Category Archives: Books

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Betwixt and Between (Epilogue)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson called Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is the Epilogue – follow the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4)

It is hard to recognise the kindness and mercy of Providence when your soul seems to convulse with heartache …

Only hindsight provides us with that perspective …

Now I can say that it was mercy that led me to the shadows and the margins.

C.S. Lewis writes, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. God shatters it. God is the great Iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of God’s presence?” (A Grief Observed). My carefully constructed ideas of God and church lay shattered. I looked at the pieces and knew there was no rebuilding – I had to let go. How hard it is to trust that letting go process. David Foster sums it up beautifully, “Everything I’ve ever let go has claw marks on it.” Faith communities provide an instantaneous essential ingredient of what it means to be human: belonging. To leave is never easy.

Liminality is the ultimate life lesson in trust. It sounds very noble to say that we ‘choose’ to trust. I have found that I trust because I have no other options. No one throws themselves down some random rabbit hole in order to experience trust. Rather, the rabbit hole finds us, often through crisis or suffering, ushered in through our questions, or when our theological ideas no longer match our life experience. Liminality introduces us to trust.

For over two decades I had kept the oceans of mystery and paradox at bay. Suddenly the niggling doubts, the contradictions, the many questions that I used to wave to from a far and safe distance away, loomed like a tidal wave above me.

The ocean was no longer friendly. It had invaded my life and turned my world upside down.

This poem was helpful through that flood-filled time:

Breathing Underwater

I built my house by the sea.
Not on the sands, mind you,
Not on the shifting sand.
And I built it of rock.

A strong house
By a strong sea.
And we got well acquainted, the sea and I.
Good neighbours.
Not that we spoke much.
We met in silences.
Respectful, keeping our distance
But looking at our thoughts across the fence of sand.
Always the fence of sand our barrier,
Always the sand between.

And then one day
(and I still don’t know how it happened)
The sea came.
Without warning.

Without welcome even.
Not sudden and swift, but a shifting across the sand like wine.
Less like the flow of water than the flow of blood.
Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight, and I thought of drowning, and I thought of death.
But while I thought, the sea crept higher till it reached my door.
And I knew that there was neither flight nor death nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling you stop being good neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly from a distance neighbours.
And you give your house for a coral castle
And you learn to breathe under water.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ (from an unpublished work)

I felt like I was drifting in an endless ocean with no shore in sight.

It was the observation of a friend that brought me back from the house of sadness. “Nic, I don’t even pretend to understand what this must all feel like, but as your friend, I can tell you that the world and religious structure you were part of is really, really small. I know you think it’s the centre of the universe, but it’s not. Your world is about to get so much bigger.” He was right. Falling into liminality was about letting go of so much. I do not want to downplay the grief associated with the loss I experienced. It felt as if I was saying goodbye to something or someone else nearly every day. But I was also saying hello – to a new world, to new friends, and to a whole new way of being and seeing.

A few years have passed since saying goodbye to so much of life the way I knew it. These days I find myself quite removed from this first half of life with its overtures of religious zealotry. It has been a time of healing, detoxifying, learning to breathe again, and acclimatising to a very different world. There is a sense of standing on a threshold, “betwixt and between,” as Victor Turner once described liminality. According to Turner, it is temporal space – the midpoint between a starting point and an ending point. It holds the idea of temporarily having fallen between the cracks of social structure. However, I would agree with the wisdom of a friend who remarked that our whole life is a liminal space. It is a way of holding ourselves in this world – with an open hand, instead of tightly clutching.

Liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation, was and is a gift. It highlighted to me the bars of my ideological and structural prison of fear, all dressed up in religious morality.

I also experienced a reunion with old friends I had left behind when entering my version of religious absolutism all those years ago. One of them was the joy of not knowing, and the other was the delight of wonder. That most ignored and banished exile of fundamentalism, wonder, has returned to me. Tentative at first, and then, detecting a safe place, she brought her suitcases and moved in …
… Every day she delights me with her songs …
… Every day she teaches me to return her gaze and open my eyes …

Liminality has also changed my taste for music. There is a new rhythm: an unforced rhythm of grace that is now free from being reduced to a necessary tick on my doctrinal boxes of orthodoxy. A rhythm that is tangible, warm, comforting, strong, and relentless.

All is grace!

So, dear Liminal Traveler, I offer you my story in the hope it will bring you a sense of connection to the many others who, like you, may have fallen down the rabbit hole. For me, liminality is the ‘thin space’ of which the Celts have spoken, the rabbit hole where the door between this world and the next is cracked open for a moment, a most uncomfortable place that not everyone will care to hear about or understand.

May you be present in it, for it is indeed a most confusing and liberating gift. Holy.

Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deeply.
Let it ferment and season you
As few humans
Or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice
So tender,
My need of God
Absolutely
Clear.

Hafiz

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Disenchantment (Part 4)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.

(Please note that this is Part 4 – following the links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)

The questions that started to arise brought with them red-hot anger. Hindsight is helpful. I now realise I was disappointed and disenchanted. When there is a head-on collision of values that have been denied, a deconstruction of idealism that had to do with identity and belonging, and a deep disappointment of personal and community expectations, anger is often the prevalent emotion and lead member of the ‘rescue team’. Ironically, with this anger, I faced the dilemma that the emotion of anger is shamed in religious spaces where being ‘nice’ is a virtue. The niceness culture in some parts of religious institutionalism is as caustic as rat poison mixed with icing sugar. It breeds shallow relationships that are held in place by the fear of judgment.

