Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Online Launch of Seeking Paradise

Part of 'Being Together: A Three Day Virtual Gathering for Spiritual Connection' (7-9 April 2020)


Join Jo James in conversation with author and pioneer minister Stephen Lingwood to discuss his new book 'Seeking Paradise: A Unitarian Mission for Our Times'.

What might the future of the Unitarian movement look like? That depends, this book argues, on how its members envision – and enact – its mission. Stephen Lingwood urges that Unitarians can evangelise, with a message of hope for a “beloved community” in this world: the Paradise of the title.

He proposes the possibility of a mission to revive Unitarianism not only numerically, but also spiritually. He takes the reader through the progressive stages of this idea and illustrates theory with examples from his practical experience as a Unitarian minister. He also presents new ways of thinking about the Kingdom (or “Kindom”) of God, and sources of hope in a world that desperately needs it.

Each chapter ends with questions for reflection by individual readers and discussion by small congregational groups.

Stephen Lingwood serves as the Minister of Cardiff Unitarians / Undodiaid Caerdydd, and is engaged in pioneer ministry in the inner-city community there. He was previously the Minister of Bank Street Unitarian Chapel in Bolton. He holds degrees from the University of Birmingham, Boston University (USA), and Manchester University.

"I believe that Unitarianism will flourish only if the work of each of us is driven by a clear personal mission, and with a sense of loving generosity rather than institutional self-preservation. Stephen Lingwood paints a picture which I hope readers will find inspirational." – Elizabeth Slade (Chief Officer, The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches)

You can pre-order the book here:

Zoom Link: Everyone welcome.

Monday, March 09, 2020

ANNOUNCING: Seeking Paradise: A Unitarian Mission for Our Times

So, I've written a book! It's actually something I've been working on for a long time, on and off, (like more than ten years), so I'm really happy to finally get it out there. It will be officially launched at the Unitarian Annual Meetings in Birmingham in April.

It is an exploration of whether and how a liberal and pluralistic church can do evangelism. It explores a Unitarian theology that is committed to a self-transcending sense of mission. I argue that we cannot try to grow a church only because we are seeking our own institutional survival. We must have a sense of overarching mission that is cosmic and theological. That mission, I argue, is seeking paradise, seeking a beloved community on earth where we overcome alienation with ourselves, our neighbours, the earth, and God. We then take that mission of seeking paradise into our neighbourhoods and practice dialogue, solidarity, and connection to make paradise real.

It's a journey through theology, history, and ministry that I hope will open up a lot of questions for people, and point to a future direction for the Unitarian community that is rooted in a deep spirituality and a coherent language of faith.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Multi-Faith Prayer Vigil for Climate Justice in Cardiff

Fe’ch gwahoddir i wylnos gweddi a myfyrdod y tu allan i’r Senedd, Caerdydd ar brynhawniau Gwener dros y Grawys.
Gwener 28ain Chwefror tan Gwener 10fed Ebrill, rhwng 2yp a 6yp
Byddwn yn cofleidio’r bobl a’r blaned i’n calonnau ac yn gweddïo i’r ddynoliaeth fagu’r ddoethineb a’r cryfder i oroesi’r argyfwng hinsawdd. Ar y cyd ag eraill yn gweddïo y tu allan i San Steffan, rydym yn gweddïo am drawsffurfio ein gwleidyddiaeth a chreu byd ôl-carbon llawn cyfiawnder a thangnefedd.
Mae croeso i bobl o bob ffydd a heb ffydd i ddod ar un neu fwy o’r dyddiau Gwener. Fe fydd yna gyfnodau tawel, ac amserau ar gyfer siarad/canu/defodau. Os hoffech offrymu gweddi, arwain myfyrdod, cân, côr, araith byr, defod, neu unrhyw beth arall addas, rhowch wybod i ni. Neu dewch atom beth bynnag.
Mae hwn yn achlysur heddychlon, di-drais a gweddigar, wedi’i drefnu gan Christian Climate Action Cymru, ond yn agored i bob ffydd ac agwedd ysbrydol.
YOU are invited to a multi-faith prayer and meditation vigil outside the Senedd, Cardiff on Friday afternoons in Lent.
Friday 28th February to Friday 10th April, Between 2pm and 6pm
We will be holding the people and the planet in our hearts and praying for humanity to have the wisdom and strength to survive the climate emergency. In concert with others praying outside Westminster, we are praying for the transformation of our politics to create a post-carbon world of justice and peace.
People of all faiths and none are welcome to come along on one or more Fridays. There will be periods of silence, and times for talking/ singing/ ritual. If you would like to offer a prayer, a guided meditation, a song, a choir, a brief talk, a ritual or anything else appropriate, please let us know. Or feel free simply to join us.
This is a peaceful, non-violent, and prayerful event, organised by Christian Climate Action Cymru, but open to all faiths and spiritual perspectives.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Christhood of Every Person

One afternoon a woman was gardening in her front garden, when she was approached by a stranger.
"Excuse me," he said, "I'm thinking of buying the house for sale in this street, I was just wondering if you could tell me - what are the neighbours like around here?"
The woman stood up, stretched, and then said, "Well, tell me, what are your neighbours like where you live now?"
"Oh, they're terrible people," he said, "Rude, unfriendly, selfish, trouble-makers, I hate them."
"Well, I think you'll find the people around here are much the same," replied the woman.
The man thanked her, and then left, and she went back to her gardening.

