Belief and the believed

“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”

In JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ the fairy Tinkerbell was saved from death by belief, specifically, belief in fairies. Barrie uses the motif of mythology, specifically mythical creatures, to suggest that in some cases, belief actually CAUSES existence.

But is that true of things other than fairies? I want to suggest that it is.

Where this starts is with ideas – because it is ideas that rule our imagination. But an idea has no power until it is believed.

And like Tinkerbell, who needed lots of belief to make her well again, the more belief there is, the more power an idea has.

Let’s take money as an example. Money is only really an idea, we are long past the time when money actually meant something, if it ever really did. What gives money its power is not what it is actually worth, but what we believe it is worth. If we all stopped believing that money had worth, it would actually be worthless.

We could talk similarly about government, government has power because we believe it has power, and crucially some of us who believe that have decided to learn how to shoot people who don’t believe it.

Belief you see, must be protected, because the consequences of loss of belief are dire indeed.

This has implications for an awful lot of things – in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’ we see a clear explanation of this issue, the god who is the main character of the book has suffered a great loss of belief, and as a result has shrunk away to almost total powerlessness.

Pratchett is actually very good on this stuff, he goes over much of the same kind of material in ‘Hogfather’ too, which also makes a good Christmas movie if you are interested.

So when it comes to it, we need to recognise that while it would appear that the power lies with the believed, actually it lies with the believer, and if unbelief could be manifested on a large enough scale, the power of the believed could be broken altogether.

This is based of course on the relativistic idea that ideas don’t exist objectively. That is something which I am not going to go into now, as it is an idea that I personally half believe (I think some things are objectively real, and others aren’t).

But of course on a deeper level you could question the entirety of existence in this way, do we actually exist in an objective sense, or is this all just an idea that we believe strongly enough to make it real?

Personally I’m not so concerned about that, but I am deeply interested in the idea that ideas which hold power over us can lose their power once they lose their belief, as it demonstrates our collective ability to make genuine and complex changes in the world around us, by making simple changes in what we believe.

The power of belief – new blog series

I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about the great power of belief. It’s a subject which continues to intrigue people from a variety of walks of life – from priests to playwrights.

So my plan is to write a short series of blog posts over the next few days about the subject of belief, which will cover the following subjects:

Belief and the believed

Belief and the unbelievable

Belief and the believer

The reason for all this is that I’m of the opinion that belief is utterly fundamental to the way we all live – I am not talking about belief in the supernatural particularly, although for some people that is obviously important. Rather I’m talking about the things we all believe to be real – and base our lives upon, this digs in to politics, and of course economics particularly.

Belief I think is all about the power of ideas, and I am hoping to engage with that notion a little bit, although I expect this stuff will only come alive if some of you interact with me, either here or on facebook, twitter or some other space which we believe to be real.

For your reading pleasure, you can expect the occasional reference to Peter Pan, The X Files, and Terry Pratchett, besides the occasional bit of philosophical nonsense.

So – coming soon, ‘Belief and the believed’ – see you on the other side.

Losing my religion?

All the cool kids are ‘spiritual but not religious’ now, but what does that actually mean?

For many people, it means that they believe in a higher power or powers, but have freed themselves from the perceived domination of any particular doctrine and/or human authority structure.

That doesn’t actually mean they are free of religion though.

Religion as a concept has evolved, from an initial meaning of a subjective experience/attitude of awe in the presence of a deity, to become a response – religion is the practises one adopts as the outworking of a belief system.

It is not simply the doctrines and practises that make up a faith tradition.

If your belief is that we are all one, and that nobody should harm anyone else, you develop a set of practises which go along with that belief. If you believe that God loves the poor and needy, and that he lives and acts through his followers, then you develop a set of practises to reflect that.

You are also liable also to develop patterns and ways of demonstrating worship, veneration and adoration which fall in line with these beliefs. Worship and celebration seems to be something that comes quite naturally to humans, that these practises become part of our religion is equally as natural.

That is religion.

