Wednesday, 19 September 2007

'Lisa the Iconoclast' - Episode 16, Series 7

Fans of ‘The Simpson’s’ will know from the title, that I am following much the same theme here as in my previous post: ‘Who do you think you are?’

Today’s episode of The Simpson's was from Series 7, Episode 16 ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’ – in which Lisa discovers that Jebadiah Springfield, the towns cherished founder was in fact a murdering pirate who tried to kill George Washington.

Both programs led me to consider the theological balance between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.

‘The Simpson’s’ have pushed that thinking forward a bit.

When Lisa stands in front of the whole town during the parade, she was unable to tell them the truth of her discoveries - and when asked by the town’s historian why she couldn’t, she replied ‘the myth has value too’. She looked down at her friends and neighbours celebrating and sharing together for the common good of the town, and she found that the myth had a positive and uniting impact way beyond that which the historical truth could offer.

In 30 minutes of cartoon existence I would agree with Lisa, that if nothing but good has come from the myth, then go ahead and perpetuate it – but real life is not like that!

Pick, for example, Atonement doctrine: the belief that after being created perfect, humanity ‘fell’ and was in need of redemption and thus Jesus was sent to pay the price for our sins, and in his resurrection we find forgiveness.

There are those who would say that this theory / myth has a positive impact on the world. I, however, would disagree for a number of reasons and I would much rather we expose this myth to critical biblical analysis and then dethrone its sway over peoples spiritual and psychological selves, as I know how damaging it can be.

Whilst I appreciate the pastoral responsibilities of ministers and theologians to Christians in general, and also the difficulties of saying anything theological with too much confidence – I think there has to come a point where the line has been crossed; the line between blind faith based on conjecture and absolute empirical truth – the line between that which informs our experience of God and that which dictates it.

How much do we have to learn of the historical Jesus before we will start to adjust our doctrines and liturgies so that we might more closely experience the Kingdom of God?

Perhaps I will have to accept that our Christian myths do, for many, give a glimpse of God – as I know that we can only expect to catch a glimpse and I should be thankful for it. I am unsettled because, for me, much of traditional doctrine does not reflect the God of my experience and I want others to share with me, a glimpse of God from within life’s experiences – not doing the opposite by imposing a pre-defined God onto our lives.

I am sure we know that we are ultimately talking about and experiencing ‘faith’, and that this is a very individual and personal thing – but we seem to very easily call each other ‘heretics’ when we do not conform and believe exactly the same things.

I think that now is the time for Christianity to name those themes that unite and encourage us; those things that build us up and that form the basis of faith in God and in Jesus the Christ. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that any theory or doctrine that tries to tie down our beliefs, does nothing more than tell us who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.

Given the inclusive nature of the gospel, I find exclusive pronouncements about the detail of faith to be profoundly un-Christ-like and damaging to the diversity and breadth of humanities experience of the divine.

Who said ‘The Simpson’s’ is not theological!!

Friday, 14 September 2007

Who do you think you are?

Imagine for a moment that, like the actor John Hurt, you believed that you were descended from Irish Nobility. The story has been passed down from generation to generation and instilled into family consciousness and sense of self. So much so that when you place your feet on Irish soil for the first time, you feel an immediate emotional response and attachment to that place of great ancestral meaning.

Imagine then, your horror, as his, to discover through ancestral research such as that of ‘Who do you think you are?’ on the BBC, that no such link can be drawn. No Irish lineage can be found.

What, I wonder would that do to your sense of self, of your familial self, your heritage upon this earth, your sense of where you have come from and your sense of being grounded in your own skin?

Would it, as for John, leave you with a sense of emptiness and grief?

Given recent scholarly biblical work in search for the historical Jesus, there are many who cannot marry their new found understanding of Jesus the man of history to the Jesus of faith and religion.

The story in faith that has been passed down through history is starting to appear a very long way off the mark.

Does this fact, or should this fact alter our faith?
Should we amend the story we pass down to more closely match what we suspect to be closer truth?
Given the diversity in opinion and theological doctrine, would it even be possible to find a conclusive picture of Jesus – his life, his work, his purpose?
Given that we could, I suspect that there would be many for whom the change would be as hard if not much harder than that of John Hurt.

We are left with a faith and religion that is likely very far from what Jesus the Christ intended.

And yet, in faith, I choose to set my sense of self and of our place in the world, by what little we can solidly assume of scripture. The general sense and principle of the Bible is as a book of the People of God, desperately seeking to name the divine.

Christianity has taken on a life of its own, and not even a direct written account of Jesus life proven to be from God’s own hand, would convince all Christ’s followers to give up present doctrine.