An hour later she was interrupted again by a different man.
"Excuse me," he said, "I'm thinking of buying the house for sale in this street, I was just wondering if you could tell me - what are the neighbours like around here?"
Again, she asked, "Well, tell me, what are your neighbours like where you live now?"
"Oh, they're lovely people," he said, "Friendly, kind, helpful, I've made some really good friends. I'm sad to be moving, but I have to."
"Well, I think you'll find the people around here are much the same," replied the woman, and then returned to her gardening.

This story hints at the power of our inner life, in shaping how we experience the world. It suggests that one person would find a place unfriendly, and another would find it friendly, because the difference was their own attitudes, their inner life, which shaped the way they interacted with the world.

And if that is true, it means that the way we change the world, is by changing ourselves.

The Islamic mystic Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Now, that doesn't mean that changing the world is not important, and it doesn't mean that everything that happens to us is our own fault. There's some New Age philosophies that suggest that if you "spiritually wish" for something in a certain way, then it comes true, and if bad things happen to you, well that's just because you're not doing it right.

You can meet that philosophy in various guises, but it's always rubbish. Bad things happen, sometimes just because of dumb luck, and often they happen unevenly because of structural injustice in the world. Oppression happens, oppression falls on the poor, and people of colour, and women, and occupied and invaded and oppressed people across the world. This is true. But it still remains true that the way we change the world is by changing ourselves.

The reason I return again and again to Jesus is because I find in him a model of how this works, a path to how this works. A way that shows what true liberation from oppression looks like. To understand that we need to understand Jesus' fundamental identity as a colonised person, as a person living under occupation of an empire. And then we've got to truly hear Jesus' words as they would be heard by colonised people. When we do that we will understand the revolutionary nature of Jesus' words.

But it is hard to do that, because the Empire is already domesticating his message within the pages of the New Testament. It's already watering down the anti-empire message in the very process of writing the story down (the most obvious place this happens is in the story of Jesus' death, which was clearly the death of a revolutionary, but the Gospel writers do their utmost to make the Roman Empire look innocent - and put the blame on Jesus' compatriots - which is actually ridiculous if you pause to think about it). But what they could never get rid of was this phrase “the kingdom of God”. He talked about it so often, it couldn't get written out of the story.

But so much depends on understanding this concept, this word. In Greek it's Basileia. It means Empire. The Romans had a Basileia. This Basileia invaded Jesus' homeland, killed his people, taxed them, oppressed their religion. And Jesus came with the message “a new empire is coming, an empire of divinity.” But the irony is so important to get. I think we should probably call it an “anti-empire” because it is in fact the exact opposite of Empire. It stands against Empire in every way. And so Jesus' message was: an anti-empire is coming to overturn the Roman Empire.

Now this was not that original. Lots of people felt like this, lots of people would have got on board with this agenda. But Jesus realised that Empire is bigger than just his current reality of the Roman Empire. And so, yeah, what if there was a war of independence, and the Jewish people had won, and got rid of the Roman Empire, and got a better Jewish king. Would things be better? Well, yes, in many ways they would. But don't you think that the Jewish king would have also been seduced by power and prestige, and used violence to achieve his aims? Jesus knew that there wasn't any point with just replacing one system of Empire with a different flavoured system of Empire. Because oppression and violence would always exist, unless you address the deep deep roots of oppression, the roots of Empire, which are the deep human anxieties that causes us to dominate one another. As spiritual writer Andrew Harvey has said, "an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, however righteous its intentions." That's true today, as it was two thousand years ago.

So unless you deal with those roots, unless you purify your liberation activism with profound spiritual self-awareness, your liberation will just create a new system of oppression. Jesus knew that a successful war of liberation would just replace one domination system with another domination system, one empire, with a different one, one with a different name, a different flag, but fundamentally the same thing. The only way things could truly change was by replacing Empire with anti-empire - with the anti-empire of heaven.

So Jesus says: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, forgive those who wrong you, when someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other. Because that's what it look like when a human being becomes purified by profound spiritual self-awareness, free from the anxieties that cause us dominate one another. That's what it looks like when a human being is operating as a citizen of the anti-empire. That's what it looks like when a human being stops operating from the fear and the anger of the ego that's always seeking to be in charge, and starts operating from the divine self that exists in relationship with the rest of creation.

