Saturday, 11 February 2012

Sticking one's neck out

Some will be aware that, as part of being licensed to preach, I am also doing a couple of courses organised by the church of England. The present one is about faith and prayer, and has looked at various traditions and practices.

Now, how do I say it? Some of this is whacky.

I'm trying to discern what is unfamiliar but good from what is unfamiliar and bad. Easier said than done in some ways: relying on instincts and trying to sense what the Holy Spirit is saying is difficult because my personal feelings are often quite strong. Also there are some things one has a sense of being off beam, but they can be very hard to identify a specific reason why. At the same time there are good things in there that make lights come on to explain either the reasons certain things work in particular ways, or to explain that it's OK for feelings to follow a particular direction. I've been very much praying to be able to see the good stuff and to hear what God is saying in this.

Many of these things are from the 'rich tradition' of the western church, though as one gradually works back through history it passes through being simply 'the church' and then Rome to finally Jerusalem. This is to be expected. It seems that many of the key formative characters (discussed and otherwise) were all reacting to socio-political and religious situations they found themselves in, very much in the way that later, the Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostal and house/community churches were formed.

But on the way, some of the church practices picked up odd stuff.

So we were taught about contemplation by a chap who also practiced Zen, and mixed both apparently freely (despite stating to the contrary) in his descriptions: the 'prayer form' of apophatic prayer seems to have been largely drawn from what we would perceive to be eastern meditation, and while potentially different, seems to have borrowed wholesale. Some of the christian mystics that were quoted were almost certainly pushing into gnosticism with their secret knowledge that comes from 'un-knowing' - at least at face value.

On one level I can see how the traditions and the clothes and the forms all fit together, but on another, it all seems pretty stinky.

I'm also somewhat perturbed at the tacit acceptance that a bunch of stories about the 'saints' were basically made up to illustrate how good and pure and holy they were. Great, so now we invent stuff that everyone 'on the inside' knows are made up and make the Christian faith a real minefield theologically. Worse, bible stories then get taught like that, again with the tacit acceptance on the inside that they are in fact not true, and the whole thing then crumbles away in disbelief. One evening I got worried looks when discussing that if Jesus didn't do the things He's recorded as doing then how could we actually trust any of the bible was true.

It's like building a house on nice ideas and cobwebs of good feelings, but underneath there's nothing of substance. I can't go to someone hurting, sick, confused and fearful and tell them everything is OK because we can all go into a quiet place, empty our minds and feel at peace by repeating a word over and over again.

Despite my tone, I'm neither angry nor distressed about this - it's more or less what I expected. I just see my roots going back to Paul, Timothy and possibly Luke, rather than James and a bunch of guys who went off to the desert to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.

Paul's words: "we are merely human, just like you". I can go with that.

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