Tag Archives: Religion

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 Being a Feral Priest

Dedicated to all the Ferals out there xx

I found tears running down my face as I read this blog post. It was not because I was particularly sad, for that matter. It was because Colin Coward (author) was able to eloquently articulate something that resonated so deeply with me. Thank you, Colin, for your permission to publish your post. Please find the link to his blog and much more information here.

Colin writes:

‘On 13 January 2019, the Observer published an interview with Casey Gerald, a black, gay, handsome, 31-year-old American of whom I’d never heard. The interview marked the publication of Gerald’s first book, There Will Be No Miracles Here. The full-page portrait and the title of the book encouraged me to read the interview. I underlined a quote: “I do believe I have been put on this planet to do real work but my priority is to be well. If I’m well, everything I do will be well.” I had been having a very similar thought that very week.

Towards the end of the article, a TED talk he delivered in 2016 is mentioned: The Gospel of Doubt. I watched the talk. He begins with a flashback, the end of the world on Millennium Eve when he was in church with his grandmother praying for the Rapture. His account is very, very funny and the talk is powerful. I was hooked. I bought the book. The book, too, is very funny. A quote on the cover by Colm Toibin says it is ‘Urgent, mesmeric, soaring, desperately serious, wounded, and at times, slyly, brilliantly comic … electrifying’. Indeed it is.

I’m still reading the book and I’ve watched the TED talk again. I’ve been talking with friends and asking questions and doing a lot of thinking. If I find myself, as Casey Gerald writes on page 183, “in a dark confusing period of history, when the gods have ceased to be and the Christ has not yet come and man stands alone,” then, he says, “you will have some sense of how things fall apart and a dim view as to how they might be put back together.”

Since leaving parish ministry in 1995 and more recently, retiring from Changing Attitude three years ago, I have felt more acutely a sense of Christian things falling apart for me combined with a struggle to work out how they might be put back together. One thing some of my friends find curious is why I am still so strongly motivated by a desire that things should be brought back together. We have lived through five decades of Church of England reports on homosexuality, with the current three-year process yet to be completed, and two decades of Anglican global conflict since the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Statement.

Christians are good at conflict and living with disagreement, good or bad, and less good at conflict resolution. The various tribal groupings to be found in the Anglican Communion have been at war among themselves for two decades over people like me, plus my lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex brothers and sisters. Christian tribes have been at war over women for longer than that and in past centuries Christians physically went to war, tribal Christian groups against each other, against other faiths and against those they labelled ‘savages’.

I’d label my tribe the Honest to God, South Bank Religion tribe, in which, to quote a past incumbent of my childhood parish church, “I have never felt that intellectual assent to any doctrine or creed is essential to being a Christian. God is all (but don’t ask what that means).” My faith is rooted in my experience of God and the practice of Christianity as exemplified by Jesus focused on unconditional love, wisdom, justice, truth, goodness, self-giving, compassion, and the glory of living. I had felt for a long time that this tribe has become increasingly marginalised in the church. My conversations in London this week have shown me that the tribe survives, and maybe more than survives. It continues to flourish in particular places, but under the radar, no longer valued by a church institution that needs to survive and is desperate to grow and plant.

This week I discovered that parish ministry for many, lay and ordained, continues to focus on people, their lives and uncertainties, sitting lose to creeds and dogma, but deeply valuing the elusive, the mystery, the not-knowing, the caring, open, energised, playful, deep-down truthiness of lives fuelled by prayer.

BEING A FERAL PRIEST

My last conversation was with my spiritual director. He stunned me by revealing that he had returned his Permission to Officiate to his bishop in the autumn, describing himself in the accompanying letter as a feral priest.

The idea came from the title of George Monbiot’s book about the re-wilding of moorland areas – ‘Feral’, Monbiot’s definition of ‘feral’ being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.” A feral priest is one called by God to escape the captivity of the institutional Church.

My spiritual director has written that as a feral priest he had to learn a different set of skills. He had to learn to place his trust in God where previously the unstated assumption was that he should trust the institution and its leaders. He also had to learn to trust himself, his own intuitive sense of what priesthood meant. He talks about ‘internalised’ priesthood, the state in which he has learnt to trust that because God called him there must be something essentially ‘priestly’ about him.

Jesus, of course, was ‘feral’. He exercised his ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which he had grown up, and by implication challenged it. Increasing numbers of men and women today do the same, and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose.

