Category Archives: History

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 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)

Remembering Sophie: Reflections on Courage

This blog was (2015 post) and is dedicated to the memory of Sophie Scholl and all those who, along with her, harnessed the courage to stand against evil. I have a sense that it is time to urgently resurrect the spirit of what was known as the White Rose. May the people rise.

“Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone!”

Sophie Scholl

If you take a stroll through beautiful Munich, Germany, it is hard to imagine that this place was once the official and ideological stronghold of the NAZI Party (NSDAP) leading up to World War II. For visitors who are aware of the historical shadows that the city holds, the reminders are never far away. On the pavement, outside the main building of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, one of Germany’s oldest universities, is a strange memorial of what looks like the hasty scattering of papers inset into the pavement. When you walk inside the atrium you will find a statue of a girl: Sophie Scholl.
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Sophie, born on 9 May 1921, was the daughter of the mayor of Forchtenberg, Robert Scholl. She enjoyed a fairly carefree childhood, raised in a household that held to a Christian faith which recognised the dignity and equality of all people. Her father’s words would play an instrumental role in shaping who Sophie was becoming:What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be. Her father and brothers were critical of Hitler and the regime. Nevertheless, Sophie joined a Nazi organisation, the League of German Girls, where she became a squad leader at the age of twelve. Her initial enthusiasm began to wane as she became more immersed in understanding the ideology and motivation of the Nazi party and as she began to observe the treatment of Jews.

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Sophie graduated from Secondary School in 1940 and worked as a kindergarten teacher at the Frobel Institute. In 1942, she enrolled in the University of Munich as a student of biology and philosophy. Undergirded by her studies and her faith, she joined her brother and his friends who held similar political views and who increasingly opposed the Nazi regime. Humanist and writer, Theodor Haecker, was a major influence on her resistance ideology.

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In 1942, she became part of the White Rose student resistance that was founded by her brother, Hans, along with Willi Graf and Christoph Probst. The group sought to awaken an apathetic Germany to the Nazi tyranny and its genocidal policies. The group wrote six anti-Nazi resistance leaflets and distributed them across Munich. Sophie played a key role in the distribution because as a woman she was less likely to be stopped by the SS. Using a hand-operated duplicating machine they produced between six to nine thousand copies of each pamphlet, which also appeared in Stuttgart, Cologne, Vienna, Freiburg, Chemnitz, Hamburg, and Berlin.

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Here are some excerpts from these pamphlets:

The first of the six leaflets produced by The White Rose movement opens, Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. The White Rose became a relentless voice that endeavoured to awaken the apathy that had come over Germany in the face of such heinous governmental evil.

The second leaflet asked, Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes … so unworthy of the human race? And this: “Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered, a crime against human dignity … Germans encourage fascist criminals if no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds. An end in terror is preferable to terror without end.” The White Rose was desperately trying to incite people to action, to awaken a nation to realise that the combined collective of the German people was greater than the evil they faced.

The third leaflet boldly welcomed all to the movement, declaring that  “Everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system.” Please note, they never called for a violent rebellion, rather, for passive resistance, a peaceful sabotage. “Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?”

The fourth leaflet appealed to the religious instincts of the German people with a defiant call to action: “I ask you as a Christian … Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler. The fourth pamphlet’s concluding paragraph also became the motto of the resistance: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!

On the 18th February 1943, the Scholls distributed leaflets in the Munich University, leaving them in empty corridors and lecture rooms. Sophie stood on the top level of the atrium and threw handfuls into the hall below. They were immediately arrested and after a three day trial with no jury, found guilty of treason. On the 22nd February, Sophie, her brother Hans and their friend, Christoph Probst, were condemned to death and beheaded in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.

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Sophie’s last words were to declare that God was her eternal refuge and, “Die Sonne scheint noch”“The sun still shines”. Hans Scholl was remembered as saying, “Es lebe die Freiheit” – “Long live Freedom”.

The final White Rose leaflet was smuggled out of Germany and intercepted by Allied forces, with the result that, in the autumn of 1943, millions of copies were dropped over Germany by Allied aircraft. I wonder what a defeated Germany thought as these papers rained from the sky, the voice of prophets and martyrs, begging them to take courage? I can only imagine the regret as they realised that they would be remembered as a generation that remained quiet in one of the darkest moments of history.