My inner torment was amplified by the fact that critical and robust dialogue was often interpreted as negative, and everyone was terrified about being ‘negative’. I had very few safe places or people with whom to process my questions, doubts, and thought processes. Pentecostals, in general, hold to a triumphant happiness theology. The rhetoric from pulpits is one of ‘victory’, ‘triumphs’, ‘breakthrough’, ‘better’, and ‘greater’. It is a victory over negativity, poverty, sickness, anxiety, and depression. The result is that anyone who is unable to live in that suspended, Eden-like utopia is considered with caution. When I began to raise some of the doubts I was wrestling with, I recall being asked by one church leader whether I had adopted a ‘new kind of spirituality’. It was a question that silenced me for a few more months. Institutions of any kind tend to guard the structure of certainty over people. It can become a dangerous place for anyone who has begun to fall down the rabbit hole of questions, and who has started deconstructing embedded dogma.

At the end of 2010, I resigned from a prominent role as Associate Pastor. I was terrified. It was a massive step made far more complex as my husband would continue to serve as Senior Minister for the next six years. My decision to step away from the high-profile role was complicated. Perhaps I can simply say that I fell out of love with certainty addiction. The black and white absolutism required of leaders in conservative religious institutions was something I could no longer hold on to with any form of integrity.

My self-assured stance on life and the world had been shaken and found desperately wanting. Perhaps, with a bit of fierce intentionality and some open conversations, my continued dislocation from the community would have been salvageable. However, in the words of Frodo Baggins, “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand there is no going back?” There is no going back once you wake up in the matrix – and, more importantly, once you begin to engage with people who have been shunned by some of these very institutions that I have been part of and helped to build.

The last blow to what was left of my extravagantly structured system of certainty came via a very familiar medium: stories. It started with conversations and friendships amidst LGBTIQA+ people of faith several years prior to my resignation. Since then, I have listened to many people who have had to navigate exile from their homes or faith communities based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. I am indebted to them. They opened their hearts to me, and through their vulnerability, they opened my eyes to a dominant, patriarchal system of ideas that cloaks itself as orthodoxy and truth amongst religious institutions. The stories were hard to hear. The cruelty and brutality so many faced in the name of God was unfathomable. I realised that I had supported, enabled, and helped build a ministry within a wider religious structure that was responsible for causing much trauma. My own blind privilege had not even considered those who were suffering. It is so easy to de-humanise another when you are removed from their pain, ignorant of their plight, and assured of your own ‘truth’!

My eyes were also opened to the effect that ex-gay practices had on people. It is a deeply embedded ideology that is built on the assumption that there is something intrinsically ‘broken’ about anyone who identifies as anything else other than heteronormative. This ideology (and the practices/rhetoric that it enables) is as common as oxygen in conservative religious settings. It is driven by the idea that a person can be healed from their ‘brokenness’ and live a ‘normal’ (aka straight) life. However, some conservative religious communities have now conceded that this ‘healing’ is unlikely (No Shit, Sherlock!!) The latest form of ex-gay torture is to require LGBTIQA+ people to remain celibate. The toll of this torment and quackery is hard to put into words – anguish, disillusionment, mental health issues, and suicides. The day will come when the modern, conservative church has to face the reality of what this ill-informed dogma has done to people.

For me, there came a day when I was asked to talk about the trauma I had observed in the last several years amongst LGBTIQA+ people of faith. I could no longer remain a silent, horrified witness. So, I agreed to be interviewed on Melbourne’s JOY FM (April, 2015) – and all hell was unleashed.

The hysteria that unfurled was spectacular. The interview even managed to raise an extreme right activist out of retirement in order to write one more newsletter to his faithful followers – an e-mail that mysteriously made its way to many of our church parishioners. He demanded that my husband should keep his wife ‘under control’ – a violent rhetoric that seemed to find support from many others based on the e-mails and letters we both received. After several unpleasant confrontations and conversations, I became hesitant to darken the doors of the church. Until that day I had a lot of sympathy for people who found their lives dominated by anxiety, but this was the season when my sympathy became empathy. I had never known the crippling effect of anxiety until I became the focal point of the angry religious faithful. My earnest prayer became, ‘Lord, save me from Your followers.’

Once you break any sacred tribal rules of conduct and belonging, you often find yourself at the blunt end of a tribe’s most devastating weapon – shame. Elizabeth Gilbert writes:

Shame is the most powerful and degrading tool that a tribe has
at its disposal. Shame is the nuclear option. Shame is how they
keep you in line. Shame is how they let you know that you have
abandoned the collective. Violence may be fast and brutal, but
shame is slow … but still brutal.

The interview created the final rift. Friends I had known for years stopped speaking to me. The pain was overwhelming. I let go of the trapeze bar and found myself free-falling into a liminal space … (to be continued)

 

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Emperor has No Clothes (Part 3)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 3 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here and Part 2 (The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty) here.

I understand why people do not want to engage with questions, self-reflection, and critique. It is a humbling, terrifying, and ego-destroying exercise. Most of us will never go here willingly – to this place of no return. However, once we engage with that niggling divine doubt that will not leave us alone (like an itchy mosquito bite), we crack open Pandora’s box – and all hell breaks loose.

It came to me in the quiet, dark, early morning hours. We had just hosted another successful conference that was overflowing with people and goosebumps. Our lives and our schedules at this stage were stretched to maximum capacity. We were adrenaline junkies doing “God’s will” – and God was clearly “blessing” us. Lying in bed exhausted, I wondered whether this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I will build the church”? Somehow, I thought, our lives now seemed a million lightyears removed from that of a lowly carpenter, his motley crew, and a humble group of villagers that would make up his growing ecclesiastical constituents. It was the question that never left me, and, like someone who had been underwater for a very long time, I came to the surface gasping for air.

