This blog has been moved to ‘An Unconventional Believer‘.
Welcome to what we hope will be a "SAFE HAVEN" where we can share, as friends, some of the understanding that we have obtained from what might be very different journeys through life.
This material was originally written some 5 – 8 years ago and has recently been updated.
I first started questioning the Christian religion more than 60 years ago. I had been treasurer of an Anglican parish church for 8 years in the 1960′s. I was always asking questions. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t believe in the existence of God but my views have continued to change, sometimes enormously, after having been outside the walls of traditional Christianity for some 40 years. I now have a faith that I don’t have to defend, and this blog is a small part of the story of that journey.
You will notice that there is a welcome to what we hope will be a “Safe Haven”. This was to be a blog where my friend Dave Price and I were planning to share our thoughts, our writings and our very different journeys – we had both been writing for many years. Then in July I learned from Facebook that Dave had had a heart attack and died.
I first got to know Dave in November 2010. He was writing about ‘radical sheep’ and describing rebellion as intelligent resistance to the status quo. His definition of simple church was ‘everyone participates, contributes and learns’. He suggested that knowledge without experience does not translate into wisdom. He had strong views about our education systems, believing in the need to teach children according to their own unique character – that only parents would normally be able to do.
Dave was shaped by Scouts and the Marine Corps and used to put up a sign in a pub, “I talk to God daily – ask me anything“. He suggested that our message should be, “You are loved and forgiven – be healed”, and that it is religious people who need to repent. He suggested that too many evangelicals jump up and down, but wondered where the love is that draws others to Jesus.
It had become obvious that despite very different backgrounds; growing up on different continents;and having differing understandings of some aspects of the Christian faith, that we both had a vision of reaching out to those who have been negatively affected, or even manipulated by religion. For me there are two articles that Dave had written that sum up much of the common ground between us:
“The Church and the Genie in the bottle”
“My Favorite Objections to Christianity”
My immediate reaction to Dave’s death had been, “I’ve just lost my closest friend”, to which my wife responded immediately, “that you’ve never met”. I subsequently established that the last email I had from him, which had been lengthier than usual, had been written on the morning of his death. He had been in good spirits and had written, “Well, how’s that for conversation? I haven’t spouted off like that for awhile. You always have a way of drawing me out, of encouraging me to formulate in words ideas that float around in my head. Thank you for that“.
It was on 2nd June that Bob Greaves – The Unconventional Pastor – had a long post on his blog entitled, “What I actually believe“. I could relate to so much that Bob had written – but especially what he had written about the trinity and the story of Adam and Eve. But unlike Bob who describes himself as a people person, I would have to admit to being a bit of a hermit (who started programming computers in 1967).
With Bob’s permission I have re-posted his article here and highlighted some of his opinions that seem to me to be particularly significant – but like Bob I don’t expect others to agree with all of what are only my own opinions. When Dave saw Bob’s post he suggested that, “it’s almost as if Bob has crawled into your heart and communicated the essence of your faith”. But he also said, “It’s funny, there is an urgency that seems to have left us both, as if we’ve arrived at some place and we are still trying to process the idea that we have arrived at this place – a place of understanding the mystery of what I do not understand“.
We have all been on unique journeys and there is much we can learn from each other. Maybe, instead of concentrating on what we believe, we could explore how what we believe affects our understanding of the purpose of life – see ‘What is Life?‘. I’ve been using the internet since 1997 and shared stories with hundreds of people in that time, and my understanding of the Christian FAITH has changed enormously since then.
I think perhaps Dave was right. Welcome to my Safe Haven. Please feel free to share your thoughts here on the blog, by email or perhaps on Facebook.
Was it really only a year ago that I was introduced to WordPress? So much seems to have happened since then! This is a lengthy post with several links that I originally created in May. It sums up a lot of my own thinking.
It was in January 2012 that Internet Monk was reviewing ‘Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible’ by John Polkinghorne. He suggested that this second chapter is ‘provocative’ and that the views expressed would not be acceptable to those who hold more conservative views about the nature of the Bible. I have not read the book but from what has been written here I do find myself agreeing entirely with John. I also like the way in which Internet Monk has provided an alternative view here.
