Forgiveness

by Sheryl Anderson.

For a long time now I have been very exercised by the notion of forgiveness. It seems to be a word that Christians use freely without giving much thought to what exactly it means. It is one of those concepts that everyone thinks they understand until asked to explain, and then it becomes clear that actually it is a slippery term that it hard to define and of which it is difficult to give a proper account. What is forgiveness and what does it mean to forgive?

One of the things we like to teach our children, when they get into conflict with others (often siblings) is to say sorry and make friends. I am sure you remember that from your own childhood, or with brothers and sisters, or at school? Mostly children co-operate with this, and will sulkily and grumpily say “sorry” – sometimes complaining that it wasn’t their fault or the other person started it!

Christians often seem to think that it is an imperative for us to forgive others, and many Christians pray every day the Lord’s Prayer which contains the line, Forgive us our sins (trespasses) as we forgive those who sin (trespass) against us, as though we are in some sort of bargain with God, which means God can only forgive us if we are forgiving of others. Therefore we have to say sorry and make up…like we were taught as children.

The philosopher Richard Swinburne, in his book Responsibility and Atonement[i] argues that forgiveness follows when someone has properly atoned for the wrong that they have done you. According to Swinburne atonement involves four stages; penitence (recognising that you have wronged someone), apology (saying sorry for doing the wrong), reparation (doing what you can to put the wrong right), penance (going beyond merely putting the wrong right – offering compensation). Swinburne indicates that once someone has fulfilled these requirements, forgiveness should inevitably follow.

However, in real life serious wrongs are very difficult to put right. Personal wrongs – killing someone (deliberately or accidentally), sexual abuse or rape, exploiting someone’s vulnerability – can result in psychological damage that is not easily repaired. Similarly, collective wrongs – the death of 6 million Jews (and others) in the Holocaust; genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, or Darfur; the effect of warfare on a population; the torture, persecution and oppression of blacks by whites in South Africa – these acts often have consequences that continue for generations.

In Country of my Skull[ii], Antjie Krog relates a story told by Father Mxolisi Mpambani during a lunch time panel discussion at the University of Cape Town.

“Once there were two boys, Tom and Bernard. Tom lived right opposite Bernard. One day Tom stole Bernard’s bicycle and every day Bernard saw Tom cycling to school on it. After a year Tom went up to Bernard, stretched out his hand and said, ‘Let us reconcile and put the past behind us.’

Bernard looked at Tom’s hand. ‘And what about the bicycle?’

‘No,’ said Tom, ‘I’m not talking about the bicycle – I’m talking about reconciliation.’”

She then goes on to make the point that traditionally the Western Church says you must forgive, because God forgave you for killing God’s Son. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu translated this for the post-apartheid situation in South Africa. ‘You can only be human in a humane society. If you live with hatred and revenge in your heart you dehumanize not only yourself but your community. Perhaps reparation is not essential for reconciliation and forgiveness.

It seems to me that forgiveness cannot happen outside of a relationship, for it is a performative act. To forgive one must be willing to endure the consequences of someone else’s wrong and overcome resentment. To achieve this one has to consider the breach in the relationship a greater evil than the injury caused, and this is not always the case. In some instances reconciliation is neither sensible not healthy. Survivors of sexual abuse, for example, can find themselves re-victimised by the pressure to forgive that comes from those who assume that if the perpetrator says sorry then forgiveness must follow. In these circumstances, perhaps it is enough to ask God to forgive the one who has wronged us, which is actually what Jesus did.


[i] Swinburne, Richard, Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford University Press, 1989

[ii] Kroge, Antjie, Country of my Skull, Jonathan Cape, 1998 pp 109-110

‘The Lord Your God is the Only God’(Deut.6:4)

by Ben Pugh.

I have just started writing a little devotional book about the attributes of God, and meditating on who he is has already, I think, opened my eyes to some things that were opaque before.

One observation is about idolatry. I am hardly the first to point this out, but, if there is a god that we worship in wealthy Western countries more than any other, it is greed. We don’t call it that, of course. We reify it as ‘the Economy’: this huge thing that must be continually placated, and onto whose altars we must sacrifice the poor and the natural world. The effect of this is plain to see. Like all the false gods of the Hebrew Bible, this idolatry blinds us to the obvious.

