At the heart of my theological concerns right now are two linked questions: What is it within the Christian experience of God that can claim to make a real difference for people of other convictions, and not just for Christians? Also, what is it within the Christian tradition that allows it to change and to encounter positively those outside the tradition without belittling itself or them? [note 1] This article suggests some lines of approach arising from preparatory explanations for a forthcoming book on how the Gospel can speak of hope in a world where traditional Christian settlements are in irreversible decline — and where we are threatened dangerously by religious, economic, social, political and cultural division. Easter reading and reflection have further influenced it.
Among the most significant practical values in the world today are ‘independence’, often taken as the ability to do what we want as individuals or communities of interest; and ‘living within our means’, often taken as economic self-responsibility — though with precious little attention paid to those who have few means to live within, or to the need for sustainability of the planet. The Christian Gospel starts with quite different assumptions about how we are to proceed, however. This, in part, accounts for its inherent ‘unreasonableness’; alongside the genuine difficulty many have in believing in the kind of God who is held to be at its core. In reality, these two difficulties turn out to be closely linked, as we shall see.
The limits of hopeful autonomy
For Christians, a viable ‘life together’, as Bonhoeffer described it, always entails a large measure of ‘living beyond our means’ — facing up to sometimes intractable human dilemmas truthfully (knowing that we are often not in control), and recognising that we are sustained from without (by God, by relationships, and by human networks/ systems). This double realisation can enable us both to live properly ‘within our means’, where that is required by a right relation to the world and its inhabitants, and also to live ‘outside our means’, when the needs of suffering neighbours, especially, tell us that more is required than is currently on offer. This shared life-ethic begins with generosity not with economy, both in how we seek to give and in what we believe is at our shared disposal. For people of faith who believe in a God whose capacity for outgoing love is not thwarted even by death, the boundaries are potentially even wider.
But we may begin with everyday life ethics, as proposed in rather schematic form by Hans Kung and others. Take, as one specific instance, the presence of refugees, homeless people and asylum seekers in our midst. Britain is the sixth richest nation on earth. These people ought not to be an excuse for levering up the drawbridge, but rather for spreading the table more widely. They pose real questions to us about how we sustain our relatively privileged position in an unequal world. They ask whether and where the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘you’ stops. They invite Christians, in particular, to discover what really exists behind their Eucharistic language about a coming ‘Feast of Life’.
But even in a wealthy society none of us can pretend that taking on the needs of hurting others will happen without cost, or that this cost can or should be born ‘equally’ or easily among those with radically different access to key resources. To relate we have to give; and to give we have to see ourselves as in relationship rather than sufficient in ourselves. Moreover, for some of us the changes required will be quite considerable. This may be humanly possible (in theory), but where there is a choice — where residents and taxpayers can resist assisting asylum seekers, for instance — a certain shrunken version of ‘us’ often triumphs. We define our lives and our means narrowly, supposedly ‘in our interest.’ But it all depends on who ‘us’ is, of course. Living ‘outside of our means’ proves hellishly difficult in reality.
By contrast, consider how it is for many lone parents, for those with elderly or severely infirm relatives, for people living with disabilities, for those with mental health problems, and so on. Those with no alternative but to be on the edge often know instinctively that they cannot but live beyond their means if they are to survive. They need each other. They are forced to take risks. They sometimes have to be part of a shared community of the needy. They have to put others before strict economic reason sometimes. They can only sustain others if there is something or someone to sustain them, and if they are able to let go of a certain sense of self to be able to claim — and give — what is needed. Even so, some do not pull through, often because the sustenance to live beyond their means is simply not there. We are not talking about abstractions here. We are talking about life or death issues in the everyday.
Losing ideals and re-gaining the self
Compare all this to much current Western psychobabble about there being ‘no limits to what we can do or be’ if we so choose. This is the individualisation of a certain culture of post/modernity: striving to believe in the hoped-for outcomes of Progress, being circumscribed by a certain kind of rationality (in many cases, that of self-fulfilling consumption), and above all pursuing self-achievement towards ever-illusive ideal types or states. What is being said in this way of seeing the world is not that we should live beyond our means for others, other than as an afterthought, but that freedom consists in the need for there to be few external limits to our desire and its fulfilment.
