Saturday, 30 April 2011

Stage four faith

I have a story to share with you tonight. It's come from the preparation I've been doing for my next course essay, which is going to be about something called 'stages of faith development'. I shall explain what that's all about in a moment but first, here's the story. A guy is relating how he went to a couple of churches when he was around fifteen, partly because he 'was interested in checking out what this Christianity business was all about' but mainly because he 'was interested in checking out the girls'.
The first church I decided to visit was just a few blocks down the street, and it had the most famous preacher of the day, a man whose Sunday sermons were broadcast over every radio wavelength in the land. At the age of fifteen, I had no trouble spotting him as a phony. However, I also went up the street in the opposite direction to another church which also had a well-known preacher, although not nearly as famous as the first. His name was George Buttrick, and at the age of fifteen, I had absolutely no trouble spotting him as a holy man, a true man of God.

My poor fifteen-year-old brain didn't quite know what to make of this. Here was the most famous Christian preacher of the day, and as far as I could see at fifteen, I was already well ahead of him in my spiritual growth. But then, in the same Christian church, there was another preacher who was obviously light-years ahead of me. It didn't seem to make any sense, didn't seem to compute, which is one of the reasons I turned my back on the Christian church for the next twenty-five years or so.
This is an excerpt from M. Scott Peck's book 'Further Along the Road Less Traveled'.
He also notes that during his work as a psychotherapist he realised that religious clients of his who really engaged with the therapy tended to lose their faith, while non-religious clients who engaged tended to become more spiritually minded. Peck came to appreciate that people are in different places, spiritually speaking, and that these places can be grouped into distinct stages. He does offer two important caveats, firstly that others have put forward similar, more scholarly, proposals and that his categories are fuzzy, not rigid. People do not always fall quite as neatly into his psychospiritual pigeonholes, as he might like them to do, Peck writes!

Dave Schmelzer is a church leader who credits Peck's ideas with transforming his attitude towards churches. Schmelzer had become a Christian a while ago but still had what he calls a 'challenging' relationship with churches. This all changed when he read about Peck's stages of faith theory, which suddenly made sense of his frustrations with churches. I'll give a quick summary now of what Peck saw as the stages of faith, so that (hopefully) the rest of what I have to say makes some kind of sense...

