As a choirboy I was always intrigued by the line in the Magnificat, The Song of Mary, “he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”. It was also fun to sing, with the organ used to dramatic effect in the accompaniment. However, on one level it seemed to be giving imagination a bad press. “You’re imagining things” we’d be told when being accused of subscribing to conspiracy theories or in over-zealously seeking out the truth, whilst conversely being urged to “Use your imagination” if the details of that very truth prove too uncomfortable to air publicly.
Today I think it’s well recognised that using our imagination is an essential part of what it is to be a living, thinking, understanding and responsive person. It takes a leap of imagination to make a scientific discovery, just as much as it does to make a sci-fi movie. It takes imagination to act in the world and to have a vision and set goals. It helps us to understand people, to step into their shoes and empathise with them. It isn’t reserved for day-dreams and art projects. It deepens our insight, clarifies our vision and motivates our action.
Interestingly, for Christians, much of this work of the imagination is characteristic of the work of the Holy Spirit. In Genesis, the creativity of God is seen in the spirit brooding over the face of the waters. In the Old and New Testaments it’s the spirit that gives wisdom and understanding. Through the spirit, the prophets have visions and the people dream dreams. In the New Testament, to be filled with the spirit is to give birth to love, joy, peace, kindness and goodness. To live in the spirit is to be bound together in love. In short, we are the image of the creator God, or as the British theologian John Macquarrie said, “life in the spirit is life in the imagination of God”.
Making a connection between the Holy Spirit and the imagination might appear blasphemous as it seems to suggest that God is merely a figment of the imagination. However, imagination is crucial to human life and faith. As Whit Sunday approaches and we prepare to celebrate the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost, we need to rejoice in and encourage all the creativity and imagination that has formed our faith and its practices over many generations.
THE GREAT BBQ COMPETITION
There’s been something of a minor heatwave here in the UK this week and people have immediately rushed to light their barbeques and enjoy al fresco dining. The Great Barbeque Competition in the First Book of Kings is a dramatic encounter between the prophet Elijah and the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. They set up their rival bonfires and place a prepared sacrificial bull on the top. “The God who answers by fire”, says Elijah, “he is God.”
The prophets call on their God but to no avail; the fire remains unlit. Elijah taunts them – perhaps Baal is meditating, or asleep or has “stepped aside”, a Hebrew euphemism for visiting the toilet!
Elijah has the people pour four large water pots over his offering and calls on the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” It ends badly for the prophets of Baal who are taken down the mountain and executed.
One cannot imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other religious leader today setting up such a challenge to see which, if any, gods exist. As the philosopher John Wisdom wrote “The existence of God is not an experimental issue in the way it once was”. Believers do expect their faith to make a difference, and there is thought to be a difference between believers non-believers. But what is that difference?
John Wisdom writing just before the Second World War in a paper entitled Gods, went on to ask how something that was once an experimental issue could become something very different and tells a parable about two men surveying a piece of ground. One points to things that he thinks show there is a gardener at work. The other sees only signs that no one is looking after it. So they start to look for more evidence in this and other gardens until, having studied everything, they still disagree. You can read the parable here and the full paper. It led to a long debate about the nature of belief. Is belief a way of seeing the world, having a particular attitude towards the world? Is it using a certain vocabulary to talk about life, practising various rituals?
Readers of this blog will know that for me (and I suspect for many believers) God is not an extra thing that exists and is alive in the world but life itself. The practice of faith can make a difference just as art and music can. What matters is that believers and non-believers alike acknowledge that the existence of God is not the experimental issue it once was.
Doubt can play a crucial role within faith; it avoids the certainty of the fanatic, develops humility and as in science, often opens the path to truth. A few years ago, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby created something of a storm when he questioned whether or not God was actually “there”. He is reported to have said “The other day I was praying over something that I was running, and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it about time you did something, if you’re there?’ Some headlines ran “Archbishop doubts existence of God”, another columnist of atheist persuasion simply declared “Victory!”, whilst others were keen to support, pointing to the archbishop’s humanity as a man who knew the agony of grief, having lost his first-born child in a car accident.
However there is one concept which cannot be doubted within a Christian philosophy: the existence of God. For Christians, God is that whose existence cannot be doubted because God is existence itself. God is that in whom we live and move and have our being. The language of faith may not always be helpful in exploring that which is essential to life. It may be doubted whether there is any value in exploring existence itself, but to talk about God is to talk about that which cannot be doubted.
People may have reservations about the value of religious practices like prayer and worship, they may have doubts about Jesus and what he said and did and about the institution of the church. They may be uncertain as to what course of action they should take as a Christian, they may lose faith in standing up for justice but not about the existence of God. It simply makes no sense to say existence itself doesn’t exist.
Christian faith should not concern itself with questions over the existence of a separate entity called God, either in or outside our universe. It is about our relationships within the world we inhabit, both with ourselves and those around us. It should lead us in life and love, helping us to make society a better place for more people. The most effective way to bring about these changes may be shrouded in doubt, but God must not.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused an uproar at its first performance in 1913, with witnesses reporting that blows were exchanged, objects thrown at the stage and one person at least challenged to a dual. The subject of the ballet was even more shocking, with its depiction of ritual abduction and a young girl dancing herself to death in the presence of old men.
