Where to start this diverse collection of posts on subjects as diverse as politics, property, passion and preaching? With a declaration of conviction, I suppose. But given the state of the world, that is far from easy.
As faith-based extremism straddles the globe, religion is getting a dubious press, and understandably so. Arguments revolving around God cost lives, say the sceptics. They are right.
From Muslim-Christian violence in Nigeria to bombers in Bali, from the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda to ‘promised land’ settlers in occupied Palestine, from communal conflict in India to sectarianism in Ireland… misplaced faith is deadly.
If you’re gay, live with your partner, and have been nominated to be a bishop things are not quite as drastic, of course. But they are still hugely unpleasant.
When people disagree about the fundamentals of faith they can be deeply unattractive and wounding to each other and to those around them. Often without realising it.
For anyone who belongs to a religious community this is more than just “someone else’s problem.” It raises questions about the enterprise of faith per se.
So it is an extremely foolish person who embarks on the journey of ‘reflecting theologically’ about society at large without recognising just what a hugely destructive force religion can be. Any religion.
And yet, and yet… We all know that faith can also be a source of immense inspiration, redemption and exemplary humanity. Think of Desmond Tutu. Or Sojourner Truth. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or Hildegaard of Bingen. Or a cloud of other witnesses.
What’s more, and whatever the urban sophisticates may wish, religion is not going away. It is now a bigger player on the world scene today than anyone would have credited, prior to the terrible crash of those twin towers in New York on 9/11.
What changed that day, of course, was not the world but our cosy Western perception of it. Ideals, longings and loathings which for many were nothing more than distant rumours suddenly came home with tremendous and inescapable force.
What we discovered was that though the world’s operating system remains deeply secular, its heart and lungs exude passions, hopes and fears which look deeply religious. But not, many would say, ‘spiritual’.
Then again, those who perpetrated 9/11 began their mission with prayers. All this poses questions about what ‘spirituality’ is, what impact it has, and whether it is anything like the unqualified good that some of its proponents claim – whatever their religious or non-religious flag.
Clearly ‘understanding’ is too weak a word for what is needed in this perilously fractured climate. But there is no doubt that we do need it. For a start, much commentary on religious issues in the secular media (especially in Britain) is frighteningly superficial and ill informed.
Take those events in Nigeria, Bali, Israel-Palestine, Uganda, India and Ireland, for example. It is easy to traduce atrocities and invasions, bombs and bigots, fanaticisms and fatwahs. But understanding and responding to the human vulnerabilities and aspirations that underlie them takes a little more work.
If you try to do this work you may well find yourself accused of ‘pandering to extremism’ by other protagonists. Cherie Blair once caused outrage for suggesting, without for one second diluting her condemnation of the appalling acts involved, that suicide bombers may not simply be irrational psychopaths. They may have a grievance, and this cannot be ignored.
On the other hand, if you try to point out that the religious ideas used to legitimate bombing and bigotry are deeply corrupt and corrupting (not least in terms of the faith they proclaim), and you may well be accused of being anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-Hindu, anti-Buddhist… anti-everyone.
As T. S. Eliot once said, human beings find it hard to face too much reality. Yet is has to be faced.
Otherwise what we end up with is illusion and fantasy.
Among the unpalatable facts that must be faced today is the growing (perhaps unbridgeable) gap between liberal, secular post-modernity and the many religious ideologies which still course through the veins of large portions of the human family.
You do not have to swallow Samuel Huntingdon’s simplistic theories about ‘the clash of civilisations’ (and I don’t) in order to see that there are ways of living based on individual freedom, and there are other ways based on communal obligation. And that their presuppositions are usually unrecognisable to each other.
To be a member of a faith community, albeit a cosmopolitan Christian one like mine, is to have some chance of recognising this, and to be provided with a language for handling it and making sense of it. Secular reason alone will not do the job.
So mention it quietly – since the word is a huge turn-off for many – but that language is called theology.Theology is not just ‘God words.’ It is also an exercise in understanding, in reason. And it is a disposition towards the disclosure of a truth which sits at the edge of our expectation, a truth that offers us communion rather than destruction. It is about hope.
That hope is why I am a theologian. But I cannot be a theologian in abstraction. Theological reflection (like any other discipline) creates no neutral or privileged perspective. We all have to stand somewhere, even as we seek to ‘take a view’ of the wider scenery.
In my own ecumenical experience it is the peculiar story of the life, death and continuing life-givingness of Jesus of Nazareth which creates the focus for re-visiting, re-assessing and re-evaluating matters of religion and society.
In and through an obscure figure from a backwater of by-gone empire, our understanding of who we are, what the world is and who God is undergoes an extraordinary re-valuation – even today, in a very different age.
This is the Christian claim, and it is no use pretending that it is anything other than odd (even if you are a practicing Christian). It may make sense. We will have to wait and see. But whatever sense it makes could hardly be described as “common sense.”
