Saturday, May 19, 2018

God is Everything and God is Someone

I think I have come up with a definition of God that is incredibly simple, and yet pretty much says everything I want to say about God. Yes of course, "definition" is tricky, language is tricky, but with the caveat that we are talking about mystery here, I feel like this is a useful way to think about God.

God is Everything and God is Someone.

God is Everything - not one particular being, one particular object in the universe, but the very ground of being. Omnipresent - God is not in one particular place more than any other, not limited to one country of one sacred object or temple or religion. God is contained in none of these things. God is always bigger. God is Everything.

To me this is what Incarnation and the Christian sacraments point to - they very experience of God in the physical. God is this person in front of me. God is this morsel of bread, this sip of wine, this water of blessing. But God is Everything. Sacraments are only designed to open us to this experience in all of the world. The taste of coffee, the encounter with a stranger, the power of music, the glory of sex, all these things are divine.

The idea of God as creator has never made a huge amount of sense to me, other than as a symbol pointing to the goodness and glory of the world. I'm happy to do without it and speak of God in pantheistic terms. God is Everything.

This is the witness of the mystics. That experience of deep Oneness with All That Is. That sense of dissolving barriers between me and you and everything else. In the end All is One. God is Everything.

But there is more to say than this. God is also Someone. I have always experienced God as Someone, but I've been more afraid of making this case in the past, in case it comes across as hopelessly naive. But my spiritual journey has been leading me to a place that is really about a closer and closer walk with a God who is a Someone.

Also some of the reading I've done recently, such as Thomas Oord's The Nature of Love and Derek Guiton's A Man That Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), has helped me to grow in confidence in defending the idea of a personal God.

Religious liberals have been much more interested in describing God in impersonal terms in recent years. It's easy to see why. A personal God can easily become an idol - a tribal deity defending a narrow vision of religious or national identity, or naively literal anthropomorphic "man in the sky." God is seen as "he" which both reinforces patriarchy and gives us a hopelessly literal image (if God is a "he" we can imagine "him" as a bodied being with a penis or a beard).

It seems to make a lot more sense to describe God in impersonal terms. It seems more grown up somehow. But here's the problem - God can only love if God is Someone. Only someones can love. We can talk about a vaguely positive force, a force for love in the world - but stop to ask - what does that actually mean? Does "aligning with a force for goodness and love in the world" actually mean anything? Does it actually work? Does it comfort us in sorrow and make us grow in our commitment to one another? I'm not convinced it does. I'm not convinced it makes any sense to speak of love without speaking of a Lover.

An impersonal God, a pantheistic "it" can easily drop into a general monism and then to a religious naturalism/atheism. We may still use a theistic language, but we will act like in reality, no one listens to our prayers, no one actually cares, we can only change the world with our own grit and determination, but there is no reason to suppose we will (or that we can) succeed. There is no grace and there is no power of love behind us.

Again my foundation for saying this is the witness of mystics as well as my own spiritual experience. In the moments of deep connection with prayer there is an apprehension not just that we are a being deeply connected to the universe but that there is an actual Someone who reaches out to us in love. We are seeking but we discover there is a One who has been seeking us for longer. There is a One who genuinely reaches out to us with an embrace of love. We discover that God is wildly, passionately in love with us.

This is increasingly my experience. The best words I've found to describe this companionable relationship are the words of Hafiz (interpreted by Daniel Ladinsky): "God and I are like two giant fat people in a boat. We keep bumping into each other and laughing."

The experience is not like a rational contemplation of the universe. It is like being taken hold off in passion and made love to. It is personal, and it can be no other.

God is Someone. Now of course if we leave it there we can drop into all the idolatry I've already mentioned. We can too easily associate the Someone with a particular language, religion, name, experience. Which is why we need to keep the idea of "Someone" balanced by the idea of "Everything" because although we encounter God as Someone, there is more to God than that.

God is Everything and God is Someone.

I know that in some ways this really doesn't make sense. How can Everything love us like it is a Someone? And yet this is what the inner experience of prayer has led many to know experientially. It is increasingly the very foundation of my life.