We can call that divine self, that truly human part of our humanity, the Christ-Self, the Christ Nature, The Christ Within. You don't have to call it that. I believe it's the same thing as Buddha-nature that exists within everyone. But that's how we talk about it in my tradition. Within my tradition, there is an understanding, as Unitarian Alfred Hall wrote, that “within every human being is a hidden Christ.”

Christ means “one anointed” - someone having holy anointing oil poured on their heads, as with a king or priest in Jewish practice. It came to mean an ideal king. And the early Christians adopted it as a title for Jesus. But there's always existed in the Christian tradition this idea of the Christ Power within. And within the most radical Christian traditions there is the idea we can all be Christs, just as some Buddhist traditions hold we can all become Buddhas.

That Christhood is achievable in our lives. This radical idea has never been fully developed or explored in Christian history. But it's there. This radical-mystical, minority view that believes in the Christhood of every person.

The majority view is that only Jesus is the Christ. People think only a divine being could love enemies, reject violence, reject wealth, they think that it's not possible to be that loving and transformed for us mere mortals. And so this view says we don't have to be like Christ, we only have to worship him.

We see this shift in the New Testament. John's Gospel (which nearly all historians agree doesn't bear much relation to what Jesus actually said and did) has Jesus say “I am the light of the world.” But Matthew's Gospel, one closer to Jesus' real words, says the opposite, “You are the light of the world.” 

You have that light within you, you can shine. You can be transformed. You can be that loving and compassionate. You can become Christ.

How? How does this happen? Jesus is really clear. It happens from an inner transformation. You dig deep, you lay the foundations. Because if you don't, if your house is built on sand, when life gets tough, when there's challenges, your house falls down. So to live through the difficult times in life, we need those deep foundations, your house needs to be built on rock. To remain faithful when you're in conflict with someone, you need those deep foundations. To remain compassionate, when someone's really hacking you off, you need those deep foundations. To not get triggered when there's someone who really presses your buttons, you need those deep foundations. Otherwise your house falls down.

It is OK if you house falls down. You can rebuild it. We fail, we try again. But if you want to live without the constant crisis of your house falling down, you need to build on rock.

Jesus uses different images to say the same thing. A tree is known by its fruit. An apple tree produces apples and an orange tree produces oranges. And a transformed soul produces compassion.

And another image: your eye must be healthy. If your eye is healthy your whole body will be full of light. But if it's not, your body will be full of darkness.

The eye here is a symbol of vision, of imagination. What he's saying is we need a shift in our imagination. We need to shift from the imagination of Empire to the imagination of the anti-empire of God. Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” To solve the problem of Empire, we cannot use Empire thinking. To solve the problem of oppression, we cannot use oppressive thinking. To solve the problem of violence, we cannot use violent thinking. To solve the problem of climate chaos, we cannot use capitalistic colonial thinking. 

We need to shift our thinking, our imagination, our vision, to this pathway of living out of our true humanity, our Christ-Self.

The Christ Self is relational and connected. I'm not talking about a delusion in which you believe in your divine special self, and look down on everyone else. That's the exact opposite of the Christ Self. That's the ego. The ego wants to be in charge, the ego wants to be better than others, the ego constantly worries about how it compares to other people, the ego want to fit in, the ego is constantly scared of not fitting in, the ego is frightened and wants to lash out in anger to protect itself. The ego is fundamentally anxious, and operates out of a frantic energy seeking to overcome this anxiety. The ego is what happens within our souls that creates Empire in our world.

The Christ Self, the Truly Human One, is relational and connected. The Christ Self knows it's identity as a Beloved Child of God, as a citizen of the anti-empire, which looks like the garden of paradise. The Christ Self recognises that every person is also fundamentally a Christ, and operates out of a sense of kinship and sibling-hood. The Christ Self is what happens within our souls that creates paradise (the anti-empire of God) in our world.

The way we change the world is by changing ourselves. When we engage in spiritual practices that confirm us in our identity as Christs, as Beloved Children of God, then we grow in the sure sense of our true identity. We know we are connected in a deeper oneness. We are not alone, but in deep communion with all things. We have a confidence and peace that knows who we are, what we are, and we operate from that place of peace.

When we operate from our truly human identity, from our Christhood, our Belovedness, we are indeed capable of doing the kinds of things Jesus did. We are capable of non-judgement, of compassion, of totally committing to non-violence, of not being addicted to wealth, we become Christs rather than just Christians. We become people who actually act like Jesus rather than just people who praise him.

It's a path. It takes growth and commitment and forgiveness of ourselves and others when we get it wrong. It doesn't happen suddenly or all at once. But I do believe that there is Christ Nature within all of us, and that we are capable of becoming Christ, of living out of that Christ identity, of letting the Christ Breath breathe through us.