Richard Holloway has spoken about feeling himself to be part of a church ‘in exile’. To be ‘in exile’ in a Biblical sense carries overtones of being cast out against one’s will, excluded from what feels like home, and sent to a place to which one does not want to go and where one feels a stranger. It’s a place of pain. To go ‘feral’ may include experiencing all of the above, but for my spiritual director and for myself, it also means a sense of call rather than exclusion and points to a capacity for freedom and delight in what has been newly discovered.

I am discovering that to go feral is to be following a vocation in which energies are released and visions flow abundantly. I’m discovering Christians with a feral ministry, living under the radar, away from the gaze of bishops who have sold their souls to yet more process and discussion about my sexuality with no commitment to significant change in church teaching and practice. I sense subversion in the air, people, lay and ordained, go ahead despite the bishops’ rules, blessing unconditionally and distributing sacraments lavishly, as is the way of Jesus before he was tamed by the Church.’

And are you ok with that?

‘Do not avert your eyes.
It is important
that you see this.
It is important that you feel
this.’
– Kamand Kojouri –

This year has been filled with many conversations. My life is richer because a collection of friends and strangers were willing to take a study journey with me and share some of the bountiful stories that, like colourful threads, make up the tapestry of their lives. Stories that have moved me deeply. Stories that have made me stop and look at my own life and consider how I would live differently because of what they shared. I have marvelled at people’s resilience. Some of these stories included pathways of pain. Sometimes the effects of that pain or trauma had downplayed or rendered their preferred stories invisible. There was a key question that lit up the effects of this detraction like a neon sign. A question that proved quite useful – ‘… And are you okay with that?’

It is amazing what happens when we stop for a moment and reflect on our lives. A metaphor I use and find helpful is to think about our lives like a shared meal. As we sit at the table there are many guests – some invited and some uninvited. Some of these uninvited guests, like grief or anxiety, cannot simply be ushered out the door. There is a reason they are around that table. However, when our dinner guests become unruly and ruin the meal for everyone, and maybe invite their friends, like shame and despair, we may not find this meal-sharing meaningful. And sometimes it takes a question to allow us to stop and consider … are we okay with this? And, may I add, it’s perfectly okay to say, “Yes, I am!” This is your story and your life.

‘Are you okay with that’, has a pause button effect. Just for a moment in time there is someone asking you about what storyline you want to richly describe. What skills and knowledges do you want to bring into the open and sit at your dinner table? What dreams and hopes do you hold for the future? And is what you are reflecting on in line with those hopes and dreams? How you answer, ‘Are you okay with that’, reveals what is valuable to you. When we say, ‘no’, we begin to recognise that our very resistance says something about what we hope for in life.

I have learnt to ask myself this question over the last couple of years. I discovered that there were guests around my dinner table that were very loud, and rather obnoxious. Shame was one of them. Shame had grown used to a rather controlling role, empowered by the many years I spent kicking around fundamentalist religion. We all belong to tribes. However, some particular tribes have become very familiar with the use of shame as a form of motivation. I was no longer okay with that. Shame had introduced me to all sorts of strange ideals, peddled as ‘orthodoxy’ in some religious markets. But something happens when you answer the question, ‘And are you okay with that?’ It does not ‘fix’ anything. In fact, nowadays I don’t believe life needs ‘fixing’ as much as it needs me to ‘re-engage’ with it through a different storyline, a different lens. And that’s what answering that question does – it highlights to you a preferred way to live.

So as 2018 begins to draw to a close and you look at this year as a small cameo into the epic story of your life, what does it say to you? Is there something that stands out to you that makes you want to stop and think about it? Is there something that this year has brought up that has been a magnifying moment for you? And here comes the question … ‘and are you okay with that?’

How you answer that question can profoundly affect how you look at your place in this world, and the plans you make for the future. If it is important to you to live a congruent life – where your values and ethics model your beliefs and actions – then that question can act as a signpost. Dear reader, we often hurry through life and seldom do we stop and consider our dinner table of guests and how they inform our life and purpose. As a result, we may be entertaining a bunch of very noisy guests and, unless we are okay with that, this can become exhausting and stressful. Look at the dinner table of your life and ask yourself who has dominant positions and influences … and are you okay with that?