Stage 1: Chaotic / anti-social
As toddlers always demand what they feel they need, people in this stage rarely consider other people's feelings, needs or wishes. Peck says that in general, this is 'a stage of absent spirituality and the people at this stage are utterly unprincipled'.
Stage 2: Formal / institutional
This stage is about rules that must be followed, corresponding (Schmelzer says) to a typical child of six or seven. Peck believes that the majority of church-goers fit this stage, being 'dependent on the institution of the church for their governance [and] very attached to the forms of the religion'.
Stage 3: Sceptic / individual
In the next stage, mapping on to many people's experience of teenage life, the person is questioning and doubting, viewing the certainties of stage two with some suspicion.
Stage 4: Mystical / communal
For Peck, there is a stage beyond the doubting and the scepticism, where it is often the case that the beliefs rejected in the transition from stage two to stage three are embraced again, albeit in a rather different form.
So there you have it. Do you recognise yourself in any of these stages? What has particularly struck me about the stages of faith idea is that it explains (maybe) why two Christians can talk together and each think the other is speaking a different language. Or why you can read certain Christian authors and marvel at how different their faith seems to yours... The church that Dave Schmelzer leads is in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a university town like its namesake in the UK. Being the home of two major universities (Harvard and M.I.T.), the town is full of intellectual people who love to debate and question. So these people are unlikely to react positively to a stage two, rules-based kind of Christianity, which sees God as something like a 'giant benevolent cop in the sky' with 'a certain kind of punitive power which He is not afraid to use on appropriate occasions' (quoting from Peck). Here's how Schmelzer describes his experience of this:
When I went to resolutely stage 2 churches, I was baffled... The things they talked about struck me as heady, as abstractions that I perhaps didn't have any quarrel with, but I kept waiting for them to tell me something that would call me into the profound but hopeful and life-changing mystery that I seemed to be entering. Instead, I found their whole purpose was to remove all mystery, as if mystery were the enemy and certainty were what we were looking for.
He says that a different approach is needed to share the good news of Jesus with people who have already rejected an approach to life that is centred on rules and unquestioning obedience. Trying to start stage two type churches in areas full of stage three people just will not work:
Many great people have been commissioned by vibrant, Bible Belt churches to come here [to Cambridge] and start a new church in the heart of paganism. These churches are often faith filled, but they almost always stay quite small. If Peck is right, stage 2, by definition, cannot reach those in stage 3. Stage 3 people, rightly, are never going back. We often meet folks who grew up in stage 2 churches, who led youth groups there, and who then went to college (that home of stage 3) and lost their faith. When they find their way back with us [Schmelzer's church], what they realize is that – to their surprise – they never quit believing in God. What they quit believing in was stage 2.
Mystery and uncertainty are okay in our spiritual life. Daring to ask questions like 'Why do natural disasters happen if God is all-good and all-powerful' doesn't mean your faith is weak. Instead, it may mean that your faith is stronger; because you're daring to ask such challenging questions. In any case, I think our churches and our society in general really must allow people to ask the difficult, uncomfortable questions. In explaining his use of the word 'mystic' for stage four of faith, Peck says this:
Mystics are people who love mystery. They love to solve mysteries, and yet at the same time, they know the more they solve, the more mystery they are going to encounter. But they are very comfortable living in a world of mystery whereas people in Stage Two are most uncomfortable when things aren't cut-and-dried.
And here's what Schmelzer has to say about his vision of what stage four Christianity can be. I think this is just beautiful:
Stage 4 is all about life transformation, about a God who actually does stuff that we very much want done in our lives, a God who navigates his way through all the evil and pain in the world to somehow triumph in the end, both in our moment-to-moment lives and in the world itself... [It's] about this unexpected God, this arresting life changer, this profound mystery who is mysterious primarily because of his profound desire to be known, to be walked with, to be drunk into our thirsty spirits, to be lived.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

I am starting a new thing

My friend Rob and I have started a new house group, with our second meeting coming up this evening. How did this happen – I never start new things! It's all very odd but also rather exciting... We've got two slightly unusual things in mind with the group, so it is very much an experiment. Firstly, our plan is that everyone in the group will be expected to contribute their ideas and thoughts for what we should do. It won't just be up to Rob and me as the group's founders. And secondly, we have in mind that most of the meetings will be pretty spontaneous, with everyone sharing in whatever way they like from their ongoing life with God. We want to give God as much space as we possibly can to do whatever it is that he wants to each week.

Rob's been involved in something quite a lot like this before but I've only led a few short sessions, not a proper house group. So this is all new for me – who knows how it will turn out? There's only Rob and me at the moment but we'll be chatting to people at the Sunday church meetings and getting something on the church website and places like that. If you're in Southampton Vineyard or you just live in the Southampton area then do get in touch with me to find out more. I'm on Facebook so send me a message, or email the church. We'd love to hear from you! And wish us well...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The drive home

I was out today at a little family get-together where my uncles live in Hertfordshire. Everyone had a good time, I think, even though the draught Aspall's cider had run out. My parents both love the stuff!

What I really wanted to write about, though, was my drive home earlier this evening. I started with Radio Five Live, to catch up on the afternoon's football scores (go Saints! Go Liverpool!) and then put on one of my favourite albums, Year of Meteors by Laura Veirs. You can listen to samples of all the tracks at Amazon if you like, and here's a live performance of 'Where Gravity is Dead'.