Questions like these were the red carpet on which Paradox made her entrance into my life. Once you see her, you cannot look away. I became the paranoid version of Truman Burbank of The Truman Show, suspiciously examining the somewhat hyper-real environment I was part of and helped create. The safe ivory tower of religious absolutism that has carved such a mega place for itself in modern Christianity started to crumble for me.

I began to notice the consumerism that was hiding under the idea of “blessing.” If we are convinced that God’s blessing is inadvertently tied to more stuff, larger buildings, faster growth, greater mission conquests, extra campuses, and bigger numbers, then the pursuit of more becomes a holy crusade. The pursuit of manifestations and/or healing is also viewed in the same light. If you are “healed” you are blessed, if not, there must be something wrong with you. If there is one word that describes the motivational factors behind some of the empire-building of modern-day Christianity, it is “more.” “More” is the trophy held up in individual and community life as the proof of God’s blessing. The ideology of “more” is deeply embedded. Is it any wonder that the key questions asked at so many leadership conferences that I attended was, “How many people are in your church now” or “How many campuses do you have now?” People spend their life analysing and writing books on this – How to reach more people, raise more money, become more influential, etc. How beautiful the golden calf shimmers in the light of a “more = blessing” philosophy.

Consumerism was but one of the growing number of concerns that now hounded me in the “mega” space of religion. I began to notice the blindness I carried in relation to my own privilege. I had become accustomed to living in an empire that influenced politics, policed morality, and dominated social structures, yet was very quick to cry foul, or rather “persecution”, if it felt threatened. An empire that had to keep “producing” and “growing”. In the middle of it I had grown blind and deaf – it has hard to pay attention to the voices on the margin or the inner voice of caution when you are busy saving the world.  This kind of self-reflection brought with it a fair share of regret. I was complicit in enabling the empire. I was one of its fiercely loyal soldiers.

Brian Walsh writes, “A cold commodity culture in which everything is reduced to its market value will blasphemously obscure our vision that all this earth is hallowed ground” (Colossians Remixed). He is right. The dualistic ideals held in these sectarian enclaves of “us” and “them”, “holy” and “secular”, consistently reduces those who differ to “other” or “sinful.” It creates distance between human connectedness and a refusal to recognise the divine in the “other” who may not think, look, walk, or talk like “us.” Dualism creates binary thinking, while Paradox challenges it with endless examples of exceptions. Paradox must be ignored for the parade to go on …

 … but I could no longer wave.

I had too many questions ….

The values I had silenced began to rise.

[To be continued]

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: The Safety of Institution and an Addiction to Certainty

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book.
This is Part 2 … you can read Part 1 (Meandering Paths) here.

I was “saved” in the Newcastle Full Gospel Church, when my father randomly decided he would go to church, prompted by an invitation from his supervisor at work. A visit by aliens would have been less surprising. I walked down the aisle that Sunday morning and “gave my heart” to the Viking-look-alike-god I encountered all those years earlier. I waited for the magic to happen as I was told I was now “saved” and transformed and a whole new being. In a sense, I did experience magic – suddenly, I belonged to a group of people who smiled constantly and fed me delicious South African desserts. The wandering little girl, now in her teens, had found a home.

Like a woman possessed, I frantically built the structures of certainty and absolutism around my life, following my coming to faith. I embodied the zealous figure of Saint Paul before his conversion, slaughtering any and all ideas that contained seeds of doubt and paradox. Fundamentalism, with its overtures in literalism and dogmatism, became the strong tower that produced my concept of God. I was a loyal soldier to the cause. Finally, I had found something that soothed my angst over what appeared to be a harsh, confusing, and meaningless world.

In the meantime, on the geographical front, we returned to Germany for a year and then migrated to Australia. It was in Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1984 that I would meet the man who would become my life partner. He was travelling up the coast with a friend and dropped in to visit my church, an offshoot of the large Pentecostal faith community called Waverley Christian Fellowship based in Melbourne. His father was one of the ministers there. So, one bright, sunny day in February 1985, I packed up my old Valiant station wagon affectionally called “Boris,” and embarked on the long drive to Melbourne, sleeping at the side of the road along the way. So begins my story of a three-decade-long journey as an integral part of a conservative religious institution and my addiction to certainty.

Kierkegaard was an admirer of Socrates and the Socratic dialectical method. He observed how Socrates would consistently examine a student’s certainty in an area of knowledge because certainty eventually leads to paradox. Paradox provided a pathway to higher truth. Kierkegaard believed that engaging in this dialectical process would offer more valid glimpses of the Divine in one’s journey. This belief, for him, was the only developmental certainty – the trek through the “stages of life’s way.” I found this to be a helpful reflection as I look back on thirty years lived within a conservative Pentecostalism that had little room for questions or paradox. Pentecostalism has a strong emphasis on spiritual manifestations. It tends to resist critique and is at times known for its anti-intellectual stance.

I often wonder why it took me nearly thirty years to wake up in the matrix. I think my internal fear of chaos and confusion collaborated so well with the structural ideologies in a place that refused to question. I do not want to give the impression that these were in any way “bad” years – they were not. I experienced a sense of happiness and fulfillment in the various roles I filled in the megachurch of which my husband would become Senior Minister in 1995. They were heady days of success, expansion, and growth. I developed as a speaker and was travelling the world, delivering profundities from various platforms about everything certain and absolute.

People cheered. I had found truth.

In our structure-building phase of life, we often find safety and solace in organisations that exude confidence and assurance. This includes religious institutions that embrace biblical literalism as a form of orthodoxy. They provide an irresistible framework of certitude for anyone seeking guarantees or formulas that will work in this wild ride called life. Unless we foster a strong culture of critique and self-reflection in these settings, we will mistakenly confuse our flourishing ego as faith and our elitism as a community. With such a narrative, held in place by praise and success, it becomes increasingly difficult to change and grow.