To be ‘spiritual but not religious’ actually doesn’t mean what people think it does. It would actually mean, ‘I believe in things, but don’t let my beliefs impact my life in any way’ (This is something which could be said of many ‘religious’ people). But I don’t think that is what people are trying to express when they talk about themselves in this way  – which is perhaps better summed up as ‘spiritual but not an follower of any of the major faith traditions.’

Religious has become a dirty word, it has become the reflection of an idea that ‘Religion’ or ‘Religio’ is an abstract something – usually something malign and harsh.

In fact, I think we’re pretty much all religious, I’m less convinced that we’re all actively, or consciously ‘spiritual’.  By which I don’t mean that we aren’t spiritual beings – but rather that we’re not conscious of our own spirituality.

OR – maybe there’s another way of looking at it – it would be great to hear your perspective…

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.

Apophatic or Kataphitic? How should we meditate?

Not often I use strange words like those Apophatic and Kataphitic, but lately I’ve been musing, pondering and indeed meditating, on the nature of meditation, and in specific the nature of Christian meditation, and what forms it might rightly take.

There are basically two schools of meditative practise in the Christian tradition, the Apophatic school, which work on the ‘beyond words, thoughts, feelings etc’ way of meditating, which in many ways draws upon the Eastern traditions, or at least is closely aligned in terms of its use of repeated phrases – known in other traditions as Mantras.This form of meditation is also most closely aligned with what you might describe as secular meditation, including types of TM, which also draw on Eastern philosophies.

The other way is the Kataphitic way, which is a way of meditating which involves or specifically includes the mind, the imagination, and the senses. This may lead on from a reading or memorised piece of text, or may be guided by a teacher.

I have used both of these kinds of meditation, and can see the positive benefits of both. My wondering is whether the first can be called authentically Christian, or whether despite its association with other religions and practises, the focus of the individual is what transforms it to being a Christian practise. If that is the case though, where does such ‘redemptive’ thinking stop? Can one claim any spiritual practise is Christian in such a way? While I have attempted it, and found no personal harm in it, I do find myself troubled by the ’emptying of the mind’ nature of Apophatic meditation, which seems to allow no opportunity for the mind to interact in some way with the Divine. The late John Main a Benedictine brother who taught a kind of Mantra meditation repeatedly instructs us to keep saying the Mantra – keep saying it.

I recognise that there is real value to be found here, and I think that Main’s claims of the ‘spiritual poverty’ of the Mantra as being of implicit value are powerful, but still I find myself confused as to whether we can see this as being explicitly Christian.

The Jesus Prayer, which I have used also, and which I noted recently that a new film is to cover, seems like a middle ground between these two forms, but I’m not usually one for middle ground (not that we should discount the Jesus Prayer on that score, not at all).

I guess that, unless you lovely readers can provide good and coherent arguments to the contrary, my final opinion for now is that there is value in both, but on the whole one should take the Kataphitic as a starting point, perhaps Lectio Divina, or an Ignation form of visualisation, and immerse onesself in that, before (if appropriate) moving on to an Apophatic form of meditating at relevant times.

Again, sorry for (very) obscure (very) religious jargon, would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Teens becoming ‘fake Christians’?

Two good posts here and here about this article – which suggests that many Teens are becoming ‘fake Christians’ following a God who tells them to be nice and not to have sex or take drugs.

There is a real challenge for all of us to move beyond a religion where we’re basically telling people to be middle class, and have solid conservative values, to actually getting down and dirty, and following Jesus.

I believe its fair to suggest that Jesus would not find a happy home in many of our churches, and that is a sad indictment on our corporate Christianity.

The good news is though that the authors say we as parents can do something about it:

…parents who perform one act of radical faith in front of their children convey more than a multitude of sermons and mission trips.

A parent’s radical act of faith could involve something as simple as spending a summer in Bolivia working on an agricultural renewal project or turning down a more lucrative job offer to stay at a struggling church, Dean says.

But it’s not enough to be radical — parents must explain “this is how Christians live,” she says.