I wonder what our generation will be remembered for? Locking kids in cages? Concentration camps for the most vulnerable? Fear and slander against marginalised communities? The destruction of our planet by greedy governments and corporations?

May the White Rose rise … may courage win the day. 

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The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves — or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature.”
– Sophie Scholl

The Sinking Island

I blogged this piece on Tangier Island back in 2017. As I read it today, I found it helpful and thought I would post it again … perhaps it also finds resonance in your life at this time.

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

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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I first heard about Tangier Island from Diana Butler Bass as she shared this interesting story with Rob Bell on one of his podcasts. This remote island in Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore of Virginia is in trouble – it is sinking, and with it a fascinating piece of history and quirky British dialect.

The islanders, who at Tangier’s height numbered around 1,200 people, have dramatically declined to around 400, but are not giving up. Even though rising sea level, a result of climate change, is claiming around 15 to 16 feet of land per year, the inhabitants are building a sea wall to protect the harbour. However, a big storm could easily wipe out all of these makeshift endeavours.

Young people are abandoning Tangier by droves. They head to the mainland for work, study and entertainment. The island council holds to a tightly run moral high ground – no bars, no alcohol, no pool hall, or arcades, and Hollywood’s bid to film “Message in a Bottle,” starring Kevin Costner, was rejected as the script contained sex, cursing and alcohol. For some it all becomes too suffocating. As the population shrinks, the graveyard grows, the tombstones a reminder of the families and people who once made this place a thriving community.

Two churches rule the religious roost on the island; the Swain Memorial United Methodist Church and a newer New Testament non-denominational congregation. The UMC congregation has the longest continuous Methodist class meeting (a type of small group). This group dates to the days of John Wesley and according to Bass are “doing all the right things.” However, amidst everyone doing “all the right things,” the island is still sinking …

I often reflect on the sinking Tangier Island. I wonder what keeps people on the island? Perhaps it is in the frail hope that Mother Nature will change her mind and spare the land? Perhaps to live there one has to adopt a fairly strong sense of denial – “if we can just polish the pews and ‘do all the right things’, we can also pretend that nature has not picked us for a showdown of disaster?” Perhaps there is just a quiet resignation that the “show” must go on, ask no questions, bury your head in the sand? Perhaps it is simply the comfort of the familiar? Perhaps it is the love for the sinking island and its people? Perhaps it’s all of the above? Perhaps the story of Tangier represents all of us in certain seasons of our lives?!

I recall waking up in the middle of the night quite a few years ago. I had one of those “Titanic” moments of enlightenment. The recognition that some of my hopes and ideals were misplaced and I was living a life somewhat incongruent with my values and ethics. Yet it took me quite a few more years to “get off the island”. The island can often represent so much of our history, our belonging, our identity. No wonder we have such a difficult time letting go.

The sinking island can also represent a greater historical global phenomenon. The end of an era, a movement, a social norm and methodology, or even a civilisation. If we consider that our world is so fragile and our modern worship of growth and progress is simply unsustainable, then we are sinking our own island. On the current trajectory of greed and violence, an end of the world as we know it is not just inevitable, it is necessary. Our pleasure-bound consumption, built on the deprivation of our global neighbour, has to sink!

So, friend, take a moment. Think about your life. Think about your immediate and wider world. Is your island sinking? Do I have to be the “truth monster” in your life and tell you that if it is, no amount of “doing the right things” will stop the sea if it has decided to pay you a visit! Sometimes there is a much greater force at work. The first, terrifying step is to lift your head from polishing your pew and admit what you had hoped would go away: “The Island is sinking and I need a whole new set of eyes to look to a different tomorrow.”

 

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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 coming.

Slow, but flowing like an open wound.
And I thought of flight and I thought of drowning and I thought of death.
And while I thought the sea crept higher, till it reached my door.
And I knew, then, there was neither flight, nor death, nor drowning.
That when the sea comes calling, you stop being neighbours,
Well acquainted, friendly-at-a-distance neighbours,
And you give your house for a coral castle,
And you learn to breathe underwater.