And so let's end with these words from Hafiz:

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ's breath moves through 
listen to this music
I am the concert from the mouth of every creature
singing with the myriad chorus
I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ's breath moves through
listen to this music.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Seeking paradise in Cardiff in 2019

When I started my work in Cardiff in 2018 I really had a blank slate. I knew that my job was to be present in Cardiff and to see what happened. As I look back at 2019 I can see the work coming into sharper focus, but it is still early days.

But I'm much clearer about what my work is. My work is to find places where community, spirituality, and activism are happening, and to join in the work others are doing towards promoting community, spirituality, and activism. Plus, to find the spaces where community, spirituality, and activism intersect, and to nurture those spaces.

I'm also much clearer about where my work is. It is, primarily, in Riverside, a small multicultural neighbourhood, nestled next to the city centre, beneath the shadow of the Principality Stadium.

I do get a sense of the work getting smaller and smaller, more and more concentrated on just a few streets, and that seems really important.

Specifically what has developed for me in 2019 is a formal relationship with a Riverside-based cultural organisation called Gentle/Radical. Gentle/Radical is the organisation I have found that is already doing what I consider to be my mission - connecting community, spirituality, and activism. Gentle/Radical are coming from work in the arts/culture. As they say on their website, "Our activities include pop-up events, exhibitions, performances, installations, sung works, published works, film screenings, symposia, walks, talks, meals, readings, gatherings and other actions that bring people together." Most importantly all of this work takes part in a framework of "democratising" - of making art and culture available for all people and especially those most excluded. Their work takes part in the context of a long-term commitment to the Riverside neighbourhood, and the people that live there. The first Gentle/Radical event I went to in 2018 was called "Rethinking Riverside" and was a conversation about resisting gentrification in inner city neighbourhoods.

Gentle/Radical are also very open to spirituality and faith being a part of this work. They aren't Christian, but they have fully welcomed my work with them as a minister because they know my faith is radical and universalist. 

My collaboration has led me into the arts world, which I find rather amusing as someone who's academic background is in science and theology. For example I was invited to contribute to Communion - an exhibition and event in collaboration with Gentle/Radical, Lumin Journal, and Where I'm Coming From. I contributed a piece of art/spirituality and also was part of a conversation about Decolonising Faith (more on that below). 

Gentle/Radical have been creating a more solid presence in Riverside by taking up residence in Wyndham Street Community Centre for two and half days a week. A lot of the work this year was taken up by redecorating the space and making it beautiful and usable for Gentle/Radical events, and as a co-working space for freelance workers. I've spent a lot of this year painting and decorating (though less than a lot of other people)! 

I've spent a lot of my time this year supporting events with Gentle/Radical - film clubs, events, conversations, multicultural community breakfasts. As well as doing practical things like opening up the Wyndham Street space. We have come to an agreement that I will give one day a week to this work with Gentle/Radical. 

As well as supporting other events, we are working on a project called "Decolonising Faith" - to bring together radical, liberative politics and spiritual practice within an interfaith context. We want to create interfaith work, not based on bland conversations with "religious leaders" but based on how activists of all faiths can use spirituality to truly transform the world. We are jointly committed to a liberation spirituality that seeks to dismantle capitalism, racism, colonialism, militarism, and we believe that spiritual practice is the necessary foundation for that. We are dreaming about a network of spiritual progressives, deeply committed to prayer and to the work of liberation.

I find this work truly exciting, and the more I think about it, the more committed I am to the need to marry spirituality and activism. I find this quote from Andrew Harvey says it all,
"A spirituality that is only private and self-absorbed, one devoid of an authentic political and social consciousness, does little to halt the suicidal juggernaut of history. On the other hand, an activism that is not purified by profound spiritual and psychological self-awareness and rooted in divine truth, wisdom, and compassion will only perpetuate the problem it is trying to solve, however righteous its intentions. When, however, the deepest and most grounded spiritual vision is married to a practical and pragmatic drive to transform all existing political, economic, and social institutions, a holy force – the power of wisdom and love in action – is born.”
We believe that we are in an urgent moment in history (though a moment that is the logical outcome of centuries of oppressive forces of greed, racism, and imperialism), a moment that requires the birthing of that "holy force". And we believe that Wales, as a small nation with a unique history, is a good place for this to happen. Of course it is happening in lots of places around the world, but we think this is a place where we are called to make it happen. 

So, we are planning towards an event, and a long-term work that will create a movement of spiritual activism. This feels so much like the work that God is calling me to in this moment. 