I'd not listened to Year of Meteors for a few weeks and I think that made it sound somehow even better than usual this time! And the weather while I was driving down the M3 was just stunning; a spectacular combination of clouds, sun and rain, producing a beautiful rainbow behind me for several minutes. It was all strangely elating, like a glimpse of heaven. Almost perfect music to accompany an almost perfect visual scene.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The bitter pill of relegation

As regular readers will know, I play chess fairly seriously. I'm a member of Southampton Chess Club and we're involved in a league with other nearby clubs. The league season is just about finished now and sadly my team has supped the bitter gall of relegation. It's funny how things have worked out, as last year we finished comfortably in mid-table. The problem is that our two top teams were both in Division 1 of the league this year so they couldn't share players. Once someone had played for either our A or B team, they were no longer eligible for the other. So the C team lost our strongest two regular players from last season and the rest of us couldn't make up for it.

You get a grade from the English Chess Federation once you've been playing club chess for a season and I think in every league match this season our opponents outgraded us, often by quite a wide margin. So we were always likely to be in danger of relegation, unless two or three team members had really good seasons. No-one did terribly, but none of us did that well either. Still, chin up lads; we ought to get on much better in Division 4 next season!

In other chess-related news, Norwegian chess genius and part-time fashion model Magnus Carlsen was featured in the Independent earlier this week...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Wolves and lambs, babies and cobras

Those of you who know me will be well aware that I'm a bit of a politics junkie. So I was struck by something I read the other day about two of Jesus' disciples, Matthew the tax collector and Simon the revolutionary. Here's the idea, from Greg Boyd's book, 'The Myth of a Christian Nation'.

Simon belonged to a movement called the Zealots, who formed in the early first century AD with the aim of freeing Israel from Roman occupation. The Zealots were key players in the Jewish Revolt of AD 66 which led to the Roman destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Apparently, Zealots were known to assassinate people like tax collectors for their collaboration with the hated Roman occupiers. So it's likely that Simon would have viewed Matthew in a very dim light. From Boyd's book:
Historical records indicate that the zealots despised tax collectors even more than they despised the Romans, for tax collectors not only paid taxes to support the Roman government (something zealots deplored), but they actually made their living collecting taxes from other Jews on Rome's behalf. Even worse, tax collectors often enhanced their income by charging more than was due and keeping the difference.

It must be the case, then, that being disciples of Jesus gave Matthew and Simon something in common that was so strong it over-rode their (pretty major) political differences. They spent three years or so on mission with Jesus, learning from and ministering with him. No doubt, this would have changed their political views, so that at least (Boyd again) 'the tax collector would no longer cheat his clients and the zealot no longer kill his opponents'. It reminded me of Isaiah 11, which imagines a time when 'the wolf and the lamb will live together' and 'the baby will play safely near the hole of a cobra'.

Oddly, though, we have no record of Jesus directly addressing either of the political views that Simon and Matthew brought along when Jesus invited them to follow him. Jesus teaches from an entirely different perspective and refuses to get drawn in to passing comment on which political view or 'kingdom of the world' is better. The kingdom of God is simply of a completely different nature. I'll finish with Greg Boyd's summary of the issue, which I guess applies more to what he sees in his country (the USA) but has certainly given me food for thought:
We have lost the simplicity of the kingdom of God and have largely forsaken the difficult challenge of living out the kingdom. We have forgotten, if ever we were taught, the simple principle that the kingdom of God looks like Jesus and that our sole task as kingdom people is to mimic the love he revealed on Calvary. Our unique calling as kingdom people is not to come up with God's opinion of the right solution to political issues. Our unique calling is simply to replicate Christ's sacrificial love in service to the world.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Full-time Christian work

What do you understand by that phrase, then; 'full-time Christian work'? I went for a walk round Lepe with a good friend the other day and we were talking about this, as it's relevant to his life situation at the moment. I suppose if someone gets described as a full-time Christian worker most people would think of things like youth work, church leadership or missionary work. What it really means is that the person works for a Christian organisation. And that's fine, isn't it? It's quite a useful short-cut phrase.