Sr. Carol Bieleck, RSCJ
from an unpublished work

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 …

On Burning Bridges

The hardest thing in life to learn is which bridge to cross and which to burn. 
– David Russell –

During the Roman Empire, it was common practice for military commanders who were concerned about their armies retreating during intense battle to burn the bridges they crossed in order to block any form of escape. It was fight or die. Alternatively, the army of a country being invaded would find themselves retreating and would burn their own bridges in order to prevent the invading army from following them. Today, this ancient military manoeuvre is used as a life metaphor. We are told not to burn our bridges … to keep everything intact as much as possible so that we can go back if we need to.

To ‘burn a bridge’ is a bold and risky move. A bridge is a structure that allows for passage over terrain that is formidable or impossible to navigate. It takes time and skill to build bridges. We build bridges in relationships, careers, cultures and communities. To ‘burn a bridge’ means to destroy what has been built and to make a return extremely difficult. In other words, to burn a bridge is to destroy connection and access that may have taken years to build. No wonder the idea of burning bridges comes with warnings and hazard signs. And no wonder liminality, this concept of letting go and finding yourself with minimal connection to the past, is so terrifying.

So should we live our lives in such a way that we are preoccupied with keeping our bridges intact? Should we avoid ruffling feathers at all costs in case our bridge is threatened? And is there a time in life when burning bridges is not just a necessary ending but the only way forward? Maybe some bridges have become the highway to hell?

Thirty years in church pastoral ministry taught me that I needed to be ‘nice’ at all costs and that my energy needed to be spent ensuring that bridges remain intact. As a ‘pastor’ it was not just my job but my expected duty to defuse any and all situations that had bridge burning potential. This required an immense amount of energy as I tried to ensure that everyone ‘played nice’. Over time I also paid little heed to whether my bridge burning prevention scheme lined up with the values I held …

The voice of conscience, however, is not silenced easily. Slowly the murmur of this inner compass began to rise above the din of my people-pleasing, bridge-maintenance addiction. The need to stay true to people and things I valued and held precious became greater than my fear of being disliked … and the bridges started burning.

Hindsight is a most wondrous gift. I look back now not with the overwhelming anxiety and grief that gripped my life in those days when so many bridges were being razed to the ground. Years of what I considered bridges of friendships and belonging lay in ashes. Disappointment took the place of grief and anger. Yet over the last year, something else has risen from the ashes … gratitude. Profound and deep gratitude. Burning bridges saved my life. If people had cared or enquired I would never have pushed off the shores and set sail to the winds of liminality … I would never have learnt to deconstruct dominant religious ideas that paid homage to fear and superstition instead of faith … I would never have discovered this rebirth of life. I am grateful now … but it took me a few years to get there!

I don’t recommend random bridge burning exercises. They are not a pleasant experience. Really, it’s a death experience. What once was, no longer is. The gates have shut. There is no going back. And maybe, dear reader, that is where you are right now – in this silent and lonely space of watching bridges burn and experiencing every emotion that this ending brings with it. I do not in any way want to undermine your grief – because it is real and needs to be fully felt and observed. I can perhaps offer you some hope in reflecting on my story a few years on. I have found that life creeps from the ashes. I also have discovered new bridges that line up with what I hold dear. Bridges of connection that hold me for who I am and not for what people would like me to be. I have stumbled upon bridges of grace that I would never have discovered in my tiny, cloistered existence.

There is a season for everything in life. A season to burn bridges and a season to build them. Sometimes we can confuse the idea of burning bridges and a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness, the letting go of a perceived ‘debt’ that we think someone may owe us, does not mean we have to keep a bridge of connection intact. We can forgive and also recognise that some places are simply not safe anymore. They have become detrimental to our well-being. We can forgive and allow a bridge to burn. We need to give ourselves permission to live in peace and safety.

Whatever season you may be in, dear reader – may the bridges you build and cross be undergirded by hope and love. May you also find the courage to burn the bridges you need to, in order to live life to the full.

Stop telling me not to burn bridges. Some bridges are meant to be burned; some roads are never meant to be travelled again. 
Steve Maraboli –

Celebrating the Birth of the Homeless, Oppressed and Marginalised

“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
-G.K. Chesterton –

If we had to paint a picture of the Christ that many of us celebrate at Christmas, what would our portrait look like? If the sound bytes that accost us on social media tell us anything, we may get the idea that Christ is a bit like a Texan Ranger, ready to destroy the ‘enemy’ because obviously, God is on his side. The luxury hummer he drives would proudly display the number plate ‘blessed-to-be-a-blessing,’ and all his tweets would have #blessed at the end of it. He would healthy, wealthy and covered in gold dust, as according to the gospel of some, this is the way we are meant to live. Welcome to the idea of Christ, painted by a dominant, privileged consumer culture.