Meanwhile the other place I have been putting my energy has been Extinction Rebellion. While I have some reservations about some aspects of Extinction Rebellion, I think we do need a mass movement to create the revolution we need to deal with the climate emergency. I have done little bits of work in supporting Extinction Rebellion, like taking part in the "Earth Pilgrimage" by walking from Cardiff to Newport, and taking part in action in Cardiff and London
But similarly I've seen by role with Extinction Rebellion as bringing a pastoral and spiritual perspective to the work of activism. The most beautiful moment where this happened in Cardiff was our Interfaith Vigil at the beginning of the Cardiff action which brought together a number of faith practioners to speak and pray for the earth.
I'm also getting more involved with Christian Climate Action as a way to bring together faith and action.

The work is all still developing slowly, and that is OK. Some things I have tried, like running a "Canton Coffee Club" Meetup group, have not worked. But I keep up my gentle presence in these neighbourhoods. I keep going to my local pub and chatting to people there. I keep going to my local FAN ("Friends and Neighbours") Group. I occasionally join in with litter-picking community groups. I keep up my presence among the co-workers at the Gentle/Radical community centre. I work, and read, and write in local cafes and in places like Chapter Arts Centre. I am slowly building relationships with a few dozen people.

And I pray. Oh yes, I pray. Not brilliantly. Not as much as I fantasise about - being an urban monk giving an hour a day to spiritual practice. But I do pray and I do see that as my most important work.

I need to pray. I need God. I am certain of this. I am a Universalist and I believe in grace, not works. I am sustained by a sense and an experience that the work is God's, not mine, and I just need to find where the spirit is blowing and lift my sails and go with it. Spiritual practice is where it begins, and where it ends. And I need to stay committed to that.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Things are so urgent - we're going to have to slow down

(EDIT: January 2020. Since writing this I realised I got the phrase "things are so urgent, so let us slow down" from philosopher Bayo Akomolafe. I must have heard the words, thought about them, then decided to write my own thoughts on this, forgetting what started the process. But I'm happy to acknowledge my indebtedness to Bayo Akomalafe, and I encourage you to go and look up his stuff, because it's very good)

We are in an age of urgency. Many people, myself included, have talked about how urgent the climate crisis is. We have twelve years, or eleven years, or two years on some estimations, to avoid a climate crisis that will kill millions. Unless government policy changes right now we will be heading to a disaster.

Given that, it's completely understandable that climate activists are operating out of a sense of urgency. We need the government to act now and we will keep acting now until they do. This has made Extinction Rebellion, in my experience, into a very busy organisation. It has also led to attitudes in some quarters of "we don't have time for niceties, we don't have time to deal with racism or other issues like this, we've just got to get on with it." It means Extinction Rebellion is full of activity, full of actions here and there, not just the big London ones, but lots of local ones, full of meetings, full of online discussions that are impossible to keep up with unless you dedicate two hours a day to deal with it. It is very busy.

In the face of that it seems counter-productive to say - slow down. But I keep coming back to that thought, that voice of God even (through the words of Bayo Akomalafe), saying slow down.

Why should urgency mean we have to slow down? Partly again I'm thinking about this article. And particularly the insight that the American civil rights movement "was built-up over decades through direct, painstaking street-to-street organising, training, educating, network-building, and so on, within affected communities themselves. That is how the movement developed the capacity to eventually mobilise millions of people in repeated protest actions."

On a purely tactical basis it may not be possible to create a mass movement unless we do the "direct, painstaking street-to-street organising." It may not be possible to move the government on the climate crisis unless we bring about something like a revolution, and the basis for that revolution will need to be rooted in sustaining spirituality, and grassroots community organising that works in every street, in every town, in every village.

We might get 10,000 people at an Extinction Rebellion protest, we might get 20,000 or 100,000 or 200,000. It still won't be enough. It will take millions. And we will only get millions if we do something other than protesting and direct actions.

Of course we want to go as fast as we can. Lives are at stake. But there's no point going fast in the wrong direction. There's no point going fast if it's going to be an ineffective strategy. It is the old saying of "more haste, less speed."

The work might necessarily be slow. That might be the only way this is going to be possible. It might necessarily require slow, deep, grassroots work. It might involve a much stronger link between community and activism.

In the face of the General Election last week and the electing of a far right government in the UK, I think this is even more true. We will not get a progressive government in the UK without a progressive movement that is present not just during election campaigns but all the time. A movement that can stop the climate crisis, that can gain political power, will need to be a movement that is present in forgotten and abandoned communities. It might mean being a movement that runs more food banks, breakfast clubs, neighbourhood meetings, and makes explicit the links between politics, economics, and the state of our streets and neighbourhoods. It means seeing the work as being in solidarity with the poor and oppressed and seeing the work as their liberation. All of this work takes time. It takes effort, and it takes working on our own streets and with our own neighbours rather than just putting our energy into the organising of big events.

