But that I can’t believe! ... and the journey to evolutionary spirituality

But that I can’t believe! is the title of a slim book published in 1967 by John A.T. Robinson, then Bishop of Woolwich, a Fontana paperback price 3/6. The book for which he is best known, Honest to God, had been published four years earlier in 1967. The later book is a collection of brief articles dealing with various doctrines and facets of Christianity. If a bishop were now to publish such a brief pot-boiler of theology for those not drawn to academic tomes, I suspect he or she would be treated as persona-non-grata and drummed out of the House of Bishops (and out of the College if they had a mechanism for doing so). John Robinson would not, of course, stand a chance of being appointed by a CNC today given his theology and the recent statements issued by the House of Bishops.

The majority of people I know, people of faith, no longer believe in a faith that is rooted in creedal formularies and approved Anglican doctrinal statements, the so-called traditional, orthodox teachings of the Christian faith, let alone in the 39 articles or the theology of the Book of Common Prayer (I know some of those who will read this do believe in such formularies, and I know you and I differ, sometimes radically, on the content of our faith).

Nor do the majority construct their images of God exclusively, or even predominantly, from the Bible, though the Bible has influenced, often deeply, how they imagine God (both for better and for worse). I say they no longer believe, but I suspect many may never, ever really have believed in what the Church now teaches people ‘ought’ to believe. How things have changed in 48 years.

From the moment I first remember beginning to think consciously about what I really believed about God (when I was 15 or 16), I realise that my intuition, my inner voice, never bought into what seemed to be the proper, approved, traditional images of God that were preached and prayed and sung about in church. I did, however, internalise the guilt the Church inculcated in those it said were sinful by not believing ‘properly’.

I also knew at that age that there could be no half measures in matters of faith in God. Either everything had to be true or nothing was true. My intuition told me that ‘how it worked’ was more important than whether or not I accepted or believed in approved doctrinal statements or constructs (if only I’d known then that they were constructs).

By ‘how it worked’, I mean - how does faith or believing in this kind of God change people, transform people into more and more Christ-like images of the divine? How does it change patterns of behaviour, how does it change the inadequate, selfish me into a more naturally open, generous, loving, self-giving person?

Recently I was interviewed for an oral gay history project. What I realised from talking through my life of faith in the context of my sexuality (and vice-versa) was that the roots of the faith which developed from my 30s onwards were to be found in the intuitions of my teenage self. I never bought into, never took at face value the doctrines and formularies of the Church of England, things which I know some people believe are essential if a person’s vocation is genuine and they are to be lawfully ordained and licenced in the Church. If I was the bishop responsible for me I’d be much more worried about what I did and didn’t believe than about who I am and what I do sexually. Or perhaps the bishop wouldn’t worry. Perhaps the bishop’s relationship with the doctrines and formularies might be much closer to mine – and to the other clergy he or she is responsible for, let alone the people he or she preaches to at confirmations and licensings.

I think what I believe is in fact deeply Christ-like, deeply Biblical, deeply orthodox and deeply traditional. It just happens to be radically different from what the C of E proclaims in its teaching documents (published by the House of Bishops). The culture of the Church now is indeed dramatically - and regressively - different from the way it was fifty years ago.

How people begin to evolve into more open, heart-centred, integrated, energised, creative, beautiful, truthful selves is far, far more important and valuable to me than whether they are committed (or addicted) to doctrine and dogma and a particular variety of Anglicanism (evangelical, charismatic, Anglo-catholic, liberal, three-legged stool or whatever). This is especially true when people are taught that adherence to approved doctrines and prejudice against certain categories of people because of their gender or sexuality is more important than anything else (though I think people who swallow this, even in conservative evangelical and catholic congregations are few in number).

Steve McIntosh in his recently published book The Presence of the Infinite: The spiritual experience of beauty, truth and goodness, captures the essence of my own spirituality. He is not alone and there are any number of authors and books from the past 30 years from which I could quote, and from which I almost certainly will quote in future blogs.

For McIntosh, implicit in following a spiritual path is that it will include practices that contribute to the personal growth of its followers. Evolutionary spirituality, as he describes it, “celebrates the beauty and mystery of the rituals and devotions of religious spirituality. It values and respects the powerful practice of critical thinking and the scientific methodology revered by secular spirituality.” Evolutionary spirituality “embraces progressive spirituality’s emphasis on meditation, contemplation, and the myriad forms of embodied practice that have flourished within the progressive spiritual milieu.”

Evolutionary spiritual practice is characterised by three main ingredients: (1) the practice of integral consciousness; (2) the practice of beauty, truth and goodness (which McIntosh calls “value metabolism”; and (3) the practice of bearing spiritual fruits.

The spiritual practice of “value metabolism” is what interests me in the context of my early interest in the “how it works” of faith – Jesus’s teaching that it is by their fruits that you will know whether a person has understood what he is getting at and what kind of person you are in the process of becoming. This practice is “realised in the body”, embodied through the intentional physical action of serving, teaching, and creating the spiritual realities of goodness, truth, and beauty.

This approach to spiritual practice really comes alive when we allow ourselves or develop in our bodies the ability to feel and respond to the inherent magnetism and energy of the intrinsic qualities of goodness, truth, and beauty. Spiritual practice pursued in this way cultivates the evolutionary impulse inherent as potential within the heart and mind and spirit of every human being.

We are alive to be co-creators with the Creator of all in this finite universe, serving as agents of evolution. Our role in the cosmic economy, the economy of God’s infinite, unconditional love, is to help in the creating of self, culture, and nature through the experience and living into of beauty, truth, goodness and love.

This is the heart of the Gospel that has drawn my heart and being into a journey of faith and commitment to change and growth in depth. Over the decades I have learnt that the realisation of beauty, truth, and goodness is The Way in which the presence of the infinite within the finite is made manifest and enriched. The practice of evolutionary spirituality can help a person see almost every moment of their life as an opportunity to be mindful of the presence of spirit within and around and immersed in creation.

Daily contemplation of the infinite beauty, truth, and goodness which infuses creation can come to infuse our lives, changing us sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, into people who are truly living into “life in all its fullness.”