Monday 20 April 2009

God is greater than our religious idols

David Dark is one of the most engaging, perceptive and passionate young Evangelical writers around. David comes from Nashville, TN. He reads big literature as well as angry paperbacks, and he writes beautifully.

At Willow Creek in 2005 I came across his quirky but profound study The Gospel according to America — a meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Dream.

In it he noted an increasingly complacent but angry “Gott mit uns” tendency among fellow Evangelicals. The god in whom we say we trust is Great Uber-Politzist in the sky, who just happens to agree with us about all our hot button issues. We then hive off into angry little knots of the likeminded and flame lesser beings from our self-righteous stand on the top of the hill. This “god” starts out as the One to whom we were introduced at Sunday School, but as our focus hardens, his focus softens. It becomes increasingly difficult to recognise the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ in him — his religion can easily appear to others a form of licensed insanity. Is it I, O Lord? By their fruit ye shall know them, as the man said.

One chapter called “A Song of Ourselves: narcissism and its Discontents in a Bipolar Nation” pretty much conveys the heart of the thesis. We are so damn right, there is no room left for God, who is bigger than any mental image. If we fix too closely on what we think we know, we become intoxicated by the sound of our own constant angry talk, and crowd out the space in which the real living God could change us. Whilst obsessionally defending the notion of Scripture, we haven’t time listen to its still small voice. What should we do?
We can refuse knee-jerk defensiveness and opt for silence... Silence might sober us long enough that we’ll repent of the ways our tough talk presumes omniscience. It might deliver us from the death-grin of self-satisfied self-confidence. We might begin to see the ways the Gospel intersects with the news of the day and th ways the word of the Lord will make us see and speak differently. We won’t have to know all the details of salvation, redemption, and the end of history, but we will know that Jesus is never a separate issue. His story and the community he gathers around himself are political, a sacred community whose power is somehow louder than bombs. A radical remembrance belongs to these people, because they believe that Jesus’ career was the radical breakthrough of God’s kingdom. Any authority that tries to reduce this community to a “spiritual” zone is speaking with a false objectivity, because the kingdom to which this community tries to bear witness encompasses reality. And repentance is the word for the speech and action that acknowledges the distance between our proud little kingdoms and God’s larger order, power and glory, which are forever. It cannot be controlled, bought off, or ultimately silenced. And within it, our delusions are being subsumed. The Lord is risen.
His latest book has just come out in the UK — The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. I have been reading this as an e-Book, and find myself marking pretty much every page for a quote or thought-provoking idea. His big point about God is similar to Karl Barth’s in the face of the growing Nazi certainties and confidence of 1931 — “Eternal Light requires neither fuel nor candlestick.”

There’s a lot of bad religion about, and every religion should bear a health warning, like they put on chainsaws (Excellent for cutting down trees, dangerous for juggling, lethal for carving turkey). It’s easy to understand why some people invent their own religion of no or anti religion. The answer to a bad haircut is a good haircut, not baldness, which, when all is said and done, is just another haircut. However all religion needs redeeming — valuing with self-awareness from within, and openness to that beyond itself. Questioning is the classic way this is done. Thus questioning his elders in the temple was a sign of Jesus’ wisdom not his awkwardness or vanity.

David tells the story of his grandfather, an austere fundamentalist preacher who had, however, a sense that God was bigger than his certainties. He expressed this out of all his certainties by saying by saying “When necessary, move on.”
It’s tempting to characterise my grandfather’s advice to my father as a safety clause, an escape route from rleigious ideology, as if the only hope for the religious is the possibility that they might just get over it. But I don’t think I’d bedoing justice to my grandfather’s story if I tried to suggest that his advice was somehow separate from his religion. Like many people, my grandfather tried to be faithful to a particular story. He told it and retold it. He tried to make it add up rationally. He wanted to bend his will towards a life of obedience to it. And — this is where it gets compliated — he tried to persuade people that much of what they thought was acceptable to God wasn’t. He tried to call them, and himself, to repent. he felt compelled by the story as he understood it.

Most redemptively, he felt compelled to remember, as he told the story, that his own testimony wasn’t the whole story. he sought God but knew he would never have God in the way one holds a copyright or a piece of property. God would never be the object of his search because God, whatever God is, refuses to be objectified. My grandfather knew he was not a knower but only another pilgrim — a practitioner — of religious awe. Perhaps, in some fashion, this describes everyone...

Jesus spoke of old wineskins that couldn’t contain new wine and about losing your life to find it. The apostle Paul talked about Christ-followers as having died to the old self. In this sense, we should take advantage of every opportunity we have to lose our religion. As wonderful as our religion might feel, it’s never so fresh that we should settlefor it. A living religiosity will be sustained by questions, revelations, and a determination to be trasformed by the renewing of our mninds.

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once remarked that people talk about religious faith as if it’s an electric blanket, cozy and available for quick and easy reassurance, an ever-present resource for avoiding the truth of the matter. In response to religion-as-sentimentality, she argued that a Christian faith is always more like a cross, a costly engagement with the world. The bearer of faith enters into the crisis of what’s wrong with the world rather than glossing over it. In this sense, O’Connor’s faith made her more, not less, determined to see things as they are, not as we’d prefer them to be.

O’Connor insisted that it was her Christian faith that kept her skeptical. She says that the cultivation of skepticism is a sacred obligation because skepticism keeps us asking questions. Against whatever flavor of brainwash is popular, skepticism “will keep you free — not free to do anything you please. but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.” This redemptive skepticism is a religious commitment to avoid being swept up by bad ideas, especially ones that wear a godly guise and demand absolute, unquestioning allegiance. Sometimes you have to lose your religion to find it.
That’s enough quotes for today, but I find David’s work well worth a read. It’s a prophetic protest against idolatry, that should become a classic. God’s well able to look after himself, if only we will stand back, shut up, listen and let him...

1 comment:

June Butler said...

God’s well able to look after himself, if only we will stand back, shut up, listen and let him...Bishop Alan, the only possible response to the statement that comes to my mind is "Amen!"

I've often thought and said that we should never be afraid of questions, but I've recently added that, in fact, we should positively encourage questions.

I love the title of David Dark's latest book. I'm pretty keen on the title of the other, too. I may even like what's inside the books. I'll have a look and see.

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