It feels important to me to embrace this understanding. I think it may explain a lot. It may explain in fact why evangelical charismatic churches are generally growing and liberal and mainstream churches are generally in decline. Is it as simple as that? Have we considered that it might be as simple as the fact that Evangelical charismatic churches believe in God? That they actual act as if God is actually real and expect to find a real experience of the Living God in their worship? Meanwhile mainstream and liberal churches offer intellectual ideas, and a discussion about social issues, but are really embarrassed to actually get into the intimacy of a personal relationship with God.

The fact is clever nuanced theology is never going to attract a mass movement as much as "here is God, God loves you." That's always going to be a more powerful message than your page long mission statement that talks about "individual freedom, equality for all, and rational thought."

That is, perhaps, a separate discussion. But for now it feels important for me personally to live into the simple theology that God is Everything and God is Someone.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

I dream of a church...

I dream of a church that joins in with God's laughing 
as she rocks in her rapture enjoying her art: 
she's glad of her world, in its risking and growing: 
'tis the child she has borne and holds close to her heart. 

I dream of a church that joins in with God's weeping 
as she crouches, weighed down by the sorrow she sees: 
she cries for the hostile, the cold and no hoping, 
for she bears in herself our despair and disease. 

I dream of a church that joins in with God's dancing 
as she moves like the wind and the wave and the fire: 
a church that can pick up its skirts, pirouetting, 
with the steps that can signal God's deepest desire. 

I dream of a church that joins in with God's loving 
as she bends to embrace the unlovely and lost, 
a church that can free, by its sharing and daring, 
the imprisoned and poor, and then shoulder the cost. 

God, make us a church that joins in with your living, 
as you cherish and challenge, rein in and release, 
a church that is winsome, impassioned, inspiring: 
lioness of your justice, and lamb of your peace.

(by Kate Compston)

Do you dream of a church like this? If you do, if you dream of a church in Cardiff that is progressive, pluralist, mystical, charismatic, queer, feminist, and rooted in Jesus' vision of justice then please get in touch with me.

I would love to plant a new church like that with you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Why I moved to Cardiff

I moved to Cardiff to become a pioneer minister because I wanted to face the coming culture head-on.

If we're moving to a post-religious culture in western Europe I want to face it head-on.

If the future is empty church buildings being turned into restaurants and climbing wall centres, then I want to face it head-on.

If we're heading into the least religious culture planet Earth has ever seen, then I want to be fully immersed in that culture.

If the future of the church is 5 people meeting in a living room, then I want to start doing that now.

I don't want to spend the next 40 years serving a conventional church and seeing it slowly decline.

I don't want to spend my career managing decline.

If the future of religion is being a tiny tiny minority in a non-religious indifferent post-Christendom culture then I want to start working out how to do that now.

I don't want to try to outrun the coming tide of non-religious culture. I don't want to spend my life running away from it, with it slowly catching up with me over decades.

I want to run towards the coming non-religious culture. I want to face it head-on and run directly into it.

This is why I choose to leave a relatively healthy, relatively large congregation for a tiny one struggling to survive. Why I am investing most of my time in pioneer ministry to the unchurched culture of a large modern city.

It's because if this culture-change is coming I want to live in it right now, and work out where the calling of God is in it.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

What is Unitarian Christianity? Some distinctive features (video)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

"If I was going to go to a church, I would go to your church."

This is an anecdote I heard recently. It wasn't from a Unitarian, but from a progressive Christian:

"I was talking to my neighbour who's an atheist. And she said to me, 'I'm not religious, but you know what? If I was going to go to a church, I would go to your church.'"

This is the kind of thing that is said by Unitarians, and other religious progressives as a satisfying kind of story that enables us to say to ourselves, "see, we are on the right path, lot's of rational people really agree with us!" I've probably said something like that myself in the past.

The problem is that pesky "if".

That "if" has become louder and louder in my mind. Because if we really hear that "if" we would hear what the sentence really says, "If I was going to go to a church, I would go to your church... but I'm not. I never will and it's not something that interests me in the slightest. I vaguely approve of what you're doing, but it will always remain entirely irrelevant to my life."

I no longer see this as something that comforts me as a religious liberal. It will really be no use to be vaguely approved off by the majority of people as our communities die out because they attract no commitment or real interest. Meanwhile a minority of religious conservatives will be vaguely disapproved of my the majority, while remaining a dynamic force which a minority of people give their heart, soul, and lives to.

Which is better?