And ultimately it requires that we work on ourselves. This work is hard. It will require our spiritual health, and that requires an activism that makes time for spiritual practice and for the practice of sabbath, the practice of rest, the practice of slowing down.

Things are urgent, they are. But what this might mean is that, more than ever before, we need to slow down.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

God is a church growth principle

Depending on where you're coming from this might be blindingly obvious or something you've never thought about before. But here's what I want to say: one of the strongest predictors of whether a church will grow or not is simply whether that church believes and acts like God is real.

God is a church growth principle. This is something liberals don't seem to get. Liberals look at growing Evangelical charismatic churches and they say, “those churches grow because they have modern music” or “those churches grow because they're telling people they will go to hell if they don't join” or “those churches grow because they give people simple answers”. There might be some truth in all those ideas, but we often miss out the most important one – those churches grow because they believe in God.

What got me thinking about this was research into what matters to people when they become Christians. The book Finding Faith Today (1992) by John Finney researched 500 people who had become Christians. What was surprising about this research (and perhaps disturbing to Evangelicals) is that very few of them said becoming a Christian had anything to do with feeling guilty or having a sense of sin and salvation. More recent (but smaller scale) research by Emma Nash has revealed something similar. When new Christians were asked what was important to them in the Christian faith, what appealed to them, they said things like:

“I suppose it's just that having someone there all the time. You're never alone, you're never without someone who cares about you.”


“I can remember this particular day an overwhelming sense that God was there and he was listening, and I kind of didn't have to worry – whatever happened, it was going to be OK.”


“I think to me it's been more of a... sort of growing experience about God's love, it's sort of built up.” 

For Evangelicals this kind of thing is challenging because it suggests the message “feel guilty because of all you've done wrong and find forgiveness by turning to Jesus and asking for repentance” actually doesn't work, and isn't really something that's very important to anyone any more.

For liberals this kind of thing is challenging because to a greater or lesser extent liberals have stopped acting like God is real. Liberal churches do not see their primary purpose as inviting people to experience a personal relationship with God. They concentrate on social justice, on inclusiveness, on reason, but they are very weak on theocentric spirituality.

Of course some forms of liberal Christianity have become explicitly atheistic, and I have a lot of respect for that because at least it's honest and truthful. But many other forms of liberalism are just faintly embarrassed to speak of God in anything but vague and intellectual terms and do not act like God is a real presence, a real person in the room.

So here's my point again: I think the causes of growth and decline might be simpler than we think. I don't think Evangelical charismatic churches grow because they have modern music, or simplistic faith, or because of guilt and fear. I think bigger than all of these things is that they invite people into a personal relationship with the divine.

Equally I don't think liberal churches are in decline because they are too old-fashioned in style, or too progressive on social issues, or because they recognise nuance and complexity. I think bigger than all of these things is that they do not invite people into a personal relationship with the divine.

The most important difference between growing Evangelical churches and declining liberal churches is the Evangelical emphasis on a personal living relationship with the divine.

Yes, there are always counter-examples, and of course there are all kinds of complexities around this. And to “prove” this point I'd have to do a lot more research. But again, my main point around this is that I think a personal relationship with God is a much bigger factor for church growth than things like electric guitars vs organs. And we miss that point at our peril.

And I guess my main point is that if a church were liberal, queer welcoming, progressive, justice-orientated, rational, and also deeply deeply centred on the invitation to enter into a personal relationship with a God of love – then I think such a church would grow.

(The article that got me thinking about this was: Nash, E. (2014) “Redefining sin” in The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission edited by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross (Norwich: Canterbury Press))

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Protest and pain

What is the relationship of protest to pain? So often protest is a response to pain. A people feel the pain of oppression, the pain of legal and cultural discrimination and they protest against it. Political protest, political activism is a protest against the pain of a system.

Things get a bit more problematic when protest is not connected to pain. The great problem with environmental protest movements is that they are often disconnected from the experience of pain. In theory protest movements like Extinction Rebellion are responding to the pain of future generations, the pain of animals, the pain of the global south, but the protest is not a response to the personal experience of pain. Often privileged white westerns (like myself) do not experience in an everyday way the reality of this pain, and so protest is much more an expression of privilege. I go on protests, not for my own survival, but because I choose to, because I want to, because I have the privileged ability to do so.