Take some of the most recent big issues: social justice, for instance. Being fair to each other is basic. Why haven’t we learned that yet? The answer, to some degree at least, is that we did once know about fairness. When we all lived in close-knit communities, fairness to one another was axiomatic. Things were far from perfect but a basic level of decency towards one another did not need to be codified in legislation or inspected against a set of criteria by someone holding a clipboard. In a community where everyone knows everyone, if you are not a fair-dealing person, the community will deal with you accordingly. And good behaviour towards one another was confirmed Sunday by Sunday by the messages heard from the pulpit. But then came the massification of culture and the massification of greed along with it. We forgot how to be fair.

Or, take the environment. When we relied on nature, with all its awesome unpredictability, we knew we had to work with it. We had no choice. We felt keenly the fact that we are part of nature. If we wanted to feed our family, we had to treat it well. Then, we bowed down to profit and forgot that all the things we make and sell are the products of nature’s bounty. So here, too, we are faced with the humiliating reality of having to learn all over again something that used to be obvious. What we were talking about at Glasgow is truly complex but, on another level, it is ridiculously basic, a mere starting point for living on planet earth. Our idolatry has dealt us a dose of collective amnesia. Our greed has made us forget how to look after the earth.

The biblical writers were ever conscious of how the allure of other gods could make Israel forget, so they never tired of restating this one simple truth: God is the only God. God’s singular entitlement to our devotion is undergirded by his self-existence, expressed programmatically in the all-important ‘I AM’ moment of Exodus 3:14. He will always be what he will always be: underived, the first cause, himself uncaused; entirely independent in thought, will and action.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that this moment of revelation to Moses kicks off a story within the story of the whole Hebrew Bible. From this moment, the underlying story it tells, and the theme it constantly returns to is, ‘Will the people of God worship the God-who-is or will they go after gods-who-are-not?’ The exodus story is a story of triumph over the gods of Egypt, not the people of Egypt, or even Pharaoh necessarily. The Ten Commands begin with: ‘you shall have no other gods before me’(Ex.20:3). The story of the wilderness wanderings is a story of faithfulness to God and the covenant He had just inaugurated through Moses, versus the allure of other loyalties tugging at the people’s hearts. The conquest and settlement of Canaan is a story about a generation that had no memory of the great wonders that the God of Israel had performed, and which now faced the shock of a sedentary existence in which the skills of agriculture must be learned. They noted that the natives worshipped Baal to make the land fertile, so they did the same. The story of the monarchy is a story of monarchs who did what was right in the sight of the Lord by honouring and obeying him and monarchs who went after other gods and led Israel in the same idolatry. The prophets are all aghast at how completely their own people had bowed down to useless gods of wood and stone. In the New Testament too, the spectre of idolatry has not gone away. John warns against it (1John 5:21); Paul warns against it (1Cor.10:14), and the main argument of Romans begins with the assertion that humanity’s primary problem is the fact that we have worshipped the creature rather than the Creator (Rom.1:18-23).

Are we following the God who really is God, or are we walking in the ways of gods that can be seen – and even controlled? There is no neutral, worship-free ground where we can stand. From the divine viewpoint, we were created to worship, and we are, therefore, all engaged in it. The starting point for remedying greed and every other idol is the same as it was for Israel. It is to give honour to the God who is God: ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone’ (Deut.6:4). Will we be part of humanity’s ancient worship disorder, or will we be part of the answer?

Wey Aye, Mam!

by Elaine Lindridge, mam and minister

Why use the sexist term ‘mam’ to describe what you think you’re doing?

This was asked of me recently when I was explaining some of my hopes for our District Pioneer Hub. Never shy of conflict I quickly responded with,

‘Why not? We’ve been using masculine terms for years,
maybe it’s time to redress the balance.’

Plus I’m not a man – although I was once called ‘Father’ by someone who was obviously confused to see a woman in a dog collar and didn’t have a clue how to address me!

When I had children there was no debate about what I would be called, I was always ‘mam’. As a proud Geordie it’s a term I don’t want to lose, but more than that, it always reminds me of the many mams who’ve gone before me. Not all of them had physically birthed new lives, but they most certainly had taught me what it means to be mam and to fill that much needed role of nurturing others. The term often carries with it not just an understanding of the role but an acceptance of parts of my region’s culture that has often favoured matriarchal traditions.

Generally speaking today, the role of mam differs little to that of most mothers. So what is it about mothering that can influence good practice, and in particular, what might a theology and practice based on mothering look like with regards to the oversight of pioneers? Perhaps a spiritual mam could employ some of the same skills that a biological mam uses in rearing children.

