We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.T S Eliot
I came across the above quote this week, and I think it makes a nice start to this blog post. At the end of the last post I wrote this:
We need to become aware of our own history and story, of our own influences, of the way we are part of a wider culture and see the difference this makes to us. When we are aware of these things we can bring them to the text to also be critiqued. We can begin to see what we can hold loosely to, what can be discarded and where we can admit to simply not knowing right now.
So before coming to the more general part of my series I want to unpick some of my own theological background, and the way in which my life circumstances and situation have steered me in more particular directions. I want to do this because as I speak in a more general way in the next post I will refer to things from my history – and this might help to make some sense of that history.
I want to also say before I do this that I’ve been deliberately a bit vague about particular organisations – this is partly because I am no doubt unfair to them because I am simply reporting on how my own peculiar personality has intersected with their teaching and style – the results come from the mixing together of me, and of those groupings, so whose ‘fault’ those results are is fairly problematic to establish. The other reason for being vague about the organisations is that they are not unique. Every single organisation will have similar issues – whatever their theology or social background.
One key stage of life for forming my own theological convictions was university, and the years just beyond (roughly speaking age 18-26). It is important to say where I came from in terms of understanding before these years.
I had gone up to university from a particular type of evangelical background – with an implicit understanding that Christian mission involved both proclamation and social action, and that as Christians we needed to be engaged with modern society at a political and thought level. From my church in the years just prior to university I had seen the Spirit work powerfully in refreshing and renewing the church, and didn’t see why an emphasis on the preaching of the word should preclude an expectation of the Spirit working spontaneously and unexpectedly in the gathered congregation.
The theological understanding I was taught at university and through certain other organisations and conferences and to a large part took on myself was something of a reaction against this type of understanding. It could be summed up something like this: God only spoke in the Bible, the mission we were to take part in was only telling people the gospel (doing good works, and social action were good things, but not part of mission). The work of the Spirit was done only through the Bible, and expecting anything in addition to this was dangerous.
For example, at university I cannot recall any Christian meeting which attempted to address the question of how we could relate our studies to our faith, the focus was almost entirely on personal evangelism. In terms of our future work beyond university the line ended up sounding like: ordinary work had value only as it provided money to give to gospel work – so essentially any sort of job was fine, as long as you used it to give money to those doing gospel work (this was actually specifically taught in a book that I still have buried somewhere called “The Last Word on Guidance”). I don’t recall any attempt at understanding what a Christian perspective on banking might be, and what that might say to those looking to work for a bank (for example).
I was not totally sucked into a wholehearted adoption of this approach – but I found myself very much pulled in this direction. For me the pull was twofold – intellectual and social.
The intellectual pull was strong – through my association with those in the CU, and particular sets of books and conferences I had a clear grasp of a bible overview, a gospel outline, and received a regular, helpful, no-frills ‘magazine’ that contained some great articles that were genuinely helpful. I felt like I understood much more of how the Bible fitted together, and what the central message of the Bible was.
However at the same time as being positively helpful these things also produced very much a sense of being ‘in’ on some important discussions, and ‘in’ on what the Bible really said, and what others got wrong. This was grounded in a CU context in a group of people – mostly from the same educational and social background, and from the same context of Christian nurture who had a very clear idea of the direction the CU should be going on, the beliefs it should hold central, and the activities it should engage in, or not.
The intellectual pull of all I was learning gave me a way to be ‘in’ and respected by those running things. My own strong background of bible knowledge, growing understanding of church history and ability to think strategically meant I could be respected even as I struggled socially with all other aspects of university life.
I couldn’t muster up enough wisdom and courage to actually book an appointment to talk about this with anyone at college, or to find someone at church who I could really explain myself to (and churches in the town were fairly woefully under-resourced in the early 90s), and so I had really struggled to work out how to fit in.
So the sense of being ‘inside’ was really important to me, but was also my first taste of one of the most potentially dangerous realities of any organisation or group: the lure of an ‘inner ring’. The ‘inner ring’ is a concept I got from CS Lewis who wrote an essay about it, as well as portraying it in gripping narrative form in “That Hideous Strength”.
The idea that Lewis outlines is of the inner ring is that any organisation or group has an ‘inner core’ who really know what is going on – it may be the same as those notionally in charge, but it may not. The ‘inner core’ will not be obvious at first, but gradually if you are observing keenly you will begin to see how those who really have influence are linked together. At one level this is normal and natural, and it least begins because those most motivated and committed to an organisation or group naturally get together – but where it becomes a problem is when the desire to get ‘inside’ leads an individual, or group, to become something that they are not in order to fit – and perhaps ultimately to do actions that normally would be regarded as wrong.
It was at university that I really saw the pull of this idea, and began to understand how powerful it is even within Christian circles. The intoxication of the ‘inner ring’ is that ‘we’ are the people who really understand the way the world is, and anyone outside the circle is somehow suspect. The ‘inner ring’ of the ‘CU’ was linked to an ‘inner ring’ in wider church circles, and it felt somehow important to be ‘inside’.
In a CU context – and in a church context – it mingled and mingles with certain theological concepts to produce a particularly powerful mix. There is the automatic assumptions that what ‘we’ believe is correct, and that we can assume certain things without even saying them. A quick look, a set of stock phrases, and so much can be communicated between two people without anything needing to be said, or even consciously thought.
