Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

As is always the case along the quest for ‘God’, I soon come across the footprints of other, better writers and thinkers who have got there before me.  I wanted to think about the way in which metaphor and symbolism reinforce the language of any faith system when I accidentally came across the following paragraph by a theologian writing late in the 19th century:

“Symbols are the only language suited to religion.

It would be an illusion to believe that a religious symbol represents God in Himself, and that its value, therefore, depends on the exactitude with which it represents Him. The true content of the symbol is entirely subjective: it is the conscious relation of the subject to God, or rather, it is the way he feels himself affected by God.

From this point of view we may see in what religious inspiration psychologically consists. Neither its aim nor its effect is to communicate to men exact, objective, ready-made ideas on that which by its nature is unknowable under the scientific mode; but it consists in an enrichment and exaltation of the inner life of its subject; it sets in motion his inward religious activity, since it is in that that God reveals Himself; it excites new feelings, constituting new concrete relations of God to man, and by the fact of this creative activity it spontaneously engenders new images and new symbols, of which the real content is precisely this revelation of the God-spirit in the inner life of the spirit of man.

The greatest initiators in the religious order have been the greatest creators of symbols.” (August Sabatier.  Outlines of a Philosophy of Religion based on Psychology and History.  1910. Chapter 4, Section 6 Symbolism)

If we accept that metaphor and symbolism help faith, not hinder it, then certain parts of scripture and Christian teaching become easier to understand.  A good example is provided by Jesus’ parables (the purpose of which is set out in Matt 13:10-17).  Like drama – which is another art – they provide us with the means pictorially and helpfully, to discern the truths and frailties of human behaviour.  As such, they should be treasured as windows through which we can see and evaluate aspects of that interaction between ourselves and ‘God’ (any concept of which) and modify our beliefs and stance accordingly.

This is all very well, but – to speak only about Christianity – the more we scan scriptures for the lodes of meaning running through the parables, sayings and incidents we have inherited, the more difficult it becomes to subject the great narratives of our faith to such examination without seeming to undermine them, and thus our faith, in some cases (not others) quite disturbingly.

The first of these great narratives, however, is the one least likely to cause this kind of offence.  About the Nativity, the late Marcus Borg wrote “the stories of Jesus’ birth are myths in this sense [that is, “symbolic narratives and not straightforward historical reports”].  Along with most mainline scholars, I do not think these stories report what happened. The virginal conception, the star, the wise men, the birth in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn and so forth are not facts of history.  But I think these stories are powerfully true.  They make use of rich archetypal religious images and motifs to speak of Jesus’ significance.” (The God we never knew. 1998. Pp101-102).

Similarly, on another of the great narratives, Borg said that “Easter need not involve the claim that God supernaturally intervened to raise the corpse of Jesus from the tomb.  Rather, the core meaning of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced after his death, but in a radically new way: as a spiritual and divine reality.” (op cit, p93).   I intend to return to this particular trope at a later date.

I assume that these ideas formed part of earlier theological teaching of Biblical demythologisation, by Rudolf Bultmann and others.

Another of the great narratives of Christianity, Pentecost, celebrating the Holy Spirit’s gift of tongues 40 days after Easter (in Acts 2), seems to me to be a quasi-symbolic depiction of the apostles’ realisation that their mission now was to go out and spread the Good News.  The story is written in a highly theological register but with persuasive touches of realism which must have been experienced during an actual incident and recalled later by eye-witnesses (Peter’s insistence that he is not drunk, for example).  Again, here, there is nothing in the interplay between symbolism and ‘what really happened’ to cause us to doubt or reject the basic meaning of the story and so lose the message.

With the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Salvation narratives, however, we enter altogether more difficult terrain, where the allocation of story-telling editing here and meaning-laden metaphor there, realism and symbolism, has to be set out with exceptionally careful handling.  Here the quest for God is really put under pressure. [To be continued]



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When, as has happened this week, the media report on particularly appalling murders, some explain that the perpetrators are known to have had “mental issues.”  This appears to be the modern way of saying “mentally sick.”  Yet many of the worst killers appear to be fairly rational in their reasoning and behaviour and don’t always present symptoms of any mental illness that might explain their crimes.

I reckon that any one of us can be sick in body, mind and/or soul, or any combination thereof.  If so, there is room for a category of being spiritually sick.  Some might call it being evil but that implies an impossibility of a cure.  I mean something that can be treated.  Having lived in five African countries and visited four more, I think that African culture has no difficulty with this concept, even while we might deplore some of the ways the condition is ‘cured’.

A woman who in any culture starves and beats her toddler son to death is clearly sick in some way or other; it is only the West’s rationalism and unease with religious belief that prevents us publicly acknowledging the true sickness exhibited in each case by the crying needs of a soul gone wrong, not just “evil.”  It is not only the victim that needs our intervention and help.

