Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Tainted Love?

A Christian understanding of homosexuality is a topic I've shied away from, although I obliquely address it in The Liberal Agenda, because it can be so divisive. That it is a divisive and difficult topic makes me deeply sad. A refusal to face a topic because it is difficult could reasonably be called cowardice, so here we are.

People love to know the rules don't they. It's a fact of human nature that we want to be told what we're allowed to do and what we're not allowed to do. This is "the law" and the old testament of the bible is largely the story of humanity understanding God's nature and how to be right with God through a very detailed set of rules.

In Jesus' time there was a group of religious people who particularly loved the rules. Read Matthew 23 for some of the choice things Jesus had to say to these men, the Pharisees:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
Heavy stuff! The trouble with the law is that it can't help you, all it can do is tell you when you've broken the law. The law can't save, it can only condemn.

Jesus didn't come to remove the law, but he did fulfil it. In effect he rewrote the rulebook, and in his new rulebook there are only two rules (from Mark 12:30-31 or Matthew 22:37-40):

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbour as yourself.
In Romans 13 Paul simplifies this even further "Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10 or similarly in Galatians 5:14).

There's obviously a great deal of working out of this to be done, but most of what Christians understand as sin - greed, hate, selfishness and so on - can be clearly seen to be against this law of love. (Or the law of liberty as it's called in the letter of James.)

Much of Christianity misunderstands sin (in practise if not in theory). The question of whether any individual act is "a sin" or not is mostly irrelevant. Our outward sins are symptoms of our damaged nature. Our real sin ("Sin" with a capital "S" - the sinful nature) is our failure and inability to love deeply. This is a topic I explore in Sin and Freedom.

However, if we are to categorise any act as "sin" or "not sin" (something Christians seem determined to do) then all we need to do is examine whether or not this act breaks the law of love. If an act hurts another person, or yourself, then there's a good chance it is against the law of love and can be called (if you insist) sin. A harmful symptom of the sinful nature. Conversely, if something is not harmful, if it is loving and upbuilding, then it is hard to categorise it as sin. You see where this topic is going?

In my essay on Sexual Purity in Marriage I discuss how lust is damaging, even within marriage, and how sexual intercourse can be an act of deep and genuine love. The sin in sex is not the act itself, but the selfish nature. So if sexual intercourse, between two people who love each other and are deeply committed to each other, is a genuine act of unselfish love then how does the gender of those involved change whether or not this act breaks the law of liberty?
Titus 1:15 To the pure all things are pure.
1 Corinthians 6:12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.
So, your understanding of specific scripture not withstanding (and to be addressed shortly), if you are to believe that committed homosexual relationships are not acceptable to God you have to be prepared to explain how they are harmful and therefore break the law of love.

Merely saying that these relationships are harmful because they are not what God intended, or are harmful because they are sinful, is a circular argument. The only possible explanation for why homosexual love (or the physical expression of that love) is unnaceptable to God, is that homosexual love is not the same as "straight love", that homosexual love itself is inferior and damaging - a tainted love. If the pure and unselfish physical expression of love between two homosexual people is unacceptable to God, or that a pure and unselfish physical expression of love between two homosexual people is not even possible, it must be because there's something wrong with the nature of that love (and therefore the nature of people who have an orientation towards that love). And because this is what your heart says when your mind and rulebook says that homosexuality is unacceptable to God, this is what homosexual people hear.

This is why the common Christian response of "acceptance" for homosexuals is inadequate. This attitude, currently the official attitude of my church The Jesus Fellowship, was exemplified by Hillsong in response to discovering that one of their choir leaders was gay (from Do I Love Gay People):
So if you are gay, are you welcome at Hillsong Church? Of course! You are welcome to attend, worship with us, and participate as a congregation member with the assurance that you are personally included and accepted within our community. But (this is where it gets vexing), can you take an active leadership role? No.
The idea that you can claim to love someone without being able to fully accept them into your church (in our church those in a homosexual relationship are not able to come into covenant membership nor live in our community) seems odd to me. Similarly, if they have a leadership ministry of any kind to claim to love them but not permit them to fulfil that ministry, not really permit them to be who they are, is odd. The real issue though, is that whilst you are claiming to love and accept them you are simultaneously stating that the physical expression of their love is harmful and damaging, that part of their nature, is unacceptable to God. You may think you're being loving and accepting, but they sure as hell don't feel loved or accepted.