The history and backdrop that informs modern Christianity are complex. Over the centuries every generation has wrestled with what it means to follow in the steps of this Jewish rabbi, and every generation had authoritative voices claim they have found the way to absolute ‘truth’. Maybe we lost so much of Christ in the Constantine era? Or in the many ‘holy’ wars fought with great gusto amongst the factional faithful? Or by preferencing the voice of Augustine? Or the Reformers? Or the fiery depictions of Dante’s interpretation of hell? Today, the misplacing of the Messiah is often evidenced by everything that popular Christianity is against, and fear seems to be the flag flown high from the castles of so many of Christ’s representatives. So perhaps our true depiction of Christ should be this diminutive little person, hiding behind a giant wall in case ‘others’ invade and pollute the tightly held ideas of morality and godliness? Maybe this shrunken little figure sounds more like the shrieking seagulls of ‘Finding Nemo’ – ‘Mine, Mine, Mine, MINE!’

Perhaps if we stop all the noise, engage in some critical deconstruction of current Christian discourse, and spend time reflecting, we come to a sobering recognition – we have ‘sanitised’ Christ into our liking and our image. This safe, disfigured Icon seems to join us in hating all the people we despise, justifying all our violence, agreeing with all our exclusions, shaming all those we shame … we have made Christ and Christmas into us – like a Christmas bauble that has our face on it. No wonder we lose our shit when people don’t want to say “Merry Christmas,” ultimately their resistance to our precious ideas confronts in us a form of deity-narcissism, carefully disguised in persecution and conspiracy theories.

The figure of Christ that walks through the pages of the Gospels seems very unperturbed about whether people are putting the right messages on cards and coffee cups! That doesn’t seem to rile this Incarnate One. Instead, he seems to get a lot more exasperated at, well, at the sectarian shenanigans that really have not evolved over the centuries. Things like religious institutions that have become money-peddling spaces of greed (John 2:13-17), pious power puffs who have become so inflated with a zealotry messiah-complex that they shut the doors of the kingdom to anyone who is not like them (Matthew 23:13), and the continual microscopic dogma examination whilst neglecting the weightier things of God – like love, mercy and justice (Matthew 23:23). I don’t think this Christ person was about making any of our enshrined political-religious traditions great again. He seems far more focused on describing a different way to his followers … where the last shall be first, where devotion is not bound up in what we think about hell or heaven, or whether we ‘sense’ God and have goosebumps – but whether we are feeding the hungry, providing for the destitute, welcoming the stranger, identifying with those on the margins, making the world a safer place for minority groups … When I read the gospels it seems this Christ of Christmas has a message for us all and it’s relatively simple: Don’t be an asshole! This cardinal contemplative notion seems to underscore the words we have of Christ that are in print today.

So, dear readers, as Christmas approaches may it be filled with joy and a good dose of uncomfortable reality. As I write this, I feel uncomfortable for I recognise that I am part and parcel of this dominant consumer culture, rejecting it and then falling right back into its traps! I question my pictures of Christ. What have we done to this child in a manger that could find no human shelter, but was welcomed into a shack by God’s fur children? This child that would grow and challenge the powers of his day that oppressed the poor, the homeless, the refugee? The child that would turn his back on kings and kneel in the dirt with the woman who had become the target of patriarchal, misogynistic scape-goating? The child who would be murdered, not because some wrathful ‘god’ needed a sacrifice, but to demonstrate precisely how radical love really is. We seem to have lost so much of this Christ child in the mayhem of our political-religious pontification. I pray this Christmas we consider resurrecting him … because the message he holds makes this season truly ‘jolly’.

Merry Christmas.

 

What God requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humility – Micah –

 

Who were the Celts?