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That the world is, that is the mystical.  An epigram from Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted in The Pan Dictionary of Religious Quotations; ed Margaret Pepper.  London: Pan, 1991. p.297

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StonhengeUnlike each other as we are, in so many ways, my brother and I nevertheless have some interests in common: books; genealogy; maps; sightseeing; good food; all things French.  One such focus of our mutual attention is Stonehenge, the world heritage site which, helpfully for us, lies midway along the route of the three-hour drive between our respective homes.  We’re always alert for new information and theories about the obvious questions.  Who built it?  When?  Why?

I’ve recently been reviewing all the latest theories to answer the principal question: what was Stonehenge for?  Ideas about its function range from seeing it as an observatory, categorising it as a place of healing or culture-reinforcing processions, through to imagining it as a necropolis, a city of the dead.  Simply to list these alternative roles, however, is to raise an objection immediately.

Only we, in our fact-driven, post-Enlightenment, reification-prone perspective, seem to demand that Stonehenge have one or other of these functions.   The people who built it five thousand years ago probably had no such desire to stipulate that the building be exclusively this or that.  More likely, it was all of these things, mixed up together and mutually reinforcing each other in ways in which they saw this fully evidenced and life-enhancing but which we cannot any longer imagine.

If the builders designed the monument to be aligned with the winter solstice, for example, for therapeutic reasons, who are we to condemn the mindset that saw life as inextricably intertwined with the changing positions of the stars and sun?  What do we believe that will seem risible to generations yet to come?

Thinking about this, I recall Philip Larkin’s poem Church going on this very theme (listen to the poet himself reading it).  In its final verses, he imagines how it will be when churches have lost their meaning and fallen into ruin. Enough will remain, he writes, to show that the purpose of such places is always to remind us, with all our impulses and fears, that we are human and what that means; and that such a presence in our scheme of things is still more than a good enough response to our permanent human need to be connected with our own and others’ mysteries: connected for reassurance, explanation, forgiveness, love.

All these things in us are interwoven.  So let it be for Stonehenge, too:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

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Last week I came across a copy of R C Zaehner’s translations of Hindu scriptures, bought it and have since been discovering all sort of gems, like this stanza (The Bhagavad-Gita, 4:39):

A man of faith, intent on wisdom,
His senses all restrained, will wisdom win;
And, wisdom won, he’ll come right soon
To perfect peace.

This is almost completely paralleled in the Bible, in the lovely text, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee” (Isaiah 26:3). The nearest equivalent I can find in the Arberry transcription of the Holy Qu’ran is “And God summons to the Abode of Peace, and He guides whomsoever He will to a straight path… “(Sura 10:25).

To complete a quartet of such insights, let us end with a slightly different perspective, a Stoic text written by an emperor:

“Nowhere can a man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul”  (Marcus Aurelius  Meditations 4:3)

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No sooner had I published my most recent posting, on bishops, I saw that John Hick has died.  His obituaries show in detail how he too had to endure his developing views falling foul of church authorities, in his case the United Reform church.  Like Richard Holloway he drifted away from the categorical belief systems to find a mooring in gentler waters.

I met John Hick at a seminar in 1965 and have read several of his books and articles since, always with admiration. He it was who pointed out that all the great religions share at least one moral directive: Do unto others as you would want them to do to you.

“God” may be this or that, or not exist at all as we understand the word ‘exist’, but our obligation is clear, and it is other-directed.  God in us, for God in others.

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Rereading Objections to Christian belief (1963) turns up treasure after treasure. This salient text was put together by four great old men, each of whom I was honoured to meet a few years later.  Their demolition job on outdated assumptions, lazy thinking and fundamentalist wrong-headedness is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.  Here is Alec Vidler at his most generous:

“… whether a man decides to become or to remain a Christian believer may also be settled by what I would call his participation in the Christian mystery as a present reality: by what he finds, or by what finds him, in the shared experience of the community of believers – it may be in the eucharistic sacrament or in the Friends’ meeting house: by whether or not he is convinced that there is something there which, despite all his puzzlements, holds him and speaks to the deepest levels of his being.”  (p76)

That is as good an account of divine unknowability as anything I know besides John ch1.

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On balance, I believe, the great world religions have been a force for good in the world.  Their contribution to the development of human society has been immense because in many ways they have carried out their mission.  That mission has been to provide and propagate explanations for those most basic questions asked in every age: what does it all mean?  who are we?  are we alone? how can we interact with an imperfect world? (more…)

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This is the latest in a series of posts by an ordinary Anglican thinking through what we mean when we either say we believe in ‘God’ or we do not.  I have drawn so many of my ideas from thinkers and writers like Paul Tillich and Marcus Borg, and I should be referencing citations to them, but that would make this piece too formal and too long to write.  The ideas have been assimilated along the way.  What follows is an amateur attempt to follow them at a distance. (more…)

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I want to continue thinking through the God Paradox and its implications for religious systems and the life of the spirit.  But  I also want to break into the exploration with relevant evidence, ideas and stories such as this one.  What does it mean to put your hand where Jesus once did? (more…)

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