The principle of acceptance of homosexuals, without accepting the practise of homosexuality, as adopted by many modern evangelical churches says that there is nothing sinful about a homosexual orientation but gay sex is still wrong (we're so obsessed with sex aren't we!). I don't think this is a rational and consistent belief. If gay sex is wrong it must be because either homosexual love can't be expressed in a pure and unselfish way, or because the pure expression of homosexual love is sinful. Either way it comes back to the nature of the homosexual love itself being wrong for the physical expression to be unacceptable to God. So to claim that homosexual love is not sinful but its physical expression is doesn't make sense. Or maybe it's not just the sex but the being in love that is the sin. Does that seem right? Not to me.

To put it in perspective suppose a married couple, say a black man and a white woman, came to your church. Imagine if your response was to welcome them, to make it clear that you loved them, but also to say that they couldn't fully join the church nor have any leadership role unless they divorced because you didn't think mixed race marriages were acceptable to God. A patently ridiculous position to take obviously. Do you think that couple would feel loved and accepted? Obviously not, they would feel hated and rejected. However much you may claim you love and accept homosexual people, if you believe that their love is unacceptable to God they will feel hated and rejected. Or they may be so conditioned by the belief of the world in general that homosexual love is wrong (and make no mistake this world hates Gay people) that they come to agree with you and reject themselves. This is sadly a common story for gay Christians.

So what about the bible and those verses that condemn homosexuality as sinful, the "six bullets in the gun" on the opposing side of this "debate"? Thankfully other people have written far more eloquently, and with deeper insight, than I could hope to. The definitive work on this topic, and on a mature understanding of the bible, is A Matter of Integrity by Steve Chalke. For those who want something shorter, or prefer video, I recommend this short one by Matthew Vines:

Reading and watching these it is obvious that the question of whether the bible outlaws loving same sex relationships is at the very least not straightforward. In this light any claim that the bible is "clear" on the topic is poorly informed at best (and really, really hard not to see as disingenuous).

It is possible to read and understand these and still disagree. This I can respect, we won't all agree and we have to be able to discuss difficult topics without acrimony. But please be clear about the consequences of your beliefs and statements. To believe that the expression of homosexual love is sinful is to believe that homosexual love is unacceptable to God, that the homosexual nature is damaging. This may well still be what you believe, but please don't at the same time claim you are loving and accepting of gay people.

The danger is that if homosexual love is acceptable to God, which is the only relevant question - not what the bible says but what the heart of God is, then we shut the door of the kingdom to people that God is desperate to welcome in. We may be confused on the topic, the church may be confused on the topic, but one thing is clear: God is not confused! For a genuine understanding of this topic, or any topic really, an understanding of scripture is not sufficient. We need a deep understanding of the heart of God, of sexuality and of gender. Without this we will quite simply get it wrong, misunderstand scripture and hurt and reject people. Let's not do that.

Sex at its best is an act and expression of love. If homosexual love is genuine love - deep and real in spirit and truth - do you think that its physical expression can never be acceptable to God? Is that what you think of the heart of God: that he accepts the love of heterosexuals but not the love of homosexuals.

If that is what you believe, surely the only way to reconcile that is to conclude that homosexuals don't really love each other, not in spirit and truth. That homosexuality is a perversion of real love. That's what the church has taught for centuries so you wouldn't be alone in that belief. I don't think this stands up to reality though, not to knowing and loving homosexual people. Their love is real.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Soul Healing: Becoming Whole

Soul healing means becoming reconciled to who you are, finding peace with yourself. And it's something we all need, in more or less obvious ways perhaps, but none of us are completed works and there are unplumbed depths in everyone waiting to be set free.