Then there was ‘The End of Evangelicalism’ by David Finch. His own description of the book is interesting, and then there is the link to the author’s favourite interview that seems to sum up much of what I see as the problems of evangelicalism in America – written by an evangelical leader who sees many of the problems from the inside and who wants to ‘save’ what is important to him. Towards the end of the interview he refers to the Anabaptist impulse that leads us to work things out on the ground in real life issues. Then in the last paragraph he suggests that it is getting harder and harder to figure out what the term missional means.
It was in April that I saw a review by Bill Dahl of ‘Christianity After Religion’ together with an interview with the author Diana Butler-Bass. I was not familiar with the writing of Diana but what I have read since rings many bells.
It was the final paragraph of the interview with Diana that really caught my attention:
Seminaries can’t change until denominational policies do; denominational policies can’t change until seminaries nurture new vision; and nothing can change until grassroots churches demand change. And for churches to demand change, they must change themselves.
I found myself thinking that that is never going to happen – the ‘old school’ understandably will not respond to change – and the ‘churches’ as we have known them will fade and die – just like empires that have risen and fallen over the centuries.
At the same time I was reminded of an old quip, “Why is the church the only university from which it’s students never graduate – and never learn to think for themselves?”
Maybe I can give you an idea of where I’m coming by highlighting a few of Bill’s and Diana’s comments. Bill suggested that Diana has been observing, questioning, probing the history and mystery of the practice of the human pursuit of the divine by those who diversely believe, belong and behave rather passionately. A story that at times makes us angry, confused, perplexed, disgusted and embarrassed. The story of where institutional religion came from and a look ahead to the current challenge.
So many are asleep and may be unaware that they are trapped in the wrong space. How do people discover what they don’t even realise that they don’t know? People are uncomfortable when what they thought they knew is challenged! Surely the institutional approach to facilitating true faith is seriously misguided!
More and more people are willing to express their anger towards religion in general and Christianity (or churchianity?) in particular – understandably! A suggestion that maybe Christianity was never meant to be a structured belief system. How many are captive to creeds, dogma and traditions? Some are still trying to build walls while others are trying to build bridges.
Who am I and who do I belong to? Are we willing to move beyond our own comfort zone – a pilgrimage and/or exile? Are we ready to take a counter intuitive approach and allow new doors to be opened to us – that give us the chance of making a difference (which might simply be to encourage others to question their own thinking)?
I have now read ‘The Beginning‘ from her latest book together with ‘A Resurrected Christianity?‘ and ‘The End of Church‘ by Diana as well as ‘Christianity in Crisis‘ by Andrew Sullivan. I sense that Diana has hit the nail on the head with her comments about the “3B’s”.
I’m no scholar but as my friend Grant (who died a few years ago) said, “you are encouraging thought – you are putting out a challenge – maybe asking the right questions that others haven’t formulated“.
Do we know what we believe? Are we sure that we are right? What do we really think of God? Have we shared these thoughts with others?
Do we really know what we think until we hear what we say, or read what we have written?
Do we allow others to question these thoughts?
Have we really reconsidered the foundation of our own faith? See ‘Stages of Faith‘.
In a note I wrote about ten years ago entitled “The Hare and the Tortoise” I referred to the dawdlers who let their subconscious minds do the thinking, and the hare brain that likes to have things neat and tidy, feels in control and does not like to feel helpless, confused or blocked. I would suggest that far too many church leaders with their academic qualifications fit the latter description.
In a short video entitled ‘A People’s History of Faith‘ Diana suggests that we look at Christian history from the starting point of the Great Commandment (“Love God and love your neighbour as yourself”) rather than the Great Commission (“Go into all the world”) for a new perspective on that history. This, together with the earlier comments about seminaries being unable to change, was another one of those ‘light bulb’ moments – starting with the Great Commandments is not enough – something is missing!
More and more of us are being drawn beyond the ‘conformist stage‘ and that started for me some 45 years ago when as a member of an Anglican men’s discussion group I asked the question, “What is the purpose of life?” and was told immediately by the Vicar, “Peter, you can’t ask that, it is the 64,000 dollar question” (a lot of money in those days). Surely we need to have some understanding of the foundations of the Christian FAITH rather than the Christian RELIGION if we are going to effectively love God and our neighbours? When I wrote ‘Stages of Faith‘ about seven years ago I think I sensed that I was well on the way to becoming an ‘integrated way finder‘. Little did I realise then how much I was still being held back by the religion that I had still not let go of!