Extinction Rebellion draws inspiration from non-violent direct action movements of the past such as those of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. But, as this long but excellent article by Nafeez Ahmed points out, the difference is that these movements were protests movements that emerged out of the experience of pain. Ahmed writes,
"The American civil rights movement succeeded in its strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience precisely because the very black communities rising up were the victims of the racist segregation and institutionalised brutality which they were protesting. 
The civil rights movement was therefore inherently grassroots and broad-based, emerging from the institutions of black communities. 
Its momentum was built-up over decades through direct, painstaking street-to-street organising, training, educating, network-building, and so on, within affected communities themselves. That is how the movement developed the capacity to eventually mobilise millions of people in repeated protest actions; and that is also how the movement was able to solidify and cement tight-knit networks of support across black communities nationwide. That is also how the movement was able to forge bonds of solidarity with white communities, resulting in peaceful protests involving black and white people. 
The goal of the movement was directly related to the suffering of black communities, aimed at ending the segregation, racism, discrimination and constant unmitigated violence committed against black people. 
It worked precisely because the people who drove the movement were the very same people who were suffering at the hands of the racist violence they wanted to change. It worked because they themselves were victims of violence, and the movement offered networks for self-empowerment and action against that violence. It worked because the solution was premised on core political changes directly related to the needs of those who wanted change; and disruption actions were targeted precisely at disrupting the system of injustice that was breaching their rights."
Because Extinction Rebellion is not a movement that grows out of the direct experience of pain, because the people who are driving the movement are not the same people who are suffering most at the hands of the system they want to change, it has run into problems.

Actions like the one on the London tube train have looked like (and I think were) the protest of people who are not suffering against the people who are suffering (poor, BAME, and working class Londoners). Of course it was not the intention to be against those people, it was well meaning, but that was the impression and the result.

The disconnect between pain and protest also means the Extinction Rebellion actions are, perhaps, a bit more fun than they should be. Don't get me wrong, I know people have suffered imprisonment, and nights on cold streets. I know many Extinction Rebellion activists are working very hard, making sacrifices, and are susceptible to burn-out, despair, and depression. But nevertheless, this is still not quite the same thing as a daily, lived experience of pain and persecution at the hands of a system.

Equally I do not want to affirm a place for joy, and, yes, even for dancing in protest movements. God knows we do need a place for joy in this work.

But when it comes out of a relatively privileged life it is a bit different from songs of protest and joy that emerge out of an experience of oppression and pain. It doesn't quite come from the same place in the soul, the place of joy that comes on the other side of pain.

It feels like what is limiting Extinction Rebellion right now is its attempt to do protest disconnected from the experience of pain, disconnected from oppression. Indeed, as the Ahmed article points out, this is a serious problem in its tactics based on a flawed understanding of the social science. It may be that these tactics will not work because the protest is too disconnected from the pain.

Then what is the solution? Is it possible to protest when you are not personally connected to the pain? Yes it is, it's called solidarity, and it's really important and powerful. Solidarity is the intentional practice to enter into the pain of another, to feel their pain, and to act shoulder to shoulder with them in the work. Or perhaps, behind them, letting the people with the experience of pain take the leadership and acting only to support them.

What has been missing, I think, with Extinction Rebellion is a deep enough commitment to solidarity. There hasn't been enough lifting up of the experience of people suffering under the climate crisis. We say "Listen to the science!" (and indeed we should) but we need to also say, "Listen to these voices from the global south. Listen to Pacific Islanders. Listen to Bangladeshis. Listen to people from Mozambique. And listen to Black Lives Matters, listen to Wretched of the Earth."

Yes, on a global and complex issue like the climate crisis it is much more difficult to do this kind of thing. But it also makes it more important. The only way Extinction Rebellion will mobilise millions of people in repeated protest actions is "direct, painstaking street-to-street organising, training, educating, network-building, and so on, within affected communities themselves." It will be the poor, the working class, and BAME communities that will be most effected by this crisis, globally and locally. So until privileged people within Extinction Rebellion see their (our) primary purpose as acting in solidarity with those communities, we will continue to protest outside of the experience of pain, and that protest will always be enfeebled and ineffective.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

We're going to need God

"We believe that the future of Unitarian Universalism depends upon becoming a transformative spiritual force committed to leading people out of the wilderness of individual prosperity and into the joy of communal intimacy and solidarity. This movement begins by reimagining our faith communities as sites of spiritual transformation committed to healing the world rather than as sanctuaries tucked away from it. Only by committing ourselves to a process of deep spiritual conversion will we be capable of resolving the environmental and social collapses occurring all around us...
The first step towards a solution is to admit that we are beyond the point of avoiding calamitous climate change... The second step is admitting that we need help. Specifically... humanity needs help from the divine and creative life force that is greater than the selfish interests of our individual egos. Anything shy of this confession will leave us with the illusion that we will somehow, through our own power and ingenuity, solve the problem. But we cannot solve a spiritual problem with intellectual solutions...
We feel called to help people experience God - the creative life force - and to restore a sacred relationship to our planet. We are saying, "Wake up, wake up! Put down your ego. Submit to transformation." We believe that our survival as a species, and the survival of many other species, relies on more religion, not less. And it is contingent upon a religion that asks us to practice, praise, and worship not for our own benefit but for the benefit of others. It is a style of worship that asks us to surrender our drive to fulfil our own spiritual needs and, instead, to seek out worship that aims to fulfil the spiritual needs of others."
Ian White Maher
I've already said we're going to need each other. I also think we're going to need God. In this climate crisis, where we're going to have to respond, react, and live through great change, we're going to need God.