But I think there can be a problem when we treat church-based work as somehow better or more holy than other kinds of work. Or when we celebrate 'Christian workers' in a way that we don't extend to those in sales, catering, retail, nursing or whatever. Now I don't mean to downplay what people like pastors and church administrators do, not at all. But maybe we should give equal credit, praise and support to the majority of us who don't have so-called Christian jobs. In my view, we have just as big a part to play in doing God's work (I said I'd explain what I meant by that, didn't I? Soon...).

So this conversation with my mate was a few days ago, and then yesterday I saw something about exactly this issue on a blog run by some American folks involved in various churches, universities and Christian magazines. The full post is here and I've picked out a few points below:
Here’s the problem – when we call people to radical Christian activism, we tend to define what qualifies as “radical” very narrowly. Radical is moving overseas to rescue orphans. Radical is not being an attorney for the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. Radical is leaving your medical practice to vaccinate refugees in Sudan. Radical is not taking care of young children at home in the suburbs. Radical is planting a church in Detroit. Radical is not working on an assembly line.

Paul [in 1 Corinthians 7] wanted to draw the Corinthians’ attention away from their circumstances and emphasize that the full Christian life could be lived anywhere by anyone if lived in deep communion with God. Do we really believe that? Really? Os Guinness reminds us that, “First and foremost we are called to Someone, not to something or to somewhere.” We should remember that the word radical is from Latin meaning “root.” If our lives are rooted in a continual communion with God, then every person’s life, no matter how mundane, is elevated to sacred heights – including a suburban mom’s, the office worker’s, and the EPA attorney’s. And it’s not just radical when they behave like a missionary or social activist in their free time. Even working the assembly line becomes a holy activity when done “with God.”

Paul... did not measure maturity or commitment to Christ based on how “radical” a life appeared on the outside, or the visible impact a person made either missionally or socially. These activities are good and important, don’t misunderstand me, but they are not the center of the Christian life. Rather maturity was seen by the depth of a person’s union with Christ. The truly radical life is the one intimately rooted in communion with God, through Christ, in the Spirit, and that responds obediently to his call – whatever it may be.

So I’ve come to embrace the reality that my place as a church leader is not to get people to do more for God. Rather, I believe my responsibility is to give others a ravishing vision, rooted in Scripture and modeled by my own example, of a life lived in communion with God. And there, as they abide in him, calling will happen. The Lord of the harvest will call and send workers. And he will call others to live quietly and work with their hands. Some may be butchers, and others lawyers, and some he will even call to be suburban moms. And all of their work will be holy, good, and, if rooted in communion with God, truly radical.

There's such an important message in that last paragraph, I think. Our churches should be communities where we are encouraged (and ourselves encourage others) to seek ever greater closeness with God, which does not mean being urged to do more activity. A healthy and sustainable desire to do more for God will gradually spring from a life of greater communion with our Lord. Dare I suggest that putting the activity ahead of the relationship is a form of idolatry?

To finish off, writing this has just reminded me of a talk I heard at New Wine a few years ago by Mark Greene, big-time workplace mission man and author of 'Thank God it's Monday'. I don't remember anything specific from the talk but what is still clear in my mind is that he gave everyone a red and white badge with the letters FTCW on it (just like that one up there). Full Time Christian Worker... God calls all of his children to be full-time workers for his kingdom, to make his will done on earth as it is in heaven. Are you in?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun

I was away over the weekend with a big group of people from my church. It was great fun, especially as the weather here in Hampshire was so good – lots of sunshine and at least 20 degrees C. I played football for the first time in ages, spent time with lots of good friends and also made some new friends. I met people who had entertaining driving-related stories from the Middle East, sad economic news from eastern Europe and who felt cold in 20+ deg C sunshine due to growing up in very hot climes. It was really interesting to meet folks from such varied places.