 

‘The knowledges that we develop about our lives have much to do with what we give value to. Whatever it is that we accord value to in life provides for us a purpose in living, a meaning for our lives, and a sense of how to proceed in life.’ David Denborough, Trauma: Narrative Responses to Traumatic Experience

 

Things I Choose to Leave Behind: Cement for the Sandcastles

I have always had an affinity with the ocean. It has a mysterious magnetic pull on my heart. Life, for that moment of time, makes a little more sense when I walk along the shores and listen to the rhythm of the waves. John Dyer remarked, “I love the sea’s sound and the way it reflects the sky. The colours that shimmer across its surface are unbelievable. This, combined with the colour of the water over white sand, surprises me every time.” I think he is right. The sea always holds surprises for those who wander along with mindful attentiveness.

Oh, and I love sandcastles.

They remind me of summer days, ice cream, colourful umbrellas, and the smell of coconut lotion. Memories come crashing in like the waves I am watching. Happy memories of childhood days and a wondrous naivety to the heartache that this world holds. Children building sandcastles with their parents … works of art, complete with moats and flags and tightly wound mothers who have now become overly invested in the sandy building project. And all the while the sea watches and waits …

Then it happens, just like every day, just like every day of every year, just like every year for thousands of years. But the sandcastle constructors had momentarily forgotten this natural phenomenon of a sea that creeps … to devour their sandcastles. Suddenly the water is already lapping at the feet of those still frenetically building a glorious beachside castle before they realise … too late … that the ocean is claiming back the land they stand on, and their castle, for it belongs to the sea … it always has … but for a moment they were foolish enough to believe it was theirs!

When I reflect on my first half of life, filled with triumphant zeal, I consider how I was quite convinced that the sandcastles I built were MINE … like the seagulls from ‘Finding Nemo’. So when I saw the sea … waiting … creeping … I had an idea. I will fortify my castle with cement! The sea will not take my castle!

Cement to hold down any doubts or questions that may jeopardise what I had built.
Cement to petrify in place every grain of hard-earned sand – an enshrined memorial to a method that had died.
Cement to fill any gaps where there was uncertainty, vulnerability, weakness, failure.
Cement to stubbornly hold a belief system in place that I wrongly equated with faith.
Cement, cement, cement,
Cement – the substance of choice that has allowed a modern society to stop worrying about cutting grass, pruning trees, or driving slowly along dusty roads.
Cement to build bigger houses, higher skyscrapers, greater walls …

Cement would be the perfect solution for a fragile castle by the sea.
And all the while the sea watches and waits …
While I try in vain to hold in place and not let go … to not change … to not go on.
Because what would happen if I let go?

But I grew tired of my tightly held cliches … So I let go
And a new day happened.
Another set of people came to the edge of the water and looked with delight at all the beachside offers.
And they built sandcastles … forgetting about the watching, waiting sea
The creeping sea …

Now I smile at my previous cement endeavours.
How firmly I believed that the longevity of a sandcastle was a sign of some divine blessing.
Instead of realising that the divine is also in the sea and claims the castles we build …

So I choose to leave behind the ridiculous notion of cementing my sandcastles.
At least for today!
I may try again tomorrow … 🙂

 

 

Things I choose to leave behind: God in my Image

“I cannot say for sure when my reliable ideas about God began to slip away, but the big chest I used to keep them in is smaller than a shoebox now. Most of the time, I feel so ashamed about this that I do not own up to it unless someone else mentions it first. Then we find a quiet place where we can talk about what it is like to feel more and more devoted to a relationship that we are less and less able to say anything about.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

 

I have a memory of my dear father tidying my room when I was little. We were living in a small village in northern Germany at that time. I had just started school and I remember coming home to a terrifyingly immaculate room – dad was on a mission as we were preparing to move to South Africa. Instead of expressing gratitude, I noticed something immediately. Flicka was missing! Flicka was an old tattered blue corduroy horse that had gathered dust on one of my shelves.
I turned to dad accusingly, “Where is Flicka?”
“Who is Flicka?”
“My blue horse!”
“O darling, I am so sorry, that thing looked very, very sick and I threw it out.”
“You THREW OUT Flicka?!”
Tears … Trauma … Tantrums
The end of the world had come!
I recovered fairly quickly at the mention of ice cream.
It was time to leave an old toy behind.

Sometimes we leave things behind by calculated choice. Often we simply have to leave things behind because they no longer fit our present reality and life. Some find that strange. I have been accused of changing my theology in some random, fruitless social media stoush. It seems that a change of thought, ideas, or, theology, is a forbidden practice. As a woman who can vote, and someone who witnessed the atrocities under an apartheid regime, I am so grateful for the changes of thought, ideas and theology. May there be many more that benefit our earth and progress us toward kindness and compassion.