So what does mam do? The list is huge, but for the purposes of thinking about a spiritual mam looking after pioneers, the following are worth considering;

– she builds a home

– she offers safe space to grow

– she cleans up

– she teaches

– she cares

– she feeds

– she educates

– she plays

– she nurtures

– she ensures rest is taken

– she builds confidence

These speak to me of meeting some of the basic needs of a child and they are not too distant from the needs of pioneers. Pioneers too need somewhere to call home – a place where they feel safe enough to ‘be’ without having to constantly justify their existence. In that safe place they have the opportunity to question, learn and express doubt – all essential requisites for spiritual growth and development. Any mam will tell you that they need to make sure bedtime is adhered to in order for the child to have the much needed sleep they need to function without getting too grumpy and unreasonable! In a similar way, many in ministry need constant reminders to take time off, to rest and recuperate on a weekly basis. Food is obviously essential, and eating together is a deep way of expressing both our connectivity with God and one another. When a child makes mistakes, care is needed to ensure they know what went wrong and they learn from it. How often is that true for pioneers? As church, we’ve not been great at allowing room for failure and yet surely it is the place where we learn most. There is something very maternal about crafting an environment that allows (no, encourages!) risk taking and then gives the safe arms in which to learn from mistakes and failure. This safe place is also needed when hurt is experienced and the pioneer needs help. Like a child who falls and scuffs their knees, great love can be shown in helping them to stand again, get dusted down, dry the tears and say, ‘off you go again, you’ll be fine.’ Doing so instils confidence and nurtures growth. Mams sometimes need to give their children a little push to try something new – whether that be tasting a funny green vegetable or moving from the toddler park to the big kids park. That same encouragement is needed by pioneers – the gentle yet firm push to keep trying and to develop new skills as God leads them into new places. Followed by positive reinforcement after each new, brave and wobbly step is taken.

All of this happens best in community. Some pioneers may feel unsure of themselves – many are not even keen to use the term pioneer to describe who they are and what they do. Meeting with others who have comparable experiences and are committed to one another can be one of the most wonderful places to be. Security comes from knowing you are accepted to such a degree that it is indeed safe, and expected, that you will grow, learn, fail, laugh and cry.

I cannot help but think of Susannah Wesley who is often referred to as the ‘Mother of Methodism’ (I don’t think John & Charles called her mam but who knows?). Susannah understood how important it was to provide a stable home for her children. Not only that, but she made sure each received a good education in the home. She devoted specific time to each of her children at a designated point each week – that essential one-to-one time was something Susannah scheduled long before the modern parenting manuals thought to suggest it.

In writing all of this I have discovered something new about being mam. To put it bluntly, God is my mam. It is God who does all of these things for me;

– God builds a home

– God offers me a safe space to grow

– God cleans me up

– God teaches me

– God cares

– God feeds me

– God educates

– God plays (oh yes!)

– God nurtures

– God reminds me to rest

– God builds confidence

Thanks mam 😊

                                                         

Discipleship and Context

by Ed Mackenzie.

It’s a familiar maxim today that all theology is contextual. In other words, our ideas about God and God’s relationship with humanity are always constructed in relationship to the wider cultural, religious and social context in which we exist. This does not mean, of course, that there is nothing stable or foundational in Christian discourse; there is indeed a ‘faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 1:3, NRSV) which the church is commissioned to proclaim. But the different contexts in which we find ourselves does mean that we are always wrestling with the relationship between the coherence of Christian faith and its contingent expression in our own contexts.[i]

Just as theology is contextual, so too is discipleship. While the New Testament points to a specific shape to discipleship, it also gives us a vast array of images and motifs, instructions and examples to guide us in the way of Jesus. It recognises too that different people will be called in different ways to follow Jesus.

We can see this dynamic played out in Paul’s instructions to the early Christians in Colossae. For Paul, there are certain values and ‘fruits’ that all Christians are called to pursue. But at the same time, Paul recognises that how we live out our discipleship may look different depending on our situation.

To begin with the ‘coherent’ features of discipleship, Paul calls all Christians to reject the life of sin (Col 3:5-9) and to embrace the way of Christ(Col 3:12-14). We ‘put to death’ the values of our old self, such as impurity, greed and evil speech, and ‘put on’ the values of Christ, such as kindness, patience, and – above all – love.

Paul’s vision of discipleship here points to a ‘double-movement’ that is found throughout the whole of the New Testament: to be a disciple is always to turn from sin and turn to Christ. Such a double movement is not just a ‘one-off’ decision but needs to characterise our lives as a whole. As Martin Luther put it in the first of his 95 theses, ‘When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.’[ii]

For Paul as well, discipleship involves growing closer to Christ through community (Col 3:12-17). The way of Christ emerges as we relate to one another, and so Paul calls all believers to let the ‘word of Christ’ dwell within their lives and their communities. All within the church are called to encourage each other and learn together to do all for the sake of Jesus.

