The unknown God we already know
For some years I’ve been developing ideas that I’ve avoided writing about because I think they might be dangerous – dangerous to my reputation as a Christian priest and gay activist. I’ve finally reached a ‘what the heck’ moment when it seems appropriate to commit them to text and post them here. These thoughts have evolved from my personal experience and analysis and have been in development since my late teens. They are, of course, open to challenge, comment, disagreement and I have no doubt, from some, disapproval.
All through my life I’ve repeatedly asked myself the question ‘How does Christianity work?’ In what ways does it change people, healthily, creatively, for the better, giving them core understandings and life experiences which lead to transformation in Christ?
Or to come at the question from another angle, what is it that we actually believe in, put our faith in, carry with us through life as the guiding principle, the big picture that underpins our faith and gives ultimate meaning and value to what we believe and how we experience life? What defines our experience, our feelings and identity? Do we all have such an ultimate, core experience or share ultimate values? – clearly not.
Do we rather falsely persuade ourselves that our lives are underpinned by core faith experience and values or are we all, human beings, permanently afflicted with some level of existential anxiety and uncertainty about who we are and what we believe?
We may or may not be conscious of our uncertainties and anxieties – we may be unaware, vaguely aware, mildly troubled or deeply troubled by existential questions about identity and faith.
I suspect most people live with a ‘working model’, a model which works well enough for them to maintain themselves as functioning human beings through life, at home and work, in family and social networks and in their faith. Many people will experience life and faith as a precarious adventure in which they are often vulnerable. Ideally, we will not be too afflicted by anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, neurosis, panic, or insecurity, but all these are common to the human experience and the Church habitually fuels rather than helps resolve people’s guilt and neurosis. Living with this kind of ‘working model’ is widespread in pluralist, post-modern, post-religious societies.
The majority of those who are ‘religious’ or belong to a particular faith community have adopted a number of differing strategies to maintain their life and faith and sanity in this pluralist, post-modern environment.
There are those Christians who think that faith is a matter of objective belief in the Biblical text, the creeds and formularies and historic teaching of the Church.
There are those for whom faith has to be a more open path, exploratory, heart- and justice-centred, committed to the poor, to equality and other human and divine values.
And there are those for whom faith is a more spiritually reflective, contemplative, meditative path.
I suspect we all ‘park’ the questions and experiences which most deeply trouble us because they are too disturbing to take out and examine. The ‘suppose it’s not really true’ questions – God doesn’t really exist; God doesn’t really love or care for me; God isn’t going to ‘save’ me because I’ve been too bad; I don’t really believe X, Y and Z like I’m supposed to. All these anxieties and uncertainties are, of course, perfectly normal to human experience.
This normal, existential human dilemma adds fuel to the battle lines that are drawn around the conflicts over gender and sexual identity in the Christian Churches, battles in which many of us find ourselves immersed with some surprise because we didn’t chose to be born at a time when gender and sexuality arrived centre stage as a major focus of Christian conflict.
Gender and sexuality now dominate attention, awareness and discourse. Our sexuality and gender identity are, or course, two of the most powerful components of our core selves around which our existential anxieties swirl – no wonder this is such a big issue for the Church and for each of us.
The conflict swirls around us, provoking our insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety, unless, that is, we are deeply committed to carving out space in our lives to attend to our inner, core wisdom and are nourishing our capacity for self-reflection, stillness, awareness and attention to the ‘ultimate other’, the holy, divine, sacred God, core to our being.
Does the Church know that those who are members of the Church and those who visit churches may have a very limited awareness of these qualities of God? Churches and church services give impressions of what God is like, often very concrete, visual, literal images and impressions. They can vary from the occasionally inspiring to the problematic, misguided and unhelpful, to those that reinforce damaging ideas about the qualities of God which if they are wise, people reject because their intuition tells them God can’t be like that, or, if this is the God worshipped by Christians, then it isn’t a God they want to encounter.
What I would like the Church to be communicating to people is a God whose essential qualities include empathy and engagement, connection and deep understanding, unconditional, infinite love, arms open to welcome, God who is already fully if elusively present and who bestows infinite love and value on the whole of creation and every living being.
It’s obvious from Changing Attitude’s perspective that people do not expect to encounter an empathetic God in church because the God of contemporary mainstream Christian teaching (or at least, that authorised by the House of Bishops) seems to be obsessed with sexuality and totally out of tune with people’s experience of and ideas about gender and sexuality.
The problem for the Church, for Christians, church members and leaders, is that the Church has an undeveloped awareness of the nature and qualities of God. I know this is an outrageous and arrogant comment to make, but in my experience, it’s tragically true.
This undeveloped awareness is a product not only of the post-Christian culture in which we live but of our common humanity, our lives of routine unawareness, our propensity for superficial consciousness, our vulnerable, wounded egos, our guilt, neuroses and obsessions. We all have them, and problematically, those Christians who are convinced their interpretation of the Bible and their pattern of Christianity is dogmatically correct are the most affected.
The majority flounder, reprising the known teachings about God, convinced that right belief, sacrificial living and care for neighbours near and far are the essentials of the Christian life.
What is missing is a more profound, core awareness of God who creates and loves and is immersed in the whole of creation and revealed in the evolutionary process. Once our hearts open and melt in the experience of God who is core to our life and being, potently present in our hearts, souls and bodies and in the fabric of creation, our lives take on a wholly different pattern, quality and trajectory.
At the moment churches tend to reinforce and communicate distancing, unhelpful images of God. People, Christians, seekers, unbelievers alike, are hard put to it to describe the God they might encounter as core to their being and personal experience.
If churches were immersed in awareness of God and expressed this in their descriptions of God, in their lives as Christians, in their images, language, and literature, then both regular church members and casual visitors might begin to catch these qualities and discover the God they already know but have been unaware of. Knowing God and knowing yourself and knowing God in the core of your being needs to be integral to, woven into, the pattern of Christian worship and life.