It is now quite a long time since a did a post on a book. And quite a lot has happened. After I had written this post I realised that it contains as many of my own ideas as those of Brian McLaren. If you want to know more of what he thinks then I would really recommend reading this book. I’m sure that he won’t mind me using his ideas as a springboard for my own…
What do we believe?
When I am sitting in church do I know what the person sitting next to me believes? I will almost certainly know their name, usually their occupation and the details of their family. I may well have sat in their house and eaten food they have cooked but do I know what they believe? There is a well known saying here in England – ‘Never talk about politics or religion’ and generally we don’t. This is not helped by belonging to an established church which tries to be relevant to as many as possible. The mission statement of the (local) church I belong to is:
Building a community to reach a community with the love of God.
Which is great, fantastic and most of us are doing our best to live this out. But it is more about what we do rather than what we think. Of course the two are connected. My recent posts on pilgrimage show that what we do can change who we are and even what we believe. Maybe, as McLaren says, we need to get past this, to emerge into an ‘Age of the Spirit’. As he says:
… an approach to Christian faith that tries to preserve the treasures of previous eras and face and embrace the challenges of the twenty-first century. So something is happening. Something is afoot. A change is in the wind
But first we need to be clear about what we are leaving behind. For many people this will be quite a wrench.
This timeline is taken from McLaren’s book (I couldn’t resist adding some pictures of my own). This is the classic ‘Christian’ story. It goes something like this:
Once we were innocent. We lived in a wonderful garden and talked with God all the time. Then Eve (naughty woman!) ate the apple and gave some to Adam. They were expelled into some bleak place and there they (we)stayed until Jesus came along and saved them (us).
At this point we were given a choice. Either believe in Jesus and then, after you die, you will go to a good place called Heaven or don’t believe and then (also only after you die) you will be in Hell forever, without any time off for good behaviour. Put as bluntly as this it not only makes little sense it also seems profoundly wrong. Lets start with Eden and the fall. McLaren says:
… the Genesis narrative sets the stage for what follows. As we’ve seen. it’s the story of a good creation, marred by expanding human evil, countered by divine faithfulness, leading to profound reconciliation and healing. This narrative serves as a kind of fractal for the (bible) story as a whole and for its many parts.
Last summer I spent a week in Oxford studying Christian apologetics. One of the many memorable conversations I had there was with a young (only 19) American lad called Drew. He said: ‘How do you explain the Fall with evolution and all that?’. I thought about this. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘Who is the most fallen person you can think of?’. After a pause I came up with my own idea. ‘Gordon Gekko‘. The mythical antihero of Wall Street has no morals, no scruples, for him greed really is good.
‘So,’ I explained. ‘You have Jesus at one end of ‘falleness’ spectrum and Gordon Gekko at the other end and most of us somewhere in the middle. As society expanded it became more and more possible to ‘work the system’. Living in small family groups or villages it is hard not to be honest and upright as everyone is looking out for each other. But when people began to live in larger and more complex societies it is possible to use power to get your own way, to trample on those weaker than you.’
I had never considered this question before but I think my answer was broadly right. The story of Jewish/Christian faith covers a large chunk of human civilisation from about 3,000 BC until the present day. McLaren shows us the step changes in civilisation, each with advantages but each moving further and further from a more innocent past. This past is quite close to our own English myth of the happy and well fed farmer untainted by the delights of the big city. The story of Adam and Eve is really an ancient parable. All knowledge, all progress, comes at a price.
Here is where the conventional narrative becomes a bit confusing. We have to move from a ‘us’ story, involving everybody to one concerning each individual soul. Many of us, as Christians, are locked into a story where we have to reach a certain stage in our faith before we die so we can be in the good place. If we don’t reach that stage, if we are still confused or uncertain then we may go to the bad place after we die.
Except Jesus never said that. When he talks about Hell he uses the word Gehenna. When he talks about Heaven or (more usually) the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. It is as something present and real, that we can be living in right now not just after we are dead. Gehenna was the Jerusalem rubbish dump and we have all been there. Unhappiness, poverty, hopelessness can all seem just like a rubbish dump. I watched a TV news slot about the war in Syria last week. It looked about as close to Hell as you can imagine but this was really happening, right now and, as the camera moved through the bombed buildings, a woman with a small child ran across the blasted, empty street.
What about other people?
