Uncertainty and un-knowing are at the heart of faith

Today I return to two themes which are fundamental to my vision. The first is the centrality of the contemplative/apophatic tradition and the second is the how question – how does transformation take place in the Church of England (or perhaps better put in the negative – why has the church lost the gift of radical transformation?)

I was struck by Eve Poole’s leader page article in last Friday’s Church Times (adapted from a William Temple Foundation blog). Eve introduced what she says is the buzzword of the corporate world – VUCA. VUCA is apparently military jargon to characterise the times in which we now live. It stands for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

Eve Poole argues that Christianity’s core competence, faith, is essentially about letting ourselves be open volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, all of which are characteristic not only of the times in which we live but are foundational to creation. Evidence of these core realities of un-knowing are to be found in the Bible. Poole identifies Gospel incoherence as evidence:

  • that history has chosen to preserve not one authorised biography, but four
  • the four wildly disagree
  • Did Jesus feed 4000 or 5000?
  • With five loaves or seven?
  • Just once, or twice?
  • Was it the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain?
  • What were his famous last words, preserved for posterity? There are seven in total, spread throughout the gospels, but half the gospels have him saying three things, and the other half only one.
  • The person of Christ - wholly God and wholly man?
  • Consubstantial, co-equal, and co-eternal with God and the Holy Spirit, the three-in-one?

Poole references Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig, a book that informed my understanding of faith when I first read it in 1989. Pirsig makes the powerful point that our need to carve things up into categories is about ego. The certainty, evidence and measurement we seek in life is really a reflection of our arrogance, our addiction to certainty. In stark contrast, Christian theology and practice should teach us to be open to uncertainty and enable us to release our anxieties, reminding us that we do not need to know ‘for certain’.

This central un-knowing, says Poole, this volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity at the heart of life and Christian witness, requires a response of faith, not certainty. The lesson of faith is to trust your instincts and intuition and travel hopefully. Poole says it is often on the journey that we find the information we need. I want to modify that statement. In my experience, it is in the letting go and allowing life/the Spirit to take us where she wills, bringing us into experiences and relationships and inner awareness, that the most profound truths about reality/God are revealed to us.

I’m still digesting the implications of the Church Times publishing this article on the leader page. It’s not often the CT publishes an article about uncertainty and un-knowing faith which is to my mind so radical and so out of step with current Church of England ideology and practice.

Poole asks what I think is a potentially very leading question. What would we teach if the Alpha Course was to go Beta, and do VUCA? I think the question could be asked of most if not all Christian initiation courses because I think few of them present volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity as core to Christian faith and life.

She proposes three course ingredients which might be part of such a course. First is liturgy, which she updates by equating with messaging. Through liturgy, the faithful are exposed to reinforcing messages, week by week and year by year. These are not simplistic messages, she says. They are fraught with disagreements and tensions. I agree with her, but the reality is that they are presented in the teaching and preaching of the church as evidence of events that really happened. Week after week I listen to sermons preached in ignorance of the disagreements and tensions present in the Gospels. In today’s church, liturgical practice reinforces certainty in faith rather than cultivating a VUCA culture.

Secondly, she says the VUCA course would make heavy use of Christian role models to encourage believers to enact their faith in their everyday lives. These role models are to be found in Bible readings and through the prophets and saints and other famous followers of Jesus. Again, in today’s church, these same role models are used to reinforce concrete, dogmatic, literal faith rather than the VUCA-based faith Poole advocates. It would take a huge cultural shift to transform our images of the prophets and saints to become exemplars of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity as core to Christian faith.

Finally, she mentions prayer, prayer as re-alignment with God. Whether or not people believe in a deity, she says, the corporate world is teaching re-alignment through the practice of mindfulness. For those who do enjoy a belief in God, she says we know that we are loved even when we don’t know the answers, or when we get it wrong. I’m not at all sure this is true. I think the Church continues to subtly instil a sense of guilt and insecurity in people, not a creative trust in uncertainty, but the very opposite. So many people I talk with reveal an uncertainty that they are, in the core of their being, loved unconditionally, infinitely and intimately by God.

Twenty-first century Christianity continues to manipulate people into insecure, concrete faith by continually undermining the core message of God’s unconditional love. I think the church corporately is now riddled with anxiety about the ambiguity and complexity of the Gospels identified in Poole’s very basic list.

