Some theological thoughts

Many years ago, when on retreat at a friary, I was working through a book of meditations, and it raised the question “What is most valuable to you, and could you give it up [for your faith] if you had to?”  Rather piously, I thought “My faith is most valuable to me,” and it was a bit of a puzzle, at that stage of my development, as to how I could give up my faith for my faith.  So, I asked one of the Brothers, who said “It’s not your faith anyway.”

This brought me to the idea of bringing before me my image of God, and saying to it “You are not God.  You are only my image of God.”  It was a difficult thing beforehand, and a liberating one afterwards.

Since then, I’ve had one, less `successful’, attempted reiteration of that type of process, when I once tried to give up religious symbolism for Lent.

But now, as I’m less pattern-bound than I was when younger, and am in the midst of the transition from regular attendance at one church to a mixture of services at churches of two traditions and attendance at Quaker Meetings, I find myself going through a similar process once more.

Letting go of a pattern of belief, even one that I realized had perhaps been a little forced by assumptions about what I `should’ believe, is a sometimes frightening process; but for each moment that I let go of something at the surface, I know there is something deeper.  It’ll probably be a good time to re-read St John of the Cross on the Dark Night of the Soul; certainly that fascinating saying “To become that which you are not, you must go by the way that you know not,” has become more prominent to me again.

It is in part a shift from a belief through knowledge to a belief through experience.

Behind this all lies the support of a theological / philosophical textbook, not at all a devotional one but rather a technical one, “The Decision of Faith” by Kevin Kinghorn, which explores the distinction between belief (a view on the way things are, derived from observation and thus not subject to free will and thus not morally significant) and faith (a conscious decision to take God as the source of moral authority).

Backed by that, I can admit that many of the standard expressions of Christian belief don’t really strike a chord in me; but then, a lot of my thought is non-standard.  For example, I used to feel left out when hearing people talk about a `personal relationship with God’, as though they found it normal to talk to God face-to-face.  In fact, the Bible remarks on Moses doing so, in a way that makes this implictly distinct from how others experience God.  As I allow myself to re-think more, this chummy use of the term `personal’ in referring to God (the Creator of all that is) seems to be very close to blasphemy. And, to be frank, no-one of normal mentality relates to someone without a current physical presence in this world in the same way as they do to those who are, in the ordinary sense, around them.  And yet, Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father…”

Another kind of phrase which has kept me away from developing a feeling for the underlying idea is the kind referring to the Resurrection of Jesus: for example, `resurrection’ or `rising from the dead’.  Why can’t we just say `coming back to life’, just as we would if referring to this happening to someone else?  These religious phrases separate from the rest of our world of discourse set up religion as some kind of detached mythology, discontinuous from the rest of our experience.

In church today, at the Agnus Dei, I started to question “How does one have mercy on a soul?”  We ask of God that he do this towards us, but when we’re not just following liturgical formulae, what do we actually mean by it, what are was asking God to do?  If I were God, how would I have mercy on a soul?  (This reminds me of the famous epitaph “Here lies Martin Elginbrodde; Have mercy on my soul, Lord God; As I would if I were God; and ye were Martin Elginbrodde.”)  And do I, as a living human, have the potential to have mercy on souls, or is the possibility unique to God?  It seems to be the temporally collective form of forgiveness: forgiveness of the collected sins of a lifetime; or perhaps of the underlying sinfulness.

And I know that’s something I’m not particularly good at; I do hold grudges for things done towards me; on the grand scale of things, probably not particularly heavily, but I certainly have some.  But worse than that, I resent the nature of some people, in a “them and us” sense, which is a big enough topic to cover in a post of its own.

This exploration is also pushing me to explore my understanding of quite what it means to be a person, which, of course, is the groundwork for understanding what could be meant by `a personal relationship with God’.  I’ll address that in a post about consciousness.

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