Being quite a strong introvert, I often find being around lots of people hard work and, sure enough, I was pretty tired by Sunday afternoon. But it was all good and the people I met were great. It's so refreshing to get out of the usual routines for a bit and just relax with people without feeling you have to rush off anywhere else. And I also went out on Friday evening with some friends, a few of whom I hadn't seen for far too long! Then I had some people round for dinner yesterday and I met up with a more distant friend this morning as he's on holiday in the New Forest with his family. Unusually for me, I've been a proper socialite over the last few days! No fresh mango juice or shoals of goldfish though...

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Historical ignorance and why Jesus died

Here are some thoughts coming from my next course essay. For those of you who are Christians, I wonder how you would answer these questions: 'Why did Jesus die? What did his death achieve?' My guess is that you would talk about the idea of 'atonement', even if you didn't use the word itself. And my essay is about different ways of understanding and explaining the atonement, which is funny because until maybe three years ago I had no idea that there was more than one explanation.

I've been a Christian for fifteen years and through most of that time if anyone asked me why Jesus had to die then I'd explain it in terms of punishment and substitution; we deserve eternal punishment for our sins but Jesus took the punishment in our place and placated God's wrath. In the jargon this is called penal substitutionary atonement or PSA. It's the idea of the cross bridging the chasm of sin that separates fallen humanity from a righteous, holy God.

All the books that I read in that time reinforced this view that 'what Jesus did for me' could only be explained in one way. And I think the situation is much the same today among evangelical churches. Look at these online definitions of atonement that I found the other day, which don't really cover any other ways of thinking about the atonement:
To atone means to make amends, to repair a wrong done. Biblically, it means to remove guilt of man... Man is a sinner (Rom. 5:8) and cannot atone for himself. Therefore, it was the love of the Father that sent Jesus (1 John 4:10) to die in our place (1 Pet. 3:18) for our sins (1 Pet. 2:24). Because of the atonement, our fellowship with God is restored (Rom. 5:10).
God's merciful action of atonement on behalf of his people... is rightly called "substitutionary," putting his Son in our place and so remaining just but also demonstrating his mercy.

If you're still with me after all that then I guess you'll remember the furore caused by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann when they wrote in their book 'The Lost Message of Jesus' that 'the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse'. Here's a longer quotation (from page 182 of the book):
“John's Gospel famously declares, “God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). How then, have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his anger and wrath on his own Son? The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed.”

Chalke and Mann are rejecting the modern evangelical view that the atonement is about punishment. They give a brief insight into a different way of thinking about the atonement, a view called 'Christus Victor' which, some would argue, has been around since the earliest days of Christianity. In recent times the Christus Victor view was brought back into the mainstream by a Swedish pastor and then bishop called Gustav Aulén, who published a book about it in 1931. Briefly, the theory describes Jesus' death as a victory over the devil and all the powers of evil, releasing people from the grip of these powers (you can read a more recent defence of the Christus Victor idea here. Aulén claimed that many of the early Christian theologians and also Martin Luther understood Jesus' death in this way. Here are a couple of extracts from Luther's writings:
'He has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness.' (From the Large Catechism)
'He has delivered, purchased, and won me, a lost and doomed man, from all sins, from death and the devil's power.' (From the Small Catechism)

So Chalke and Mann were not really saying anything new. Yet their different way of understanding the atonement was treated by some as a modern, liberal heresy. I was thoroughly guilty of this 'historical ignorance' myself; looking back, I'm amazed that before reading Chalke and Mann's book I knew nothing of other ways of explaining the atonement. But it's sad that some people whose knowledge of Christian history ought to be rather broader than mine were so upset by Chalke and Mann's claims. This is what two very well-known Christian teachers and writers said about 'The Lost Message of Jesus':
'This is breathtaking coming from a professing Christian... God sent His Son to rescue me from His wrath and make me His child. How did He do it? He did it in the way Steve Chalke slanderously calls "cosmic child abuse." ' (John Piper)
'He [Chalke] is giving away the heart of the Gospel. I would never agree to give my approval to anyone who denies penal substitutionary atonement to be an elder at a church I attended, or to be a pastor or Bible teacher, or to teach at a theological seminary where I had influence on the appointment.' (Wayne Grudem)