If we move beyond the ‘conformist stage‘ and share our thoughts with others, we recognise that we have some unique perspectives as a result of very different journeys that sometimes result in cognitive dissonance – that uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.
When I read the review of ‘Christianity After Religion‘ and the subsequent interview, this was just another ‘light bulb’ moment that kept me absorbed for many hours over the Easter period. I just got the feeling that Diana, although she relates to ‘Progressive Christianity’, is as a historian, sufficiently far away to have a very good picture of what is happening and why she and so many others are wondering how this ‘great awakening’ is going to occur. For me her comment about seminaries just hit the nail on the head – they are just not going to change!
I recently listened to a ‘TED’ podcast by the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking that just said so much! I know why I believe and I know that it’s not mine or anybody else’s job to convince others. It’s obvious to me that there is a place for teachers to show the way, but only when they recognise that they do not have all the answers. I recognise that many older Christians are stuck in a ‘conformist stage’ and are likely to stay that way. I can also see that many more in times past, have lived their whole lives within a ‘conformist stage’ and that many evangelicals are doing their best to perpetuate that situation.
History is full of stories of the rise and fall of empires (and I’m not just thinking of nations). The Christian religion – or Christendom – is being undermined by the questioning that is taking place in the Western world – and especially through the internet. I have my own thoughts about where this journey is going. I may be quite wrong (as so many others have in the past) but that’s not important. It is obvious that tens of thousands of us are being drawn away from ‘traditional’ Christianity for a purpose. Many leaders are putting forward their own ideas in books and podcasts, and building up a following. My guess is that this is absolutely fine for a season. But we must never forget that it was Jesus who said, “Follow me” and that we are not meant to be following other men!
We have been called to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour. When I look back over a period of more than 60 years I can see how I have learned, ‘here a little, there a little‘. I have been given snippets of understanding. I have been involved in numerous projects within the communities in which we have lived, and in a working environment both as a chief clerk and as a manager of around 40 trainee computer programmers in the late 1960′s. After the breakup of the Worldwide Church of God I attended two counselling skills courses before a ‘Christian Counselling course’ that was meant to be a two year course that was crammed into 34 weeks (one day a week). After the first four months we were expected to have our own clients. I refused to use ‘guinea pigs’ and that didn’t go down very well. I was told that there was no point in continuing the course because there would be no way I could qualify at the end of it. But I did continue and learned so much about myself from the interaction with the other members of the course. I learned so much about how counselling should not be done! There were also times when others on the course were envious of the freedom I had to question what was being said.
I think back to some of my earlier reading in the late 1990′s when we only had dial-up internet connections. There were many booklets and articles that I read that opened up entirely new ways of thinking. There were a number of authors who had a big impact at the time. What has been interesting has been rereading some of those articles years later and recognising how important they were, despite the fact that I now disagree with some of the conclusions. There was one book in particular that had a big impact on my thinking – most of which I still agree with. But when I reread the first chapter a few years ago I was surprised to see that the whole book had been built on a foundation that I now see as incorrect – but that hasn’t taken away any of the value that I got from the book at the time – and that to me is important.
I’m an introvert who is not afraid to share his limited feelings. I had always been puzzled by my lack of emotions and had said on a few occasions that I never had highs or lows and almost always lived life on an even keel. It was the awareness of Aspergers Syndrome some four years ago that suddenly opened a door to understanding why I’m the way I am!
When I look back over the last few years I sense that the biggest lessons I have learned have been ‘why people believe what they believe, often as a result of divisive denominational theology’. This I believe helps me to listen to and appreciate where others are coming from who have been drawn away from the churches that they may have attended for many years. I am not a teacher but I do find myself relating to teachers who have been drawn away and who are questioning their own understanding.
What I found so significant about the review and interview with Diana was that here was a picture of much of what I understand of the American Christian scene. The scene in Europe and the UK is very different – we are much further down the road towards secularisation – especially in the realms of government. As a former Anglican I can relate to so much of what N T Wright is saying when addressing American audiences. I see what leaders of the emerging / emergent / house church movements are trying to reconcile – and that is obviously one part of what might be a great awakening. It seems fairly obvious that that is not going to take place in my lifetime.
