God and the dualist imagination part 3: Us & God

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving already stated that evangelical thinking uses a dualistic lens to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘others’; I now want to consider the other way that dualism has infected the way evangelicals think, namely the ‘othering’ of God.

Not only are people ‘other’ to ‘us’, but so is ‘God’.

Language of transcendence is often used to speak of the Divine, I use it quite frequently myself. But while it can be helpful in talking about aspects of the nature of God, when God becomes solely transcendent as in the ‘Theist’ or ‘Supernatural Theist’ way of thinking, we have a problem.

When God is entirely transcendent, there seem to be places where he or she is not present, essentially places where God does not exist. These places may be in people, in the hearts and minds of those who we feel are evil or wrong; physical locations; or objects.

For some this is manifest in power relationships – God cannot be present in ‘their’ building, instead it is a haunt for ‘demons’ – their building may of course variously be: Mosque, temple, house of ill repute, anyone else’s church…

Often what lies at the heart of that is straightforwardly a power struggle, but underlying it, I want to suggest, is this kind of thinking about God.

Indeed I believe this lies at the heart of the problems with the way we conceive of all types of others. It can allow us to see ‘others’ as more distant from God than we are; just as it also allows us to conceive of certain places as ‘god forsaken’ or ‘god less’.

On a global/geo political scale of course, it allows us to consign our planet to environmental catastrophe by believing that God is transcendent from his/her creation. By living in this thinking we can justify not only environmental damage on an extraordinary scale, but also be ambivalent about the death and destruction of massive amounts of people.

On a local scale, and one that is very obvious in any kind of missional role, it allows us to abandon sections of society to sink or swim as church bails out and heads for a nicer place to live.

Tomorrow I will explain how this thinking has made me move into a new way of understanding God altogether. New for me that is.

Previous posts are here: 1, 2.

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God and the dualist imagination part 2: Jesus & dualism

In post 1 of this series, I said that I believe dualism is inherent in the way that evangelical Christians have come to conceive of ‘others’ – those of different belief systems or lifestyles to the standards deemed ‘acceptable’ by the prevailing evangelical thinking.

I want to go to say that I believe this to be a deeply flawed approach, and one which seems contrary to the way of approaching otherness modelled by Jesus.

Jesus approach to those of other faiths, other lifestyles and other social classes is profoundly open and egalitarian. The gospels include stories of an encounter with non-Jewish astrologers and times spent with tax collectors, prostitutes, beggars and centurions.

He was a friend of sinners, and was condemned as a glutton and a drunkard for the way that he ate and supped with others as though he were part of their community. Jesus does not model a dualistic way of living, nor does he model a dualistic model of ministry – his encounters with those other to his own way of life are gentle, peaceful and respectful.

Various people have critiqued dualistic thinking, Julian of Norwich noted that ‘The fullness of Joy is to behold God in everything’; and Bede Griffiths advocated an approach which drew on the teachings of both Thomas Aquinas and Sankara – in believing that in God there is “no division, or ‘composition’ of any kind. He is ‘without duality’.” (Griffiths, Return to the Centre, 1978, 24)

When considering the otherness of different faith traditions, the former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sachs expresses similar views in ‘The Dignity of difference’ where he talks of religion as being “the translation of God into a particular language and thus into the life of a group, a nation, a community of faith.” (Sachs, The Dignity of Difference, 2002, 55)

Read more tomorrow in Part 3.

God and the dualist imagination part 1: Us & Others

I presented a paper at a conference recently, where I outed myself as a ‘recovering dualist’.

By this I meant that I find it very hard not to think about God with a classic dualist point of view – you know that idea of God as a person out there somewhere, with a Santa type ‘naughty and nice’ pair of lists? Yeah that. I find it a bit hard not to think like that.

I am by background an evangelical, and although I haven’t used that term to describe myself for some time, it has played an important part in forming the way I think about things.

So in a short series of blog posts, I want to look at the issue of dualism as a way of thinking about God.

My first point then, is that I believe underlying the evangelical understanding of God and ‘others’ is a deep seated dualism.

I suggested that this dualism leads to a colonial attitude towards the way the evangelical church approaches ‘others’. While I recognise that there are significant exceptions to this generalisation, it’s useful as a starting point.

My belief is that the majority of evangelicals operate in a kind of Platonic conception of the world as Ideal and Real. There is a separation for instance between concepts such as ‘science and faith’, ‘Christian and secular’, ‘heaven and earth’ and of course, ‘saved and unsaved’. According to this well ingrained way of thinking, all earthly things are intrinsically inferior to the unseen spiritual.

So there is, for instance, a very dualistic way of distinguishing between the evangelical/Christian ‘us’, (saved, sanctified, believers); and ‘them’ – (the unsaved, those of other faiths, the sinners). This dichotomy of salvation has traditionally been part of a sovereignty paradigm. The threat of exclusion from the company of the sanctified, puts ‘us’ in to a position of power, of declaring the orthodoxy.

This runs, however, contrary to the gospel idea of giving up power, as modeled by Jesus in the Kenotic cross ‘event’, and to what Roger Mitchell has described as ‘Kenarchy’ – the emptying out of power on the behalf of others. (Mitchell, The Fall of the Church, 2013)

A dualistic mind-set is conveniently easy: with a clear us and them divide, ‘we’ know who ‘we’ are, and where ‘we’ are. It’s also very much a warfare mentality which not only appropriates violent imagery for the way it approaches discussion of the issues, but also posits the idea of opposing sides in a battle, ranged against one another. ‘Powers of darkness’ almost equal to, and diametrically opposed to ‘powers of good’ – God and Satan juxtaposed against one another as opposing commanders, and this played out on earth between people of faith and the heathen.