We're all big people, deep people, at least in potential. Think of all the people you know and the friendships that come alive as soon as you're with that person, all the books you've read, music you've listened to, films you've watched and places you've been to. Think of all the things you can do, your skills and abilities, there are many of them. You're incredibly complex, all of this and more is within you, but how much of that can you recall consciously at the moment; how much of all that's inside you do you use at any one time. There's a great deal to be released in all of, a tremendous capacity to love that we have only just scratched the surface of.

One way that a particular need for soul healing shows itself is through recurring memories that run through your mind reminding you of shameful, difficult or painful times. No matter how often you push these memories away they return. Where these are memories of traumatic events it can even be debilitating.

In this essay I'll explore a little bit about how our souls operate, and suggest an approach for dealing with recurring memories along with troublesome thoughts.

If you remember back across the years of your life, for any particular period in your life you'll feel a whole set of memories and emotions associated with this time. A general "pressure" of who you were and what happened. You'll also have a specific set of memories from that time and if you try recalling details of that time it will be this set of memories that you return to. Particularly for periods of your life in the more distant past these memories will almost seem to be remembered from the outside, like you're looking in. You may even see yourself in these memories rather than being in the centre of them.

This disassociation happens naturally, but is a sign of parts of you not being wholly integrated. The pain of life causes us to retreat from who we are. It's a rare person who is fully able to face all of who they are, who they've been, without flinching. That person however is free, and that's where we can all be. Disassociation doesn't just happen with painful memories, but is a consequence of the numbing of society and entertainments. All the distractions from facing life head on.

If you think of your life as a straight line from earliest memories to now you'll find there are times when the memories are jumbled up, the line gets tangled instead of being straight. Some parts of the line maybe quite faint or bleak. Where the "line of your life" has tangles, and where you're disassociated, life isn't able to move freely through you. The result can be a feeling of being "bound up" and unable to freely express who you are. Alongside this, if we're out of touch with the pain inside us (that is inside all of us) then we can't face the pain in others either. This isn't a conscious process, it's nothing to feel condemned about, it happens to everyone and is a natural consequence of life on planet earth. To the extent that our own self is hidden from us, to that same extent we're unable to really empathise and connect with other people. When we become aware of pain in other people our natural empathy will trigger the same feelings in us, and if we're running away from those feelings then we have no choice but to put up walls and keep people out.

As you face up to the pain and shame of the past, even the parts you'd rather walk quietly away from and never visit again, then you'll be able to bear that pain in other people to. And then you can help people. Seeing pain in others, but not running from it, touching it gently and showing them that you feel it too but you're not afraid. That they don't need to be afraid either. Then they can face it and can let go. It's one of the most beautiful things in the world, as you find freedom you can bring freedom to those around you. This is why the Christian says:
Let others be drawn to me Lord, and find in me your precious wounds.
Why do painful memories keep recurring, why are they so hard to push away? They keep recurring because underneath those memories is part of you. A painful part it maybe, but it's you nonetheless. This is why pushing them away doesn't work, unless you lock them totally out of your mind, something that is damaging and hard (but not impossible) to undo. The memory is just the tip of the iceberg, and submerged beneath is a part of you that you are afraid of or ashamed of and are rejecting.

My own experience of this has been through regular meditation over the past few years. The meditation I do is "mindfulness of breathing", an exercise of soul to cultivate focus and mental strength. In practising focus on the breath, something that is incredibly relaxing, you learn to quieten the soul and let go of distractions. As distractions, usually thoughts, arise you let go of them and return to the breath. As I've quietened the surface thoughts, the noisy chatter of the mind, I've found deeper parts of who I am rising up. Especially painful times in my past left quite a mess behind. When I went to university I didn't want to be a Christian as it felt like a social obstacle. I wasn't as worldly wise as I perceived my peers to be and I was ashamed of my upbringing. As I rejected my past, who I was, I didn't have much else to offer and I was very bound up. The pain this caused made me retreat from myself and the problems I had. The LSD I was ingesting in large quantities made this retreat into psychosis easier.