If we think about it for a moment — even to ask ourselves under what conditions our personal desires might clash — this is nonsense. But it is currently the basis for more self-help therapies and product marketing campaigns than we can imagine. The game is to pretend that nothing that really counts exists outside the self, and that changes to the self can be insulated from harmful ramifications beyond their borders by successful technique and practice. In such a world slave labour on one part of the planet has no significant relation to consumption on another, for instance. Trade is for individual gain not collective loss. My new goods are my gain. Full stop. Indeed the shiny image of ‘the world as advertised’ beckons us to forget changing it, and to focus instead on the new ‘me’ within reach of each of us.
That kind of idealisation (self-delusion projected outward in social organisation or ideology) is exactly the kind of thing that Bonhoeffer, in another context, said corrupted Christian ideas about church. Instead of recognising the true, mundane and difficult character of ‘life together’ as liberating dependence on God and upon our relationship with others, we instead focus all our energies on the idea and ideal of community itself. We delude ourselves into thinking that it is easier and more manageable to change ourselves and our small tribe than to change the world.
What we fail to notice, both Christians and change-consumers, is that changing ourselves in anything other than a self-justifying or self-extending way (a crucial distinction, perhaps) is often impossibly difficult. But it is easy to fantasise about, and just as easy to fool ourselves about. We can choose a new congregation when the old one lets us down. We can divorce and remarry. We can lose weight or change bad habits, certainly. We can get a new job and a new car if we have the means. We can even break harmful addictions, some of us — but is all this really ‘a new you’, as is sometimes claimed? And what happens when the ‘new I’ meets an inconvenient ‘you’? Has anything really changed? These self-changes we have mentioned above may be necessary or plain unavoidable in some circumstances, but are they sufficient — and for what?
So today we routinely short-change ourselves and each other by idealising ourselves and our goals. Either that or we become endlessly cynical. Or we blame others for having, or being, the problem. Or we become destructively angry or depressed. Or we are submerged in a hedonistic vision that claims to give us control while continuing to enslave us to yet more unrealisable ideals. Or we rebel destructively rather than creatively. Or perhaps a combination of these. The alternative is maybe to let go of the vision of the other (and the Other) as a burden and constraint, and to see them instead as a liberating opportunity to rediscover ourselves — but in communion, in relation, in the possibility of new formation.
To do that we have to be de-centred, or rather to begin to focus away from ourselves in a certain way. In St John’s Gospel the famous aphorism is that we must be ‘born again’. The phrase has been so hideously abused and manipulated by right-wing religion that it has become little more than cultural detritus for many people: something bound up with harmful religion, self-denying and self-hating. But in fact it expresses a profound truth.
A midwife put it this way during a bible study group meeting in a block of council flats in Turin some years ago. “When we are first born the world revolves around us. We are the centre of attention. But we are also helpless because of this. We only discover ourselves and develop the capacity to help ourselves when we can be born away from this self-centred world of ours, when we are able to reach out to the other, when we begin to know ourselves as others know us, when we can even start to cope with being at the very edge. This is what it means, perhaps, to be ‘born again’ in the way Christ puts it. In inviting people into relation with himself he is inviting them into relationship with others per se. He is not asking them to lose themselves or discard themselves, but to know themselves anew and in a much wider context. This is the journey to adulthood. It is about regaining the self outside the self.”
The incarnation of freedom and love
The re-birth of the adult (of whatever age) is not just about gaining independence, but concerns our ability to perceive the importance of a new set of dependences too. For people of faith God is the One on whom we ultimately depend. The problem, as a comedian once sharply put it, “is that God made me in the divine image and I have been repaying the compliment ever since.” So rather than the dependability of God being allowed to free us to live beyond our means, by a life of re-centring service and prayer for instance, God has been turned into the unhealthy alter ego — the Big Brother who makes us dependent, dominates our lives, sets arbitrary rules, includes or excludes at will, and intervenes periodically to change the course of events while remaining essentially apart from us.
But who is this ‘other’ God upon whom we may be liberatingly dependent — as opposed to being pathologically dependent on, being deceptively independent from, or considering ourselves deludedly inter-dependent with (to paraphrase an important observation of David Jenkins)? It is, I suggest, the God of one important strand of the biblical tradition who is non-manipulatively at centre of our lives, not on the outside and then ‘intervening’ periodically at the limits/boundary to cope with the consequences of what is going on. This God sets before us the adult choice of death and life, and invites us to choose life for ourselves — something which implies both freedom and commitment.