I'm not talking about an external saviour in the clouds who is going to sort us all out. I'm talking about the God within. That divine indwelling that is nevertheless not the same thing as our egos.

The spiritual, psychological, and economic basis of the crisis is, at least partly, about the ego pursuing its growth and protection. It's about a sense of self that wants to keep acquiring and having power-over, which, in people who are already privileged, creates the system that we have.

This system breaks when we have the ability to say, "I need help." When we become capable of saying the sentence "I need help" we dethrone the ego, and admit the limits of our individualistic self. Twelve Step spirituality is based on the idea that we need to get to the point to admit we need help. Until we reach that point, we're going to resist the spiritual transformation that we need.

In the climate crisis we're going to need to be able to say "I need help". We are going to need help from each other, we're going to need help to share resources in a way we have previously horded resources. We are going to need help to live in a more sustainable, and local way. Living in such a way as to admit we need help will both mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis and live in a resilient way through the crisis.

So, if we take up the spiritual practice of daily saying, "I need help" it will begin to flex those mental muscles that we need. It reminds us that we cannot solve this problem through our own ingenuity and ego power. That is what has caused the problem in the first place. Rather we need the shift from the ego to the divine within that connects to the rest of the universe. We need the shift from individualism to divine interdependence.

We need to be able to say to the Universe, say to God (I believe that this is the same thing) "I need your help. I am dependent on you for food, for air, for existence, I am dependent on you for everything. And I need help in this crisis. I cannot do it on my own. I do not have the power to do it on my own. I need you."

This daily practice of prayer, this daily practice of giving the self over to the grace of God we begin to create the transformation we need in ourselves, and by extension the transformation we need in the world.

Personally if I think of all the problems of the world and think "this depends on me to solve" I'm likely to start to feel hopeless. There's just too much work to do. I can't do it. I can't even think of doing it if I think of you and and a few other people as well. I can't even conceive of it being hopeful if I think of a movement (whether religious or political) doing it. I need to submit my needs to the Greater, to the Totality. I need help, and I cannot do it without the divine help that is close by to me but also encompasses the totality of the universe. I need help from God. I'm going to need it. We're going to need it.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

We're going to need each other

What's becoming increasingly clear is that the way we're living in the rich west is not sustainable. We simply cannot go on with the amount of consumption we currently have, constantly buying and throwing away electronic devices, expecting to be able to fly several times a year. This lifestyle is only a few decades old, though it's the logical endpoint of the growth of capitalism and consumerism for centuries, but this system will soon break. It is also not evenly distributed, and that creates problems too.

What's the alternative? Let's start with something simple that I heard about on a podcast recently - a culture of borrowing. Say I need an electric drill. So I go out and I buy one, use it, and then put it in a cupboard and it remains unused for three years after that. Wouldn't a better system be one in which I borrow an electric drill when I need one, and then return it, and then someone else borrows it? If I only need something like that once or twice a year maybe it makes sense if ten or twelve or twenty of us jointly own something like that. Why do there need to be twenty drills in my street when maybe there only needs to be one shared one? That's the thinking behind libraries of things - and it's a really good idea.

That's the kind of thing we can do right now. But as the climate crisis gets worse and worse (and it really is going to get worse, the only question is how bad) I think we're going to really find that we need each other. We're going to need profound resilience in moments of diminishing resources, extreme weather, food shortages. Even if we deal really well with the climate crisis, at this stage it is impossible to completely cancel it out. We're not fighting to prevent the climate crisis any more, we're fighting to minimise it.

And so we're going to need each other, and if we start now we might just build the kinds of communities that will be resilient enough to weather the storm that is coming. A world where you don't know your neighbours will not serve you well in a crisis. But if we find a way to share resources, starting with little things at the moment, but building to sharing community together, it might just create the kind of world where we can live with fewer resources, but deeper connections. This is a practical issue, but also an emotional and pastoral one. The more I think about it the more I come to the same conclusion: we're going to need each other. And so community building, community organising might be just as important climate work as protests and activism.

I say this as someone who does not find this stuff easy. I know my neighbours, but not that well, and I kind of like the anonymity of a city. Part of me really likes being in a city and being anonymous and doing my own thing. Part of me really likes closing the door at night and watching TV by myself. The idea of a neighbour knocking on the door to borrow something from me does not thrill me.

But I really do think we're going to have to rediscover "the village". We're really going to have to think of ourselves as communities of 200 people who are connected to each other's lives. We're not going to go back to how society was 1000 years ago. But I think there is something of the rediscovery of community that is going to be essential.