Philosophical and broad theological debates can do little to shift the average person of faith from their long held believes –yet, it is at the point where our faith directly relates to our life and meaning, that we start to question the relevance and truth of that faith.

For my part, as I have explored scripture and doctrine in light of my homosexuality, it is the search for the historical Jesus that has made sense; this is the process of seeking to get beyond the cleverly woven patterns of religious doctrine in order to find Jesus the man and his meaning. I sought this path of study as my faith and my sexuality have been separated. My relationship with God was distant and certain theological understandings had unnecessarily made it so.

At this point of direct engagement between my faith and my sense of self, I sought to understand Christ’s message. Having done so in this most precious areas of my life it has, for reasons of integrity, been right to use the same method within all theological themes.

Having seen that the faith I was taught is very far from the mark, very far from that which fosters a strong relationship with God; my sense of self was shaken. Having seen the truth, the truth beyond the constructs of doctrine, I sought that same foundation for faith in every point of meeting between faith and life.

The truth is that we can never get back to a complete and unpolluted vision of God’s history with humanity, nor of the historical life and times of Jesus, but I pray we may be able to see those things which are wrong and misleading within our history and doctrine, and that we may rejoice in those areas of agreement were life and faith connect.

For my part, I continue to seek the historical Jesus and yet I have faith in those immovable common and universal themes which bind all humanity and which, I believe, Jesus came to proclaim in God’s name.

The Church is built on faith and faith should never claim to hold ‘the’ truth. We are all different and thus we will all hold different beliefs in faith. God makes God’s self incarnate to each of us in the way that makes sense to us as individuals – in the way that draws us into a closer relationship with God. I am past holding on to creeds and theologies that seek to box God in and I rejoice in the boundless expression of God wherever God dwells with me.

It may be a hard reality, but it makes sense to me that God’s incarnate word – the Christ, has never been fully understood or fully named and never will be. His life and his death say enough to each of us to give a glimpse of God, and that glimpse is so bright and so full of love that it is enough.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

The 1950s Wolfenden Report

Having just sat and watched BBC 4's programme 'Consenting Adults', which is part of the Beebs coverage of Gay History focusing on the 1950s Wolfenden Report - I felt compelled to make a few remarks.

The courage of all those involved in the making of the report was very impressive. Given the era and the legal situation at the time, the honesty and frankness of the report is remarkable. Forgive a moment of righteous anger - but it has struck me as a stinging indictment that it is now only 50 years after the report, that the wide church is taking the matter seriously and acknowledging the pain and suffering of those who still feel that they must hide themselves for fear of coming out.

Obviously, the Wolfenden report was to make recommendations of a legal nature and we, as the church, are not doing that. NO. What we are doing is frankly, more serious! We are considering the faith and spiritual life of individuals. We are concerned, in the least condemnatory manner possible, for people's souls and psychological well being. Laws are easy - you either fall within it or without. We can not be so divisive or judgemental with faith - or atleast, I hope not.

The second thought (yes, I do have more than 1!), is to realise that both the Wolfenden Report and the Church, insist/ed on the devision between sexual orientation and on practice. Personal I find this bonkers!

I have read books written by those gay people who rejoice in their homosexuality but conform to a strict biblical understanding that homosexual acts are evil. This may be flippant - but I do wonder what this does to ones sanity! Seriously, I have grave concerns about the pastoral and psycological well-being of feeling under both internal and external pressure to resist natural sexual urges. How is it possible to accept your sexuality but not to act on it? Obviously there are people who feel called to celebate lives - both homo and heterosexual. That is their choice - but why on earth should a person who does want to be physically sexual feel pressure to resist, just because some other external person doesn't like it!
I'm rambling - I'm going to stay with this one - see what others think!

These are not well-rounded thoughts - just reflections, so please comment!

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Commitment on Human Sexuality

Is it too obvious to say that much of what divides us as Christians on issues of human sexuality is down to Biblical Interpretation? Is this too obvious - and is it even helpful?

I have given much thought to this question, mainly because I know that it was and is my understanding of scripture that gives shape to my faith and to my feelings about my sexuality. It is not too obvious to name this because I think we often forget that ultimately it is our understanding of the Bible that dictates our doctrine, our theology and how we understand our humanity and our relationship with the divine.

The Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church affirms that:

'the highest authority for what we believe and do is God's Word in the Bible,
alive for God's people today through the help of the Spirit.'

This is true when we face questions within ourselves as individuals and when we come together to seek the will of God as a Denomination. As a statement it sounds very easy - nice and succinct, but I'm sure we are aware that when we come to scripture to find God's Word we do so with our own agenda and our own intention. Not only do we bring ourselves to scripture but we have to take seriously the fact that we are dealing with letters, poems, songs, 3rd hand accounts, theological constructions, personal opinion and historical contexts - which we will struggle to get beyond. Do we search for the historical Jesus - trying to get back to some idea of the historical reality of the stories we read? Do we search for the Christ of faith - looking for the theological and doctrinal significance of each passage?