One of the many things I have left behind in this second half of life is the need to control God. I ‘found’ God in my teen years and it didn’t take me long before I had God all figured out. I had studied theology. I understood how God is orthodox in dogma and conservative in ideas and politics. Of course, God followed my interpretation of the Bible. Was there another interpretation? Alas, heretics! We won’t even begin to talk about other religions or non-religions. I was a zealous crusader with a mindset to ‘save the world’. And then, one by one, my neatly stacked Jenga blocks began to topple. I recall a vivid moment in the late 90s … it was an Aha moment: my idea of the Divine with all the trimmings, was a mirror of my life, my culture, my history, my religious ideas fashioned in a crucible of social norms and morality – in many ways I had successfully created God in my own image. That providential moment became a splinter in my soul – it began to push me out of my tightly held comfort zone.

Years have come and gone since then. Mercy, like the character V in ‘V for Vendetta‘, took my fearful heart (that I had mistakingly called faith) and led me to the edge of an endless, roaring sea, immeasurable in width and depth. I began to realise how futile my attempts to place God in the box of religious conformity really were. And the sheer arrogance that accompanied such endeavours. So just like Flicka, it was time to leave the God of my making behind.

Now, I know there are people who will read this and react with anger. You know how I know that? Because I was that reader once. I still hear my own voice of outrage – “there are rules, there are boundaries, it’s not a wishy-washy gospel”. I agree. To live in love is fierce living – the path of love demands our all.

I look back now at my first half of life and I am beginning to smile at my attempts to build a totem pole of all the things I thought needed to be in place in order to follow Divine Love. Like an overstuffed shish kebab, I had ‘should’ and ‘should nots’ for everything and everyone. And now I sail the seas of liminality and paradox and feel the wind of mystery on my face. It was time to leave the God of my fearful ideas and interpretations (and that of my modern culture) behind.

I don’t assume to know where you are on your journey, dear reader. You alone are the narrator of your life and the meaning and stories your draw from it. Perhaps you have a faith, perhaps you don’t, perhaps this blog post has brought you comfort, perhaps it has infuriated you? I will not attempt to calm those raging seas. Experience tells me that this is unproductive. Grace is sufficient for all our different lives.

Wherever you are … you are held in love … and that is all that matters.

“For individuals who are less traditional in their search for a meaningful relationship with the sacred, the possibility that God is a complex, inexplicable, unpredictable mystery explains their lifelong discomfort in the presence of religious dogmas that don’t correspond with their own personal encounters with God. Many quiet, unassuming everyday mystics choose to remain silent because religious traditions and leaders discount their personal experiences of God for failing to substantiate a doctrine.”

Meredith Jordan, Embracing the Mystery

 

Ignore or Silence Dissent At Your Own Peril!

Today I am reposting a blog on dissent – may you stand tall, stay true and speak up.

“Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetime.”
Jacob Bronowski

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Dissenters are a real pest, especially in a nice, neat, and controlled environment. When the mantra is to be happy, submissive and comfortable, dissenters, like the prophets of old, upset the royal apple cart. When the power of governments, organisations or institutions, precariously rests on the ‘happiness’ and ‘compliance’ of its subordinates, dissenters are extremely dangerous.

When I talk about dissent, I am referring to an ability to hold a differing opinion to the status quo or to protest an injustice. Please do not mistake dissent for abuse or violence. Also, if you are continually protesting and criticising, it may be wise to take time to reflect and deal with your own shadow, as it may be reflecting back to you in the mirror of others.

The brilliant Socrates provides a rather sorry example of dissent. He stood up to a system that eventually murdered him. His protest was particularly threatening as Athens began to crumble after the bloody wars with Spasocrates4-400x250rta. Athens’ Golden Age was over. Failing empires, terrified at their dwindling power, will do just about anything to silence the voices that they see as threatening. Socrates likened himself to a gadfly sent to keep a lazy and fat thoroughbred horse (the State) alert and awake. His sentiment was not appreciated, and he was put to death. History proves this to be the fate of many dissenters. In the sacred text of the Old Testament, the prophets sat on the margins of power structures and would regularly protest the shenanigans of unjust systems, and, like Socrates, they often found themselves rather dead.

