This is the third blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions.

In the book I argue that the study of theology is actually and potentially important.  Here’s an extract from towards the end of chapter 5.

The study of theology is … of great importance because,
unless at least some members of the human family are seriously
trying to understand religion and beliefs about God and to hold
constructive and critical conversations about it, then this will be
the one part of life that no one understands. And you don’t need
to look at the newspaper headlines for long to realize that this
might prove to be a very costly mistake to make. Certainly the
lack of general religious knowledge and understanding among
people in senior positions in local and national government, as
well as in civic and commercial institutions, is already cause
for concern. It would be extraordinary if in the twenty-first
century we developed a good understanding of the universe
and produced super-intelligent machines, discovered cures for
cancer and Alzheimer’s but did not have any way of knowing
what different people meant when they referred to God or what
was driving them when they acted on their faith.

And I go on to argue that:

It may just be that there are some problems that we will
not be able to solve by scientific and secular thinking. Maybe
there are some completely brilliant ideas locked up inside the
religions that if let free could help solve some of the major
problems that face us today. For instance, there may be ideas
in Islam that help us think about money in such a way as to
create a more stable and just economic system. Hinduism and
the religions of aboriginal and native peoples may have things
to teach us that would make life more sustainable ecologically.
Christianity and Judaism might teach us about how forgiveness
and reconciliation in the aftermath of harmful or cruel behaviour
might work in practice. And Buddhism may have the antidote
to the stress of modern life in aspects of the eightfold path –
indeed, the value of ‘mindfulness’ is an increasingly important
example of this. Who would have imagined this a generation
or two ago? Just about no one – which is why John Lennon’s
‘Imagine’ has become the anthem of the generation that thought
religion would die. It hasn’t died. It isn’t going to die. And so
we ought, perhaps, to think about it with at least as much effort
and energy as we think about anything else; we ought, in other
words, to study theology.

More tomorrow.  Meanwhile, do have a look at the book on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

This is the second blog about my forthcoming book, God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions.

The book starts not with an ‘Introduction’ but with a ‘Welcome’. And this is how it kicks off.

This little book is a personal invitation to explore theology. I sat down to write it in the hope that it would helpful to people who are considering what to read at University. But as the writing continued, I came to feel it could be intriguing to people at any stage of life. Theology is such a huge and hugely interesting subject.

Actually theology is much more than a ‘subject’. It’s more like form of seeking, a quest; and that is why for me theology is not so much about answers, as about questions; not so much about knowing, as about wondering; not so much about gaining knowledge, as enriching your perspective on experiences that make you wonder.

In universities today the subject of theology is being challenged and reshaped, but the quest of theology is much older than any of our educational institutions. It is a seeking after wisdom that is based on the intuition that there is more to life than we can ever know. I suspect that such seeking is as old as language itself – or at least as old as the capacity to ask questions about the meaning and purpose of life, and to wonder about what might be just beyond the realms of our ordinary experience and common sense.

One way to ‘define’ theology might be as the quest to understand God.  However, in the tradition to which the book seeks to introduce you, such a quest is deeply intertwined with the quest to understand other people and the quest to understand yourself; three projects that are integrated in in the ancient religious teaching that you should love God, love your neighbour and love yourself.

More tomorrow.  Meanwhile, do have a look at the book on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

One of my jobs is to direct the studies of the theology students at King’s College. Cambridge.  About a year ago I began to review what we said on our webpages for prospective students. And while doing so I had a good look at the books that are recommended to people thinking of studying theology at University.

Then, slowly, slowly, it dawned on me: the introductory books about theology are not as interesting or attractive as the subject itself.

This troubled me deeply and I set myself a challenge – write something that expresses what a great subject theology is.

So I started writing some webpages that put forward the idea that theology is fascinating, fun and important. I was aware, as I wrote, that there are those who think that theology is only possibly of interest to people who follow one religion or another. So I also wrote some material that made the point that even if you think religion is absurd it’s not going to go away any time soon, so it might be good idea to discover a bit more about how it all hangs together.