The need for liberals is not to get people to agree with us. They already do. The need for liberals is to give anyone a coherent reason to come to church. The need for liberals is to offer a genuine spiritual healing for the ills of the world. To be able to say what spiritual solutions we actually offer to the world's problems.

This requires us to shift from constantly talking about what makes us different from conservative religion to be able to say what makes us different from not being religious.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

What is Unitarian Christianity? (Video)

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

What if there are different Unitarianisms?

I keep coming back to the idea that there might be two or more mutually incompatible visions of Unitarianism in Britain.

I'm very aware, for example, that there are several different strands of Quakerism in the United States - Liberal Friends, Pastoral Friends, Conservative Friends, and Evangelical Friends. They share the same roots but are today quite radically different from one another in worship, organisation, and theology.

I'm wondering if something like that exists, under the surface, in British Unitarianism. If there are, perhaps, two Unitarianisms.

Unitarianism A defines Unitarianism as an individualistic, liberal movement that is defined by values but tries to remain neutral in matters of belief.

Unitarianism B defines Unitarianism as a basically heretical form of Christianity that has taken on Anabaptist radicalism, Enlightenment liberalism, and Emersonian individualism, but is still basically Christian.

It is interesting to note that the General Assembly, on paper, is defined as Unitarianism B - the object of the GA says the purpose of the denomination includes "the worship of God" and "upholding the liberal Christian tradition".

However, the General Assembly in fact operates as if it is promoting Unitarianism A. If you look at the website, or at leaflets or videos produced by the GA, they very much promote a vision of Unitarianism that is about liberalism and individualism without religious language.

What frustrates me as someone who is situated in Unitarianism B is I find all the publicity material produced by the GA unusable. I read all the leaflets produced by the GA, and nowadays I think "this is not the kind of stuff that I want to promote." I don't want to give those leaflets to anyone.

What solves this problem? One solution is schism, to admit there really are different things going on here, and that they are mutually exclusive and so we should recognise this reality.

There is no reason that there can't be two, three, or more different Unitarian denominations in the UK. Would that really be so bad? They could still share some resources, some institutions, but admit that they are not of one mind on all matters.

In a way that is already the case. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is essentially a definitely Christian liberal/Unitarian church. It shares much with the Unitarians, but it is definitely a Christian denomination. It could, conceivably, operate in England, Scotland and Wales. Or something like it could.

But if we don't schism, and there are good reason not to, perhaps it's worth admitting that we are different theological projects sheltering under the same administrative roof.

That would mean that the GA would either give up producing any publicity material OR that it would produce a more deliberately diverse range of materials.

Because here's the kind of thing that set me off on this kind of thought process: I really really dislike this video. It simply does not describe my faith, or the religious project I am in anyway interested in. It describes Unitarianism A, but it does not describe Unitarianism B. And if the GA is going to produce a video promoting Unitarianism A then it needs to produce a video describing Unitarianism B. It needs to produce a video that says "Unitarianism is a radical way of following Jesus and connecting with God".

If the GA says, "we don't want to produce such a video, we don't think we should" then my conclusion is that you're not serving some of your constituents and they would be better off forming a different denomination that does. 

I say this not to be argumentative, or because I'm particularly hacked off with the denomination. I'm not in the slightest. Rather I sort of think we all might get on better if we were just honest and admitted that we don't share the same faith. I wonder if we would all be happier if we stopped trying to fit two things together that, perhaps, are simply not compatible any more.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Dialogues of faith - an Adamsian approach to Unitarian evangelism (video)

"Dialogues of faith - an Adamsian approach to Unitarian evangelism" a lecture by Stephen Lingwood
From the Unitarian Theology Conference 2017 in Leeds

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Deffro, mae'n ddydd! (or reflections on my new ministry in Cardiff)

"Deffro, mae'n ddydd"

"Awake, it is day"
(motto on the coat of arms of Cardiff)

