I wasn’t planning to post a blog today, but on Facebook, my friend Ian Stubbs asked me to write something more about what I mean when I speak and /write about God. In particular, Ian is interested that I still seem to find 'God" a helpful construct when I write of living in the presence of God. Ian wrote that he does not believe in “the Trinitarian God, composed of three persons equal in essence, a being who presides over Earth from another realm, a supernatural one, from which it has the power to intervene in the natural world”, quoting Gretta Vosper, but thinks this idea continues to underline Christian orthodoxy and that any debate about this construct of God is powerfully resisted.
I began to reply to Ian on Facebook, but realised after several paragraphs that I was writing another blog, so here it is.
What I really want to be doing is to write a book about the experience of God, but it's difficult! I've been reading widely for some years and making notes, but so far all I've achieved is many fragments and a page and half of what could be the 'real book'.
Whatever I write about living in the presence of God will be a hostage to fortune to those who want to pounce on me and judge me for not having 'proper faith' in accordance with the current 'rules'. Well, let them pounce. It comes down to experience for me, as I'm sure the three previous blogs make clear.
I think I'm follower of Jesus Christ because the Gospels describe a man for whom it was all about experience as well. I have experiences which years ago looked weird to my head-centred, rational self, just as the 'body and energy' element of my psychotherapy training looked weird 25 years ago.
The lure of God
I experience myself as being 'haunted', 'lured', 'pursued', seduced by folly, over and over and over again. Nothing that can easily be named or described, of course (the ultimate other is far too tender and subtle for that) but the experiences add up to confirmation for me that the ultimate other is after me and, as an ingredient of the pursuit, has ideas about me, totally benign, trustworthy, authentic ideas that flow with unconditional, infinite love. To call them plans would be far too concrete - nothing about the experience of God can ever be that certain - that way danger and madness runs.
To add another layer to these experiences, when I settle to deep contemplation, two other things happen. One is that ideas and inspirations come, fully formed, and almost from nowhere. They are related to things that I am already chewing over, of course, but they always feel utterly 'inspirational', the obvious answer or the next step. They have been an important ingredient of my blogging as well as my work with Changing Attitude.
Body work and inner life
My contemplative presence has also been subtly and powerfully enriched by my psychotherapy training in body work and the inner life, building on the grounding I received at Westcott from Mark Santer, Rowan Williams and others in the wisdom of the Fathers and Mothers and mystics of the Church and the expectation that to sit in silence and wait is all that I needed to do.
Well, I think there can be more practical, helpful training ingredients for those wishing to know how to meditate and contemplate, but the outcome has been the very gradual development of deepening trust in the reality of ‘what is going on’ in the silence and in my body and emotional core. My whole body knows the reality and truth of the experience - the ‘experience’ being my immersion in creation which flows with the presence and energy and unconditional love of God. It’s not something that can be differentiated between ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Holy Spirit’. Many people will relate their own, similar experience to one aspect of the Trinity, but for me, it’s an undifferentiated, seamless whole.
My practice grounds me, fuels me, inspires me, holds me, centres me – and I can’t think why the church doesn’t teach this as a universal fundamental. What do people thinking Jesus was doing on the numerous occasions he disappears into the night to pray – saying his prayers to God?
The presence, of course, is everywhere and infinite. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be God. I find the word ‘God’ difficult, which I know is problematic and opens me up to misunderstanding and judgement. The word ‘God’ is difficult because it comes with so much baggage, including my own baggage. Use the word ‘God’, and immediately those hearing or reading have a whole matrix of preconditioned thoughts in their mind. It’s very, very, very hard for people to take themselves outside of or beyond the rudimentary, immature ideas of God learnt when young and from their Christian teaching. Blessed are those whose minds have been opened to other realities and who have had the confidence to trust their intuition (and the revelation they have been blessed with by the grace of God, to use familiar language). In my experience, the ‘God’ being presented, worshipped and taught about in many Christian churches, reinforced by sermons, hymns, intercessions and liturgical content, is still too literal, very anthropomorphic, and disconnected from people’s innate feel for the holy and sacred in their lives.
My spirituality and prayer and teaching is formed by my rootedness in the Christian path. I have never found inspiration in the formularies of the Church, developed as they were in the early centuries of the Church as a way of foreclosing debates and disputes about the nature of God and the divinity and humanity of Jesus the Christ. They were also in danger of foreclosing imagination and exploration. They may be core documents and formularies but they have not been helpful to me in discovering my own faith.
Christian faith as I have experienced it is the encounter with things unseen.
“Our troubles are slight and short-lived, and their outcome is an eternal glory which far outweighs them, provided our eyes are fixed, not on the things that are seen, but on the things that are unseen; for what is seen is transient, what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 17, 18)
“Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see.” (Hebrews 11.1)
The all-too dogmatic and literal forms of faith and belief which have become common currency in the Church of England over the last three decades appeal to those currently in the ascendancy. The formularies created in the third and fourth centuries articulate deepest truths but not ultimate truth. Ultimate truth about God can only be expressed poetically. As Verna Dozier (who I still happen to have in front of me) puts it:
“Because we really worship our understanding and because the paradox cannot be understood, our theologians have rushed to make the trans-rational rational, to make prose out of poetry. Yet theology has to be in the language of poetry because no other language can contain the extravagance of the idea.”
The word ‘God’ is used to name, utterly inadequately, a truth and reality beyond my imagining, extravagant in the extreme, deep in the soul of every human being. Jesus is the name given to the person who embodies in human form and life the consequences of this extravagant idea to which all of us are called in our different ways and in which all of us falter in our attempts to model a response.