I hadn’t been writing for long when I realised that I had more than a few webpages on my hands and so – partly because I had just broken my ankle – I decided to see what happened if I tried to write something more extensive. It wasn’t long before I had the first draft of a little book that claimed – no, proved –  that theology is  – well, fascinating, fun and important.

During the course of the  summer I found in Jessica Kingsley a great editor, and in JKP – the amazing publishing house she founded thirty years ago while sitting at her kitchen table – a tremendously enthusiastic and professional publisher.

The result is God-Curious: Asking Eternal Questions which is published a week today, 21 February.  It is, I really believe this, an engaging book to put into the hands of a young person who is  yet to decide what to do at University. But it’s also much more than that, thanks in good part to Jessica’s skillful editorial interventions and nudges. ‘Say more about this’, ‘What do you think about that?’, ‘Yes, that is a good idea – can you expand it?’, Why haven’t you said anything about …’  and so on.

My plan now is to post a short blog every day for the next week as a countdown to publication day. Meanwhile, do have a look at the book on the JKP website God-Curious JKP

And, if  you are interested at studying theology with me at King’s College, Cambridge take a look here: Theology at King’s

 

A sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, Sunday 29 January 2017

Etty Hillesum lived from 1914 to 1943. A Dutch Jew, she died like so many in the Holocaust. She is known today because her diaries and letters from the last two years of her life, which run to over 400 pages, were published in 1981 (in English in 1999 by Persephone Books) as ‘An Interrupted Life’. It is a book that offers profound insights, not only for the historian of the period, but also to anyone who is interested in spirituality.

Etty was fascinated by the question of how to live a good and balanced life, whatever the circumstances. In 1941, she began to practice meditation – though confessing herself ‘wary’ of the word. She soon found that it was ‘not so simple’ and that before one can be peaceful, ‘A lot of unimportant inner litter and bits and pieces have to be swept out. Even a small head can be piled high inside with irrelevant distractions’ (p33). She writes about the aim of meditation being ‘to turn one’s innermost being into a vast empty plain, with none of that treacherous undergrowth to impede the view. So that something of ‘God’ can enter you, and something of ‘Love’ too’ (p33).

She occasionally felt drawn to a cloistered life, but recognised that it was not right for her.

Sometimes I long for a convent cell, with the sublime wisdom of centuries set out on bookshelves all along the wall and a view across the cornfields … and there I would immerse myself in the wisdom of the ages and in myself. Then I might perhaps find peace and clarity. But that would be no great feat. It is right here, in this very place, in the here and now, that I must find them. But it is all so terribly difficult, and I feel so heavy-hearted (p44).

Alongside what you might call this spiritual planning and longing, her experience of prayer is that it has a surprising and spontaneous quality. Catching herself making an unkind observation she prays, ‘Lord, free me from all these petty vanities. They take up too much of my inner life, and I know only too well that other things matter much more than being thought nice and charming by one’s fellows.’ (p141).

Although candid, Etty is rather uncomfortable about aspects of her spiritual longing and desire. Like many modern people she found the word ‘God’ a difficult one to know how to use. But if the existence and nature of God were a puzzle to her so too was the question of how to relate to God – and this expressed itself in a curious bodily form; in particular in her feelings about kneeling. Indeed she came to see learning to kneel as a hugely significant part of her life-journey, writing of herself as ‘the girl who could not kneel but learnt to do so on the rough coconut matting in an untidy bathroom’ (p74). Six months later, on Good Friday 1942, she wrote that, ‘A desire to kneel down sometimes pulses through my body, or rather it is as if my body had been meant and made for the act of kneeling. Sometimes, in moments of deep gratitude, kneeling down becomes an overwhelming urge, head deeply bowed, hands before my face’ (p129).