But Paul in Colossians also recognises that our own contexts – where we find ourselves in life – will shape our discipleship too. This becomes especially clear in Paul’s instructions for Christian households (Col 3:18 – 4:1). While all within the household are to orientate themselves to the ‘Lord’, those in different circumstances will live out their calling in different kinds of ways. The calling of parents will differ from that of children, for instance.

While the household code raises interpretive challenges for today, perhaps especially in its treatment of slavery, it nonetheless shows that Paul was attentive to context when calling people to follow Jesus. What it means to live to the Lord will be expressed in different ways depending on our circumstances in life. God knows our contexts and want us to follow Jesus in and through them.

It’s for this reason that a focus on discipleship rightly explores what is essential for all who follow Jesus and what is helpful for different ages and stages. Following Jesus for a child will look different from an adolescent, and different still for someone in work or someone in retirement. As we journey with Jesus together in faith, we can encourage one another both in what we share and in the specific challenges and choices our lives bring us. This is part of what it means, in Paul’s words, to ‘teach and admonish one another in all wisdom’ (Col 3:16b).


[i] I am drawing this language from J. C. Beker. Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980).

[ii] Cited in Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. J. Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), p. 490.

Critical Realism at 3Generate

by George Bailey.

Last week I was thinking about the epistemological frameworks which underlie practical research into the life of the church and Christian faith. This was informed amongst other things by reading Andrew Root’s book Christopraxis: a Practical Theology of the Cross (2014) – a theological methodology for practical theology based initially on Root’s research in youth ministry. At the weekend, I then took a group of young people to the Methodist Church’s children and youth assembly, 3Generate…

Root is one amongst several theologians arguing for a theological critique of the social constructionism which is dominant in the social sciences, prevalent in popular culture, and which can make a significant difference to several theological fields. The basic idea of social constructionism is that all knowledge is socially constructed. At one level this makes a lot of sense – we learn a shared language and associated understanding through social relationships. However, what does this mean for a faith perspective? How far does the theory go – are we unable to know any thing real? Can we only know our socially constructed version of reality? This could leave us in an infinite regress like a painter painting a picture of themselves painting a picture of themselves – in every painting within the painting there is an easel upon which you can see another picture of the painter and the easel. Is the only knowledge we can hold about God, ourselves and the world in some way socially constructed and not necessarily related to any actual reality?

Critical realism is an alternative framework with foundations in the natural sciences. For any science, in the broad meaning of that term – the deliberate human effort to know about reality – strong social constructionism is a problem because it can remove any concept of objective reality; all there is to know about are human attempts to talk about knowledge. Both the natural sciences and theology (the human effort to know about and talk about God) might need to argue for the existence of reality outside of our socially constructed knowing and for the recognition of a way that this reality interacts with our experience. Reality is really there and really knowable, but as soon as it interacts with our social constructions (that is, as soon as we experience it, and therefore interpret it, and so can think and talk about it) it is filtered through social constructions which always need to be critically analysed – hence ‘critical realism’. For Christian faith, this helpfully encompasses the way that although we live within socially constructed ways of understanding God, the world and ourselves, God is also a reality entirely outside of us and of our knowledge, and God can break into that social construction – we can experience God, and this is a new voice in our social construction which interacts with and develops our knowledge. How we interpret this experience is variable and sometimes conflicted, but it is nevertheless potentially a real experience of a real God which has a causal effect on our knowledge and action.

Root is keen to maintain as well that this experience of God is both individually interacted with and also communally the subject of social interpretation and knowledge formation. To reduce this only to individual subjective experience risks the extremes of some evangelical theologies which resist communal hermeneutic analysis. To only consider communal interpretation risks a move too far towards strong social constructionism akin to some liberal or post-liberal theologies which resist the possibility of direct experience of God affecting our understanding.

With this recent reading of Root’s version of critical realism in my mind, I arrived at 3Generate. Here the social construction of Christian faith is very apparent, and an analysis of that social construction is an inherent part of the ministry practiced by the organisers and youth group leaders. A large Christian youth event includes within it the desire of the faith community to help its young people inhabit the same conceptual space as the church. The language of faith and Christian discipleship is to be handed on carefully; yet what version of this socially constructed faith is to be shared? To what extent are the young people to be introduced not just into the broad terms of the communal language of faith but also to the tensions and conflicts that exist within that broad community? A further question is being negotiated within the event as to what extent the young people might receive the tradition of the Christian community, and to what extent can they by joining the community also shape and change it?

