, it will be about the usefulness of silence in this journey, and the importance of finding someone who can act as a guide.

Interested in coming on a retreat to explore deconstruction with me? Express your interest here…

 

coffee

In my daily meditations today, I wrote about generosity, and the need to take a regular still point, in order to become aware of our levels of love and compassion. At times we fail to do this, and it leaves us open to drifting through life without cultivating the virtues of love, kindness, peace and good will toward others.

So how do you do this, practically? What does this look like?

One way is through a version of a Jesuit spiritual practice known as the Examen. If you want to know more about the Examen, read up about Ignatius of Loyola, and you will see it is part of his much wider teaching on spiritual practices. He was quite the lad for that sort of stuff.

The morning Examen I set out below is modified, for two reasons: a) I want something that people who do not self identify as Christian/religious/whatever can engage with. b) The purpose of this particular exercise is to become more aware of our attitudes and dispositions, and by becoming aware, to change them for the better.

So here’s my five step Examen:

1) Be grateful.

“What am I grateful for today? What things, people, events, or circumstances can I be grateful for?” Even in the most dire of circumstances, there should be a crack of light that you can be grateful for. Even if it’s just: I’m not dead yet. For most of us though, there are many more things than that, for which we can be thankful.

2) Accept your failings.

Gently reviewing the day gone past, and being really honest with yourself, recognise, and accept your failings. This doesn’t mean beating yourself up, or wallowing in self condemnation, it’s an honest, unflinching, recognition of where we’ve gone wrong.

3) Acknowledge your successes.

Reviewing the day again, consider where you did well, where your attitude was positive, where you were loving and kind. It’s not about bigging yourself up, or thinking about how great your life is. Its about sensing where your attitude was positive, and recognising what led you to put others first.

4) Forgive and be forgiven.

If the review of your day has brought to mind times when people have hurt or upset you, try to forgive them. Recognise that often our hurt springs from how we feel about ourselves as much as anything else, feeling compassion for others is the beginning of the forgiveness process.

Compassion needs to extend to yourself, and you need to accept that you also need forgiveness. There are three ways of looking at this, for those who have a belief in God, they may seek forgiveness from the divine. For those without that belief, they need to forgive themselves. For everyone, there may be a need to gain forgiveness from someone you hurt. This is the change point, the place where we say we’re going to live differently. In the Christian tradition, this is linked to a process called repentance, which effectively means to turn back, to change your ways.

5) Prepare.

Having gone through the first four steps, you’re in a better place to prepare for the day ahead. Spend a few moments considering what you have ahead of you, and who. Recognise where your weaknesses may come under stress, accept them, and make it your intention to address whatever comes your way with an attitude of love, generosity, and humility.

On a daily basis, this needn’t be a lengthy process, but particularly in combination with silent meditation, this is a really helpful and healthy regular practice to develop.

If you want to receive my free daily weekday meditations, sign up here.