This is an intriguing theme for us to come across in the season of Epiphany when the story of the magi who travelled to worship the Christ-Child is our guiding spiritual light, and our eyes naturally drift to Ruben’s great painting for inspiration. Perhaps we should allow ourselves a moment to reflect on our use of gestures of reverence – pausing, bowing our heads or bending our knees, and recognising in an unhurried moment God’s transcendent loving-kindness made known in the person of Jesus Christ, and entering into some kind of communion with God through an act of obeisance.

It is obvious that Etty’s journals were written under the shadow of occupation and fear, and the increasingly overt and brutal persecution of her community. Her prayer-life and spirituality developed as things got worse and she struggled to cope with life in the Westerbork concentration camp.

In fact, as time went by there rose up within her a conviction that, despite all the squalid horror and cruelty around her, life is always good and beautiful. In both her diaries and her letters she is a profoundly articulate witness to the capacity of the human spirit to transcend the snares of gloom and to be refreshed and renewed. ‘God is not accountable to us, but we are to him!’, she asserts with the surprise of a spiritual Eureka moment (p183). ‘I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps. I know about everything and am no longer appalled by the latest reports. In one way or another I know it all. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute.’ (p184). Later she records saying to a friend with whom she has been discussing ‘all the ultimate questions’: ‘But you know … like a child I still feel life is beautiful, and this helps me bear everything… You see, I believe in God.’

It would be wrong to suggest that Etty was an orthodox Jewish woman or to appropriate her as an ‘anonymous Christian’; her faith-status, so to speak, is deeply ambiguous. And yet it is perhaps this ambiguity, together with the honesty of her writing about the relational tangles of her life, and her acute and pressing awareness of what she calls ‘the ocean of human suffering’ (p158) that make her an especially helpful guide to spiritual seekers today. And we, in this Chapel, might well ask ourselves what it means to ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ when we cannot help but be aware of the ocean of contemporary suffering, and when we are so unsettled about the way on which the political structures are reforming themselves in our time; and doing so largely, it seems, on principles that are a long way from those inspired by love, justice, truth and peace. These are values that Christians and Jews and many others would attribute to God and, as Provost Whichote so memorably put it in the seventeenth century, they are qualities that we should propose to ourselves as matters of ‘practice and imitation’.

And the question of spirituality, the question with which Etty Hillesum so articulately wrestles, is this: how do we do that? How do we make justice, truth, mercy and peace both the core of our inner being and the hallmarks of our actions?

The quest to live in this way is what we rightly call spirituality, and in Etty’s book we can see the progress of one young woman along just this journey. Let me conclude this brief introduction to this fascinating and illuminating character by quoting in part the words in her diary that summarise a prayer that, as she puts it, she babbled out the previous evening while cycling home through the cold and dark.

God take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. But now and then grant me a short respite. I shall never again assume, in my innocence, that any peace that comes my way will be eternal. I shall accept all the inevitable tumult and struggle. I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow you wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid. (p77)

Etty died in Auschwitz on 23rd November 1943, but through her writing her spirit lives on to encourage and console us as we prepare ourselves to face whatever challenges and trials may unfold; she was not a perfect person by any means, but she was thoughtful, deep, articulate and courageous, and her testimony shines out as transfiguring light from a time of deep, deep darkness.

 

 

 

Sermon preached at King’s College Chapel, Christmas Day, 2016

Among the more obvious features of splendid gothic buildings like this are the vertical lines and the pointed arches that draw our eyes, our minds and our hearts to the heavens. At Christmas, buildings like ours can transport us to the fields where we stand with the shepherds staring at the sight and sound of the singing angels, or spirit us off to more distant lands to be with the magi as they study the mysterious star.

And yet the spiritual direction of the Christian faith is not primarily to reach for the skies but to bend to the ground. ‘He came down to earth from heaven’, we rightly sing, ‘with the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our saviour holy’. Or as St Paul put it, ‘Christ Jesus … though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness’(Philippians 2.6&7). Or as John’s gospel puts it, ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14).

But why?  To quote the title of a famous theological book written just over a thousand years ago, ‘why did God become human?’