I'm obviously happy for people to defend what they see as the best way of explaining why Jesus died and what his death achieved. But to say that someone presenting a different view is 'breathtaking' and 'giving away the heart of the Gospel' is an unhelpful attempt to close off debate, I think. They must know that the Christus Victor view has an ancient heritage, and also that many Christians from other traditions (especially the Eastern Orthodox) don't really emphasise the punishment-substitution idea? We should be open about our doubts and disagreements, treating with respect and grace those who hold different views to our own. Uncertainty and questioning are not enemies of Christ.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Abolishing boom and bust

It seems that modern economies inevitably go through cycles of boom and bust, with high levels of growth for a few years followed by a period of stagnation or even recession. Gordon Brown, our former Prime Minister and, before that, Chancellor, said that abolishing this cycle was one of his key aims. For example, in his pre-Budget Statement from 1997 he said this:
For forty years our economy has an unenviable history, under governments of both parties, of boom and bust. Stop-go has meant higher interest rates, less investment, fewer successful companies and lost jobs. It has been the inevitable result of a failure to take the long-term view.

So the real choice facing Britain in the coming Budget and beyond is between, on the one hand, muddling through as we have done for decades from one stop-go cycle to another.

Or, on the other hand, breaking with our past, burying short-termism and securing long-term strength through stability, sustained increases in productivity, and employment opportunity for all.

I wonder what he was thinking when he said this. Did he imagine steady, unspectacular growth in order to secure 'long-term strength through stability'? Or, even back then in 1997, did he have in mind what actually took place over the last ten years?

And what do I think did happen over the last decade or so? Well, it's got a lot to do with house prices. The Bank of England just released the latest figures showing how much money people are using to pay off their mortgages. In the last three months of 2010, seven billion pounds (or 2.7% of post-tax income) apparently went into reducing people's mortgage borrowing. This is in stark contrast to the period up to early 2008, when according to the BBC withdrawal of equity from homes was giving people a 9% increase to their post-tax income. I have not checked the figures but please do say if you think they're wrong!

Now I'm guessing that if my post-tax income got a 9% boost then I'd spent a fair chunk of that on stuff, on things that will feed in to the GDP figures. To steal a phrase I just read on a political blog one big reason why the economy is now in so much trouble is that 'we effectively brought forward into 2000-2010 the domestic element of economic growth of 2010-2020'. What people took out of the value of their homes, they are now paying back at a record rate (again, so say the BBC).

Why do I blame Labour, in particular Gordon Brown, for this? Because it was under their watch that house prices increased so much, allowing people to use their house as a giant cash machine. I suppose this would be all very well if house prices could just keep on rising in order to fund the increased household spending, but how can that be? How could house prices carry on rising at upwards of 10% a year? Did Gordon Brown think this is what abolishing boom and bust looked like?

So the growth in the economy was to a large extent funded by an unsustainable boom in house prices. And my point is really that Labour could have done something about this. They could have regulated the income multiple that banks etc. were permitted to lend for a mortgage. They could have left housing costs in the inflation calculations (they were removed in December 2003) and raised interest rates to keep inflation under control. And finally they could have been more cautious about the shared ownership and key-worker schemes that have expanded so much in recent years. People don't need all these clever schemes to help them 'buy' their first home if house prices are kept at a sensible level.

And all this means I have a hard time accepting anything that Labour say now about the current government endangering the UK's future prosperity. No, Labour did that themselves when they failed to keep a lid on house price rises and, of course, government spending while they were in power.