The unpleasant truth is we need dissent. We need to hear the voices of disagreement and criticism. A thriving organisation will see dissent as a duty. Studies have shown that organisations where board members like each other, dine together and discourage open debate, tend to lose financially: Like-minded people, talking only with one another, usually end up believing a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. If you want a healthy organisation, then you need to invite those who think differently into places where policies are made. You need to work hard to prevent laziness of thought that breeds in comfort, sameness, and familiarity. Avoid a culture that does not allow for questions, doubt, or expressing concerns. Those annoying ‘red flag’ fliers can save your hide. You need to see dissent as an obligation and insist on a wide variety of voices. In dissent lie the keys to health and balance. A contrarian can contribute tremendously by offering a different point of view. Research demonstrates that just knowing there’s a dissenting voice is enough to ‘induce different cognitive processes that yield better judgments.’

When it comes to organised and institutional religion, it becomes very concerning to observe the disdain some religious leaders demonstrate towards dissenters. Even though Protestantism has a rather rich history of dissent (check out the name again!), it seems like in some modern churches today, any form of criticism is seen as being disloyal or unbiblical. The church, just like any other organisation, deserves and needs the same honest critique as any other. And, yes, you can be the Church, love the Church, participate in the Church, and also protest the Church.

So for those who are facing an issue of injustice and find themselves wanting to speak up but feeling threatened, remember the words of the novelist William Faulkner, Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world … would do this, it would change the earth. Remember, we need the voice of dissent, the contrarian in our lives, organisation and world, as painful as it may be. A community that ignores or silences its dissenters is a place that has begun to die a long time ago. Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable and healthiest things you can do this week is to give yourself permission to ungag the voices of dissent in your life?

the-lost-art-of-disagreement

My Addiction to Certitude

There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.
– Sherman Alexie –

In a recent conversation with a friend on the topic of liminality and religion, I entered a path of greater self-discovery. The question he posed that allowed me to enlarge the narrative I tell myself about myself was this: “You speak of being in a form of conservative, religious fundamentalism for thirty years – what you need to ask yourself was what drew you there in the first place?”

It’s a good question. What draws us into spaces of community and belonging? Why do we hang around even when we realise that the values we hold have become juxtaposed to the policies of an organisation? And, specifically, what is it especially about religious communities that make it extremely difficult to discern that the time has come to say goodbye?

The question took me back to my childhood and the recognition from a young age that although I grew up in a loving and encouraging home this was not the reality for many other people. My parents did not shield me from the realisation that this world holds much suffering – something I would witness first hand when we moved to Africa. My pre-liminal space was one that recognised chaos … and as a young person, I yearned for order and structure. I was a prime candidate for the zealous, orderly world of fundamentalism.

In an upcoming book by Tim Carson, I will share more deeply about this experience (thank you, Tim, for the opportunity to contribute). Looking back, I recognise the longing that led me to structure and the addiction that kept me there – an addiction to certitude.

The black and white world of literalism, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”, became my ‘God drug’. I was convinced that I, and the tradition I was part of, held the truth and needed to save the souls of those who did not share this euphoric space of transcendence. I became a zealot – a zealot with the privilege of a platform. I used it to speak of absolutes around the world … and I was cheered on, fuelling my dependence on certainty.

In those days I had no room in my life for paradox – questions and doubts were tucked away and hidden. They were not to be spoken of as I did not want to upset this wonderful world I was in … a world where everything was ‘awesome’. A world that had created order out of my chaos, provided foolproof answers to my yearning and showed me a clear and triumphant way. Certitude, like the matrix, is an intoxicating hyper-reality.

This week I was reminded of my addiction. A cruel tweet from a religious leader against the rainbow community triggered me and I responded with outrage. Amidst the comments on my facebook page, a friend (Daniels Sims) wrote, “I feel for him (religious leader). I really do. It is hard to be saved from behind a wall of certitude.” His words struck such a deep chord with me.

How hard it is to be saved from behind a wall of certitude! That was me … for nearly three decades. I partook and was complicit in supplying the drugs needed to keep our certainty addiction alive and with it dulled some of the discomforts that derive from ‘not knowing’ and embracing mystery. Certitude provides us with all the answers we need to live a cloistered life of dogmatism, perhaps because the alternative is just too scary and difficult.

I look at my life now – what a far cry from the young, impassioned, self-assured, and absolutely convinced person I once was. Most of the time I am not certain and mystery has now become a dear friend. Like any recovering addict, I am still drawn to certainty but I now realise that just like the idea of normality, certainty is a myth. What St Paul wrote is true, we look at the world through a dark, smokey glass. To proclaim anything else is presumption … to recognise it is to walk with humility and compassion.

So, friend, if you, like me, have identified your addiction and need for certitude, perhaps we can sit around a virtual room of belonging together and proclaim: “I am *insert name* and I am a certitude addict.” And then smile and realise that here too, grace abounds and is sufficient.