Richard Rohr writes, “The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling, or changing, or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo – even when it’s not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future”(Falling Upwards). My ego had hired my love for certainty and structure as security guards to prevent any ideological challenge or change. Working together with the idea of ‘success’ and applause from the multitude, they dulled my senses – a sort of concoction that has us cling to fantasies and keep us blind.

Maybe that is why I didn’t question hierarchical structures or patriarchal dominance for such a long time?

My love affair with certainty ensured that I obediently nodded to ideas and doctrines that were presented as absolute truth, yet jarred deeply with my values. At least I submitted in the early years when influential leaders would propagate the myth of male headship. However, both my husband and I began to fall down the rabbit hole as we opened ourselves to voices outside our tight-knit community, and the wheels of change began to slowly move and creak. Questions started to arise, often uttered in hushed tones, questions that prodded at some of the communal ideology adopted through the adherence to dogma stemming from the Holiness and Latter Rain Movement.

This was not easy.

Holy Cows are very precious.

However, paradox was calling … and her voice was growing louder … (to be continued)

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: Meandering Paths (Part 1)

Last year I contributed to a book edited by Tim Carson with the title of Neither Here Nor There: The Many Voices of Liminality. The book draws together the expertise, experience, and insights of a coterie of authors, all of whom relate the core concepts of liminality to their unique experiences. Unfortunately, this book is still not available in Australia.

The blog posts that follow are my contribution to this book. They are reflections of a very painful season in my life. However, hindsight also provides me with deep gratitude. May these posts offer some hope and courage to all fellow liminal pilgrims.

Never knowing which way was up

Until I drank the bitter cup

And then the sky it disappeared

And I was falling without fear

Falling, falling without a sound

Down down down down down down down

This is who I am, this is what I need

Falling down the rabbit hole

This is how I live, this is how I bleed

Falling down the rabbit hole

This is what I know, this is how I think …

Joel Sattler

 

Storytelling is the aorta that runs through my family and ancestors. It has nourished us for generations. The traditional German Kaffeeklatsch may start with just two or three people drinking coffee and eating Sahnekuchen, but within minutes the room is filled with invisible guests, joshing for their stories to be heard from another time and place. I was a fortunate child to grow up surrounded by such rich narrative.

The stories of war and displacement were never far from the lips of my Oma. She lost her husband, my grandfather, in the battle of Stalingrad. As a young mother, with my aunt who was a toddler and my father who was a three-month-old baby at the time, she had to flee her hometown of Lyck (Elk, Poland) as the Soviet Army approached in 1945. Her survival stories were harrowing: stories of despair, hunger, abuse, but also of hope. The man she married six years later would provide a safe haven for a young widow and her children.

My mother suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder all her life, most of those years without a diagnosis and unable to understand her own sense of consistent, heightened anxiety and insomnia. She was older than my father and remembers the war – running for bomb shelters, shaking violently as the fighter jets approached, the sound of Gestapo boots on the street, and her Jewish neighbour jumping off her balcony to her death so she would not be arrested. Her childhood was turbulent and traumatic.

The stories my parents and grandparents told shaped so much of my world. I grew up in a loving and nurturing home, but I was not shielded from these stories, and for that, I am so grateful. It prepared me for what I was about to experience as a seven-year-old when my parents packed up house and moved from Germany to South Africa.

Most immigrants can relate to the sense of disorientation and disconnection experienced when one settles into a country that is very different from their accustomed culture and social norms. I felt as if I was caught in a giant tidal wave of learning and new experiences. I did not find my feet for several years. I had to learn English and Afrikaans – an apartheid-torn South Africa had a dual-language approach. I also learnt Zulu. But all that took time. In the meantime, I became the focal point of playground fun and belittling. Children show little mercy when they can distract potential bullies to prey that is more vulnerable than they are. The school library became my safe place during recess and the Giant Illustrated Catholic Children’s Bible became a source of wonder.

I had no embedded idea about the blue-eyed, blonde-haired man I was looking at in that Bible. He reminded me of someone from Norse mythology or a Viking character that featured in one of the many stories my Oma told. It would be quite a few years later before I would encounter this man again. At that time, I learnt his name: Jesus.

It was the system called apartheid – an ultimate form of marginalization, bullying, and oppression of people based on the hue of their skin — that reminded me that the world is not really a safe place. My lack of friends at school was quickly compensated for by the children of the cleaners and helpers at my mother’s hair salon. It was with their help that I mastered Zulu long before Afrikaans. It was their presence that exposed me to the cruelty I now witnessed in person, not in stories. My Zulu friends could not go into the shops I visited, they had separate drinking fountains, it took them a long time to find a public toilet they were permitted to use, and they often had random grown-ups shout at and abuse them. They were not permitted to be in the streets of the area where I lived. I have a distinct memory of the neighbour across the road beating an African man unconscious because he took a shortcut across a nearby field. That neighbour then dusted off his suit and got into his car to go to church. I later found out he was an elder at the local Dutch Reformed church. To me, he remains immortalized in my historical narrative as the archetypal arsehole.

These were some of my pre-liminal stories and life experiences. I would dream of a better world. In my imagination, I was the super-hero who would put every bully in his place and liberate the oppressed. I was a child waiting to become a zealot, looking for a cause. More than that, I was a child desperately looking for belonging, safety, and predictability. I found it in institutional fundamentalist religion … (to be continued)

 

 

Haunted by Hell: Part 3 – Hell Hath No Fury Like Hell Scorned … and Love Wins

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

What did church fathers like Origen, Clement, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Anthony and Didymus hold in common that would see them snubbed by many modern Christian institutions?? The doctrine of apokatastasis … No, that’s not a cat with a serious disease … rather, it is a theory that holds the hope of complete restoration and reintegration of our world. This was a popular doctrine of the early church. Patristics scholar, Ilaria Ramelli, writes:

The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origin, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially) … Cassian, St. Issac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible.
— Ramelli, Christian Doctrine, 11.