I agree with her analysis and the transformation she proposes based on VUCA. But how? How, given the current roll out of HTB culture, the dominance of the Alpha course, and the culture in the Church of England’s House of Bishops, at Church House and in the theological colleges and courses, is the predominant culture going to be changed?

Two other articles in the same issue of Church Times address my second question, how does transformation take place? They reinforce my experience of the challenge faced by those who see the need for dramatic, radical change and transformation.

The language problem

In Maybe it doesn’t sound like it, but it is the Church of England, an article related to Pentecost, Madeleine Davies writes about the experience of foreign language speakers and multilingual congregations. One in eight people in the UK were born abroad, and about eight per cent have a tongue other than English as their main language. An increasing number of worshippers listen to services in English, a foreign language to them. They are continually having to translate into ‘the language of their heart’ unable to speak the language God meets them in. For asylum seekers in particular, traumatised by the process, to be able to express the frustration and all the dreams, sorrows, and hopes, and everything in their own language to God is powerful.

The Vicar of Eglwys Dewi Sant, Cardiff, the Revd Dyfrig Lloyd, the only church in the Church in Wales where all activities are conducted in Welsh, says: “In my own experience, theological, liturgical words don’t have the same resonance in your second language as your first. It’s the language of the heart: the way you express your language and your feelings much more freely than you can in your first language.”

There is a parallel and equally serious language problem for me. English is my first language but the language of Common Worship and traditional hymnody (and many modern worship songs) fails to resonate with my heart. I struggled with the archaic patterns and images of the Book of Common Prayer when I was young, was excited by the introduction of new liturgies culminating in the ASB, and used material from the ECUSA, Canadian, New Zealand and the St Hida Community when responsible for worship myself. The language of Common Worship is alien to my VUCA-type faith. I long for language and images that express volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity as core to my faith in God.

Not quite belonging

A third Church Times article from the same issue touches on language and explores yet another dimension of what VUCA might imply for Christian faith and adds a further dimension to the challenge faced by the C of E. In A kind of belonging, Andrew Rumsey argues that reformation of the parish system back to its origins could be the key to its future flourishing. His proposal is rooted in language - the word for “stranger” Luke uses in the Emmaus story –paroikeo. Our word “parish” comes from the same stem. The conversation might be rendered: “Are you a parishioner that you don’t know what has happened here?”

In Graeco-Roman society, paroikia described the community of people who lived either physically beyond the city boundary or as non-citizens within the walls. They were those living nearby but who didn’t quite belong. The Christian paroikia, he says, were those who did not belong in a world sense, but had found their place in the community of Jesus.

The idea of paroikia became corrupted over the centuries until parochialism emerged as its antithesis, a communal ideal to return or aspire to, and an utterly stifling place from which one must at all costs escape. My current relationship with the Church of England is summed up by this antithesis.

Rumsey argues that if our parish system is to survive, it may well need to recover its pre-modern origins and become a little less systematic. The sheer unsustainability, he says, of our built heritage and the need to accommodate new forms of ministry in response to unprecedented missionary and cultural challenges are colossal. This period of accelerating devolution and localism affords an opportunity for parishes to develop a more radical local praxis. Ramsey believes that the image of Christ as the alien and accidental neighbour offers a key to restoring the parish as a place of radical settlement and welcome.

The alien image excites me, as does the potential to restore heart-language to our re-imagining of God and the restoration of contemplative, apophatic Christianity, open to volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Do I detect any signs that the Spirit is moving within the Church of England to bring about such a potentially radical, faith-energising transformation? Not really. I know I am often among a set of people who feel themselves to be alien to the current culture, strangers in the church, knowing that what is happening in the community of Jesus lacks courage and vision to allow such a reformation.

In each of the three articles, the authors offer an interpretation of past events and current times, seeing the potential for a transformation of Christian life and witness. Each of them gets so far, but fails to communicate how this might become a reality in practical terms. Plenty of people read the Church Times, bishops and strategists and opinion-formers among them, but very few have the conviction necessary to turn such ideas into reality. Voices crying in the wilderness and grain falling on stony ground are the images that come to mind.