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

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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.

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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.

There has ball_lost6een 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.

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?’

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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’.

The idea of inclusion seems so simple, and yet the practicalities of it grow increasingly complex.

Working for a charity which has inclusivity as part of its core ethos, I hear too often the voices of those who feel excluded, for one reason or another.inclusion_church_shareable

And if it isn’t one reason, it really is another – we seem constantly creative in our ways of creating barriers and walls between one another. Then of course, if we are committed to bringing down those walls, then we become exclusive of those who are not so inclined.

It is for these reasons that I like to talk about inclusion, to discuss, openly and honestly, who feels included, and who excluded. When do you feel included, by whom, and how?

Close to where I live, on the edge of my council estate, where there should be an access road on to the bordering private housing estate, there is a big metal wall. It genuinely looks like something from the cold war, and it probably is about that old. Whenever I go past that wall, or point it out to someone, I am forced to reflect on what that wall says about our society, and what it means to those who live on my side of it.

And now politicians talk of walls, and no fly zones, and of who belongs where…

Inclusivity seems so simple, yet it is so difficult to put in to practise.

So this is why I’m excited to be part of a day conference where we will talk, simply, openly, explicitly, about what it means for people to be included in church. Mostly, over the last few years, the ‘inclusivity in church’ conversation has revolved around sexuality, as part of a corrective to a collective obsession with something Jesus had remarkably little to say about.

But while this remains a live issue, there are plenty of other issues of inclusivity in church – ranging from disability to gender, and from learning needs to poverty – very much the elephant in the room, so far as I am concerned.

Of course a conference about inclusivity is by its very nature somewhat exclusive, not many people are as keen on conferences as me, not everybody can get to Grimsby (even if it is the centre of my world), and not all of us can speak or read English well enough to follow the discussion.

But it’s a starting point for some, and a stepping stone on the journey for others, and if you would like to join us, then please do. There is a small charge for the conference, but if you haven’t got the cash, then its fine, we have a free ticket code too.

In an ideal world there would be a multitude of voices, all talking about how we can make our churches more inclusive, and working out plans of action to help one another do just that. But that’s the simplest form – and we all know it will be more complicated than that, inclusivity always is.