Historian J.W. Hanson reminds us why this specific doctrine of universalism held by someone like Origen cannot be easily dismissed:

The greatest of all Christian apologists and exegetes, and the first man in Christendom since Paul was a distinct Universalist. He [Origen] could not have misunderstood or misrepresented the teachings of his Master. The language of the New Testament was his mother tongue. He derived the teachings of Christ from Christ himself in a direct line through his teacher Clement, and he placed the defense of Christianity on Universalistic grounds.
— Hanson, Universalism, 133.

But hell is not that easily scorned. A furious Augustine wrote,

It is quite in vain, then, that some – indeed very many – yield to merely human feelings and deplore the notion of the eternal punishment of the damned and their interminable and perpetual misery. They do not believe that such things will be. Not that they would go counter to divine Scripture — but, yielding to their own human feelings, they soften what seems harsh and give a milder emphasis to statements they believe are meant more to terrify than to express literal truth.
— Augustine, Enchiridion, sec. 112.

Obviously, Augustine (and many that would follow) had taken a real issue with anyone rejecting the idea of an eternal hell. They built their arguments on theories of predestination or free will. Augustine’s disdain carries over to the modern world. Universalism, to some, is, and always will be, heretical. However, many others have taken another closer look and cannot disregard what they are finding: that the hope and belief in a fully reconciled world was part of the faith of many early Christians.

It was the gift of a conversation with my twelve-year-old years ago that made me step into finally admitting and embracing the fact that I no longer believed the hell ideology that had been sold to me as an adolescent and continues to be perpetuated in numerous faith traditions today. My son doubted very much that a God that identifies as love and recommends a path of peace and forgiveness would condemn humanity to eternal flames for not believing or behaving ‘right’. A God that would torture creatures for eternity and at the same time identify as Love was non-sensical to him. I agreed. Letting go of the idea of Dante’s hell did not stop hell from haunting me for a few more years. Embedded fear ideologies hold power and fury.

Nowadays, I seldom think of hell, except when I am walking alongside people who are actively deconstructing religious ideas that they feel have harmed them. In this process, I have observed the cruel terror inflicted upon innocent, vulnerable people who have clung to the idea that God may fling them into the flames if they do not measure up to certain standards set by their specific religious tribe. It has not promoted some sort of ‘righteous’ living or love of God, just fear, anguish, or comparison. Ultimately, I think Dante’s hell was a genius invention by the religious and politically powerful for effective social control. It is amazing what horrendous acts people will commit and callous things they will say in the name of God when eternal hellfire is set as punishment for ‘disobedience’.

For me, love is enough. Life is not about judgement or some giant cosmic test set by the Divine for unsuspecting humanity. Rather, it is learning to let go of fear and to embrace life to its full, and sometimes complex, potential. Life is following that narrow, difficult path of love amplified through the life and words of Christ. It is about loving my neighbour. I believe God is love and that Love Wins … every time!

Letting go of a hell of an idea has been a journey for me … one day I may write about it in greater detail. For now, for those interested, here is some further interesting reading:

The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald

Patristic Universalism by David Burnfield

Christian Universalism by Eric Stetson

Inventing Hell by Jon Sweeney

Four Views on Hell

I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said, and never thought no more about reforming.
– Huckleberry Finn –

 

 

 

Haunted by Hell: Part 2 – Our Addiction to Retributive Justice

“There are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative – not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that has been knocked askew.”
-Desmond Tutu –

Dante’s hell, as discussed in Part 1, fuelled the human imagination. Eternal flames, endless pain, torturous screaming of people who refused to believe the ‘right way’ … judgement had come!

I still have an email sent to me by a religious leader who was horrified when I first began to publicly express my doubts about some interpretations of hell. The email was well-intentioned, I am sure. He outlined a couple of the actions of world dictators whose corrupt tenure had caused tremendous suffering, gratuitous violence, and the loss of thousands of lives. “Do you think that a just God would simply forgive these people without judgement?”, he wrote. “Of course not. A just God is compelled to serve justice on behalf of the victims.” He then concluded with several Scriptures and a sincere hope that I would see how ‘dangerous’ my ideas were.

I heard his frustration. Retribution has made the known world go round. The ‘Just War Theory’, built largely upon Christian philosophy, is an example of our desperate need to justify retaliation. Some wars have been remembered and deemed ‘noble’ because the punishment was ‘needed’ and therefore going to war was thought of as ‘honourable’. We live by the stories we tell ourselves. We also live by the stories we are told – the history and culture that has shaped our way of thinking. Retribution is one of them. If someone has done something wrong, they need to pay for it. We may deny the thought that we embrace the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’, but the ardent belief in an eternal hell and a ‘loving’ God that sends our enemies there, begs to differ!

So, I ask myself honestly, why do humans hang on to the idea of hell with such fervency? To say, “Well, the Bible says so,” I find simplistic and hypocritical. The Bible provides all sorts of directives but we pick and choose what we believe based on many things, including our worldview and the stories that accompanied us through life. Nowadays, most people find the idea of slavery abhorrent, but I could argue a fairly strong biblical case that supports slavery. People did it for centuries. No, we choose to cling to the idea of hell, told and retold through myth, philosophers, artists, zealots, and theologians, because hell, in a sense, provides relief from the overwhelming sense of injustice that we often experience in this world.