And this story of Heaven and Hell doesn’t make Christians look good. About 13 years ago, when I was a very new Christian, I worked with a lovely man who followed the Sikh religion. We had some long conversations about our faith and what it means to us which were really interesting and fruitful. But then he asked THE QUESTION: “What will happen to me after I die?” I answered “You will go to Hell, because you don’t believe in Jesus”. I’m ashamed to say that I said this without the slightest hesitation, not even feeling guilty afterwards. My only excuse was that this was what I had learned from my two or three years as a Christian. I really hope he didn’t take me seriously.
McLaren addresses the ‘other religion’ question in some detail. After a 4 page tour through the old and New Testaments he says:
We would eventually need to look at Jesus, considering in detail, say, his attitudes towards a Samaritan woman, or a Roman centurian, a Syro-Phoenician woman, or some Greeks who wanted to see Jesus and went through Andrew and Philip. We could even look at Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew, noting how the Magi – what we might call New-Age practitioners – are drawn to Jesus through their own religious arts.
As in so many other things, we need to see Jesus not as a rule giver (although there were a few) but as a living parable. As C.S Lewis put it ‘A true Myth’. In a society and culture that shunned and feared outsiders, Jesus and his followers reached out to others and respected their views. In a way this is easier in Britain than in other Western countries such as the U.S.A because we are just so diverse. It is quite difficult to feel badly towards someone of a different faith, nationality or sexual orientation if they are living next door to you or sitting at the next desk. Once you start speaking to people their lives start to be interesting and rich rather than just alien.
But, if you are reading this as a Christian, by now you will be shouting at the screen “John 14:6-7!!” For those of you who can’t recall the bible just by the book and verse (I can’t either) this is:
Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!” (Message Version)
This is where Brian McLaren and myself will need to differ. McLaren wraps this around in the context of Jesus’ coming crucifixion, resurrection and the anxious questions of his followers. This is fair enough but I think we have to assume that if Jesus said it and John wrote it down then it has got to have a wider application. I completely agree with him that this does not mean that people of other faiths or none are automatically on that mythical rubbish heap, either before or after they die, so how should we look at this?
The clue is at the other end of John’s Gospel: John 1:12-13:
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (NIV)
This diagram shows a number of relationships we can have with God. I’m going to be bold here and say that only Jesus Christ can offer us the relationship in the top layer. Which seems like a wonderful thing, and it is, but it carries with it a responsibility. If one of my own parents requires something from me I will do it if I possibly can and there is a bond that cannot be broken. So it is with God.
But not all Christians are at this stage. And that’s OK. And followers of other faiths are relating to God in whatever way their culture and personalities will allow. There are a lot of people who believe in God who don’t follow any sort of religion, who simply think he is there. I’ve called these ‘Onlookers’. There are also people who believe in God but are angry with him, some ‘atheists’ seem to be a bit like that.
I think God honours all of these relationships. There may be a point (perhaps after we die) when we see clearly the truth of who God is. If this is so then some of these people will have a big surprise and I’m sure we will all have to adjust our thinking. I’m going to end with a parable of my own, hope it helps:
There was once an girl, about 12 years old, who was put up for adoption. The prospective parents were extremely wise, loving and patient and took time to get to know the child. The girl had very mixed feelings. On the one hand she didn’t quite trust these people. Why did they want to love her so much? What was in it for them? On the other hand she was a bit afraid. They had a lot of other adopted children already who all seemed to have their lives sorted out. What if she just wasn’t good enough?
She realised that she had a choice. She could walk away and never see them again. They had said that she could change her mind at any time but what if they rejected her?
She could maintain contact and call on them when she needed support. This seemed like a good, safe option but it was a bit scary to be out in the world on her own and what if they ignored her when she called?
She could go and live in their house, follow the rules. She would pick up her clothes, do the washing up when asked and go to school on time. If she was good and polite they would look after her and keep her from harm.
Or she could really join the family and become their child. The prospect seemed very attractive and fun but all her old fears came back. What if they didn’t love her back? What if she wasn’t good enough?
So, in the end she decided to opt for the third option. She lived in their house and did what she was told and they loved her as much as she would allow. And because the parents were extremely wise and loving they waited.
I would really recommend reading the starting point for this blog: A New kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. It is completely packed with ideas about faith, Jesus and God.
The best two books written about Heaven and Hell are by C. S. Lewis:
The Great Divorce
The Last Battle
They are both works of fiction which seems quite appropriate for this topic.