A paradox is a seeming contradiction, always demanding a change on the side of the observer. If we look at almost all things honestly we see everything has a character of paradox to it. Everything, including ourselves. – Richard Rohr – 

Those Terrifying Liminal Spaces: Reflections on Not Knowing

Last week Tim Carson provided an excellent guest blog on Psalm 139: Treasures of Darkness – I thought this blog from 2015 would add to the conversation.

“This is the ultimate knowledge of God, to know that we do not know” – Thomas Aquinas
 
I was slowly dying on the inside. The many faith cliches I had used in the first half of my life were turning into ash in my mouth. As a spiritual leader, I found myself answering questions in a manner that I know would bring a sense of comfort to the ones who posed them, whilst leaving me personally deeply unsure about these ‘watertight’ interpretations. An insistent inner voice was growing louder, demanding that I give attention to some of the doubts and hesitancy that I continued to deny in my need for absolute certainty. An ‘absolute certainty’ addiction that had been fed by strong fundamentalist paradigms that allowed little room for ambiguity or paradox. Like a prickle in my shoe or sand in my bed, I could not ignore it. It nagged at me and terrified me: “If I start to question, where would I stop? Where would it take me?” I was unsure that my concept of God was big enough to take this leap. But leap I did …
DSCF0111“Liminal Space” by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
 
So I found myself in this strange place. A place that my early faith tradition did not prepare me for, perhaps because it simply lacked the language to describe it? Like someone debilitated by frenzied religious ideals, I lay waiting to see who would stop. It wasn’t who I expected. Unlike the story of the Good Samaritan, in my case, the ‘priests’ stopped and saved my life: Brennan Manning, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr – pouring healing words on my wounds and helping me to understand this liminal space. This uncomfortable place where I could no longer pretend I had all the answers.

The place of not knowing. ‘Liminal’ comes from the Latin word ‘limen’ meaning ‘threshold’. A place of waiting. A place of transition. A place where you finally let go that treasured trapeze bar and you find yourself free-falling and hope that the grace that has carried you this far will still be there as you sail through the air, with no safety net, and no alternate trapeze bar swinging to meet you.
 liminal

It was the writings of Victor Turner in the second half of the 20th century that made the term ‘liminal’ popular. He borrowed and expanded the ideas of Van Gennep. Some of his writings included, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”,Liminality and Communitas”, and “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas.”

His thoughts on liminality can be summarised as: “For Turner, liminality is one of the three cultural manifestations of communitas — it is one of the most visible expressions of anti-structure in society. Yet even as it is the antithesis of structure, dissolving structure and being perceived as dangerous by those in charge of maintaining structure, it is also the source of structure. Just as chaos is the source of order, liminality represents the unlimited possibilities from which social structure emerges. While in the liminal state, human beings are stripped of anything that might differentiate them from their fellow human beings — they are in between the social structure, temporarily fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and it is in these cracks, in the interstices of social structure, that they are most aware of themselves. Yet liminality is a midpoint between a starting point and an ending point, and as such, it is a temporary state that ends when the initiate is re-incorporated into the social structure.”
 
Richard Rohr describes this place most vividly: “Liminal spaces, therefore, are a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the ‘tried and true’ but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is then you are finally out of the way …  If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait – you will run – or more likely you will ‘explain’.” 

I frantically tried to ‘explain’ this place to myself, to my friends and family, to the wider faith community. You feel like an idiot at this threshold. An idiot who leaves behind a wonderful place of safety and comfort only to find yourself in a place totally beyond your control and comfort. You are left with an unanswered “Now What?” question, and a dangerous assumption that this question will be swiftly answered like Harry’s beautifully wax-sealed, owl-delivered, Hogwarts Acceptance Letter. Rarely is this the case. Rarely is it this simple.  
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The frantic search for that one perfect answer in this disturbing, sacred place will not be helpful. The transition is slow and the transformation that happens here is painful. It is here we find ourselves suddenly faced with our own liminality. We are confronted by the lies of our age – success, influence, importance – everything that has upheld the ego and our own ideas or spiritual superiority, comes crashing down. We beg, plead, tantrum, bargain in this disordered habitat of loss, longing and disequilibrium. But as so many who have gone before us have experienced, there’s no bargaining in the desert, there’s no hidden sun in the middle of the night.
 