Retributive justice is an addictive cycle. The story of punishment and vengeance is glorified and trumpeted with loud overtures wherever we turn. No wonder it has made its way into our theology – our way of thinking about the Divine. We want God to be like us – to hate all the same people we do. After all, is God not the avenger of the innocent? One who threatens us with hell in order to change our behaviour? Some theologians speak about ‘the fall’ of humanity, of the ‘total depravity’ of humans, how are ‘hearts are deceitful’. These dogmas are in line with retributive justice: the offender is defined by deficits and therefore ‘worthy of punishment.’ And, just like in retributive justice, the criminal justice system (in this case, God) controls the ultimate punishment of the crime and criminal … Eternal Hell.

When people have been wronged, and for many people the effects of the wrong are so traumatic and dominant that it has made life very difficult, retribution is a glimpse of hope. It offers a vague promise of gaining some relief from the pain they bear every day. If that person also holds to a relentless hell narrative then retribution becomes a lot more significant – it is possibly eternal, not just temporary. So hell does not just serve the ‘ruler’ as a form of behaviour control, it also serves the ‘ruled’ because it holds the assurance of justice that every human being craves.

Perhaps your hackles are raised just reading this? Perhaps you feel very uncomfortable as we poke around a deeply embedded storyline? You may have many questions right now … Or you may feel hope? The thought that perhaps the idea of hell, just like the wizard of Oz, is a tired old concept hiding behind a lot of puff, smoke and zealotry.

So if we choose to believe in ‘hell’, how else can we understand it? Can we free ourselves from the haunting of hell? And what about justice? And what the Bible says? Is there another way forward? I believe there is …

“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
-Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi –

Haunted by Hell: Part 1 – Dante’s Legacy

“The path to paradise begins in hell.”
― Dante Alighieri –

There’s a room in my life where hell sleeps. Sleeps every so lightly. And over the last few years, it often awakens, moving swiftly through the corridors, to be part of the many conversations I have had with people whose life narrative has been haunted by hell. This haunting has been informed by culture and history, and we can trace some of it back several centuries to an Italian poet called Dante Alighieri.

Dante lives on in the hearts and imagination of many. “All hope abandon ye who enter here,” he wrote on the gates of hell in ‘Inferno’ (The Divine Comedy). And with it, he set into motion a set of consequences that would outlast him for generations. For hope, it seems, has been abandoned by many who have been haunted by hell. How can you have hope when fear, shame, and paranoia are the ghosts that hell sends to silence all sense of joy and dreams for the future? For those who have had hell weaponised against them by religion, suffer from a common side effect – the feeling of not ever being worthy as a human. For how can you feel ‘worthy’ if nothing you do seems to satisfy the insatiability of the fear of eternal flames?

Fortunately, I never heard of the concept of hell as a child, except through the dark fairy tales of Brothers Grimm. I was first confronted with the controlling force of a hell ideology when I ventured into a church as a teenager. An apocalyptic fervour was the heartbeat of that particular faith community. This fervour is replicated in so many evangelical spaces to this day and it is the driving force behind colonising missional endeavours. Hell was and is the fear and focus of those consumed by ‘saving’ people from ‘eternal damnation.’ ‘God is a loving and merciful God, but he is also a just God – and a just God will send you to hell if you don’t believe right and accept Jesus …’ This line, in its diverse versions and enunciations, has been thundered from pulpits and peddled through diverse forms of communication, continuing to scare and scar people of all ages. Nobody wants to burn in hell …

What is often forgotten is that there was very little agreement about the concept of hell amongst Christians before Dante. Jesus’ obscure references to Gehenna, a place on the outskirts of the Old City of Jerusalem where trash and bodies were burned, was coupled with Dante’s poem and used effectively by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century who found the idea of purgatory unpalatable. Judgement and eternal torment at the hands of a ‘loving and merciful God’ awaiting all those who were not ‘born again’ became the preferred option. Years later, this concept continues to terrorise and terrify untold numbers of people. Hell has been taught as a reality to little children – I cannot even begin to tell the stories of what that does to a child’s sense of self … the constant terror of an angry God, stoking a fire, waiting for them to misstep. One of my regrets in life (and I have many) is that I became part of a religious tradition that held to Dante’s idea of hell. I wish I had had the courage to express the doubts I felt about this doctrine years ago.

It is interesting to notice how hell (or its equivalent) has been used as a means of control throughout history, especially by religion that, more often than not, seems to be in the guilt and shame producing control business. Hell has origin narratives in ancient mythologies of the underworld, travelling through Greek and Roman mythology such as Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’, Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, and Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, to feed Dante’s imagination and that of medieval theologians. It has morphed and changed and strengthened through the Reformation and continues to pour out of all sorts of religious institutional thinking to this day. Like Jon Sweeney points out in his book, ‘Inventing Hell‘, the modern ideas of hell hold most common threads with Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. It makes brilliant Italian poetry, but horrible Christian theology. But people continue to be haunted by this poem, believing it as truth, because to deconstruct such a deeply embedded idea is … well, it’s hell!

So, dear reader, have you experienced the Haunting of Hell House?

How has it affected your life?

And are you okay with the ramifications of being haunted by hell?

Who introduced you to it … and before you say ‘The Bible’, take time to really think about that.

Why do you hold on to it?

What value does the idea of hell hold for you, if any?

Perhaps it’s time to look into the history of hell and consider its journey into modernity and into your life?

