At the end of 2018 I did a small survey of some people who regularly read the stuff that I write. One of the things I asked was – ‘what can I improve on?’ I got a number of answers, including: “get better at grammar”, but it also became clear that some people wanted to read more on some of the more complex topics that I write about.
I usually write short articles, blog pieces are never more than a few hundred words, and my daily emails are only three paragraphs. So yes, there is room for me to write some more lengthy articles.
I’ve had a good think about how best to do this, and I’ve come up with a new project: ‘longform‘. Basically I’m going to write a longish article each month, in the region of 2000 – 3000 words. And that will allow me to go into a little more depth on some interesting topics.
I’m a journalist by background, as you may already know, but I’m also working on a PhD, so these articles are likely to be a mixture of essays and articles, with maybe an interview or two thrown in.
As usual with my work, it will be free to access. But something else that was made clear to me last year is that some people want to contribute, now and then, towards the work that I do. Which is nice. So there is a button for you to donate, if you wish to, when you download an article. Or if you prefer, you can pay a small monthly subscription, and I’ll send you the article by email.
The longform project will kick off on January 26th, with an essay giving a political take on an interesting Bible story, it’s called “Swine Flew: the curious case of the Gerasene Demoniac“. I can’t promise perfect grammar, but I’ll try.
My #alternativeadvent project starts on the 2nd of December, and will run all the way through to Christmas. I’ve been trailing this on social media for a little while now, and I recognise that some people are not entirely sure what the general idea is.
So I put together a short video this morning, just to give a little bit of explanation.
Sorry about my dodgy filming skills, but hopefully it gives you the general idea. It’s an email every day through advent, with four themes running through: the first set of emails will be on the subject of an ‘ahistorical advent’, then I will write about an ‘absurd advent’, then about an ‘anarchic advent’ and finally about an ‘atheist advent’. Essentially it’s a reflection on advent through a historical/literary lens, then through a more philosophical lens, then a political lens, and finally through a more theological lens.
I hope you’re able to join me for this, and that as we go you feel able to share your own thoughts, using the hashtag #alternativeadvent, because anything like this needs to be a conversation. And if you know me, you’ll realise I’m pretty much always up for a conversation, until about 10pm. After that, I might still be up for a conversation, or I might just be asleep. Sometimes its hard to tell.
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.
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.
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?’
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’.