I’m tempted to say of the Gospel, in fact, that “you couldn’t make this stuff up!” But I realise, of course, that for some that is exactly what has happened, with or without malicious intent.
Leaving that important argument aside for a moment, let’s look at what is at stake in the central story of Christian faith — or at least in the story of ‘faith in Jesus Christ’, since I wouldn’t want to suggest that these two are always and everywhere the same thing. After all, Jesus’ allies were often unexpected, and his friends sometimes more than duplicitous.
According to the Gospel (or ‘good news’), what lies at the heart of the universe – so to speak – is not meaninglessness, magic or the will to manipulate, but an endless, indefinable creativity which embraces even death and turns it into love.
In a decidedly ‘down-to-earth’ way, forgiveness, enemy-loving, the inclusion of ‘outsiders’ and the unravelling of existing patterns of domination (which destroy life), are at the heart of the four very different Gospel accounts.
What’s more, in the company of Jesus an unlikely group of apparently ‘unworthy’ people find a surprising solidarity in suffering – but, even more so, in hope. This hope is rooted in the experience of the un-godlike God who creates but does not manufacture, who saves but does not belittle, who invites but does not compel.
The community expresses this experience of ‘God through Jesus’ in two central, distinctive, life-altering kinds of activity.
The first activity is worship — by which what is truly ‘worth it’ is valued and exalted most. That is, God and the things of God. What gets called ‘the kingdom’.
The second activity is a set of hospitable social practices which actively reverse the procedures of ‘lording it over others.’
Both, interestingly, revolve around the subversive practice of sharing food, or ‘table fellowship’. This means creating living space for people in spite of domineering political or religious constraints – and discovering God in precisely this place.
Jesus put the table rather than the Temple at the centre of his devotion to God, his embrace of the marginalized, and his dire warnings to the rich and (religiously) self-satisfied.
The story of how this life re-ordering narrative of Jesus was turned by institutional churches into a tool of exclusion, argument and division is, of course, a long and difficult one. But that church story, I believe, has reached a point where reversal is both necessary and inevitable.
In his day, Jesus challenged the religious authorities, in particular, over their claim to manage and dispense God’s love. It was not them but the ones they who they trod on, said Jesus, in whom God’s purposes would be revealed.
It was this challenge to the imperial order, both political and religious, which led to Jesus’ torture and execution. No system can tolerate having its central rationale exposed as a deception, even by some pipsqueak from Nazareth.
But according to the Gospels the matter did not end there. In a way which we cannot really begin to comprehend, God ‘raised’ this Jesus to new life – and in the wayward power of the Spirit, Jesus’ God-truth became universally available for all who could respond to the way, the life and the truth he embodied.
It is this Gospel dynamic and this conviction which forms the lens for the reflections you read here. In the story of Jesus there is a truth which changes us and sets us free. It does this not by setting Christian against Muslim against Jew against atheist. It does it precisely by calling all such power-games to account. It proposes an alternative where all we thought we had was dissension.
But what is the key to this Gospel? What is its central ‘proposition’?
The defining logic of Jesus is, in fact, God. In particular, it is the self-giving of a God who is wholly beyond our manipulation and (mostly in hidden ways) closer to us than the murmering of our hearts.
How such a God is to be understood and responded to in an age of secular reason and irrational faith is, for the theologian, the key issue. And problem. And opportunity.
Without doubt many have, for a variety of reasons, given up on God. And many of those who haven’t given up (and who couldn’t even conceive of it) have turned God into an ideological weapon of their own convenience.
This is, sadly, as true in Christian communities as it is in those of other great faiths. ‘Religious’ or ‘spiritual’ people are not immune from falsehood. Actually, as we have seen, they may be prey to it in especially dangerous ways, because their wrong-headedness can quickly acquire a divine sanction – thus becoming invulnerable.
To re-discover God through Jesus helps in this regard, because believing in Jesus’ Lordship becomes, paradoxically, an essential means by which we can be empowered to disbelieve the ruling ideas (and most especially the ruling religious ideas) which currently imprison us as human beings.
Put simply: if God — whatever else God is about — is like Jesus, or more accurately, if God comes to us in and through Jesus, then we have some basis for knowing what God is not. That is a phenomenological claim rather than a metaphysical one.
On these grounds we know, for instance, that God does not inflict violence and suffering. Quite the opposite. God accompanies, endures and absorbs it. That is the meaning of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.
To discover God in Jesus is also, through prayer, reflection and action, to discover that God is actually nothing like the God we thought we believed (or disbelieved) in.
Who God finally is remains beyond our capacity, of course, because God’s ‘being’ is absolutely unlike ours. But the promise of the Gospel is that, in terms which can be made flesh, God is not less than God is in and as Jesus – that is, God is not less than infinite, uncontrollable, non-violent love.
And that is just the beginning of a renewed hope which might make a vital difference for us and for our world. If we, as followers of this Jesus, can develop the courage and the capacity to act on it. In other words, if we can be gripped and renewed by the Gospel’s ‘uncommon sense.’