Christianity after Religion

I wrote this on an earlier blog in April 2012. This is a lengthy article with several extensive links where I have tried to share something of my own thinking at that time – especially my doubts about Evangelicalism.

I saw a review by Bill Dahl of ‘Christianity After Religion’ together with an interview with the author Diana Butler-Bass. I was not familiar with the writing of Diana but what I have read since rings many bells.

This really caught my attention:
Seminaries can’t change until denominational policies do; denominational policies can’t change until seminaries nurture new vision; and nothing can change until grassroots churches demand change. And for churches to demand change, they must change themselves.
I found myself thinking that that is never going to happen – the ‘old school’ understandably will not respond to change – and the ‘churches’ as we have known them will fade and die – just like empires that have risen and fallen over the centuries.
At the same time I was reminded of an old quip, “Why is the church the only university from which it’s students never graduate – and never learn to think for themselves?”

Bill suggested that Diana has been observing, questioning, probing the history and mystery of the practice of the human pursuit of the divine by those who diversely believe, belong and behave rather passionately. A story that at times makes us angry, confused, perplexed, disgusted and embarrassed. The story of where institutional religion came from and a look ahead to the current challenge.

So many are asleep and may be unaware that they are trapped in the wrong space. How do people discover what they don’t even realise that they don’t know? People are uncomfortable when what they thought they knew is challenged! Surely the institutional approach to facilitating true faith is seriously misguided!

More and more people are willing to express their anger towards religion in general and Christianity (or churchianity?) in particular – understandably! A suggestion that maybe Christianity was never meant to be a structured belief system. How many are captive to creeds, dogma and traditions? Some are still trying to build walls while others are trying to build bridges.

Who am I and who do I belong to? Are we willing to move beyond our own comfort zone – a pilgrimage and/or exile? Are we ready to take a counter intuitive approach and allow new doors to be opened to us – that give us the chance of making a difference (which might simply be to encourage others to question their own thinking)?

I have now read ‘The Beginning‘ from her latest book together with ‘A Resurrected Christianity?‘ and ‘The End of Church‘ by Diana as well as ‘Christianity in Crisis‘ by Andrew Sullivan. I sense that Diana has hit the nail on the head with her comments about the “3B’s”.

I’m no scholar but as my friend Grant (who died a few years ago) said, “you are encouraging thought – you are putting out a challenge – maybe asking the right questions that others haven’t formulated“.
Do we know what we believe? Are we sure that we are right? What do we really think of God? Have we shared these thoughts with others?
Do we really know what we think until we hear what we say, or read what we have written?
Do we allow others to question these thoughts?
Have we really reconsidered the foundation of our own faith? See ‘Stages of Faith‘.

In a note I wrote more than ten years ago entitled “The Hare and the Tortoise” I referred to the dawdlers who let their subconscious minds do the thinking, and the hare brain that likes to have things neat and tidy, feels in control and does not like to feel helpless, confused or blocked. I would suggest that far too many church leaders with their academic qualifications fit the latter description.

In a short video entitled ‘A People’s History of Faith‘ Diana suggests that we look at Christian history from the starting point of the Great Commandment (“Love God and love your neighbour as yourself”) rather than the Great Commission (“Go into all the world”) for a new perspective on that history. This, together with the earlier comments about seminaries being unable to change, was another one of those ‘light bulb’ moments – starting with the Great Commandments is not enough – something is missing!

More and more of us are being drawn beyond the ‘conformist stage‘ and that started for me some 45 years ago when as a member of an Anglican men’s discussion group I asked the question, “What is the purpose of life?” and was told immediately by the Vicar, “Peter, you can’t ask that, it is the 64,000 dollar question” (a lot of money in those days). Surely we need to have some understanding of the foundations of the Christian FAITH rather than the Christian RELIGION if we are going to effectively love God and our neighbours? When I wrote Stages of Faith” now about 12 years ago I think I sensed that I was well on the way to becoming an ‘integrated way finder‘. Little did I realise then how much I was still being held back by the religion that I had still not let go of!

If we move beyond the ‘conformist stage‘ and share our thoughts with others, we recognise that we have some unique perspectives as a result of very different journeys that sometimes result in cognitive dissonance – that uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.

When I read the review of ‘Christianity After Religion‘ and the subsequent interview, this was just another ‘light bulb’ moment that kept me absorbed for many hours over the Easter period (in 2012). I just got the feeling that Diana, although she relates to ‘Progressive Christianity’, is as a historian, sufficiently far away to have a very good picture of what is happening and why she and so many others are wondering how this ‘great awakening’ is going to occur. For me her comment about seminaries just hit the nail on the head – they are just not going to change!

I recently listened to a ‘TED’ podcast by the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking that just said so much! I know why I believe and I know that it’s not mine or anybody else’s job to convince others. It’s obvious to me that there is a place for teachers to show the way, but only when they recognise that they do not have all the answers. I recognise that many older Christians are stuck in a ‘conformist stage’ and are likely to stay that way. I can also see that many more in times past, have lived their whole lives within a ‘conformist stage’ and that many evangelicals are doing their best to perpetuate that situation.

