Life after Faith

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It seems incredible that it’s almost two years since I started this blog and yet I have said so little! There is a reason. During this time my whole belief system has been turned upside down. The reason is that I have done the unthinkable and questioned everything that I formally believed. I say unthinkable because my former experiences of faith meant that you didn’t ask questions – where’s the faith in that? There’s the paradox you see – is faith built on knowledge or is spiritual knowledge built on faith?

It has also been a necessary therapeutic journey in coming to terms with my depression.

I seem to remember discussing faith issues some thirty/forty years ago with anybody that would sit still long enough for me to ask their point of view. The response was usually the same – ‘my faith is a personal affair and I don’t discuss it!’

How times change. The issues of faith are now in the news pretty much every single day relating to ethnicity, what the Pope’s latest idea is and the growth of Islam and all that pertains to it.

I’ll be honest, I’ve come to dislike the concept of faith! It seems to stand for so many negatives. Guilt, persecution, pointless suffering, condemnation are just a few of it’s unsavoury qualities. I also think it’s bad for your health – but that’s for another day!

I’ve just finished reading, A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity by Nick Page.

It covers the period from the birth of the Christian church to the present day. It is an incisive read interspersed with Page’s much needed humour!

Basically, Christian history doesn’t have a high point or ‘golden era’. It appears to be a tale of those that were able to assume power that believed a certain creed – and ‘God’ help you if you disagreed with them.

I now accept that my own faith walk came to a juddering halt some time ago.

It’s very hard stepping outside of a zone where you were once so confident. Will I be damned? Am I going to hell? Will my life now fall apart now that I am no longer a believer? Yes, there is always guilt – the gift that keeps on giving!

I have a few articles planned on faith stuff that I will publish in the coming weeks.

And yes, I still regard myself as a pilgrim albeit a pretty agnostic one!

Your comments are welcome.

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Free at last..

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In a recent blog I had a ramble about the adjective ‘Christian’ so I thought I would have a go about another monumental bugbear of mine, namely, ‘Church’. Thinking about it, this singular entity has been more of an aggravation to me that anything else I can think of.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve never found one that I’m truly happy with but I’ve certainly given it a good go – and before you say it, I know there is no such thing as a perfect church.

The problem is that there is no real point of reference. Jesus said absolutely nothing about what a church should be like. He actually said nothing about theology at all.

His message was that of God’s great love and grace. There is the assurance of his presence in our lives (which for me is the ‘abundant’ part) and there is eternal life for those that want it.

Fundamentalism (a term not much used in the UK, although we do have our versions) has become something of a pejorative term. Churches that adopt strict doctrines that usually relate to lifestyle issues are pretty much legalistic in their outlook. In my experience at least, those that set themselves up as ‘pastors’ are usually untrained in every respect which includes theology, pastoral training, people management and not forgetting – financial probity. I have found such people hugely insecure which renders their ‘ministry’ as nothing short of brutal. It’s a strange irony but there it is. As a result of membership of such places I became a depressive and a self loather.

Grace in Christianity is the free and unmerited favour of God. How sad it is that church is rarely a place of grace but one of control and judgement.

Over the years I have found that there is rarely any room for someone that is a bit of an individual. I am, of course, speaking of someone like myself and others like me. I have seen many an attempt to crush a creative talent and to remould it into the template of the given leadership. And if you’re a free thinker – then God help you (no pun intended).

I was taught at the outset that the world was not my home. Only in Christian fellowship did we find the authentic and the real. I’m sorry to say that most of the time I have found the opposite to be true. Game playing is no substitute for who we really are. I am not a happy clappy person and nothing will make me otherwise. Nowadays I am a sporadic worshipper at our local cathedral. I appreciate it because I can remain virtually anonymous. I don’t wish that to sound anti-social as I’m certainly not that way inclined. What I mean is that now I only let those closest to me into my life and its infinte variety. I am no longer interested in what I call ‘gratuitous’ fellowship. Such places bring nothing but guilt and bondage – the very things we are supposed to be freed from. If God can take me as I am, that is good enough for me – church or no church!

Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty I am free at last.’

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Road to Emmaus

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Michelangelo Caravaggio was an Italian artist active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily between 1592 and 1610. He worked in the early Baroque period.

The story of the Road to Emmaus is found in St. Luke’s gospel and begins a few days after the crucifixion. Two followers of Jesus are walking to Emmaus which was located west of Jerusalem. The gospel suggests it was a distance of seven miles but this is disputed.

These two dejected followers, one of which we know as Cleopas were talking of the recent events as they walked along. They were joined by a stranger who walked with them and enquired as to what they were discussing. They were surprised of his ignorance of this huge event. They told of how their leaders had handed Jesus over for execution. They explained that they had hoped that he would redeem Israel and that it was now the third day since events took place. They told of how some women of their group had visited the tomb to find it empty. A vision of angels said he was alive. They explained that some their group went to the tomb and found it empty. They did not see him. The stranger rebuked them for their ignorance of the prophecies relating to the Messiah. He interpreted all the scriptures relating to the Messiah. As they came to the village, they invited the stranger to stay with them as it was late in the day.

Now we get to the painting.

The painting depicts a simple table setting. The bowl of fruit sits precariously on the edge of the table. The apples look speckled and bruised. Jesus is not shown as the traditional blue-eyed bearded blonde. He is clean shaven and almost effeminate in comparison to the craggy appearance of his friends. Neither do we see any holes in his hands. The figure on the right is wearing a pilgrims badge which was a scallop shell. This is a little artistic licence as scallop shells were distributed to Compostela pilgrims from the 12th century. It’s worth mentioning that the technique of the dark heavy shadow is called ‘Tenebrism’ and was invented by Caravaggio and gained popularity amongst painters during the 17th century.

