TKcropIt’s always sad to hear of a death. The knowledge of a life passing means the loss of a connection, and our bodies react instinctively to that. Too many people seem to go too soon, but having reached the age of 95, that at least can’t be said of Fr Thomas Keating.

Fr Thomas, a Trappist Monk, died this week, and with his death comes the end of the life of a man who profoundly influenced me and many others in our approach to the Christian life.

I don’t remember exactly where or when I first heard of Centering prayer – although I know what era of my life it was, I was living in South Wales, and was at that time developing my interest in all things contemplation and meditation.  Reading Fr Thomas’ book ‘Open Mind Open Heart’ was a release and a revelation to me at that time. I’ve also greatly enjoyed and appreciated the youtube videos in which he appeared, which have been immensely helpful to me in the development of my own meditation practise.

When I started practising Centering prayer I found it life giving and freeing – and ever since then I have encouraged others to follow the same path.

Centering prayer is the nearest tradition to a Zazen practise that I have fully engaged with, and that was something else that Fr Thomas taught me. A respectful and humble approach to wisdom and spiritual traditions which are different to my own has now been part of my life for so many years its hard to imagine being any other way, but of course it wasn’t always like this.

For me it was crucial to find pioneers like Fr Thomas leading the way in to genuine interreligious dialogue, he acted as a kind of permission giver in my own journey in to deep friendships with those of other religions. I can honestly reflect on those relationships and recognise immense treasures that have come from them, they have challenged, stimulated and encouraged me in ways I could never have expected otherwise.

So while I feel a sense of sadness at the passing of this wonderful man, who I never had the chance to meet, I have a much greater sense of gratitude, both for his life, and for his many gifts.

Sociologists and theologians have much to say about the idea of gift, because gifts are transactions, we give in the expectation of receiving something in return. So we approach life in this way, we expect to have to earn good things, we struggle with the idea of accepting something entirely un-earned. Fr Thomas recognised this challenge in terms of our approach to spirituality: “The gift of God is absolutely gratuitous. It’s not something you earn. It’s something that’s there. It’s something you just have to accept. This is the gift that has been given. There’s no place to go to get it. There’s no place you can go to avoid it. It just is. It’s part of our very existence. And so the purpose of all the great religions is to bring us into this relationship with reality that is so intimate that no words can possibly describe it.”

I am running a meditation retreat in a fortnight, Centering prayer will be the key approach and technique for that time, and on that weekend of remembrance, we will find a way of remembering Fr Thomas.

Fr Thomas Keating O.C.S.O. 1923 – 2018

Rest in peace, rise in glory.

file000881450729Surviving 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.

Image result for christ of maryknoll by robert lentz ofm
Christ of Maryknoll, by Robert Lentz OFM

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.

Beaten

Stripped

Torn

Sweat stinging

Ears ringing

Heart straining

Lungs straining

Eyes staring

Eyes aching

Thorns cutting

Nails.

Cut up

Hung up

Left

Inexpressibly alone

Just waiting

So thirsty

And hungry

Aching

Fading

Breath weakening

Heart slowing

Pain growing

Overwhelming.

Bones shattered

Strength gone

Blood congealing

Flies buzzing

Flies landing

Legs rubbing

Surrounded

Infinitely alone.

Flesh

Not

Stone.

Black descending

Fading

Gone.

Fin.

 

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.

 

TLDR version: Theodicy is the question of why evil exists when God is supposed to be good. There are lots of approaches to this question, I’ll be pursuing one of them in the next article.

Over the next few weeks I plan to publish a number of blogs looking at some important questions of Christian theology, and giving what might for some be a new perspective on them.

I’m always keen to acknowledge that my own perspective is forever evolving, I know I’m wrong about some things, and I’m in a constant process of learning. I think of this as a ‘grounded mind’ approach: its an acceptance of our flawed humanity, and that we’re not in a position to know or understand everything. My opinion is that this is the most healthy approach any of us can take, in fact I distrust any other approach.

Certainty is too much of an idol for most of us. Doubt and faith make much better bedfellows than certainty and faith, a combination of the first sort produces humility, the latter tends to produce arrogance. Tweet this!

On that basis, I hope some of these thoughts develop into conversations, genuine discussions of perspectives on truth. But for that to happen we need to share some conceptual language. One of the most important concepts in theology, is that of ‘Theodicy’ – so what does that mean?

The word theodicy is not particularly old, only a few centuries, it was developed by a theologian looking at one of the most fundamental issues for any one who accepts the idea of ‘God’ – whatever form that may take. The question is: ‘How can a morally good God exist in a world which is so clearly full of bad things?’

mushroom
If a good God exists, then how do we explain the bad things that happen?

Since it’s coining, theodicy has been explored by various theorists and writers, not all of them theologians. For instance, Max Weber, the sociologist, considered theodicy to be a human response to a world in which many things are difficult to explain. Perhaps the most common reframing of this kind of concept, is ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ (Personally I prefer to ask the opposite question.)

But in a theological sense, theodicy concerns the question of why a/the God would ‘allow’ or ‘permit’ suffering. What is the meaning of evil in the face of an ultimate goodness? It does require a starting point of an acceptance of God as in some way objectively ‘real’ – although precisely what that means remains debatable.

Various answers have been formulated to address this question, they include ideas about the purposes of evil, and the nature of God’s will. All of these arguments have strengths and weaknesses, which are well addressed in relevant pieces of literature. In the next few posts I will ask some of the fundamental questions about the nature of God which help us get to the root of this problem – in particular I will ask if God should really be understood as ‘all powerful’ and ‘in control’, and also whether God can be said to be ‘unchanging’.