In the meantime others who are not involved with leadership are also being drawn away from the traditional churches and often finding themselves isolated. This is the journey that I have been involved with for many years. Although I often say that I have been outside the walls of ‘traditional’ Christianity for some 40 years it was only about three years ago that I was finally led to share with my wife that I was no longer able to attend with her. It’s hard to describe the impact that decision has made on my understanding of what it means to be drawn deeper, but it does come back to the consideration of, “What are the Foundations of the Christian Faith”!
I’ve no idea what happens next – and that’s exciting. I guess my wilderness journey stops here! A reminder of ‘The Room of Grace’ and my reactions to the talk by John Lynch some 5 years ago. Maybe it really is time to sit back and encourage others to think for themselves.
I have been involved with many discussions over the years with people who have walked away from Christianity. I do find far more empathy with some atheists than with some evangelical Christians (especially those who seem to have all the answers). There was one particular discussion that seems to sum up so much of why people sometimes reject the Christian religion. What follows is my review of some of our discussions (the original author has seen this review but has chosen not to reply).
He had at one time been in full-time ministry. At the beginning of 2006 he was still saying, “I truly know that God loves me and nothing anyone can do to me can take that away – although he had had limited contact with other Christians for some 10 years. He had seen that the church he had been attending had a warped sense of community and was not reaching out to people. He was suggesting that he should have less fear of being open about his faith (he had been criticised for questioning), and he was considering the place of para-church organisations and the opportunities to mix with other Christians. He finally stopped attending church in October 2007.
One day he realised that he no longer believed that there was a need for a God in order for him to exist or life itself to be worthwhile. The main question he could not answer from his Christian beliefs was, “Who created God?”. He was obviously influenced by the origins of life – if the Bible is wrong about human history only being 6000 years it must be wrong about all sorts of other things! He then said that if Adam did not exist and did not sin then there is no need for a second Adam. And if atonement was necessary, how could the death of one man actually make God change his mind, especially if the man dying was actually God? It all started to unravel when he looked at the logic of the whole scheme of Christianity. The universal advice he got from his Christian friends was variations on “just believe” – in other words, just pretend to believe! Their response was to argue in favour of God’s existence either from Creation or by trying to prove the historical accuracy of scripture. He came to the conclusion that there is just not enough evidence for the existence of God or for the need for a God in order for things to be the way they are.
The end result is that he has no contact with any of his friends from church – it has been very painful to realise that these were ‘conditional friendships’. He suggests that he must be a bit like someone coming out of a cult and having a bereavement process to go through!
He now says that there are no quick fixes or miracle cures and that only he can help himself. He is no longer bound by the guilt of having to seek professional help in order to improve his wellbeing. He has developed a great interest in nature. He now knows what he is here for. “The world is being built on the actions that I and all the other people living today are taking every day. Human progress is actually an accumulation of what everyone from every previous generation has done. We all build on what has gone before, so I really believe that I am actually worth something rather than being a soul who may or may not end up in a lake of fire”.
He has some interesting thoughts about church – they don’t like people asking questions. Many people had drifted through the church over the years so they were used to people leaving. His suggestion is that if their lives were changed for the better they stuck in the filter and this created the group of people who made up the church. He recognises that the community feeling of being in a church with like minded people is very comforting especially in a society which is lacking in community – a social network that works – provided you don’t ask questions!
He describes himself as a soundly converted, born again, bible believing, spirit filled Christian who was attending a Pentecostal church when all this happened. He was not lacking in any aspect of his experience of God. He was looking for facts to back up experience and found the facts to be extremely lacking once the surface was scratched.
He says that there are two separate parts of his deconversion – his loss of belief in God, and the collapse of the logic of the Christian faith.
“If God does exist he has not had any involvement with the world since he started the creative process. His role can only be that of scientist, starting off an experiment and observing it. This is not the supreme being who will intervene and cure us of illness, forgive our sins or whisk us off to a better hereafter”. Also, there is no evidence of the creation of matter from nothing!
The realisation that his own religion, Christianity, didn’t make logical sense was a real problem. He had after all been a preacher, trained for ministry by very eminent scholars of the liberal Christian tradition, and his personal faith was a large part of his own personality for a very long time. He had been attracted to Christianity by the person and teachings of Jesus, and felt that if more people behaved like him the world would be a better place. He goes on to suggest that Jesus may never have existed and that the gospels read more like mythology than history.