Back to the story.

As Jesus sat at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then we see the moment of revelation as they realise that this was Jesus – then he vanished from their sight!

Back to the painting.

At this moment, I always think of the painting as a frame from a film. If we could see the next frame, the scene would be exactly the same – but without Jesus. Our pilgrim friend would still have his hands outstreached – but looking into an empty space. Amazing don’t you think!

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To be a Pilgrim

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

John Bunyan

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A pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is a traveller (literally one who has come from afar) who is on a journey to a holy place.

So what’s in a title?

The followers of Jesus were called disciples.

Later on his followers were called Christians.

The first recorded use of the term is in the New Testament, in Acts 11:26, after Barnabas brought Saul (Paul) to Antioch where they taught the disciples for about a year. The text says: “[…] the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”

James Moffatt suggested that it was “coined by the pagan slang” of the citizens of Antioch (1906, 316), and countless others have echoed that sentiment, including some of the restoration heritage (Campbell 1914, 95). However, some disagree with that view.

I’ve always found the word Christian somewhat paradoxical. If describing a follower of Jesus, then surely the term should suggest someone that is trustworthy, moral and godly. Yet, when stating that someone is a Christian, I have seen immediate suspicion fall across the listeners face. I’ve even heard the expression, ‘ I don’t trust anybody that has no vices!’ The word ‘Christian’ can even evoke a kind of fearful response, ‘Oh no, no Bible bashers please!’ Then there is the judgment from other Christians because you might not do something according to their method or you might have failed in some way – perish the thought!

So there’s the problem. It appears to be such a definitive word. The word suggests perfection, when we know that not to be the case. It also has an air of superiority about it. The problem isn’t with the word but the general understanding of it. Speaking as somebody that has considered himself a Christian for many years, it has actually been quite a heavy piece of baggage. Expectations have often been too high for both others and myself.

I much prefer the title pilgrim. Far better to be described as a traveller through an imperfect life that will one day end. A pilgrim might get lost, he might fall off his horse, he might wonder whether the journey is worth it. Whichever it is, nobody will think the worst of him. After all, isn’t that what Christianity really is – a journey ?

What do you think?

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My Journey

I attended a boarding school in London. It was there that my first notions of God were formed. We attended chapel every day – sometimes three times on Sunday! The services followed the Anglican Common Book of Prayer. There was no heavy preaching of hellfire and brimstone. The services were purely devotional according to the Church of England liturgy. In later years I would be told that such worship was dead, unchallenging and lifeless – but I’m getting ahead of myself!

Several years after leaving school I found myself at a Billy Graham Crusade. Behind the preacher was a banner which read, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’. Like many on that day, I ‘became’ a Christian – an action that I have questioned many times in the intervening forty odd years since – but there I go again, getting ahead of myself!

Coinciding with my ‘conversion’, the ‘charismatic movement’ was in full flow. Looking back, it was a kind of febrile rebellion against traditional Church values. I witnessed many churches split and divide.

Teaching on the ministry of the Holy Spirit was presented as a direct challenge to  the prevalent eccliastical structure (I was, at that time, a member of my local Anglican Church). In short, the movement appeared to be divisive and destructive although others would say otherwise – including myself at the time.  The emphasis was on the Baptism of the Holy Spirit and the spiritual gifts which included speaking in tongues. The doctrine then was, and is, highly contentious in that conversion was the first experience and the baptism of the holy spirit was the second.

The first question I was often asked when in church meetings was, ‘do you speak in tongues’ – usually before even asking my name! The answer was always the same. No. And I never have.

After a short while, it became clear that there was an elitist attitude towards those that had received this ‘blessing’ and those that had not. To be honest, my attitude was that they were just making it all up speaking jibberish – I think I still do. There will be opportunities aplenty to discuss this second experience so I don’t wish to dwell on it here any further suffice to say that I now believe it’s rubbish.

The other outcome of the charismatic experience was the form that worship would (or should) take. As an ex-professional musician I was often ‘conscripted’ to lead worship or participate in worship groups. I willingly joined in as I was told it was ‘good for me’ and I tried very hard to believe it and to enthusiastically participate. But I hated every moment of it. The ensuing wailing, weeping, hopping and jabbering always distressed me and I always wanted to make for the door! Of course, from the leadership point of view, I was deemed ‘rebellious’. I was regarded as a threat. I wasn’t the real deal. And I hankered for the simple devotional services of my childhood.

Next, I was introduced to the teaching of the Word of Faith preachers. The emphasis with these television evangelists is money, money and money! Amazingly, at first sight, their teaching is highly plausible and they could be significantly talented orators.

Health is your divine right, prosperity is yours, sow into our ministries and it will be multiplied back to you are among their many mantras with supporting scriptures by the bucket load. They buy jets, mansions and lavish headquarters and amass fortunes. You remain broke, disappointed and stay sick. They care nothing for you.

My final experience was with a pastor who was ‘gifted’ at getting into debt by financing his lavish agenda (I might mean ego trips). As a member of his church he informed me that his debts were mine and my responsibility. I dutifully obliged in helping out only to be advised that I was unteachable when I didn’t acquiesce to one of his pronouncements . Needless to say, I left his church deeply hurt and never to return.

In recent months I have discovered the many blogs that relate to similar experiences of abuse and bad treatment in similar churches and fellowships. I am grateful to Tim Chastain and his blog ‘Jesus Without Baggage’ which has been a great help to me. I hope to share many of his insights on this blog.

Please feel free to share anything you might feel relevant to this blog post.

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