Recovering from all of this took many years, but it's only in the last few years that I've really been dealing with it and facing up to who I was - and am. I want to experience the pain of the past, I want to throw off the numbing that I succumbed to. I want the reality of being me, because that's all I have. So as painful memories have risen up I haven't pushed them away, but I haven't held onto them either. I've let them rise, and let them go. As those times from university came into mind, times that used to run through my mind regularly like a scab I couldn't leave alone, I felt the pressure of myself and my past beneath the pain. I remembered much of the goodness and wholesomeness in it, like the love of some beautiful women when I was a child, and also realised how much I learned even through the horribly traumatic times. 
Joel 2:25
I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten
Gradually the tangle of the line of my life is reducing. Jumbles of memories are becoming more ordered and I'm finding in me goodness I'd forgotten or never known was there. I'm more full of life, life is able to move more freely through me, and I'm able to drop the barriers to other people that I used to put up. There's plenty more to come too.

This is the best news. We may have pain, we may have difficulties, but these are our opportunity to find life. How much worse would it be if this was all there was? We're not stuck, we can change, we have challenges to overcome and beyond them lies freedom.

Traumatic times and memories shape us, but they needn't define us. Finding healing is not a process of forgetting. The memories don't go, but the sting goes from them. As you find healing you'll be able to remember those times, feel those parts of you, without recoiling or flinching. The memories remain but you're not submerged beneath them and they hold no power over you.

Far too many of us are afraid of what's inside us. We keep a lid on things, holding ourselves together, keeping things under control. True freedom only comes from overthrowing, however gradually, the lid we keep on things. I implore you not to be afraid of yourself, not to be scared of what's inside you. It only has any power when it's kept in the dark, bring in the light and the power evaporates. Let your soul rage and howl, that whirlwind you fear is you. And when the lid is fully off, all its power is yours!

So how do we deal with the pain of the past? The answer is to be able to experience those memories without flinching and to let who we are rise up from beyond them, but this can be easier said than done - both in making it happen and in facing the pain when it does.

If you attempt this then only do what you can cope with. For particularly traumatic memories professional help, a counsellor who will take you through them in a gentle and controlled manner, is the wisest course of action. This is why therapy and counselling works, it provides a safe environment for us to face what's inside.

I suggest finding a quiet space, sitting or lying, and quieten your mind. Any distracting thoughts and worries let them go. Don't worry, they're not urgent, anything important will come back. (Please let there be an end to souls scattered on countless pieces of paper! But that's a matter for another essay.) Let your mind wander back to some of your memories. Only attempt as much of this as you can face, don't force it or traumatise yourself again. It takes time for a soul to unwind. Let the memory rise. Hold it gently, don't grasp it or force it but let your awareness rest on the edges. As the feelings and emotions rise with the memory don't flinch or turn away. Let as much of it as you can bear rise up, but don't hold onto it, as much as you're able let the feelings rise and subside. Don't be carried off by thoughts or regrets. Recognise that it's gone, it's the past and it holds no real power any more. Feel for the memories, observe them, and let them go. Beyond the events you recall feel (gently) for who you were, for what's below. Don't judge or hate yourself, and if that's in you then let it go too. You were who you were and as much as you can now accept yourself is how much you're able to accept others. You may have been a fool (I certainly was), but you of all people understand the pressures and circumstances.

Over time it gets easier, but you'll find there's an awful lot to do. We're deep and complex creatures, and life leaves its muddy footprints over the best of us - no matter how regimented or buried we try to keep them. As the pain and sting of memories goes it gets easier to talk about them and talking helps as well.

What about troublesome thoughts? Many of my friends suffer from condemning thoughts, telling them they're no good or ugly or they won't make it. These thoughts cause distress and trying to push them away seems to do no good.

If you're a Christian it's easy to write off thoughts like these as "an attack" (from spiritual forces outside ourself), but we need a deeper understanding. Conscious thoughts, like memories, are just the tip of an iceberg. For thoughts the submerged part of the iceberg is also part of you, a difficult and negative part that needs dealing with but rejecting it (pushing it away) is not dealing with it. Being dragged along by the thoughts, believing them, and wallowing in the negative emotions isn't dealing with them either.