Simply put - it is not possible to purely open a page of the Bible and read it with complete understanding. If the Christian Church is made up of 1 billion people, then we can be pretty sure that there are 1 billion ways of understanding and approaching scripture.

This is what can mildly be called diversity!

In the URC's Commitment on Human Sexuality, passed at the 2007 General Assembly - it is this diversity of opinion that is expressed and cherished.

This is a hard place to be. Disagreeing with another human being on whatever topic it is you disagree, is not an easy place to stay and most of us, if we are honest, seek to avoid it.

I accept that there are people who feel that my sexuality is not suitable for a person of faith - but I don't like it.
I revel in our diversity and our difference - but I find it hard.
I do believe that we must strive to save our unity and to hold together in the midst of division - but it is painful.
As I have said in my letter to Reform a while ago - being Liberal is not easy. My liberality makes a call for me to hold the myriad of opinions as valid and valued which is an almost impossible task and one that has profound psychological and personal consequences.

'The Way Forward?' is published by SCM press and edited by Timothy Bradshaw. It is written in response to the St Andrew's Day Statement which forms the basis for much theological thought within the Anglican Church after the difficult discussions at the 1998 Lambeth Conference. The book pulls together the work of a variety of theological thinkers; Gerald Bray, Jeffrey John, Oliver O'Donovan, Elizabeth Stuart, Stephen Sykes, Anthony Thiselton and Rowan Williams.

Last night after watching The West Wing and eating ice cream in bed, I looked at Anthony C. Thiselton's contribution entitled 'Can Hermeneutics Ease the Deadlock?' He quite usefully takes each of the major texts in the area of Homosexuality and seeks to explore there meaning for us as we try to hear God's Word. Towards the end of his study he says this:

'First, while gay or lesbian sexual acts fall short of the ideal along with, for example, materialism or self-indulgence, we require a more rigorous standard in all these ethical matters from our church officers than from others'.

It raises two useful thoughts:
1. Do we require a more rigorous standard in all ethical matters from church officers than from others?
Surely the point of our journey of faith is that we are all on that journey - church officers, policemen and women, the Queen, the unemployed and the drug addict. I am actually more inclined to follow people who have faced life in all its ups and downs. I see more integrity and respect in a person who is able to say 'I was wrong, I've made a mistake and my life has changed as a result'.

2. I most profoundly disagree with that idea that gay or lesbian sexual acts 'falls short of the ideal'.
Within the realms of Human Sexuality we do fall short - but not because of the sexuality of the person I choose to have sex with. We 'fall short of the ideal' when we dishonour ourselves and others through sex that is outside of loving, committed and consensual relationships.

The point of this - is that as part of the URC's Commitment on Human Sexuality, is the commitment to go on talking and listening and discovering together. I am committing myself to reading and talking and listening widely - to as many voices and opinions as I can.

My library contains quite a large number of books from authors whose opinions and understandings I completely disagree with - in some cases they are simply offensive to me as a person. They are in my library, because they broaden my understanding and they help me to see the world through someone elses eyes. I may not like what I see - but I can also find the common ground.

I hope that the URC and all it's members - in fact I hope that the church Catholic, can commit to talking and listening with each other about our sexuality. We will not always like what we hear and it may even be very painful for us to hear how others view us - but I pray we will see each other as human beings - each one different and each one loved and valued and created by God.

I do however, wonder if there is a time and place for individuals to say 'it is to painful'.
The process of listening to others does mean being open to hearing those who deem me sinful and evil. There is, I think, a limit to how open we can be to hearing those who profoundly disagree with us.
For those who understand scripture as being against homosexuality, it will be painful for them to hear me speak of a God who created me as a gay man.
For me to hear those who speak of my need to repent of my homosexuality has been and will continue to be very hard.

Is there a limit?
Is there a time and place to say - 'for my own sanity and peace and can bear no more?'

The answer to this lies with the individual - but I hope and pray they will feel it is OK to stop listening to others and to focus on God's unconditional love. I have been through a time of deep despair when I felt unable to stand back and to give myself space to be me - unjudged.

I have learnt that we do need gay men and women to be brave in speaking and listening with others - brave in committing to the URC's process, but the most important thing I have learnt is that it is OK to stop the world and get off.

God calls us to be brave - but not to personal destruction.
If the Church does feel like a place where you are not welcome - take the time to stand back and to rely on God's grace to build you up again.