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.

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’.

balanced rockI gave a paper at the Society for the Study of Theology conference #SST2017 this week, the underlying argument of which concerned the idea of peace, and how we conceive of it.

The view I tried to get across, in the space of a couple of thousand largely inadequate words was a relatively simple one: the popular idea of peace (lack of disruption) is distinctly different to ‘peace-as-peace’ which is not characterised by a lack of disruption, but rather by an acceptance of it.

A key characteristic of peace-as-peace is that it can’t be grasped. Peace as lack of disruption can be, it can be planned for, strategised, grabbed hold of. But peace-as-peace can’t, it come as a gift, an event to be experienced.

Peace as lack of disruption encourages the building of concrete certainties, in many cases using literal concrete. It requires the development of borders, of demarcations, of peace walls. In religions it requires the demarcation lines of denominational boundaries and written doctrines.

But peace-as-peace doesn’t need these same safeguards, it has no requirement for dividing lines, or clear statements of purpose or intent. This sort of peace is like the manna that fell from the sky for the children of Israel, it’s not for storing up or warehousing, its for experiencing in the moment.

Alfred North Whitehead warned of the danger of aiming for peace, and ending up with it’s ‘bastard substitute’: anaesthesia. The effect of anaesthetic is to give the sense of no disruption, no pain. But while this may seem like an ideal goal, may appear to be what we want, it is in fact not the blessing it seems.

Peace-as-peace doesn’t try to get rid of the pain, or the disruption, but accepts it and then welcomes the gift of peace in that space. John Cobb said peace is the ‘direct apprehension of one’s relatedness with that factor in the universe which is divine’, leaving us with a sense that of the various nick-names which have been given to that divine nature: God, Great Spirit, Great Fact, ground of being, etc. ‘disruption’ may well describe the divine as adequately as any of them.

Did you like this post? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and don’t forget to share it on your social media platforms – let’s take the power back.