People are, however, beginning to change their minds about hell. But let’s discuss that in the next post …

Letting Javert Go

One can say that Javert is our conscience. The ever lurking presence of the law and our own condemnation. The tension between who we were and who we are and who we can be. Javert represents that inescapable, shameful past that forever haunts and pursues one’s conscience. Javert is the man of the law, and… There are no surprises with the law. The principle of retribution is simple and monotonous, like Euclidean logic. It’s closed to all alternatives and shut up against divine or human intervention… Indeed, Javert represents the merciless application of the law, the blind Justice that in the end is befuddled by hope and the possibility of redemption without punishment.”
― Cristiane Serruya, Trust: Betrayed –

The stage production of Victor Hugo’s  Les Misérables is my all-time favourite musical. Les Mis lovers will debate for hours about who is their most beloved character, or which actor is the most believable as Jean Valjean, or which production and performance rivals no other. Mine is the 25th Anniversary concert performance at the O2 in London, with the incredible talent and voice of Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean, Lea Salonga as the tragic persona of Fantine, Samantha Barks as Eponine, and Norm Lewis as Javert.

What is it about the character of Inspector Javert that draws us in and simultaneously repels us? I hold a mixture of profound pity, intense anger and utter frustration as I observe his complete obsession in meticulously enforcing what he believes to be the right way, the law, the moral order of society. Javert is a slave to the law. The law that he never questions, the law that he uses as a lens through which to see the world, the law that dictates to him whether a person is good or evil. He clutches to the law that becomes his saviour as he tries to escape his felt shame from a past story – that of being the son of a fortune teller and a galley slave. The law that provided a legitimate covering for the hate and disdain he feels for people like Valjean. Ultimately, it is a hatred he feels for himself.

He is a man who allows himself little pleasure and adheres to the strict moral code he enforces on others. Everyone who meets him is afraid of him. His character is ruthless and confident as the general in his black and white world. There is no room for kindness or mercy – either to others or to himself. In fact, the book makes it very clear how he is quite convinced he is not worthy of any good thing in life … he sees himself as worthless.

Javert is such an interesting character because he reminds us of something … of someone … Javert reminds me of a part of my conscience that is like a bloodhound – never letting up. The inner critic doubting myself and questioning my motives. Those who are also Ones on the Enneagram will probably recognise and appreciate this metaphor of Javert and the journey to learn to let him go.

I also recognise Javert in the ideas about faith and religion that I clung to in the first half of life. I have found this so illuminating. A child looking for security in a world in flux would be drawn to a fundamentalist, conservative belief system – a religious expression that favours those who believe ‘right’, act ‘right’, speak ‘right’ – a religious world that prides itself in absolutes and having all the answers. Like the law became the saviour for Javert, this moralistic belief system becomes the saviour of so many, who like myself, were drawn to the idea of perfectionism and certainty. We even had a book that could be weaponised according to our cultural interpretation and understanding to determine who was doing life ‘right’ and who wasn’t. And those who weren’t needed to be’ saved’, and those who were ‘saved’ and still not doing it ‘right’ were ‘backslidden’, ‘heretics’, or ‘rebellious’. Of course, we did it all in the name of ‘love’. ‘We love the sinner but hate the sin’ or ‘We welcome you, but don’t affirm you’ is some of the bollocks we told ourselves … and, unfortunately, others …

When Javert is our taskmaster, disguised as the voice of conscience or religious idealism, we become tired. Because Javert is insatiable. Ultimately, Javert is driven by a sense of feeling unworthy. This can lead to self-destructive habits or religious pietism that deflect the sense of shame on to others who are not doing it ‘right’. We can live our whole lives like that – hounded by Javert. Or we can let him go.

So how do we let go this dominant voice from around our dinner table of life? Perhaps we start by inviting another character to our table – one who also understood shame and suffering, but instead of the law, he encountered grace and grace became his guide to life. He stumbled on this grace through the loving actions of a priest –  Bishop Myriel – whose whole philosophy of life was summed up by Hugo as: ‘There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ Bishop Myriel was healing ointment on Valjean’s scars  at the hands of the law.

Valjean modelled the grace he experienced. His life tortured Javert. Why? Because Valjean gave Javert irrefutable evidence that a person is not necessarily evil simply because the ‘law’ says so. Javert could not reconcile this – this scandal, this grace. Grace silenced Javert.

‘I am reaching, but I fall, and the stars are black and cold, as I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold. I’ll escape now from that world; from the world of Jean Valjean. There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’ (Javert)

Letting go of the black and white world of Javert is not as easy as it sounds. Javert is often deeply embedded in our sense of self. We need a guide. We need Jean Valjean to show us this pathway of grace and love. For love is greater than the law, it always has been … sometimes we can forget this.

‘Take my hand and lead me to salvation. Take my love, for love is everlasting. And remember the truth that once was spoken – to love another person is to see the face of God.’ (Valjean)

 

Neither Here nor There – The Many Voices of Liminality

‘Jesus, on whom be peace, said
This world is a bridge.
Pass over it but do not build your dwelling there.’

(Inscribed in Persian on Buland Darwaza, the main gateway to the palace at Fatehpur Sikri, south of Delhi, India
by the Moghul emperor Akbar I in 1601)

 

Last year, I had the opportunity and privilege to contribute to an anthology on a subject that I am most interested and passionate about – liminality. I have blogged on this topic numerous times. Here are some introductory posts:

This latest compilation is the brainchild of pastor, writer, editor and friend, Tim Carson, who has written a variety of other books. I love Tim’s definition of liminality in his chapter contribution:

The experience of liminality is feeling a loss of steady and familiar landmarks, the kind of security that accompanied past structure, even as the future has not yet materialized. With everything in flux, angst becomes the predominant mood. Very often action seems fruitless because some transitions cannot be hurried. One has entered an incubation period in which time shifts. The liminal person does not necessarily know that transformation is occurring at the time it is happening. Does a caterpillar have any idea that metamorphosis is about to take place as it enters the cocoon?