Dealing with the thoughts starts with accepting that no matter what it feels like sometimes you are an amazing person, you have great depths and complexity, a whole world of experience unique to you. You have particular qualities that no-one else has. What you need is freedom. You need to see the thoughts not as something that's real, but a symptom of something that needs healing. Treat them as a problem you can work on. This is a useful approach because it encourages you to see the thoughts from the outside, they're not "you" - it isn't you consciously thinking these thoughts, they're just a part of your soul rising up. The real you is much deeper, much more, than just these thoughts.

When one of these thoughts comes try to recall this, it isn't you it's just a part of you, it's an opportunity to understand yourself and to make a step towards freedom. Don't push the thought away, don't believe it or follow along, observe it. Note the thought to yourself and then try to feel what's below. Feel the emotions that come with it, this is what your soul is really trying to show you, it's trying to open up locked parts of you. Feel for those emotions, but again don't get lost in them, try to feel where they come from, what they're connected to. Every time you can do this it's an opportunity to learn more about yourself, and if digging in, observing the thought and feeling for where it comes from, triggers difficult memories then you can follow the approach above.

I don't underestimate the difficulty involved in this, particularly for some of my friends. Believing the negativity and following along with thoughts becomes a habit that's hard to break. But it is possible, and as hard as it is to believe these challenges really are the path that can lead you to wholeness and wholesomeness, to freedom and life.

"But the greatest people are those who refuse to be treated like squalling children, who insist on facing reality in every form, and tear off ruthlessly the bandages from their own wounds." -- King Lamus

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Fire, The River and a Sword

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Several years ago I decided that I wasn't going to be a Christian and sing flowery songs of worship about having rivers of living water flowing out of my soul if I didn't actually experience it. If I give my life to this faith, if I'm going to believe that it's true, then I'm going to prove it true in my life. What I sing of, what I declare, what I say I believe, I will experience and understand.

A big part of my journey over recent years has been meditating. I meditate for an hour a day. It's an exercise of the soul to develop focus and cultivate mental strength. Along with these qualities I've found it bringing enormous healing to my soul, a topic I have waiting in the wings to write about. As well as meditating for an hour a day I pray for two to three hours a day. This wasn't something I intended to do, it just sort of grew out of exercising and using the time to reach out to God with body, soul and spirit. Trying to push everything within me to reach deeper into what I'm dedicating who I am to.

Although I call it prayer that's mainly because I have no other suitable word for it, it's not prayer as I used to know or understand it. I long to know more of God, to know more of the life of God. As I've meditated I've become aware that I am (and everyone else!) a much bigger person than I ever imagined. In terms of healing it's been a long and slow process because there's simply so much of me, my memories and my past, that is tangled up and needs freeing. I often sing of worshipping God "with all that is within me", and I've been realising that "all that is within me" is so much more than I thought it was! So I stretch and reach, wrestle and grapple, to take all of who I am - all my soul, all my desires, all my imaginings, all my longing, everything I am, everything I've been - and turn it towards God. It's the same reaching out to God as in worship. A big part of this has been wrestling to find God - where is the life, where is the power, where's God?! And within that search I find life, and as I'm picked up by the winds I connect with situations that are in my heart and that I also have longings for and pour in life and hope and faith. I wrestle and grapple for the life of God in people's situations and I wrestle for more of the life of God in the church. There are very few words in my prayer.

Jesus said the hungry will be satisfied and this is the secret to spiritual life. Get hungry. Really hungry. Spiritual hunger, the longing for God and for life, is something that comes from deep within. Much further, much deeper, than the rational mind (that loves to think it's in charge) can reach. In psychological terms we might say it is taking the raw force of the id and turning it towards God. All our impure desires, our greed and lust, are this force - this power of humanity - that can be renewed and made into something pure.

As I reach into God, reach into the spiritual and long for him with all my might I have (or had) a kind-of-mantra, a watchword that expresses and guides my longing and pushes me forwards. The watchword was "The fire and a sword". I want the fire of God, I want all I am to blaze with life because I know it's possible. And if that's possible what else would you live for? I want the fire that is substance and life, that takes hold of people, that changes and transforms, that heals and frees. I want the fire. And I want a sword. I want to fight. It's a dark difficult world, and I've walked a path of pain (of my own making). I know what it feels like to have lost everything and be utterly alone. And I'm angry. I want to fight.