2018 marks a new start in my life as I have moved to a new city, a new country, and a new ministry. 
As of 1st January 2018 I am now working as Pioneer Minister in Cardiff. This is the sort of ministry I have always had an interest in and I am unbelievably excited by this new opportunity. But as some people may not completely understand this role I thought it would be a good idea to explain it here. 
There is a small Unitarian community without a building in Cardiff, and they have appointed me as their minister. However because the community is small we have agreed that we will view only a minority of my time as dedicated to ministering to that community. The majority of my time is for engaging with the unchurched populations of Cardiff (that's the "pioneer" bit). My job is not trying to attract people to "come to us" but to "go to them" wherever they are in the city of Cardiff. 
So my primary job will be to simply be present as an explicit person of faith in the communities of a large modern city. My job is to serve those outside the church, to explore their pastoral and spiritual needs, and to have lots of conversations. My job is to "listen" to this city, to "read" the city, to understand its culture(s) as deeply as I can. To be present and to be in relationships. This is not something that can be rushed, this is something that will take years to do properly. 
As a recent Twitter post from someone said recently:
What is the end point of this? Well, although it doesn't perfectly fit with my theology I would say the end point is up to God, not me! There is something inherently unknowable, experimental, open-ended about this project. Having said that I think faith should always lead us into community, and away from isolation and alienation. So the evolution of this may well lead to a (re)new(ed) Unitarian community or communities in Cardiff. We may, in the fullness of time, (re)plant a new church in Cardiff. But we may have to rethink what we mean by "church". It almost certainly will not involving owning a building. It may be just ten people in a living room, or a network of lots of groups of ten people meeting in living rooms, or... something else. It may not look or sound like Unitarian communities usually look like in Britain today. Or, it may not work out at all, and perhaps we will just learn some things through a process of failure. 
I think it is worth the risk. I have for many years argued for the Unitarian community to move from a "maintenance mode" to a "missionary mode" and now I have the opportunity to put this into practice. I feel deeply blessed to have been given this opportunity. I'm sure there will be ups and downs in the future, and as I say there's a risk this will not work out at all. But right now I feel that there is a real sense of God's calling in my work as a missionary/pioneer minster in a great city. 
As the Cardiff coat of arms says, "Deffro, mae'n ddydd" - "Awake, it is day" - time to get up and do something new. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Seven Theses of Unitarian Christianity

We're currently remembering the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther allegedly hammered his "95 Theses" to the church door in Wittenburg, on 31st October 1517.

This has got me thinking about hammering my own theses to a church door (figuratively). From time to time it is worth trying to articulate what my tradition stands for like this. So here are my Seven Theses of Unitarian Christianity:

Our understanding of ultimate truth and meaning is partial, every word we utter when we talk about religion is ultimately wrong, because words cannot capture Reality. We will not make statements that will stand for all time because every generation needs to seek truth afresh and build on the work of the previous generation. Nevertheless, we must speak our truth as we understand it right now, in humility and hope.

1. God is love and God is loving. 
Though we do not claim to understand what we mean when we use a word like "God" - though we recognise that "God" is just a label we place on something which is an Ultimate Mystery - we recognise the testimony of mystics and prophets that God embraces us with a wild and passionate love beyond our understanding.
Therefore we reject completely as a lie any doctrine or idea that contradicts the love of God, such as eternal punishment in hell for any person.

2. God is here.
God is not "in heaven" or some other realm of reality, but intimately present in every moment of existence. There is no gap, none whatsoever, between every day reality, and the divine reality. We are surrounded by love and beauty.

3. Paradise is here.
When God's love and presence is recognised in this reality, we awaken to earth as paradise, or as the kindom of God. Our purpose in life is to awaken to this paradise in all we do. Jesus, in his acts and storytelling, is the great teacher of this truth.

4. The purpose of the church is to seek paradise.
We open to paradise here on earth when we join together in the church. The church is a parable of paradise, the Beloved Community, where we learn together to become disciples of love. It is a great feast where we join together in communion with one another and with God.

5. We are children of God.
We recognise that every person had sacred worth and value. Every person contains the divine spark. Nevertheless it takes a disciplined effort to let that divine spark grow within us and for us to answer the calling of our lives.

6. We must wake up.
We are committed to a way of life and a way of spirituality that will awaken us and free us from all that keeps us asleep and enslaved. We commit to a life of truth-seeking, prayer, simplicity, humility, compassion, hospitality, justice, love, forgiveness, and nonviolence.

7. God is still speaking. 
Though we recognise Jesus as our teacher, God's truth, love, and beauty is not limited to any one person or tradition. We value, and learn from, all the great religions of the world. And we recognise that there is yet more light and truth to break forth from the divine.