“Their aspect is terrifying … their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse’s mane. Some of them are cleanshaven, but others … shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth and, when they eat and drink, acts like a sieve, trapping particles of food … The way they dress is astonishing: they wear brightly coloured, and embroidered shirts, with trousers, called bracae and cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a brooch. These cloaks are striped or checkered in design, with the separate checks close together and in various colours. They wear bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns … while others cover themselves with breast-armour made out of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle … where weird, discordant horns were sounded, deep and harsh voices, they beat their swords rhythmically against their shields.”

Diodorus, Roman Historian

 

The Romans and Greeks called the Celts ‘barbarians’. The Celts were a collection of tribes with origins in central Europe who were loosely tied together because of similar language, religious beliefs, traditions, and culture. The Gaels, Gauls, Britons, Irish and Gallations were all Celtic people. They were already in Britain by the 5th century B.C., and in Ireland by the 2nd. Although they were not centrally governed and consisted of diverse tribes that were quite happy to kill each other (!), they maintained the same artistic tradition which is characterised by the use of distinctive flowing lines and forms. They also introduced iron working to the British Isles.

The concept of a ‘Celtic’ people is somewhat of a modern romanticised idea. The ‘Celts’ themselves would probably define themselves slightly different to our understanding and definition of them today. And the Roman writings on the Celts was often a means of political propaganda. It was expedient for the Romans to paint the Celts as ‘barbarians’ and themselves as ‘civilised’ … not much has changed looking at our world leaders today… but I digress!!!

The Celts lived in clans, who were loosely bound together into tribes. These tribes all had distinct social structures and customs, their own coinage and deities. They lived in huts that were gathered in hamlets. When they were not fighting, they were farming – and one of their contributions to Britain was the iron plough. Art was very important to the Celts, and they were also master storytellers. Bards and poets played a central role in passing culture and tradition to the next generation.

The curious Druids were important to the Celts. They were a form of ‘super priest,’ who also became political advisors, teachers, and healers. They were revered and could interrupt a king as they held more authority. The druids also played an important part in the rich oral tradition.

And the Celtic women? Well, you wouldn’t want to mess with them. Boudicca, King Prasutagas’ widow, did not take kindly to the Romans’ attempt at taking over Iceni lands when her husband died. She raised the Trinivantes tribe in revolt … and the Romans? … They were terrified. Boudicca provides an insight into the life of Celtic women – they could be war leaders, choose their own husbands, and own land. Very different from the treatment of women by other societies around them.

The Celts loved a good fight. If there wasn’t one, they started one! As Diodorus points out, they took great care in ensuring their appearance would provoke fear in the hearts of their enemies. They took a liking to the heads of their enemies, which they considered had great spiritual powers. So they adorned themselves and their homes with their enemies’ heads as if they were Christmas ornaments.

Christianity was introduced in Ireland around A.D. 431 with Pope Celestine sending out Palladius to some Irish believers (in all probability this community evolved through contact with Christians of Western Britain) as their first bishop. We often hear about the radical changes that Christianity and people like Palladius or Patrick brought to the Celts, but that is actually not the case. Celts and their sacred places and practices simply made room for Christianity. Many druids became Christian, and many of the churches and monasteries had some pre-Christian connection. The Celts were not ‘revolutionised’ by Christianity; instead, it was so readily accepted because there were so many similarities.

Hundreds of years later there is a romanticism around Celts and Celtic Christianity. We need to recognise the danger of putting words in the mouth of history. However, there are many things about the Celts and their connection to faith and spirituality that can inform us today. Here are a few:

1. Their love and respect for nature and God’s creation.
2. Their love for hospitality and welcome.
3. Their recognition of women as equal.
4. Their spiritual disciplines that included solitude and service to the community.
5. Their love for art and poetry – illuminating the Gospel with their creative genius.

I am personally drawn to the Celts spirituality and how they expressed this connection with God. There is a verse in Colossians 1:17 that to me sums up their understanding of the person of Christ – “He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.”

In May 2019, Mark and I are planning to lead a group of people who are also interested in the story of the Celts through Ireland, Scotland, and England. We can’t wait. Maybe you’d like to join us? Please see this link for information.

I will finish this post with a quote from Ray Simpson … whom you will meet if you decide to join us:

“Contemplative prayer is natural, unprogrammed; it is a perpetual openness to God so that in the openness God’s concerns can flow in and out of our minds as God wills.” Ray Simpson, from Exploring Celtic Spirituality.