A few weeks ago something unexpected happened. I broke through to the river of life, just to the edge but I touched it. I don't know what you imagine when you think of the river of life. I've always thought of a peaceful babbling brook, something soothing. This wasn't like that, it was full of life! Noisy life, bright and bustling and strong. I felt that if I touched it I would be dragged off. This was no babbling brook, it was alive. That's what I want flowing from my soul - life!

So now my guiding mantra is "The Fire, The River and a Sword".

"The greatest trick the devil plays is not to make us believe he doesn't exist, but to make us believe he's winning."


Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Varieties of Religious Experience: The Religious Outlook

I recently started reading The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature by William James. It's one of the classic books in the study of the mystical and I've only just begun reading it. In this book William James is mostly concerned with the individual mystical experience and my main interest is the corporate experience of God, but despite the moderately archaic language I'm enjoying it so far.

In the early part of the book William James attempts to tease out the difference between the religious outlook on life and a purely moral or "stoic" outlook on life. Here is his conclusion:
For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent positions of repose. Now in those states of mind which fall short of religion, the surrender is submitted to as an imposition of necessity, and the sacrifice is undergone at the very best without complaint. In the religious life, on the contrary, surrender and sacrifice are positively espoused: even unnecessary givings-up are added in order that the happiness may increase. Religion thus makes easy and felicitous what in any case is necessary; and if it be the only agency that can accomplish this result, its vital importance as a human faculty stands vindicated beyond dispute.
So the big difference between a religious (spiritual) outlook and the merely moral is the capacity to find joy in adversity.

This reminds me very much of the attitude of the Vikings I describe in Bring on the Battle. Because the Vikings don't fear death on the battlefield, it is their route to Valhalla, they are virtually undefeatable in battle. Our battle, alongside the ethereal spiritual warfare, is made concrete in the daily struggle of being a living human with people we care for and responsibilities to fulfil. Let's find the joy of the battle, plunge into the struggle with everything we have. If we don't what else is there?

On this topic William James adds:
If religion is to mean anything definite for us, it seems to me that we ought to take it as meaning this added dimension of emotion, this enthusiastic temper of espousal, in regions where morality strictly so called can at best but bow its head and acquiesce. It ought to mean nothing short of this new reach of freedom for us, with the struggle over, the keynote of the universe sounding in our ears, and everlasting possession spread before our eyes.
Pressed upon as you are, to whatever extent you find yourself able to choose your outlook on life let it be one of girding up your loins and pressing further on and further in.

An Evolutionary Spirituality: A Personal God?

"I am nothing more than a product of history and a series of unfortunate decisions"
In Seeing Angels  I looked at how the spiritual powers, angels and demons, are related to our life. In a discussion about this blog entry on facebook a friend asked a very reasonable question:
While I certainly wouldn't disagree with your musings on human nature, I find it difficult to understand why the forces that unify us have to be personified. Surely biblical descriptions of demons and angels are just as easily understood as metaphor?

You know I respect your beliefs (and have family members who share them), so I'm not trying to be argumentative here. Just putting another side of the case.
This question is ostensibly about the nature of God and spiritual powers (the forces that unifies us), but this question is separable from enquiring about our own nature. In replying I outlined my view of an "evolutionary spirituality". This is an understanding that we're not separate from the forces that created us. The theory of evolution lays out how life, and therefore spirit, developed.

My reply in full:

I understand you respect my beliefs whilst thinking differently yourself. I did try to address that question in the article. Humans are nothing more than the creation of the universe. We come from the land and are shaped by the forces of nature that also shaped the world around us. So it's not so much that those forces are personified, but we are! Our life is nothing more than the same life from the forces that create us (active and present tense not just past). So no wonder those forces are familiar - we just have the relationship the wrong way round. It isn't that they look like us, we look like them...

It's easy to see religion as creating god(s) in our image and I'm sure there's a strong element of this in humans. However, if the central thesis of Christianity (and other religions like Buddhism) is true, that all life is connected, then how could it be otherwise - that the forces that created us produced our life and the currents of our life are a reflection of them. Even "reflection" is not quite the right word, our life is their life and it exists in a continuum with them. We are not separate but intimately connected. Everything we are and do is the product of history and the land we came from, and in turn we affect the world around us.

