HEAVEN

One subject generally perceived to divide Christians from non-Christians is that of heaven, and the notion of an afterlife. I would challenge this perception, and take the view that there is more common ground than might at first be realised.

Interestingly, belief in heaven and an afterlife is not universal amongst Christians. According to “A Theory of Us”, 13% of American Christians do not believe in an afterlife. In Britain, according to YouGov.co.uk, the number of professed Christians who definitely believe in an afterlife is just under 50%, and even fewer believe in heaven. We can either draw the conclusion that the church is littered with heretics or that the nature of this aspect of Christian faith is seriously misunderstood.

Traditional, orthodox faith does not assert that we have a soul destined automatically to go on to another life, but it does propound the concept of resurrection. I once contributed a chapter to a book called “God and Reality” whose editor challenged this idea, referring it to Lambeth Palace. I was gratified that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office backed me up!

Many pictures of heaven are a distortion of Christian belief. There are no detailed descriptions of heaven in the gospels; our final destiny is said to be “in God”, which is precisely how we should be living our whole lives. As Paul says, “We live and move and have our being in God”. Similarly, the kingdom of heaven/God is amongst us and within us; something to experience here and now, a desire expressed in the Lord’s Prayer.

The whole point of this teaching is to focus our attention on our present lives and to look for God and the goodness of heaven among us.

Many ministers, in the hope of bringing comfort to the dying and bereaved, will talk of being reunited with friends and family, and living a life of unending happiness. The obvious questions are put to one side: What would it be like to meet former acquaintances? What would an unending life be like? What age would we be? Would it not become increasingly perplexing and tedious? The difficulties arise from thinking that heaven represents the next chapter in our life whereas in fact it is the end; its completion and fulfilment. Death brings our life to an end and the very word “after” is therefore necessarily metaphorical.

Christians cannot escape these questions and in collaboration with their non-believing friends must work to ensure that goodness is enjoyed and celebrated now, and that people are enabled to live worthwhile and fulfilling lives surrounded by loving and supportive friends.

 

GLAD THAT I LIVE AM I

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes,
And the fall of dew.

After the sun, the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.

All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer the sky.

I wonder if, like me you used to enjoy singing this hymn at school? At the time, its appeal for me lay in Martin Shaw’s imaginative musical setting, but what strikes me now from an adult perspective is that Lizette Reese’s text contains no “God” words. Some editors, clearly unhappy about this, have (perhaps surprisingly) changed the last line “nearer the sky” to “nearer to God on high”.

It set me thinking about other examples of religious texts that avoid addressing the “person” of God directly, such as George Herbert’s The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

No doubt the capital letters indicate the special meaning attached to these words for believers, reminding them of Jesus’ saying “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

William Blake’s “The Divine Image” also sung as a hymn is another example with very few overtly religious words.

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

One striking common factor is that all these hymns use simple, uncomplicated language – “killeth” is the only word in Herbert’s poem that has more than one syllable – but their thought is profound. Clearly it is possible for religious believers to speak about their faith without using theological language and this ought to be no surprise to us since Jesus taught in parables, through common everyday tales. The irresistible conclusion we might draw is that if Christians are able to describe their experience of God in this way, then the difference between believers and unbelievers is not as great as we think.

If it is possible to speak of God without specialised language, then this narrows the gulf between the secular and the profane. After all, Christian belief tells us God is everywhere, as the life of all life dwelling amongst us. The experience of hope, new life and love is open to us all whatever name we choose to give it.

I would be fascinated to hear from any reader with further examples of “Godless” hymns; one other notable example with few specialised words is “Come down O Love Divine”.

 

REMEMBRANCE

At the end of the Battle of Agincourt, in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, the king is handed a piece of paper giving the number of French soldiers who have died in the battle.

 This note, doth tell me of ten thousand French
 That in the field lie slain: he says
Then follows the news of men lost on the English side;
 Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
 Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:
 None else of name; and of all other men
 But five and twenty. O God, thy arm was here;
 And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
 Ascribe we all!
 