History is full of stories of the rise and fall of empires (and I’m not just thinking of nations). The Christian religion – or Christendom – is being undermined by the questioning that is taking place in the Western world – and especially through the internet. I have my own thoughts about where this journey is going. I may be quite wrong (as so many others have in the past) but that’s not important. It is obvious that tens of thousands of us are being drawn away from ‘traditional’ Christianity for a purpose. Many leaders are putting forward their own ideas in books and podcasts, and building up a following. My guess is that this is absolutely fine for a season. But we must never forget that it was Jesus who said, “Follow me” and that we are not meant to be following other men!

We have been called to grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour. When I look back over a period of more than 60 years I can see how I have learned, ‘here a little, there a little‘. I have been given snippets of understanding. I have been involved in numerous projects within the communities in which we have lived, and in a working environment both as a chief clerk and as a manager of around 40 trainee computer programmers in the late 1960′s. After the breakup of the Worldwide Church of God I attended two counselling skills courses before a ‘Christian Counselling course’ that was meant to be a two year course that was crammed into 34 weeks (one day a week). After the first four months we were expected to have our own clients. I refused to use ‘guinea pigs’ and that didn’t go down very well. I was told that there was no point in continuing the course because there would be no way I could qualify at the end of it. But I did continue and learned so much about myself from the interaction with the other members of the course. I learned so much about how counselling should not be done! There were also times when others on the course were envious of the freedom I had to question what was being said.

I think back to some of my earlier reading in the late 1990′s when we only had dial-up internet connections. There were many booklets and articles that I read that opened up entirely new ways of thinking. There were a number of authors who had a big impact at the time. What has been interesting has been rereading some of those articles years later and recognising how important they were, despite the fact that I now disagree with some of the conclusions. There was one book in particular that had a big impact on my thinking – most of which I still agree with. But when I reread the first chapter a few years ago I was surprised to see that the whole book had been built on a foundation that I now see as incorrect – but that hasn’t taken away any of the value that I got from the book at the time – and that to me is important.

I’m an introvert who is not afraid to share his limited feelings. I had always been puzzled by my lack of emotions and had said on a few occasions that I never had highs or lows and almost always lived life on an even keel. It was the awareness of Aspergers Syndrome some four years ago that suddenly opened a door to understanding why I’m the way I am!

When I look back over the last few years I sense that the biggest lessons I have learned have been ‘why people believe what they believe, often as a result of divisive denominational theology’. This I believe helps me to listen to and appreciate where others are coming from who have been drawn away from the churches that they may have attended for many years. I am not a teacher but I do find myself relating to teachers who have been drawn away and who are questioning their own understanding.

What I found so significant about the review and interview with Diana was that here was a picture of much of what I understand of the American Christian scene. The scene in Europe and the UK is very different – we are much further down the road towards secularisation – especially in the realms of government. As a former Anglican I can relate to so much of what N T Wright is saying when addressing American audiences. I see what leaders of the emerging / emergent / house church movements are trying to reconcile – and that is obviously one part of what might be a great awakening. It seems fairly obvious that that is not going to take place in my lifetime.

In the meantime others who are not involved with leadership are also being drawn away from the traditional churches and often finding themselves isolated. This is the journey that I have been involved with for many years. Although I often say that I have been outside the walls of ‘traditional’ Christianity for some 40 years it was only about three years ago that I was finally led to share with my wife that I was no longer able to attend with her. It’s hard to describe the impact that decision has made on my understanding of what it means to be drawn deeper, but it does come back to the consideration of, “What are the Foundations of the Christian Faith”!

That was all over 5 years ago.
As I have said in “My Story” I could never have imagined how much things were going to change in the following 5 years.
Towards the end of 2012 I watched a lengthy BBC TV series entitled “A History of the World” by Andrew Marr, that highlighted for me the reality that the universe has existed for some 13.8 billion years but that civilisation as we know it is no more than about 13,500 years old. It occurred to me that so much human history has been influenced in such a short time by the many world religions.

In 2013 I started attending local U3A (University of the Third Age) classes that have included some Philosophy, Psychology, Counselling, History of Christianity, History of Religion, Buddhism and Islam – much of which was completely new to me, and raises so many more interesting questions.

In “Another Watershed – April 2016” I have described the impact of a lengthy podcast with Rob Bell and Richard Rohr. Even as I listened to this for the first time I just knew that this was another personal watershed. This is now one of the foundations of my blog.

I have recently listened to podcasts where Diana Butler Bass has been talking about her new book Grounded (published in 2015). I am currently reading it.

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One Response to Christianity after Religion

  1. steve smith says:

    Hi life outside the goldfish bowl. I like your title and the above post – very thought provoking and challenging. It is so encouraging to hear an alternative voice in Christianity that is passionate about faith but is also intelligently critical of where we are ‘at’ as Christians. Also, because you left a complimentary comment on one of my posts for my blog http://disconnectedchristians.blogspot.co.uk/ I was wondering if you would like a FREE copy of my book Nine Steps to Well-Being: A Spiritual Guide for Disconnected Christians and other Questioning Journeyers. I think you might like it!! If you do want a copy, then please send me your full name and address to my gmail account disconnectedchristians@gmail.com, and I will send you the book asap (please put in the subject heading ‘FREE book offer’ so I can identify it easily). As well as the book being free, there will be no postage charge either. The only thing I would ask is first that you read it and then, if you like it, to write a review and post it on any social media sites you use, and/or otherwise recommend it to anyone who you think might benefit from the book. Also, please could you send the review to me, so I can use it for promotional purposes too. The review does not have to be long – a paragraph will be fine!

    God bless, and looking forward to hearing from you – Steve Smith

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