The danger is to get hung up on the appearance, and the religious imagery of floating babies really don't help. The universe is unimaginably bigger than humans, so I'm sure there are spiritual forces that bear little resemblance to life we recognise. But nonetheless, we will most resemble (in spirit and character not body) those that shaped us and are closest to us. And Christian tradition has room for this, with the hierarchy of angels including the ineffable (and both terrifying and distinctly inhuman-like) higher angels like cherubim and seraphim.

I think your question raises a deeper point worth exploring though. Effectively you're asking why must the forces of nature that created and shaped us, and therefore the life that binds us, be "personal" in any sense? (And Christianity very definitely espouses a personal God - to the point of incarnation in Jesus Christ).

Suppose the life that creates, shapes and unifies us is impersonal. The life it would create would manifest physically as chemical and biological processes with thought and consciousness an imperative to sustain that life. Any sense of self and individuality in that life would possibly be an illusion, imposed on themselves by the created life - possibly as a survival mechanism. And indeed this is exactly what buddhism suggests - that our self and sense of individuality is an illusion of the ego. This goes back to my point that the forces that create life would create life that reflects the nature of those forces. So even if they're impersonal (in whatever way we mean that) it tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the creative power of the universe.

If we are joined, if there is an incredible power of being at the core of the existence (in judeo-christian language this is "Yahweh", the name for God which means "I am") then our life is a reflection of this life. Our own nature is very different from how we perceive it - experimental psychology demonstrates this very ably. To label the unified life force "impersonal" is reasonable, but it only reflects back on our own nature. We only have life in the sense that this creative power is alive, and if we accept that our consciousness is life then alive it is.

I would call this an "evolutionary spirituality". Evolution tells us how life developed and grew from the fundamental forces (processes) of the universe. And spirituality is nothing more than an understanding of the nature of our life. Our life is the product of natural forces, so the nature of our life as it is now (but in all the depth of the reality of that - not in the raving and screaming of culture) teaches us about the nature of the forces that produced us.

So, in a sense, if you believe in evolution, if you believe we are personal beings, and if you accept that we are not separate but our lives (our deeper psyche) are a continuum with the environment around us and the people who are part of it (continually influenced by and in turn influencing), then a personal God is the natural consequence of that thinking.

Another consequence, perhaps more disturbing, is that these forces of nature - truly alive in the sense that we are alive - are more real and unimaginably more powerful than mere humanity.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Seeing Angels

The central thesis of Christianity, viewed from a particular perspective, is that all humanity is connected. That God, the spirit of perfect love utterly pure and without guile, can be in all of us and that through oneness with this love we can all be joined. The metaphor for the church of Jesus is one body, one new person. Through Jesus we are unified in love and have the same spirit, one mind and heart. The mystery of this is that though we are joined, we do not lose our individuality. In fact as we become more joined with Christ we become more ourselves, more who we were intended to be.

The test of the reality of this is how much our lives are shared, in spirit and truth not just in theory. The substance of the kingdom of God is shared lives, and this is how we become one body - our lives and hearts are mingled and life moves freely amongst us. A people alive in God and God alive amongst us.
Romans 12:4-5
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
So the idea of Christianity depends on the deeper parts of the human psyche being joined. This is an idea that Carl Jung, one of the modern fathers of pyschoanalysis called the "collective unconscious". Jung traced the evolution of the collective unconscious through common elements in the culture of apparently unconnected societies. He also traced common elements of the human psyche he called "archetypes". These elements are abstract because they have no concrete existence, but personified because they are elements common to disparate human personalities. They are qualities of humanity and so are "human" (or perhaps better "supra-human").

Have you ever met someone who you "recognised" (at least parts of their personality) without having encountered them before? Been naturally suspicious of someone because of their behaviour, or known how to flow and interact with someone even on first meeting? You're interacting with common elements of humanity made concrete in individuals. In fact our personality is created from our experiences of dealing with others and our interaction with the world around us, and the same is true of everyone else. Even our DNA, our biological foundation, is substantially the same as everyone else. Being shaped by the same forces it would be astonishing if we didn't share much in common, in behaviour and personality, with others. Spirituality is merely an understanding of who we are as humans; in one sense nothing more esoteric than the dull and sometimes dirty reality of being a person.