 ‘Tis wonderful!, says Exeter.
 

 God fought for us, says the King . . .
 Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum;’

At this point in Kenneth Branagh’s film, Henry picks up the body of a teenage soldier, and carries him from the field of battle, through the mud, the stench and the corpses. As the camera lingers on the horror of the scene, we hear the singing of Patrick Doyle’s Non nobis domine rising to a great crescendo. It’s a moving scene and won an Ivor Novello award for the composer.

In 1415 – at the time of the Battle of Agincourt, Non nobis domine was a popular round, with words taken from Psalm 115; Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.

Almost two hundred years later in January 1606, these same words appear in a prayer from an Act of Thanksgiving, which later found its way into the Book of Common Prayer.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast in all ages shewed thy power and mercy . . . . in the protection of righteous and religious Kings . . .  We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our gracious Sovereign King James, the Queen, the Prince, and all . . . assembled in Parliament, by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter, in a most barbarous, and savage manner . . . From this unnatural conspiracy, not our merit, but thy mercy; not our foresight, but thy providence, delivered us: And therefore, not unto us, O Lord, not unto us; but unto thy Name be ascribed all honour and glory  . . .

The Popish treachery to which this prayer refers was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  No doubt further thanksgivings were given as eight of the surviving conspirators, including Guy Fawkes were hung, drawn and quartered.

The same words were used by Rudyard Kipling in a poem also written for a parliamentary thanksgiving – A Pageant of Democracy – held at the Albert Hall in 1934. It was a celebration of the birth and establishment of democracy in Britain and throughout the British Empire.

Non Nobis, Domine!
Not unto us, O Lord,
The praise and glory be
Of any deed or word.
For in Thy judgement lies
To crown or bring to nought
All knowledge and device
That man has reached or wrought.

Today, in our rather sensitive, sentimental and squeamish times, some of us may have difficulty relating to Henry the Fifth walking through the carnage of war bearing the burden of the war dead, while declaring that “God fought for us” and asking for a Non Nobis to be sung.

 

I know many ministers struggle to preach on Remembrance Sunday; the pacifist in us all finds it hard to look beyond the chaos, and find any act worthy of God. The thought of ascribing the death of countless war dead to the arm of God alone fills us with revulsion. We are far too conscious of our ” blame and the noise which men call fame” that has led to so much suffering and pain.

Perhaps the soldier of Christ in all of us should rejoice at the triumph of good over evil, and in such a battle proclaim “God with us” and sing a Non nobis domine, Not unto us O Lord but unto thy name be the praise.

It is almost impossible both to rejoice in the victory of righteousness and at the same time lament the sacrifice of war. Yet if our wars are to be just wars fought for the right reasons, if we are to seek peace through negotiation, if we are to truly honour and support  members of our armed forces and care for those who are injured in war, then we must both bear the burden and suffering of war and at the same time be able to sing Non nobis – not unto us but unto thy name be the praise.

To fail to count the cost of war and be carried away with a rising crescendo of the Non nobis, is to become like the Crusaders or the builders of empire who wiped out civilizations callously and remorselessly in the name of God.

To be carried away with the sacrifice and suffering of soldiers and fail to see God at work in the battle is to lose sight of the justice, peace and freedom for which they fought. A war without just cause, in which nothing is ascribable to God, is not a just war. It isn’t enough to remember those who sacrificed their lives in battle, whilst ignoring the more complex moral paradox.

COMMON GROUND

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One of the fundamental aims of the Sea of Faith Network, which I helped to found, is to bring believers and non-believers together. One might think that theists and atheists are diametrically opposed in their views, whereas in fact they share a lot of common ground.

Faith is a human creation. Every prayer, theological argument, doctrine and religious artefact can be dated as accurately as any antique, work of art or scientific theory. Knowing that faith has a history and has been created in particular circumstances is of interest to both believers and unbelievers. Faith communities need to recognise this if they are to interpret their faith and make it relevant for today.