Ready then everyone?

life in contrast

By way of change I have been doing some painting today, not oils and acrylics – emulsion. Yeah, I’ve been a decorator for the day, which has made an interesting change. Anyway, as I rollered a wall with Magnolia I was struck by something which is simple but somehow profound.

When the magnolia went over one colour, it looked very dark, but then when it went over another (darker) colour, it suddenly seemed very light.

The paint was the same, but the effect was very different, and the reason for that is contrast. When the paint is contrasted with a light colour it seems quite different to when its contrasted with a dark one, how true of issues in my life and the world generally.

An issue which can seems extremely important/significant/heavy in one context, seems much less so in another – its all to do with what we’re contrasting things with.

I know its obvious, but that paint was impossible to see as anything but dark when painted over a light colour, just as certain things are impossible to see as anything but extremely important until the context changes.

Which means that we must all learn to have more grace with those who are looking at a different coloured wall to us, and seeing the same paint in a different way.

And yes, I am talking to myself more than anyone else.

Shane Claiborne and the question of what it means to be a Christian

There’s a really good interview with Shane Claiborne here which really brings out some straightforward but vital stuff. He’s really talking throughout about what it really means to be a Christian, as the writer makes clear from the start, we can call anything Christian, but that doesnt mean it necessarily has much to do with Jesus or the way he taught people to live.

Anyway, read the article, I urge you, it’s encouraging.

As a special treat, here is an edited excerpt, which I think this is a good example of the kind of good stuff he says:

“I think we’ve become infatuated with evangelism to the point that we have an imbalanced focus on discipleship and formation. So what we end up with is a church of believers but very few disciples or followers. And you can worship Jesus without following him…

“So people believe something but even the demons believe we can have faith to move mountains but if we don’t have love it’s nothing, Scripture says.

“So what we’re really talking about I think is recognising that in the evangelical church our evangelism has been a mile long but our discipleship has been an inch deep. We’ve got to really rethink what it means to have lives that are transformed and to have people that because of Christ they’re a new creation and they no longer live on the patterns of our culture. Romans says that we are to be transformed by the renewing of the mind and not to conform to the patterns of our world. So those patterns of racism, consumption, militarism, all the things that don’t look like Jesus, we’ve got to be cultivating people who think with a different imagination than the world around us.

“What monasticism does is put together our belief and our practices so to begin to articulate what are some of the practices of Christianity, what are the ways that it looks? We can learn that by looking at the early church, by looking at Jesus and we can see that the early church shared all their money. They were busting through the barriers of class and race. So we have to relearn our identity, that our identity no longer centrally lies in America but it’s much deeper than that. That we are first Christians and that means we’re a part of a global family and that affects the way that we think about international conflicts, immigration…”

As usual his words are prophetic and timely, and he has this warning for a church which is worried about why its losing young people from its ranks, and desperately trying to make itself ‘hipper’ to stem the exodus.

“I think that part of what we’ve done is we thought in order to stay relevant to a new generation we’ve got to have more drums and drama and high-tech entertainment. The truth is if we lose a generation in the church it won’t be because we didn’t entertain them but because we didn’t dare them and challenge them to really take Jesus seriously in light of the world we live in.”

For me personally, I’m just dead keen to find and work alongside others who think the sermon on the mount should be taken seriously, that it should be used as a way to live, not just something to read. If that’s your kind of Christianity – get in touch.

More about Morocco

More news about the shameful breach of human rights and clampdown on ex-pat Christians in Morocco:

This is the official release from an orphanage in Morocco which is about to lose all its ex-pat staff, and apparently leave some 33 children abandoned again. As the writer puts it:

…Watching the children be told by their parents that they had to leave, that they would maybe never see them again, is the most painful thing I have ever witnessed…

I don’t know these people, their work or their motivations except for what I have read today, but I have no reason to distrust what they are saying, and it backs up other things I have been told. They have been given three days or less to leave the country… I think this is a very shameful action on the part of the Moroccan government.