Most ancient societies practised human sacrifice, later abandoning it in favour of the offering of animals. The story of Abraham climbing the mountain to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to be interrupted by God with the order to substitute a ram, originates in this moment of change in human history. However, animal sacrifice might be perceived as no less barbaric: according to the First Book of Kings, at the dedication of the Temple in the space of one day,
“Solomon offered a sacrifice of fellowship offerings to the Lord: twenty-two thousand cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats.”
In 2016, after a break of two millennia, a Paschal Lamb was again sacrificed on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in an effort by right-wing activists to lay greater claim on the site.
At this time of year Christians prepare to retell the story of Jesus’ passion, the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world and brings to an end the need for further human or animal sacrifice. So what place has the notion of sacrifice in our time? We still talk of self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of those who have laid down their lives for our freedom, giving their today for our tomorrow.
During Holy Week we could ask ourselves two questions. Is there anything for which we would sacrifice our lives? Most of us could imagine a context in which we might at least hope for the courage to lay down our lives; to protect our children, defend the freedoms of our society, or in an attempt to prevent abuse and slavery.
The second question follows. If we think there are situations in which we should be prepared to risk our lives, then are we physically and mentally prepared? Part of our Lenten discipline and the following of Jesus’ passion should be to strengthen our resolve and take up our cross if called.
One of the characters in Aidan Chambers’ novel Now I Know offers a definition of belief by separating the word into two parts “be and “lief”. “Be” is to exist, to live, to have a presence in the world. “Lief” relates to an Old English word for love and means gladly and willingly.
“So belief means: that you will give all your attention to living with loving gladness in the world you think really exists.”
The etymology is a little more complicated than the 17 year old Nik describes and the word belief in English has a variety of meanings, ranging from the conviction that something is true, to having faith and trust in a person’s character. However, Aidan Chambers reminds us that neither definition paints the full picture.
When English-speaking Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in God”, what do they mean?
God is to be trusted?
God is the means by which they embrace and embark on a meaningful life?
In Latin, each of these has a different construction corresponding to the above:
credo in deum
Surprisingly perhaps, it is the third option that we find in the original version used in Christian worship dating back to the fourth century. In his Commentary on John’s Gospel, St Augustine writes
“What is it therefore to believe in him? It is in believing to love, in believing to delight, in believing to walk towards him, and be incorporated amongst the limbs or members of his body.”
In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis also makes much of the distinction between credere in Deum and credere Deum. “in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum” as it leads to a loving, dynamic faith, one that doesn’t stop at only marking out the limits of what we believe, but leads to a faith that changes our lives.”
I was browsing through a book at a friend’s house over Christmas which had been recommended to him by his Baptist minister. Brian D. McLaren’s, A New Kind of Christianity was an enlightening read; right across the spectrum of the church – from evangelicals to liberals – a new strategy for changing the church is being adopted.
Times change along with our thinking and the church’s teaching needs to respond accordingly. That’s not straightforward, especially in a church where its leader’s declarations are said to be infallible. Some have likened it to altering the course of an ocean liner, so the hope of a new strategy for change is welcome and overdue.
One approach has been to examine. For example, most people no longer believe in the devil but to make a lasting difference this has to be written into the formal beliefs and liturgies of the church. Within the context of infant baptism, parents and priests are required publically to declare their commitment to “fight against sin, the world and the devil” yet privately most will feel the concept is outmoded and inconceivable.
A second strategy is to leave the credal statements as they are and reinterpret them. If there is little hope of getting the church to say “We don’t believe in hell any longer” then ministers can say “I do believe in hell but it’s here, now, among us in the midst of war and famine.” Sooner or later, though, they will be challenged – “So you don’t really believe in hell, do you?”
A third strategy which I proposed in Agenda for Faith, is to say that the faith of the church hasn’t changed but philosophy has. Our understanding of meaning, truth and the self is radically different from that of the ancient Greeks upon whose philosophy most credal statements and doctrines are based. However not many congregations are prepared to tolerate sermons on 21st century philosophy.
Another strategy I adopted in God in the Bath is to show that classical orthodox theology is far more radical than it appears. Thomas Aquinas, for example, who is often regarded as a model of church teaching wrote that “God is not a thing that exists but existence itself”. Whatever “existence itself” might mean, it exposed the metaphorical nature of all religious language.
More recently a new strategy has emerged and has been adopted by radicals and evangelicals alike. Raimon Panikkar, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest and scholar, put forward the view that the history of the Christian tradition can be divided into three periods. In the first, Christendom, culture, faith, political life and territory coincided. People centred around a single ideological world-view and anyone who disagreed was locked up or burnt.
With European exploration and the discovery of the New World, Africa and India, Christendom gave way to Christianity, an integrated system of beliefs which stood in contrast to “-isms” such as Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism – words coined by the Christian West. With the wane of imperialistic ambitions and the intellectual challenge to systems of belief, Christianity, argued Panikkar, has come to an end. Christianity has given way to Christianness. Jesus, didn’t have a system of belief and his followers were described in the bible as followers of “The Way” . “To be Christian”, writes Panikkar (in Christianity: Opera Omnia Vol. III.2, A Christophany) “can be understood as the confession of a personal faith that adopts an attitude analogous to that of Christ.” Here’s a chance for the church to return to its roots without entangling itself in the doctrinal squabbles.