It may be easy, it may even be ‘encouraging’ at times of difficulty, but I believe it is deeply problematic.

Read more tomorrow in Part 2.

Endo’s Silence, and the problem of the impossible question

Whenever one has a discussion about an issue like pacifism with somebody who doesnt share the same convictions, there usually comes a point when an impossible question is posed. In that case, the question is usually something like: ‘What would you do if your family were being horribly slaughtered, and you could only stop it by shooting the assailant dead?’

The question is intended to demonstrate the futility of the pacifist position, the basic faulty thinking that lies behind a pacifist response.

But of course, just because there is an obvious thing that one probably would do – doesnt mean that it would be morally ‘right’.

In his incredible novel ‘Silence’ the Japanese writer Shusako Endo tells the story of a Christian missionary in Japan a few hundred years ago. This was a time when the Japanese were extremely antithetical towards this foreign religion, and there was a great deal of persecution of both missionaries and converts.

Part of the plot revolves around the question of whether the main character should deny Christ, in order to save others from torture. The already suffering peasants are put through terrible pain, because the priest won’t ‘step on the fumie’ or apostasise.

So one could ask a committed Christian, who is sure of his or her faith – ‘but what if your family were being tortured and killed, and you could stop them by blaspheming and renouncing Christ? What would you do then.

This impossible question is perhaps a sister to that asked of pacifists – and demonstrates (perhaps) the futility of a faith position.

What they really demonstrate though are the impossibilities of asking such questions. Endo’s ‘Silence’s is a fantastic book for anyone interested in pursuing such thinking, and meditating on the silence of God amidst pain and hardship. But do consider the pointlessness of such questioning if you are ever challenging a pacifist – what might be thought ‘necessary’ or ‘the only choice’ is not necessarily the right one.

an earthy eucharist

I had the pleasure and privilege today of sharing a communion service at our local YMCA – the service was for staff rather than residents, but I knew before hand that I was likely to have a mixed bunch of people, from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. That’s fine with me, I prefer ‘mixed’.

So anyway, I chose as the focus of the half hour session, the idea of the sacrament as ‘a visible sign of an invisible reality’ – and took time to relate this not just to the ‘last supper’ but also other meals Jesus shared, and looking more widely, to the earth itself.

Obviously we didnt have lots of time for talking, and I wanted to keep the atmosphere quite reflective and calm, but the focus of the time really became the idea that in the earth, God has given us a moment to moment reminder of sacrifice and provision. And in our response to the earth, we provide ourselves with a moment to moment reminder of our callous disregard of anything good which comes our way. A betrayal of all the good we have been provided with.

We took a moment or two to consider our reactions to the sharing of the body and blood of Christ, and our reaction to the sharing of the body and blood of the earth, which the bread and wine, two extremely earthy substances, remind us of very neatly.

Sometimes I find it a little disheartening to share communion and find that the ‘bread’ on offer is some kind of fluffy white substance which has no flavour, no texture, nothing to remind the eater of its earthy origins. In taking time to reflect on the relationship between us and the earth, and in sharing bread that actually tastes of something, we can help to restore that balance. For a decent and easy communion bread, I tend to mix some self raising flour, about 4oz perhaps, a little bit of strong wholemeal flour, some olive oil, some water and a few pinches of herbs or spice. I mix them till the dough is smooth and pliable, and then I roll it out and cook it in a pan. Try it, its quick and its good.

We finished with the lovely prayer that is often attributed to St Francis, although I dont know anyone who has ever managed to show it was truly his. I find the Franciscan way  to be one which most clearly demonstrates our corporate commitment to waging peace on the earth, rather than carrying on destructive behaviour patterns, and often use them as an illustration when talking to non-Christians about a Christian response to environmentalism.

However, until we all begin to remember more actively, our personal responsibilities to the world in which we live, its all just talk. Taking time to pray and reflect on the sacramental nature of the earth may just help, I hope it does.

The Prayer of St Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

 

new monasticism network

Maybe its the new year, or perhaps just the nagging thought in the back of my mind that there was something I had been meaning to do… but I just got round to joining the online ‘New Monasticism Network‘ which – although perhaps not quite my usual medium – will I am sure prove to be both very interesting and very useful.

If you are interested in new monasticism, want to network with others who are similarly interested, or seeking information about what on earth people mean by ‘new monastic’ (there are a lot of ideas out there) then I reccomend you join in, because in my limited experience of such things, the more people join in, the better it is likely to get.

And as if that wasnt enough, they are even kind enough to publicise my book, and even the rather dodgy video I made for it on my allotment (back when the book went by a different name!!!)

The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer

An interesting film and book project coming out of the states that may be worth having a look at if you are interested in Monastic spirituality/Christian primitivism – as I am.

At first I was unsure, thought it might have been a wind up because of the names of the two principal people involved, but that was just my Anglo Saxon ignorance showing, this looks like a genuine and fascinating project.

I am guessing that the mysterious Jesus Prayer of which they speak is ‘The Jesus Prayer’ – which is well known I think, but then again it may be something quite different, and it will certainly be interesting to get a look into some of these ancient places.

I’ll blog more if it gets more interesting.