The author of that eleventh century text made the argument that God couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t do what God wanted and needed to do for sinful humanity except by becoming human and suffering and dying for our sins. It was an argument that turned on what is just.

There’s another way of approaching the question that I want to suggest today – and that is one that turns on the nature of love. And I’d like to get into this by floating some questions about our human experience of love.  For instance: ‘why do people actually visit people they really love rather than content themselves with a Christmas card or text message?’  Or this, ‘why do we feel such a deep yearning if we find ourselves a long way away from someone we really love at Christmas – even if we can speak on the phone?’

God became human, the word became flesh, and Jesus Christ embraced humility because, in the end, words alone fail. St Paul wrote as much in his most famous letter: ‘as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end’ (1 Corinthians 13.8).   There is some irony here because these are words about the limited value of words; and, as we know, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was not a huge success, which is why he wrote them a second letter.  But even for Paul, the most famous letter-writer in history, writing a letter was a poor substitute for making a visit.

We read a lot of words in our daily life in this College. We read them in ancient archives and endless emails, in committee papers and academic articles, in first year essays and PhD theses – and from time to time some us still manage to read and write books. These all have their place. But few texts, few documents, can inspire us to wonder or to joy, and all are strained to the limit when we seek to use them to convey our loving purposes.

Poetry, and in particular, poetry set to music, can take us further – can connect with our hearts and souls. But when you are in trouble, deep trouble, there is nothing more heartwarming, nothing more healing or restoring, than the company of a person who is happy to let speech fall away and simply be with you in attentive, caring, loving silence.

Why did God become human?  You could say that it was because God became tired of writing laws that were regularly broken and sending messages via prophets who were routinely ignored. But that’s a less than adequate way of putting it, because it fails to see that, fundamentally, Christianity is not a ‘do this’, ‘do that’, ‘don’t do the other’ kind of religion. Christianity is a religion of the loving purposes of God, and these are most profoundly expressed in story and poetry, music and art – forms that inspire people to wonder and joy and which lead people to live lives of practical compassion in which actions, words and silence all have their place.

The loving purposes of God are not, as they say, just for Christmas. They are, and this is the Christian gospel, the only force that can deal with the overwhelming evidence of evil that we have been assailed with through the media in recent weeks.  I mean both the manifest evils of brutality and cruelty, and the hidden evils of corruption that lie behind so much poverty and destitution across the world. I mean, as well, the evil of ‘religion’ designed to meet the all-too-human desire to be certain about things that we can’t be certain about, or to control the things we have no right or reason to control. All these things, and many more, are connected and entangled in the web of sin from which only God in Christ can free us.

The question of how we respond to evil must have crossed all our minds in recent weeks; not least as we sat through yet another distressing news bulletin.  The answer that has been suggesting itself to me is that, come what may, we must become ever more attuned to the loving purposes of God. Faced with evil, we need to eschew the easy responses of revenge or despair, and open ourselves to the faithful possibility that the love of God can transform even … well, even Aleppo, even Yemen, even the fear that comes when we dwell on the actions of ruthless terrorists, or the heartache that follows when we imagine what it might be like to be risking everything in an overcrowded and leaky boat somewhere on the Mediterranean.

The love of God, the loving purposes of God, the silent compassion of God – these are the only answers we can give to life’s toughest questions, because they are the only answers worthy of the depth of suffering that some of our brothers and sisters are experiencing – even now.

And it is our duty and our joy, not only to wonder at this divine yet down-to-earth love, but to engage with it; to embrace it and to love it back, trusting that the way of love is not just one of today’s vaguer life-style options, but is, in fact, the way of Christ. We glimpse it in the glory of this beautiful festival, but know it most profoundly when we ourselves, with such humility as we can manage, let the love and compassion that God has planted in our hearts become our guiding light and our most profound gift to others.