I believe a true Christian understanding of God means that in practice, believers and their agnostic and atheist friends are engaged in the same explorations. When St Aquinas writes, for example, that God is not a being but beingness itself, it doesn’t really allow or invite any discussion about the existence of God. Rather it invites us to explore the mystery of existence and life – something non-believers will want to do too. Similarly, when St Anselm tells us that God is that which cannot be doubted, we are not encouraged to debate the evidence for a divine presence at work in the world, but rather to look for that which is fundamental to life. St Augustine wrote “If I know myself I shall know thee O God”, and this self-exploration and self-questioning is important to us all.

Our attitudes to morality also seek out common ground. No Christian should believe they have special and exclusive entitlement to a moral blueprint for life. Certainly the Christian tradition is rich in resources for considering moral problems, whether they spring from examples of self-sacrificing service, or of failure and abuse. It contains many parables to challenge and combat prejudice but we can only tackle the issues effectively through a desire to discuss them with everyone concerned and a determination to act for the common good.

More fundamentally, we all live in the same world with access to the same language and knowledge. Despite what many believers might claim, they are not favoured with special insight denied to rest of us. What Christians call prayer should not therefore be seen as making favoured requests on behalf of themselves. Indeed the practice of prayer, whilst not always described in those terms is common to many activities shared by believers and non-believers alike – meditation, reflection, articulation of hopes and fears, acknowledgment of failure.

In highlighting the extent of this common ground, one might question the need for religion at all. The fact is that we all need communities and friends to encourage us in our striving. We need stories to inspire us to act, and help us face up to our failings. We need activities that bind us together in creating a society where all can flourish. At their best and when not claiming any special status, faith communities can provide this, and more.

CREATION

 

Creation

Christian doctrines are rarely straightforward. Creation is a case in point. It seems all too easily summed up in the statement ‘God made the world’. However, at almost every level this is misleading and hardly represents classical, orthodox Chistianty. Christians don’t want to imply, for example, that creation was a one-off event in the past as a builder constructs a house then leaves it to the occupants. It’s an on-going process, as embodied in the rather more nuanced phrase “maker of heaven and earth” contained within the creed.

Also God doesn’t create in the way we do, by bringing ideas to fruition, drawing up plans or employing builders. In Genesis God speaks and it is done. What God thinks comes to pass. Christians also want to insist that all this comes about from nothing. There is no pre-existing material out of which God creates the world. Without the ever-sustaining presence of God even the very stuff of creation collapses. The words making and creating hardly do justice to this extraordinary process of things coming into existence.

Orthodox Christian teaching also states that God is not part of creation and quite different from anything in creation. God is not another being but beingness itself, not a real thing but reality itself. God is not alive but life itself.

All this takes us away from the question of how the world came to be and that’s what it’s meant to do. It doesn’t send us off to weigh up the evidence. We are not asked to examine the intricate patterns and structures of life and wonder at the enormous scale and energies of the universe or look to love, mutual understanding, acts of courage and self-sacrifice for proof that the world was purposefully made. Nor are we asked to set this against natural disasters, warmongering and a whole gamut of human behaviours that act as a potent and toxic counterbalance, suggesting a purposeless, uncreated world. All this can be explained from simple first principles without a need for God, we are told, even the love and the courage come from a built-in need to protect ourselves.

As God is life itself, we are being called to explore and accept life in all its rich variety and forms. This is the first challenge of Christian spirituality. To say yes to God is to say yes to life. This is far from easy. How can we, in the words of the communion service, give thanks at all times and in all places? To say yes to life is neither to treat all life in the same way, nor to accept life with a shrug and a “That’s life!”. To love life is to find the appropriate way to touch and embrace it in its many forms and revere both its beauties and its perils.

THE HISTORICAL JESUS

HistoricalJesusIt might go without saying that since Jesus is important to Christians, knowing what Jesus actually did and said would be an overriding preoccupation. In fact at times there seems to be an unholy alliance between Christians and atheists in wanting to discover the real, historical Jesus.

For Christians the argument is simple: we follow Jesus and therefore we need to know who he really was. For atheists the argument goes like this: Christians make claims about Jesus’ divine status, so we need to investigate the recorded facts to disprove those claims. My argument is that the real, historical Jesus hasn’t much to do with faith at all.

