From the Boundary: 'A terrible beauty…' – Part one
I’m going to ask some questions which may surprise you. Do you feel disenchanted with religion, with ‘church’? Do you find yourself getting irritated by the cosy, familiar ‘talking down’ you read week after week in reports of what Rev Dolittle said from the pulpit at St Mugg’s or wherever else? Do you attend church now only for the sake of the kids? And when you’re there, does your boredom strangle every breath? Well, if that’s you, how does it make you feel? Does it depress you? Do you feel you’re letting the side down? Do you think you’ve lost salvation? Do you keep hearing the words ‘What if….’? Does it make you fearful?
Now I’m not talking about mere doubt. I’m sure we all experience that. There are so many unanswered questions, aren’t there, which require a leap of faith? But then I suppose that it’s from a position of the profoundest faith that we can dare to doubt, dare to question, dare to explore. But the doubts don’t overwhelm us. I’m talking about when they do. When they do, it’s like a birth - a “terrible beauty is born”.
After horrifying natural disasters, like the 2004 tsunami in south-east Asia, we might be rocked at our foundations – for why, you might say, didn’t the omnipotent God who’s supposed to be all love and all goodness stop it? The facile explanations of some – ‘It’s all prophesied in the Bible’, or ‘It must have been a punishment’ – are simply abhorrent to us. We might as well say God was busy on a culling exercise, or that He’s a cosmic sadist.
Or again, the problem might be that the dogmas and beliefs of our faith, rooted in the supernatural, have come to stretch our credulity too far and so have become meaningless. Maybe we’re tired of the primitive language of ‘God said’ as if somehow he’s an old man up in the sky who spoke once and then closed his mouth forever. Again, we may now find it impossible to accept, as many assert, that to question any part of the Bible as the ‘word of God’, God’s infallible truth, is an abomination. The feelings of guilt which follow if we don’t accept that may simply be too much.
The Church may itself have treated us badly in some way so we’re left saying ‘If that’s a Christian – no thanks’. “You devise schemes to ruin others….You‘re always inventing lies” (Psalm 52) may signal our feelings. So many churchgoers, priests and other so-called Christian folk are plain-as-your-face hypocrites, Pharisees, mere moralists, surface dwellers, aren’t they, the very people Jesus confronted? How can they claim to be followers of the Lord of Life? Think of the horrible sentiments expressed by one ‘Baptist’ pastor after Orlando: “I’m kinda sorry he didn’t finish the job” and kill all in the nightclub. It makes you shudder, doesn’t it?
And then again, on the rough journey through life with all its blessings and woes, one event may be enough to kill our faith. It may be a betrayal, the loss of love or loved ones, a life threatening illness, the loss of a job, the awareness of being old and the spectre of death around the corner, or even just the shoddy business of grubbing for the next dollar. But then, it may be none of these but still something very real and personal to you, like waking up to what to you is the absurdity of it all.
One thing I can tell you, though. Many of those who’ve had the greatest impact on my own beliefs and experience have had to confront this disenchantment in one way or another, and I’m sure that Jesus did too. If their toothache doesn’t take yours away, I’m sure it will help you understand that what you’re experiencing is all very natural and maybe necessary. It may be that your minds, like theirs, are simply too curious and too generous to be confined within a single religious tradition or thought pattern. The disenchantment may not be total.
That was the case, for example, with Tony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, whose book ‘Awareness’ (1990) is a modern classic. His search for spiritual understanding took him beyond mere religion, and in other works he told tales and stories from Hinduism and Buddhism. The result was that after his death the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, presided over by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a Notification that his books were to be intercepted and effectively banned. God help us! The theologian Matthew Fox, a US Episcopal priest, was expelled from the Dominican Order largely as a consequence again of the interference of Ratzinger. He’s mainly known for his ‘Creation Spirituality’ (see, eg, ‘One River: Many Wells’ (2000)). John Shelby Spong, former Bishop of Newark, like Fox, has called for a new Reformation and is the priest who first put me right on Sodom and Gomorrah (see, eg, ‘The Sins of Scripture’ (2005)). You can find him on Facebook. Then there’s Richard Holloway. Holloway was Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church when, in 1999, he published his work ‘Godless Morality’. After publication, the Church turned against him and he ended up throwing his mitre into the River Thames. Yeah! For him, a Church which is full of hatred and cruelty over these sorts of issues was not one to which in the end he wished to belong. For there’s the key question, you see: why is the Church which claims to be an instrument of God’s love so prone to nastiness? Remember the barefoot preacher?
I’ve mentioned Bishop John Robinson before in this Column. He found himself in all sorts of trouble after the publication of his ‘Honest to God’ (1963) in which he identified the growing gulf between traditional supernaturalism, in which our faith has been framed, and the commonsense approach of so many lay people for whom religious fairy tales are anathema. He was publicly reprimanded by Archbishop Ramsey. Let me mention his predecessor as Dean of Trinity, Cambridge, Harry Williams (see, eg, his ‘True to Experience’ (1984)). He resigned and became a Mirfield Father because of his gayness. His friend, Don Cupitt (see, eg, ‘Radical Theology’ (2006)), a former priest, ceased to be a communicant in 2008 and is now associated with the Sea of Faith Network. One last: Alan Watts, a doyen of ‘beat’ and ‘hippie’ culture, who left the priesthood and brought together, a little like de Mello, the thought of East and West and is particularly associated with Zen (see, eg, ‘In My Own Way’r (1972)).
Make of them as you will. In their different ways, they were rebels. In your disenchantment, what are you? Can any man ever have a complete understanding of the mystery of existence, do you think? In thinking about that, consider your own experiences, be kind to yourself – and wait.
Go safely then – until the next time.
Seminary exam question from the boundary: “Reverence for life is ultimately the only religion.” Discuss.