The ‘centre’ we have spoken of is found particularly in those sets of relations to others and to the world that we call ‘working’ and ‘loving’ (Dorothee Soelle). It is here in the adult choices, if at all, that we are able to face the truth — about the realities of difficulty and contradiction in this life, but also about the reality of boundless generosity. In this longing for the other, and for a world where we may meet the other (Peter Selby), God is characteristically present as a continually bidding absence (Denys Turner) at our often de-centred ‘centre’.
God is not ‘out there’ as the determining figure we both want and hate: the one who abolishes the pain and suffering of a contingent world, and who in the process abolishes freedom too. God is, rather, the abiding sense of hope, wonder and relationship that many encounter in certain sublime or critical moments in their lives. That and, we Christians would want to say, much more. Even in deeply secularised cultures this rumour of God cannot quite be erased. We can dismiss it as a product of our own false hopes, but the uncanny persistence of genuine love and of hopeful relating in a world otherwise scarred by remorseless hate and division is such that it continues to require a response, if not an explanation.
Christians are first called to make that response — towards our neighbour, and perhaps especially towards our enemy. But we know that, even in our most altruistic moments, the nature of this response cannot be wholly founded within ourselves. It is somehow, we sense and believe, called into being by the One who is yet to come.
We name the shape of that loving Absence the transfigured but elusive Body of the risen Christ. This is more mystery than explanation, but it is a way of saying that we feel ourselves grasped by a love that will not let go even in the face of death. Then it becomes a way of seeing and doing. And in this lies such explanation as we ourselves can hope to grasp.
Meanwhile the pregnant absence of God that takes the form of a terrifying longing we call The Garden of Gethsemane, the place where the silence is most deafening.
Further, the active exclusion of God and of other(s) — the violence, hate and destruction that can overcome the world — we name as Calvary, the specific territory where, in the body of a tortured and executed human being, “God is edged out of the world onto the Cross,” as Bonhoeffer poignantly says from the confinement of his Nazi prison cell.
And the hope beyond both worldly presence (transitoriness) and worldly absence (the loss of the transitory) we name as Communion — com-union — in the indefinable One who comes to us, tantalisingly, as the beyond-in-the-midst.
A body, a garden, a place of abandonment, an abiding mystery. There is perhaps a certain meeting, a certain loss, a certain transitioning of religious ‘East’ and ‘West’ in all this. Many paths can meet in these spaces — theistic and non-theistic, historic faiths and newer ways of seeing or believing. But that is not to be determined by those of us who have glimpsed a possibility of one-ness as a community of difference in Jesus Christ. Our job is to name and respond to that hope specifically, alongside those who name and live hope differently.
Church as contradiction and possibility
For Christians, therefore, ‘life together’ cannot be about inoculation or immunisation from either the inconvenient nature of God or the lesions of the world. The problem, however, is that the church often seeks this. Its tactic is to be strong (e.g. moralistic in a generalised, disincarnate sense) at the expense of human weakness as it manifests itself in boundary situations. The church preserves its control of the boundaries through, say, its very certain positions on abortion, contraception and euthanasia. It claims the keys of life and death, sometimes over and against suffering individuals and the messiest of circumstances. It refuses the pain of context in the name of a universality that — as those beyond the church rightly tell us — it cannot actually claim or control.
Simultaneously it is tempted to over-police the edges of its own institutions in order to preserve them from infringement in a naughty world, while not really recognising that it is losing the centre. I am not saying that the church should not have standards, but rather that these should concern the disciplines necessary for the performance of Grace, rather than the strictures needed for control.
Control is a mistaken strategy leading to mistaken forms of ‘mission’ in the name of a Lord who played it very differently, even admitting hopeless prostitutes into the realm of God before the self-regarding righteous. By contrast to the Church of Power, God, as Bonhoeffer argues, wishes human beings to be strong. He holds out the hope of ‘humanity come of age.’ But this is not the pretension of the adolescent. Rather it is the knowingness of the wise, of whatever age. For what God wishes upon us is a strength centred in love, rather than a strength that needs to overwhelm the other. This is why God needs the church to be a servant dedicated to an unlordly Lord and an unkingly kingdom — not another version of the constant human distortions of dominion. Redemption is about losing false control and power in order to gain their redefined truth in God.
But on its own the church soon loses the plot, reverses it even. This is part of its natural human fallibility. Different living faiths and atheism towards false faith can therefore be gifts to us and to each other in the true God’s purposes. Again, the presence of the Other and others remains the key to true selfhood — we are apart and yet a part. The sociologist of religion Grace Davie says that where the church is most in control an attitude of faith among the young, especially, is often at its lowest ebb. We need vicariously to learn from people’s religious experience she says.