Don’t misunderstand me, as a historical puzzle, who Jesus was, and what we can know about him,is endlessly fascinating. Trying to deduce which of his sayings are original and which of the gospel accounts is more historical can be addictive. But . . and it’s a big but . . it has little to do with faith.

First, Christians are not Jesus-ians. They don’t follow Jesus, they follow Christ. Indeed they don’t follow Christ, they are in Christ. As Paul says, they are baptised into Christ, his death and his resurrection. They are one body in Christ, and a new creation. A Christian’s faith journey doesn’t begin by
investigating the real, historical Jesus and making a decision about him. It begins in the community of faith and baptism into Christ.

Secondly, it’s in the community of faith that Christians read their bible. And for them, the bible isn’t a history book, it is, as they say, the living word of God. They don’t therefore try to extract from its pages the real, historical truth, or the one true message. They look for the gospel stories to speak to them in their situation today. In the theological college, those old forms of criticism – source criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism – have given way to reader-response criticism, narrative criticism, deconstructive criticism, social criticism and feminist criticism. The job of the preacher is not to dig out the one true historical meaning from the text but to make meaning with the text. The parable of the Good Samaritan challenges us whatever its origin.

Thirdly, theological doctrines cannot be proved and disproved by historical research. The classic example is the resurrection. When Christians say in their services “The Lord is here” or “Christ is risen” they quite clearly don’t mean that a 2,000 year old Palestinian man has just walked into their church. In the gospel stories, the risen Christ does not appear as a resuscitated corpse. The disciples don’t say “Oh, we thought you were dead! You’ve come back to life.” Jesus hasn’t been brought back to life to die again like Lazarus. This is the risen, glorified Christ in a risen, glorified body. Resurrection is not demonstrated by history. It’s demonstrated in the lives of those who have been “raised with Christ” and “live the risen life”. As Paul puts it: if there is no resurrection, no living the risen life, what’s the point?

And finally, the fulcrum of faith is now. Faith doesn’t revolve around the axis of the year dot or even the year 32 CE. It hinges on the present. Anything that tempts us away from engaging with the present should be put behind us. To say the historical Jesus is a devil in disguise maybe a step too far. It’s the risen Christ we should be seeking in our neighbour, in our rituals, in our lives.

 

GOD

I suppose my first theological blog ought to be about God!

In classical orthodoxy, God cannot be defined or described, so here are four quotations summing up the viewpoints that have guided me in my theological explorations. Although they are all classical orthodox statements, they have utterly radical implications.

God is not a thing that exists but existence itself.  Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae: The perfection of God Prima Pars, Q. 4.

St. Aquinas was a thirteenth century philosopher and theologian. His argument was that God is not like other things that exist – tables, chairs, animals, planets. God is existence itself. We might say God is not a real thing but reality itself or God is not alive but life itself. An exploration of life in all its fullness is an exploration into God.

God is that in which we live and move and have our being.

St. Paul quotes this saying of  Epimenides in the Acts of the Apostles (17.28). God is as close to us as water is to the fish, or the air we breathe. There is no need to search for God but simply to relax in God’s presence.

God is that which cannot be doubted. Anselm  in Proslogion chapter 3)

St. Anselm was a twelfth century philosopher, theologian and archbishop of Canterbury, whose views challenge many of our theological notions. When people say “I’m not sure about God, I don’t know whether he exists or not”, they are labouring under a misapprehension. Our exploration of God needs to begin with things that we don’t doubt – life perhaps, love, ourselves. Exploring these things is an exploration into God.

If I know myself I shall know thee O God.  Augustine  in Soliliques.

St. Augustine was a fourth century theologian and bishop who propounded the view that since we live and move and have our being in God, then getting to know ourselves is getting to know God.

All these avenues of exploration may take us down well-trodden religious paths. They might also take us into the everyday world without any obvious religious language or symbolism. Does that matter? I don’t think so.

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