A group of nine people is meeting from lunchtime today for three days at Sarum College in Salisbury. They include people I’ve known for thirty-five years and others I met for the first time earlier this year. They are all people who are exploring life and faith in radical, unconventional ways.
I hope that over the course of the three days, a conversation will develop, woven from our own experience of the holy and our dreams of the divine. I identified five objectives for our gathering. These are my hopes for the gathering, based on my needs. Others will bring different hopes and needs which will modify the trajectory of our conversation.
- To bring together people who combine contemplation and activism in their daily lives of prayer and practice.
- To address the neglect of the apophatic tradition in the life of the Church of England today.
- To encourage people who often feel isolated from mainstream faith and practice.
- To explore whether each of us is experiencing something which has a common core.
- To see if our experience of faith can be communicated in ways that can nourish, enrich and inspire others.
In preparation for our gathering, I circulated a brief paper outlining my vision. It will be familiar to those who have read my previous posts.
I’ve been pursuing the idea of a bigger picture that encompasses many of the streams that have inspired the ethos and strategy of my work with Changing Attitude and weaves in other elements of my experience. They include my training as a body-centred bio-dynamic psychotherapist at the Chiron Centre in Ealing, my introduction to meditation and the contemplative mystical tradition at Westcott House under Mark Santer and Rowan Williams from 1977-1979 and my formative years in the 1960s in the diocese of Southwark in the South Bank religion period of Honest to God and Mervyn Stockwood.
I think the church now has an impoverished idea of how to find words and images for God that connect with the way people imagine God now. The very concrete ideas that had been eroded by the time Honest to God was published and Death of God theology was fashionable are still influencing the way people conceive of God. God still has a concrete ‘form’ in people’s minds, an entity out there somewhere, external to them and their bodies and emotions, punitive. ‘He’ (inevitably) has to be placated, confessed to, begged absolution from. This idea of God enables the church, clergy and bishops, to be controlling and authoritarian, even when they’re trying not to be.
We urgently need a new, truthful, healthy, re-imagining of God. As much as the unhealthy ideas of God can be located in the Bible, it’s also possible to locate imaginative, creative, liberating ideas there.
My core description of God is as infinite, intimate, unconditional love, infinitely present in creation, in life, and intrinsic to every human being. God is innate to us, active ingredient of all life. The so-called ‘traditional’ Christian discourse imagines God as other, someone we have to seek, pray to, get ourselves in the right disposition to receive from, rather than, to use a core Pauline word, a God of grace. Grace for me describes the infinite gift and presence.
My faith, drawing on my foundational experiences, is that we are called to be integrated, body-aware, self-reflective, contemplative, emotionally aware and intelligent, energised, internalised people. I think all these words describe core theological truths from Scripture, the Gospels and Epistles, the model of Jesus and the teaching of Paul. We are created in the likeness and image of God, beautiful, holy and infinitely beloved. Thanks to Freud and those who followed him, we know that when we gaze at someone with infinite love, the energy and experience of the person who is the object of the gaze changes in healing, healthy, affirming ways. The discourse of Christian faith still focuses on our inadequacies rather than our beauty and glory and as a result produces inadequate, uncertain, co-dependent people.
With this vision of God and humanity, I imagine the church as a prophetic agent of transformation for people, revealing how life and creation are infused with love and goodness despite our wounds and the losses and pains that are integral to contingent lives lived with free will. The love is infinitely present, and we are immersed in it, and can become aware that we are infused with love. This comes more naturally to some and for others, takes a lifetime of pursuit and longing.
Conservative, dogmatic, reactionary forces are dominant in today’s world for understandable reasons. They offer a defence against fear, anxiety and insecurity, rapid change, information overload, globalisation. Reactionary fundamentalism attracts people because of its dogmatic certainty. The outcome is a construct of faith which is intolerant, prejudiced and lacking in intellectual rigour and human empathy.
One outcome of the gathering that I’m hoping for is clarification of my thinking about the book I’m writing. For me, the point of writing the book, and of this week’s gathering, is to nurture a vision of the holy which recovers the strength and depth of the contemplative tradition as well as responding to the seeming inability of church systems to engage with the radical changes in British society and the global community. It’s a grandiose vision!