Close to the centre of Christianity are the concepts of angels and demons. These are spiritual beings, distinct from humanity but nonetheless "alive". We possess physical bodies and free will whereas they are pure spirit. Understanding these spiritual beings, their place in the cosmos and their relationship to humanity, is difficult and one of the deeper mysteries of Christianity.

In common Christian thought and discussion there tends to be a difference between the way we talk about demons and the way we talk about  angels. Even the terms "angelic" and "demonic" are so culturally loaded with associations that it makes it hard to think about them dispassionately. As you read this essay please cast all thoughts of ghouls and monsters, along with all ideas of glowing disembodied messengers, out of your mind.

In Christian circles it is common to talk of "a spirit of fear" or a "spirit of hate". These are obviously demonic as they represent negative elements of the human psyche. The key phrase here is "elements of the human psyche". The Christian understanding is that the demonic spirit can influence human behaviour, effectively they become part of the subject personality.

When talking about angels it is common to visualise floating androgynous beings. However, just as we talk about a spirit of fear we should talk of a spirit of peace, a spirit of joy and so on. As you are motivated to love, as compassion moves through your personality, as joy takes over a meeting, this is the angelic at work.

These spiritual beings are spirit, so they move in and through the human spirit. (Your spirit is who you really are, as distinct from your soul which is your memories and emotion (etc). See Dividing Between Soul and Spirit for more discussion of this.) So how are you likely to encounter and sense the spiritual but in yourself and through other people.

In particular we encounter angels as pure (both in the sense of unadulterated and the sense of holy) elements of humanity. So if your kind friend commits an act of pure generosity and love, you just had an encounter with an angel! As we manifest the qualities of Christ, individually and corporately, we manifest the angelic amongst us - these angels, although abstract and distinct from us, are part of us and expressed through our personalities and character.

Angels and demons are alive because they are made of the same stuff that is our "life". They are part of us, but wider than any individual, and we recognise them as having human qualities because in a sense they are human qualities (although perhaps our categorisation needs work - maybe we could look to Jung's work on archetypes for inspiration).

To think of the spiritual in these terms is not to discount its reality, nor to limit it merely to part of the subconscious. Instead it is to acknowledge that we, the reality of who we are, are part of something greater and to understand what that means. The angelic, and the demonic, are more than any one of us but as real as any of us. Distinct but part, just as in the body of Christ we are distinct from one another but part of one another. Love and the works of love are both greater than us and external to us, but also internal and part of us. Love in us and from us, with us and through us.

In fact this view of the spiritual sheds light on our understanding of spiritual warfare. The constant struggle between good and evil, between the angelic and the demonic, is played out spiritually all around us. There is a corresponding struggle, all around us, played out in culture and society, people groups and individuals. Spiritual warfare is not entirely abstract and separated from humanity and our daily experience, but inextricably entwined. The spiritual is a continuous spectrum from humanity to God, not a separate realm. Heaven is all around us.

As these elements of the human psyche are "common", they are expressed in everything that humanity does. "Common grace" is the concept that the basic goodness in humanity is not restricted to Christians (something abundantly obvious I hope). So angelic spirits, spirits of love and generosity, are present in everyone. These common elements are visible in the culture around us. The good elements of our shared culture, the social movements for love and acceptance, the message of hope in films and music, are evidence of the angelic at work in the world around us.

This is why the plastic charade of halloween, that Christian superstition loves to hate, is not something that should really concern us. The real demonic forces of our age are greed and fear and loneliness and hate. All the common elements of our psyche, like sexism and racism (and sickness), that do so much damage. The ghouls and goblins of popular culture have no power. Likewise it is such a tragedy when Christians reject movements of love and acceptance (see The Liberal Agenda) that are a movement of God we ought to celebrate!

Note: a further exploration of some of these ideas, and what it means about the nature of God and our own nature, is in An Evolutionary Spirituality: A Personal God?