I wept reading that. It resonated so deeply with my own life experience.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes the foreword for this book. Yes, I was slightly dizzy when I heard this and I went into serious fangirl mode. I love love love her writings. In her foreword, she acknowledges how most of the contributors did not consent to go on a liminal journey, but life took them there anyway. Some were catapulted into the liminal space through ‘war, illness, abuse, or natural disaster. Others found themselves there due to poverty, gender, apartheid, or immigration.’

Personally, I found solace and comfort in the stories of this communal motley crew of liminal travellers, sharing their bewilderment at finding themselves ‘betwixt and between’ where ‘the only way through is through. There are no guarantees … To engage liminal space is to live in faith, not certainty.’

This post would be too long if I discussed every chapter. Instead, I offer one of my favourite quotes from each chapter. If you are wandering the shadowy, mystical path of liminality, may it be a light to you in dark times.

I’ve heard some people describe liminality in the language of Celtic spirituality: a thin place, a narrow place, a place where the living and the dead commune, where heaven and earth all regard each other. Hell too, I hope. Otherwise, what’s the point?’ Pádraig Ó Tuama

I discovered my first hummingbirds as a small child in the gardens of the Theological Community in Mexico City where I was encouraged to nourish my love for nature while caring for others by cooperating, respecting, and sharing in the many social and spiritual activities with people from all over Latin America. Tucked gently away in my soul and mind is the gift of seeing the world from the borderlands, the in-between spaces, the nepantlera of ‘either/or’ and’ neither/nor,’ with thousands of beautiful colour hues and nuances of language and culture.’ Elena Huegel

Ultimately, the purpose of pilgrimage is to bring the pilgrim, transformed in the journey, back home again.Kristine Culp

The liminal dimension undergirds all human experience. In some sense, there is nothing that is not liminal. We live our lives (and perhaps find sanity) by fashioning fixed structures of meaning and identity; selves and narratives that are generally static and contained. But that is not life, as much as it is the mask we put onto life. Meanwhile, the liminal waits for us.Joshua Boettiger

Liminality is essentially and always a middle. It is the moment of in-between-ness where what has been is gone, but what will be has not yet arrived. In Christian spirituality, it is the moment of Holy Saturday, when Christ has died but is not yet risen. There is nothing to be done on Holy Saturday except to learn how to die with Christ, in the hope that one day – but not today – life will be restored by resurrection.’ Michelle Trebilcock

War is a universal experience of social liminality. If the scale of hostilities is sufficiently large, war can expand to even global liminality. Societies and nations are cast into a time between the times, a state of being filled with uncertainty and dread. For warriors within these societies, war represents a rite of passage, a transition that changes the identity of those who enter war and the community of those who share it.’ Kate Hendricks Thomas

‘In the aftermath of the tornado, liminal time moved at its own pace, mostly slower than we might have preferred.’ Jill Cameron Michel

Adoptees exist between families for their entire lives. They are products of legal and biological families, but not fully either. This liminal space is their reality, and from it comes complex identity work. The extent to which adoptees engage with the liminality of their adoption status emerges as a product of individual, contextual, and familial characteristics.’ Colleen Warner Colaner

‘The literature of the ancient desert monks and medieval Celtic saints is extensive and filled with many tales like this. In this liminal time, when climate change presents us with an opaque and uncertain future, can the literature that emerged from the liminal experience of Christian contemplatives in late antiquity offer us any wisdom for navigating our challenges in better ways?’ Timothy Robinson

‘The liminal is the space between; it is a state in which the classifications of the everyday are bracketed to reveal an alternative order, a more basic relatedness, which undergirds the everyday power and position exemplified by given cultural norms.’ Adam Pryor

‘Cancer is the quintessential liminal experience as it includes all the stages – pre-liminal, liminal, reintegration – and all the classic elements of the liminal journey: end of one way of life, loss of identity and status, bewilderment, confusion, ambiguity, reversal of hierarchy, uncertainty. Patients are between life as they once knew it and an uncertain future.’ Debra Jarvis

‘When I crossed the threshold into the strange world of incarceration, I was ushered into a state of permanent liminality, a time and space between the past and some seemingly unobtainable future. My life was stuck in a time between the times, a place between the spaces. Unlike van Gennep’s Rites of Passage, however, there was no design for movement, for transformation in the liminal passage.’ Jacob Davis

‘The stories that we tell to make sense of our world and our lives simultaneously open up certain possibilities for action and close others off. They define and limit the options we think exist. The danger is that we become so enamored with our own narrative that we shut ourselves from the narratives of the “other.” What if each of us needs both the presence and the narratives of the other to navigate the ambiguities of liminality?’ John Eliastam

‘Our collective challenge for the future is to produce a society that accepts diversity, welcomes difference, and champions human rights for all its citizens. If accomplished, this might enable Turner’s view of positive social change through community building actually to become reality. One can always remain hopeful.’ Diane Dentice and Michelle Dietert

‘To examine the liminal, where it may reside, are we well advised to avoid the paved road where, by following the markers, we do arrive, but it just may be a camouflaged dead end?’ Kenneth Krushel

Let me end this post with a quote from my chapter. Writing this piece was part of a healing journey. I am grateful.

‘The gift of liminality, presented to me wrapped in pain, exile, and humiliation has assisted me in recognizing many of my ego’s trappings and yearnings. In this place, I have been confronted and stripped of much of the baggage that I carried over the years … of trying to live up to all sorts of expectations. Liminality, like the character V in the film V for Vendetta, showed me the bars of my ideological and structural prison, all dressed up in religious moralizing – and once you see, you cannot un-see.’

If you would like to order this book, you can do so via Lutterworth Press