As we today celebrate God’s self-offering to us in Jesus Christ, let us ask for the grace that we might make a gift of our own lives by embracing wholeheartedly the loving purposes of God. And, trusting in those purposes, may we know once again the peace that passeth all understanding and the joy that lights the heavens. And let is lose allour fears and anxieties in wonder, and the hope that God alone can bring through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

Dementia and God

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that John Swinton’s book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God had been awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing. Chosen from a shortlist of 6 books, themselves selected from a total of over 100  nominated volumes, the award is a real tribute to the way in which John has ploughed a furrow of engaged and earthed practical theology in such a way as to gain academic credibility while remaining true to life.

I read the book recently and found it to be an admirable, thorough, courageous and unflinching addressing of questions that are at the heart of the many social, ethical and personal dilemmas that face us when we are confronted by the reality of memory loss, and the decline of many cognitive and intellectual faculties, as a result of incremental brain demise. Alzheimer’s Disease is perhaps the most famous and most feared cause of dementia, but there are several others and, as is well known due to the success of the film Still Alice, it is not something that only afflicts the elderly.

Reading John’s book has helped me to think more deeply about the implications of  dementia, and encouraged me never to settle for the thought that life is meaningless without normal cognitive activity.  At one level it is a long, slow roar of protest against the lazy (and ironically unthinking) acceptance of the Cartesian quip: ‘I think therefore I am’.

At another, it is a very carefully and calmly constructed theological argument about what is really valuable and important about human beings. ‘I am loved therefore I am’ is closer to the heart of Swinton’s vision. And this includes being loved by God or, as he poignantly puts it,  being remembered by God.

On Our Minds

One reason why Swinton’s Dementia won the prize was because of the subject matter. Dementia, excuse the pun, is on our minds big time, whether it is because what we see what is happening to others, or because of what we fear will happen to us, or because of what we, consider this, know is happening to us. But Dementia wouldn’t have won if it wasn’t good theology. And it was good theology for a number of reasons.

First, and I made this point to John when we were talking just after the announcement, one of the great things he does in the early chapters is clarify that as a theologian he is not going to allow the medical or scientific model to frame the discussion and then bring theology in to mop up the awkward bits. (What I actually said was, ‘you do the Radical Orthodoxy thing without the jargon’.) No, this is a theological approach from the outset and as a result we have a confident as well as a searching book.

Second, the book draws on, and is true to, both personal experience and relevant and related intellectual constructions from a range of disciplines. It is not just a matter of theology engaging with theology, which is the last thing theology should be.

And third because although it begins with a particular reality, dementia, the conclusions are not limited to dementia sufferers but have much more widely ranging implications.  Not least arguing that our identity is properly understood, as I read Swinton, not as a matter of the way we present ourselves, nor a matter of what we remember about ourselves, but in terms of how others think of us and relate or us, and how God remembers us.

Such theology might unsettle our ego, but surely that too is a theological task.

Swinton’s work has radical and transformative potential for us all, and for that reason I not only congratulate John for winning the prize, but also for the quality and power of his theological work.

Read it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the things I look forward to every two years is participating in the Trialogue Conference, which draws together people interested in psychotherapy, literature and spirituality. Over the course of a very pleasant and stimulating weekend, participants reflect on a novel together and enjoy three keynote addresses, one from each of the disciplines of the Trialogue.

This year we are in fact looking at two novels by contemporary American authors. Philip Roth’s  The Human Stain and Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer

As Chairman of the conference I have been extensively involved in the planning for 2017 and have been surprised and delighted at how much energy has been generated by the discussion of what book to read and who to invite to speak. In the end we opted for two books by different authors, a new departure for the Trialogue which will, I am confident, enrich our conversations and our thinking in many ways.

The  Trialogue takes place from 31 March – 2nd April 2017 at Holthorpe Hall Hall  in Leicestershire, a new venue for the conference that is located very centrally in the country.

If you are interested in psychotherapy, literature or spirituality the Trialogue may well be of interest to you. I always find it extremely creative and hope very much that by holding these three disciplines together we can generate some genuine and far-reaching wisdom.

There is much more information about all this – together with an online booking form and details about the speakers – on the Trialogue website  here.