This tells us a lot. God is present well before our ideas of God can take hold, perhaps. And yet the faith that we humans can create or intuit is sometimes barely enough for subsistence in a world torn apart. So the church also has a redeeming faith to offer. But it can only call others to repentance out of its own repentance. Presence and prophecy are bound together. And repentance means, for the church, abandoning worldly pretence to rule while pointing to the One who alone holds the power and the glory in a way in which it may be truly shared abroad, reflected for us in the self-giving love of Christ.
The ethics of suspended judgement
Here we return to moral theology. Ethics in the world is often about power, about defining (drawing limits) and about making rules. One size has to fit all in a certain obvious sense, even if the size is up for negotiation — the key difference between some versions of secularity and some versions of church. Yet in the Body ethics come out of ethos, which in turn comes out of commitment to one an(d)other. It is about whether we are oriented towards life/spirit/God or death/sarx/not-God. This is a choice, but it takes place in an environment in which (to use the parabolic image) wheat and tares grow together, often indistinguishable. So there is a necessary suspension of judgement in the wake of a God and a truth yet to come, as well as in the light of a humility that beckons us to realise we are not God. That is the point. Judgements are possible — but not final judgement.
What, then, is the ultimate value, ethic, way, truth and life? God alone is absolute, and (by definition) nothing else is, not even life or death within a contingent order. However if there is fulfilment in the Absolute who is still beyond us, this can only happen through redemption, the Absolute breaking in (being tangibly, effectively present to) the non-Absolute. ‘Rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ takes on a new meaning in relation to the syntheneity of God to all life — but in a way which is beyond both life and death as we currently know them.
Viewed in this way, some things become undeniably wrong — sinful, insofar as they mar our communion with each other and God. Patterns and imperatives of abuse, affliction, torture and death (both by commission and omission) are key examples. But the fact that this is so cannot be established by positing ‘the absoluteness of values’ or ‘absolute commands’ in a contingent universe, but only by effective relation to the God who is One and Other, many yet unified (com-union).
Some claim that ‘getting back to the Ten Commandments’ or similar ‘absolutes’ is the answer to all our woes. But the Decalogue is not a comprehensive, universal moral code. It is an attempt by particular non-absolute people in a particular time and place to make sense of the absolute claims of God upon them through a concise expression of what lies at the heart of their life together. There are dimensions of this that continue to resonate compellingly. Others, such as assumptions about women and property do not, and are refigured for us within wider aspects of the Christian message. But in and through contingency and change we perceive the call of an unchanging love and creativity, enduring even beyond the face of cruelty and death — as we see decisively in Jesus Christ.
In the midst, God
The way God is therefore models the way God is to be known, and the continuing impact of that: God is, we say within the limits of our language, both freedom and love — qualities which need each other to make sense, and which can only exist together (Ruth Page). Love that is imposed rather than free is not true love. Freedom that does other than love is not truly free, but bound to division and hatred. There is a truthfully paradoxical sense, therefore, in which concrete values that can theoretically exclude one another are in fact ineluctably bound together. This is also so of those qualities we label ‘humanity’ and ‘divinity’ in Christ. The free God who is absolutely removed from the world is Love, and therefore cannot choose to be without the world even in the consequences of its terrible freedom and contingency. This is the extraordinary quality that makes God alone worshipful, or worth-it-full.
Christ and the Body of Christ in the world are our living experience of this, experiences that can be effective and therefore redeeming for human beings only insofar as they are lived with, lived in and lived out of by particular people within particular places and events. This is the Christian testimony. It stands alongside other testimonies and other ways in dialogue, in conversation, in invitation, in agreement, in disagreement, in hope and therefore in truth. It invites the witness of the Other through others, even as it makes its own. It is both a way and a life of com-union. Its clarity for us is Jesus Christ. Its mystery is the presence of the One beyond desire who we call God. It is the basis upon which we can fruitfully live — beyond our means, but not beyond our limits. This is, in large part, a whole disposition to life that we can only call prayer.
 I am not here advancing the old liberal Protestant view that the Christian God can be understood independently of tradition. Rather, I am suggesting that in relating to the wider world positively, in mutual witness and dialogue, we need to be able to say what difference belief makes, what kind of God is at the heart of Christianity, and why worshipping that God can affect a transformation at the human level.