I’ve been reading The Christlike God written by John V. Taylor, formerly Bishop of Winchester and published in 1992. It was recommended to me by one of my contemplative friends in 1995, the year I began to engage actively with the Church of England as an openly gay man. I bought it then but never read it until now. There is much in the book that echoes my own ideas about God, creation, evolution, and contemporary contemplative life. In the penultimate chapter, Dwell in me, I in you, (John 17.21,22), Taylor writes about the author Charles Williams and his use of the word coinherence to describe the relationship between God, the divine other, and us, human kind, Homo sapiens. The book I am writing is provisionally titled Seamless. I believe the universe, the divine Mystery and human life are seamlessly interwoven, coinherent, as Charles Williams describes. What I mean by this isn’t easy to write about. I’m trying, slowly, to find the language. The next step will be to describe the practice by which we members of the human race might become more aware and more immersed in seeing creation as a seamless reality. Meanwhile, I want to quote from the beginning of John Taylor’s final chapter. His isn’t quite the language I would use, but he is close to where I have arrived in my thinking about the Mystery, as my mentor and spiritual director Fr Bill Kirkpatrick used to name God.
“Belief in the Christlike God has wide-ranging implications for the believer’s personal lifestyle and the style of society he or she thinks is worth striving for. Many assumptions, ideals and objectives are called in question if divine omnipotence is qualified by the divine will for freely given response and communion, if God’s unchanging purpose is being achieved by precarious opportunism – Where do we go from here? – and if providence works not by external interventions but from within the interplay of created beings and the response of the human partner. The worshippers of a God who is essentially and eternally Self-Giver, Self-Given and In-othered are committed to much rigorous re-assessment and self examination.”
Taylor uses the word in-othered in conjunction with Williams’ coinherence. These words, together with seamless, express the understanding I have developed of the God, the Mystery, who I am open to and infused by when I settle to meditate every morning. Arriving at this understanding has required of me much rigorous re-assessment of the ideas about God I developed in the 1950s from Sunday School and, after confirmation at 12, worship using the 1928 revision of the Book of Common Prayer and the English Hymnal. Subsequent self examination, which began when I was 16 and continues to this day, has led me to an awareness of the divine other which I believe to be congruent with the teaching of Jesus and the author of John’s Gospel but which many members of the Church of England find deeply unorthodox and suspicious.
“This understanding of God touches upon our own exercise of power, and this is brought home to us with added force in our present situation of inter-faith contacts. In this world of pluralist societies in which the adherents of many faiths live together as neighbours and share responsibility for the future of the planet, it is a matter of enormous importance that believers of all kinds should speak to one another across the religious divides as people who know that what they have in common is their sense of the reality of God.”
Well – how relevant is this paragraph to the world in which we find ourselves thirty years later? I believe the consciousness of the global community and of faith communities has been in a regressive state for three decades. We are having the greatest difficulty in understanding and opening ourselves to our neighbours and our shared responsibility for the future of our planet. The racism manifest in this country and the USA, the rising level of homophobia and homophobic attacks, and the prejudice underpinning many people’s support for Brexit shows that we human beings are having the greatest difficulty in coming to a common awareness of the reality of the Mystery.
“To say ‘Whatever else God is, I believe he is Christlike,’ is to suggest something of immense import yet not patently unacceptable to followers of other faiths, something which does at least invite the question, ‘What do you mean by Christlike?’ More importantly it is a statement that stands or falls according to the lifestyle of the speaker and the community she or he represents. The Mahatma Ghandi could have said it and carried conviction. The Persian poet Hafiz almost said as much. Many of the saints and multitudes of humble unnamed servants of God have demonstrated it. But crusaders, inquisitors and conquistadors of all periods, who no doubt proclaimed Jesus as divine, could not have brought one soul to believe in the Christlike God, neither will those whose image in the eyes of the world today is one of economic and political domination. In this day of pluralism the witness of one faith to another is more than even before dependent upon the lives of the witnesses. ‘By their fruits shall ye know them.’”
When I look at the Church of England, I look at a church failing to understand the systemically abusive culture that infects the church and the failure to understand and respond to the victims of abuse. I see a church that is failing, nearly thirty years after Issues in Human Sexuality, to confront reality in the Living in Love and Faith project. I find it difficult to detect fruits in the church that help me see the Mystery seamlessly present in creation, hidden, thanks to the limited awareness of the church, in the lives of every member of the human race.
“If the gospel is ever to redeem humanity from its obsession with militarism and domination by showing that Jesus’ voluntary surrender of himself into hostile hands, his rejection, suffering and degrading death actually challenges all previous ideas of God and God’s relation to the world, the church will have to reflect this truer image of God in a more distinctive lifestyle and a clearer grasp of the nature of power.”
For me, all my previous ideas of God and God’s relation to the world have been challenged and gradually transformed, in relation to patterns of life, the nature of power, of identity, gender, sexuality, and personal awareness of my life and life around me.
“From the late nineteenth century onwards liberal theology made much use of the image of God as a patriarchal father actively involved in providing for the wellbeing and security of his children, and this went hand in hand with an image of an autocratic state benignly pursuing a highly interventionist policy of state welfare. The ‘enterprise culture’ pioneered in Britain by Margaret Thatcher in opposition to the proliferation of state-sponsored welfare has also had its theological counterpart in a strong reaction against the God of special interventions and direct experience in favour of a more austere concept of divine transcendence and ultimate mystery. Affirming and challenging the Zeitgeist at the same time is the proper stance for true religion. This issue became central for Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was acutely aware of the tension between being fully immersed in the world and its dynamics while deriving one’s ways of seeing and judging from another point of reference altogether. He saw this tension as the necessary corollary of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself.”
Acute awareness of the tensions in which we are immersed now can only be lived with and processed creatively if we are learning to see and judge our experience and feelings by daily contemplative practice rooted in a healthy vision of the divine in connection with a growing awareness of our bodies, energies, feelings and emotions.
“The spirit of the age is an expression of the vitality of the given moment, growing by development from, and reaction against, the immediate past. It is the mainstream of people’s thought, and those who would challenge it can do so only from within it.”