Finally, the struggle turns quiet. It would be nice to suggest that this happens due to mindfulness and spiritual practices. These certainly help, but I have found that you come to a place of rest because you are exhausted from the struggle and the only option is to Let Go. The more you do, the more you recognise your own insecurities, false ego and the lies you have believed, and, like Alice, you keep falling down the rabbit hole. When you finally stop freaking out, you discover to your surprise, that the grace that carried you in the hurried first half of life has not left you…
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Grace suddenly becomes far more real. In this suspended, mid-air, confusing liminal space, you are still God’s beloved. Gradually, like a sunrise in slow motion, it begins to dawn on you: All is grace! This one magnificent life that we are given is not made meaningful because we adhere to the messaging or image of a consumer-driven culture. Neither do we derive meaning from our ability to ‘succeed’ spiritually or relationally or financially. Liminal spaces expose the unnerving reality that we are really not in control in the way we think we are. Liminal spaces confront us with our innate craving for certainty. Liminal spaces show us that ambiguity and paradox are part of what it means to be human and of the journey with the divine. It is in the not knowing that grace shines. Like Jacob, we wake up in this foreign place and exclaim: “You have been here all along and I was not aware of it.” All is grace. 
2055_9afefc52942cb83c7c1f14b2139b09ba
 
Don’t surrender your loneliness
So quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
 
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 –
 
If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.
– Jesus –

Katecia’s Story: Resilience, Courage and Grace

I met Katecia (Teash) a couple of years ago. Over time we began chatting and I had the privilege of listening to some of her story of courage, resilience and quiet grace. Today I would like to thank Teash for making time to share some of her life experience for this BLOG post. I have no doubt you will be impacted as you read about her journey.

1. Teash, you grew up in a religious setting. Can you tell us a little about your formative years?

Some of my earliest memories are of family and church. As a pastor’s kid, they have always been entwined. I have fond memories of running down aisles, riding a pony as Mary in the nativity play, making clay Bible characters and of trying to sneak an extra cookie at morning tea after the service. Church often felt like a second home. I knew all the hiding spots and I loved all the people. I used to live a block from my church growing up. My brothers and I would often duck past on the way home from school. I distinctly remember running into the church building after school one time when my brother and I were running from kids who wanted to bash us. It was a place of refuge and an enjoyable place for me.

Mum and Dad were quite strict growing up but they were also incredibly loving and encouraging. People often ask what it was like growing up as a pastor’s kid and I never quite know what to say. It was normal for me. I suppose it meant I hung around church more than the average kid. I knew where the cookies were kept and could swing past and utilise the smooth scootering surface in the church hall. At this time, I fitted into the church and its community seamlessly. However, I felt more pressure as I got older to reflect well on my parents as I realised that, unfortunately, people might judge my parents based on how I acted which has, at times, made me uncomfortable.

 

2. Coming out as gay would not have been easy, especially in a conservative setting. Can you talk about this?

It wasn’t easy. However, I am more fortunate than so many. At the time I had intense anxiety regarding it. If I’m honest part of the reason I came out was that I had anxiety that was causing me physical pain, every day, for several months. I’d been slowly convinced by affirming theology but the move meant that I realised I would probably need to come out. I think if it weren’t for my anxiety I might have waited a few more years. However, given the mostly subtle hostility towards queer people in conservative environments, it’s unlikely I could have emerged from the closet with no mental health issues. I was in so much physical pain from hiding this part of myself that I figured coming out couldn’t be that much worse.

Like so many others, Christian spaces that I had once found so welcoming became harder and harder to exist in happily. People that I looked up to and loved treated me as though I were an entirely different, and less trustworthy, person.

My immediate family has been fantastic and I am so thankful for them. I know how rare their incredible support can be in Christian circles. They may not have always understood but they have always listened and supported and loved me.

I may have been judged by Christians for being gay but I have never felt anything but love and peace from God, fully inclusive of my sexuality.

3. You recently spoke at the “Better Together” Conference in Melbourne and shared some of your faith journey. Would you mind elaborating on this, especially reconciling your sexuality and your faith (which for some may be problematic)?

I was raised in a Baptist church. Growing up in the church I knew what to say and how to act. Essentially, I knew how to fit in. I didn’t know a single gay Christian let alone any other amazing letter of the acronym growing up (at least not that I knew of at the time). What I did know was what I was told: “Christians weren’t gay”. Christians might be same-sex attracted but to act on that attraction was a sin, and if they couldn’t change then celibacy was required. I was a Christian so I could never be gay. It was honestly that simple in my mind. Gay people were them over there and not the people in the pews next to me or eating scones after church.