He then says that there are all sorts of logical problems. People sin; God cannot accept them in a sinful state so there has to be a sacrifice of blood. God then sacrifices his own son, who is also God so that he can forgive us anyway; therefore there was no need for the sacrifice at all – and he says that he could expand on this for hours!
He wants to encourage Christians to think for themselves and question things that they are taught – suggesting that if they start looking they will find all sorts of holes in the scheme of Christianity!
“Understanding the purpose of life and our role in the universe is a work in progress for all of us. If it turned out that God did exist then I would be surprised and somewhat disappointed that he had not made himself known or helped us out from time to time. We live in a world of scientific investigation and discovery. It is not unreasonable to ask ‘Why?’ so I shall go on asking the hard questions!”.
Some people have said things like, “If you had experienced God like I have experienced God then you would believe too”. He says that he has experienced similar things but has interpreted them differently. Rather than looking for unlikely supernatural explanations he has tended to look for more obvious explanations based on reason and knowledge of how the world works. He feels that the argument for the existence of God based on experience falls down because the whole thing is subjective and cannot be tested objectively.
If he tells his story to Christians he says that the normal response is one of these three:
The Christendom Shift
Two opposite assessments have been made of what happened in the fourth century:
· That this was a disaster that perverted the church, compromised its calling and hindered its mission, achieving through infiltration what 300 years of persecution had failed to achieve. That this was not the triumph of the church over the empire but the triumph of the empire over the church.
[I now believe that there is another important aspect to consider – to what extent did God recognise that something like this would happen? Perhaps God gave people what they wanted, just as he had previously given Israel the king that they asked for!].
The basis of the Constantinian system was a close partnership between the church and the state. The form of this partnership might vary, with either partner dominant, or with a balance of power existing between them. There are examples from the 4th century onwards of emperors presiding over church councils and of emperors doing penance imposed by bishops. Throughout the medieval period, power struggles between popes and emperors resulted in one or the other holding sway for a time. But the Christendom system assumed that the church was associated with the Christian status quo and had vested interests in its maintenance. The church provided religious legitimisation for state activities, and the state provided secular force to back up ecclesiastical decisions.
Christendom seems to have no place for elements of a New Testament vision such as:
I found the following note written by a former Anglican, that sums up many of my thoughts:
The vast majority, who belong to a church seldom if ever, reflect on what it is they belong to, and have little or no awareness of the deep historical roots which lie beneath the façades of everyday church life. The first Christians were Hebrews – disciples of the long-awaited Messiah. The origins were found in the Hebrew Scriptures – a process consolidated by Paul within two decades of the death of Jesus. But by the fourth century the church had become the official religion of the declining Roman Empire. There were claims to absolute truth and invincibility but the church is a human organisation, the result of human choice and subject to death and decay like any other organisation!
Members have acted in ways that cannot be reconciled to the Jesus of history.
There was a move away from an inspirational interpretation of the origins of the church towards a sociological understanding.
There was persecution of those who didn’t conform – the threat of excommunication (and hell).
Did Jesus really say, “go and make disciples …” Consider that the results of missionary work in comparatively simple cultures was profoundly polluting.
Other religions at best, were seen to be misguided. Worldly wisdom had to be suppressed when it clashed with the seen will of God (e.g. birth control).
Truth is something that shifts and changes according to human perceptions and understanding. It is never absolute. The church in the West is in steep decline. Will a new tree rise from the ancient roots or must a new seed be planted? If the roots are diseased …
The church as an organisation is dying. Leaders can only lead with the consent of those whom they lead – but the church still retains structures, rules and procedures better fitted to a long gone social model. The church is losing touch with the world around it!
Some are trying to preserve the traditional essence of the orthodox faith at all costs, while exiles maintain the need to strip away the baggage of religion!
The practice of Churchianity as we know it – all the gruelling, unfruitful self-effort to change has very little transformative power!
The truth of the gospel (Christ in us as our life) is little understood.
There is some authentic spirituality in those passion filled churches that have better things to do than make converts, collect tithes and build membership roles.
Few people seem to have authentic transformative experiences – the rest just hear stories and believe them. How much harm do the majority of belief systems create?
There is a lot of deconstruction but little seems to be replaced!
It was early in 2003 that I had an email from an Internet friend pointing me to A Churchless Faith – an article by Alan Jamieson written in 1999. This was the second of three articles in a series. The others were “Ten Myths about Church Leavers” and “In search of Turangawaewae“.