Indeed it can be almost be uncomfortable to even consider saying something that will disrupt the cosy thought patterns of the conversation – even if there is something important that does need to be said. To say this is not to condemn one particular group or other – if Lewis is right ‘rings’ are endemic within society, and to a large degree inevitable – the important thing is to be aware of their existence and understand the impact they may be having on one’s behaviour.
Thus the intellectual and social pull of a ‘ring’ can be really strong. I think that one of the key things that many of us need to ask ourselves in terms of understanding our own experiences and culture frameworks better is ‘what do we want to be on the inside of?’ Who do we want respect from? When we ask ourselves that question we will begin to get a better idea of the values and ideas and behaviours we will tend to prize above others.
In my case the ‘rings’ I could see and the people I looked to for respect or to imitate tended to be intellectual in their approach to faith and the Christian life – with a heavy emphasis on biblical understanding and apologetic arguments. Concern for right behaviour tended to be limited to a particular set of sins rather than the whole of life including our work activities, and our relationships in terms of seeing other people as people to be cared for and cherished. People’s issues and difficulties tended to be overridden by the aims and structures of the organisation.
Rings can have an overpowering lure, but for me I avoided full immersion into the language and concepts of the university type of inner ring because at the same time as feeling the pull of this ‘inner ring’ I was pulled in a different direction by the youth organisation I helped with and my home church which pushed my formation in different directions, with a much stronger emphasis on experience and on behaviour in all of life.
I moved back and forth from an environment where God never spoke outside the bible and where everything was tightly controlled to a youth group where we were encouraged to listen to God and to expect prayer to make a difference – and an environment on our summer camps where I knew that God intervened to answer prayer in unexpected ways. I remember vividly the sense I had one year that I was supposed to share a bible verse in an evening meeting that I ‘knew’ according to all my recent theological learning was out of context and wrong. I also remember how utterly helpful someone found it when I shared that verse, and as an experience it helped me to see the unexpected ways that God can speak.
The effect of this was that I felt a fairly strong tension in terms of being pulled one way at university and another in my ‘home’ environment. In many ways my life in my late 20s was one of learning to make an uneasy peace between the two sets of experiences. I moved back to Guildford, but to a different church – a reformed (‘grace’) baptist church, rather than the Anglican church of my upbringing (actually very similar theologically to the Anglican churches I had been at for the previous 2 years, but without the wider denominational struggles), but also to a renewed commitment to the youth organisation in Guildford in which I had grown up. Involvement in this group meant that I worked with Christians from all sorts of different backgrounds, in a context where a diversity of evangelical views on different issues was expected and discussion welcomed, as well as the expectation that God could and did speak in ways ‘outside the box’ of my conservative evangelical grid.
Since then I’ve done further studies, and had my mind stretched in different ways, and my understanding and approach to life changed by a combination of different factors – but ultimately I find at the moment that I have come back to the basic understanding where I started this post:
I now have once more an understanding that Christian mission involves both proclamation and social action, and that as Christians we needed to be engaged with modern society at a political and thought level. I have seen the Spirit work powerfully in various contexts, and I don’t see why an emphasis on the preaching of the word should preclude an expectation of the Spirit working spontaneously and unexpectedly in the gathered congregation.
I rejoice in what I knew before university, and what was wonderfully reinforced during those years. It is right that God speaks through the Bible, it is right to say that all of our ministry and work needs to be Bible based, and Bible directed. It is right that at the heart of the gospel is the reality that on the cross God in Christ takes on himself the punishment our sins deserve, that we might be set free and stand before God as those who are ‘not guilty’. It is right to say that people need to hear this good news.
But it is also right to say that the Spirit prompts us to obey God in particular ways, to help particular people and that the Spirit shows us God’s love for us in all sorts of ways and through all sorts of events. It is right to say that every job matters to God, and that as Christians we need to think about how all of our lives should be lived for God’s glory – and understand where in our jobs we need to be careful that we are not just assuming we should do it just like everyone else around us does. It is right to say that both men and women are gifted for teaching and leadership in God’s people and need to be able to exercise those gifts together. It is right to say that as those who signpost God’s kingdom here and now we should try to show what God’s kingdom will look like by living lives that show what God’s justice and love look like – and that this is part of God’s mission in the world, as too is taking care of God’s good creation.
What I want to do in the next post(s) is unpick a bit more what it means to get back to the starting point – but yet see things differently. I want to show why I think that a journey away from where we are is often an important part to returning to a starting point with a new perspective. To do this I will make use of some ideas I have gleaned from one particular philosopher/theologian in my studies.
I think this is really important because it means that ultimately growing up doesn’t mean discarding key convictions – but can mean exploring lots of other things before those key convictions can be refined and revitalised. I want to clarify what I mean by all this as it has worked out in specific areas of my understanding and my life. I then want to develop those thoughts into a more generic approach that will be helpful to others wanting to be faithful to God and his word, whilst growing and developing and living alongside people in an increasingly messy, fragile and broken world. That’s quite a challenge – we’ll see how far I can get in a blog post or two!