For most of my teen years, I saw it as a sign of purity and even holiness that I wasn’t attracted to men. The attraction was only meant for your husband, so my lack of attraction to men meant that I clearly just hadn’t met my husband yet. 

But slowly that logic fell away as I realised that I wasn’t just not attracted to men, I was attracted to women. I prayed and tried to change it as so many of us do. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t change. I accepted that, until I changed, celibacy was the only option and I realised that I would probably be celibate for life. I told no one because I was ashamed and I knew the grief, shame and even scandal it would cause those I loved.

While this internal conflict was going on, I was an outgoing and enthusiastic evangelical. I was in a senior leadership position at the largest evangelical group at my university. I ran prayer groups and Bible studies and camps.

After realising celibacy was something I would have to do I began googling things such as what does the Bible say about homosexuality? I wasn’t looking for the Bible to say it was okay. I was looking for encouragement in remaining celibate. I had always been told that any theology that said it was “okay to be gay” was very “wishy-washy” and was by people who didn’t take the Bible seriously. In evangelical terms, “not taking the Bible seriously” was code for being a bad Christian. Being “biblical” and taking “the Bible seriously” was code for being a good Christian. But I was surprised by what I found. Being the nerdy art student I was, I figured I’d better research the other side – to refute it as wishy-washy, obviously. Only I couldn’t and slowly and extremely grumpily I found myself shifting over and leaning towards becoming affirming. In affirming theology, I could see myself. I saw myself as a whole and beloved child of God. It was rigorous and thoughtful. It was loving and non-judgemental, and it terrified me.

So I became affirming after a couple of years of study and prayer. I wish I could say it was an easy or quick process. It took time. I didn’t want to be affirming because I was comfortable in my beliefs and my life. I just wanted to fit in and be a “good Christian.” Having affirming theology meant that this was no longer possible for me in many circles. I came out as gay and affirming at the same time. I lost a lot of evangelical friends and I was treated as an outsider in the same evangelical circles that I had once fit in to so well. At the time I thought it was one of the worst things to happen to me. Now I’m grateful that I have sat on the outside because it was the wakeup call I needed to look around and see who else was on the margins with me. I worry that if I’d never been pushed out I might have missed meeting and learning from so many who don’t fit into my old evangelical worldview.

What drew me most to affirming theology was that in it I felt seen, known and loved by God. It also made a lot more contextual and theological sense to me. But most interestingly affirming theology brings me closer to a God who made me, knows me and loves me as I am.

4. When we look back we see a turbulent and painful journey for LGBTIQ people of faith and some of the churches that they were part of. What do you see looking ahead? Is there hope for apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation and a better path?

I think there is hope. I think of myself only a few years ago. I held negative attitudes towards gay people like many other Christians today that contribute to our negative experiences in churches and Christian communities.

The queer Christians and allies I have met all have amazing stories of change: of them being convinced to alter their beliefs and attitudes. I’m given hope every time I see queer Christians love themselves fully. I’m given hope every time I see allies step up and love us as we are. I’m given hope when I remember how I used to think and the hurt I could or may have perpetuated, and how I changed. Looking ahead, I am hopeful, but still aware of the past and the present pain. I am filled with hope but remaining grounded in the reality that we have a long way to go.

There is a path for apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation, however, as Christians, we need to recognise the harm and grief that we have caused and continue to cause. The church is overwhelmingly viewed as a source of pain and hateful rhetoric for most queer people, and this reputation is all too often deserved. Everything from homophobic jokes to the psychological torture of conversion therapy to the more subtle exclusion contributes to the struggle queer people can face.

When we ‘other’ queer people in large or small ways we are failing in our calling to, first and foremost, be loving, and failing to walk the better path – the path of Jesus. It is hard to expect queer people to remain in the pews when we are often made to feel unwelcome and unloved. Specific effort must be made to undo what we have done. While I think there is hope for a better path, I think we need always to hold the hurt we’ve caused in tension with the hope we hold for the future. We cannot erase the past but we can learn from it and therein lies the hope for a better future.

Teash, our lives are all enriched because you were prepared to share a bit of your story. Thank you so much.

 

For those interested in affirming theology, I recommend:

David Gushee – “Changing our Minds

Kathy Baldock – “Walking the Bridgeless Canyon” – you can also read Kathy’s interview on my blog here and here

And for a plethora of information please see the podcasts/library  of Inside Ex-Gay

and the Reformation Project