To stop there though could leave the youth event functioning within a purely social constructionist view of reality. The theme of 3Generate this year has been ‘In Tune’: how are we in tune with God? A critical realist epistemology is necessary to allow this expectation that young people (and old!) can have subjective experience of God which co-exists within a reasonable, and I would argue necessary, degree of social constructionist analysis. These issues are usually (hopefully) present in any local church’s life of worship, discipleship, mission and fellowship, but they can also often be left unspoken or lie hidden under the accepted way that things operate. As young people at 3Generate actively debate the way that they can experience God, and also how their voice might be formed and heard by the rest of the church, for me it is very clear that we all need to work harder at analysing our social constructions of knowledge, our subjective experiences of God, and how they are brought together in a critical realist epistemological framework to form a coherent and developing account of Christian faith.

The language of Darkness: Thinking about darkness and light, metaphor and meaning

This is the third of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. This month the article is by Catherine Bird.

As I began to acknowledge some of the physical and emotional reactions which darkness stirred within me I was reminded of God and of God’s activity in my own life. As I began in later life to reach longingly for the shade rather than the sunlight, and for night rather than day, I found myself questioning some deeply ingrained Christian metaphors and needing to express them in a way which could give expression to my relationship with God. Metaphors, of course, are rarely complete. Yet sometimes, they become so associated with their object that it is almost impossible to imagine anything else. For example, God as Father, or the use of the word ‘black’ to describe something negative. We have, thankfully, to a certain extent at least, recognised that these things are destructive in terms of how they lead us to make connections which are not necessarily helpful, and we are beginning to move away from them but there is still some way to go of course. God as light and Evil as darkness is one such metaphor and is still the predominant narrative.

Whilst I would not like us to lose light as a positive metaphor,  it is important to recognise that it is not universally helpful – light has many harmful and destructive qualities –  and if we deny that Darkness can also describe God we are perhaps missing some very important characteristics of God, as well as being rather unfair on darkness. George Orwell said, “uncritical acceptance of existing phrases can shape thinking and hinder new thought.”

I wrote my Dark Creed as an attempt to put into a liturgical context some of the ideas that were playing around in my head.

 A Dark Creed

I believe in God
The creator of darkness,
Who conceived of its potential,
And allows it to live.

I believe in Jesus Christ,
The prince of darkness,
Who raises a canopy of grace
to shade the startled ones .

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The inner shadow,
Who clings to our soul 
and distorts the shape of our sorrow.

Like images, we also approach words and language with our own perspective and experience, perhaps our own biases and assumptions and it’s not unusual for people to react quite strongly when they read it.

If you find the image of Jesus as ‘the Prince of darkness’ concerning, then I ask you to reflect on the term Lucifer – which actually means ‘bearer of light’ or ‘Morning Star’

During the Exile of Israelites to Babylonia, there they encountered the King, who was the son of Bel and Ishtar, associated in local mythology  with Venus, the Morning star (so called  because of its closeness to the sun and appearance in the sky just before sunrise)  So, the King of Babylon became known as the  ‘Morning Star’ or Lucifer.

In Isaiah 14:12-16, the prophet is talking about how God will restore the people to Israel and they will taunt the fall of the King of Babylon (Lucifer) from his earthly throne. In verse 12 the writer gets a bit sarcastic – he talks about the fall of Lucifer from a metaphorical Heaven into a metaphorical hell. He is speaking metaphorically, about deposing the King. Sadly, over time, the sarcastic tone was lost and the verses came to be understood as being about the fall of Satan from Heaven.  Hence Lucifer becomes Satan.

Satan as the bearer of light. Jesus as the prince of darkness.  So it’s interesting to consider why, if Lucifer means bearer of Light, do we find the idea of Jesus as the Prince of darkness so difficult?

For Reflection

  • Reflect upon the ‘Dark Creed’ How do you respond to it?
  • What common metaphors for the Divine work for you or don’t work?
  • Are there other ways of describing God or words you could use which might seem unusual?

Laughter as a Way of Prayer

by Raj Bharat Patta.

In the patriarchal society of Abraham, women were restricted to the private spaces, for Sarah had to do all the cooking for the guests, but had no chance of coming out to meet and speak to the guests. But the divine who came as three strangers in Genesis 18, by enquiring Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” (v9) was trying to break open those patriarchal stereotypes that women are limited to the domestic private space and men are out in the public space. On hearing from Abraham that Sarah was ‘in the tent’, one of the strangers spoke loudly so that Sarah can hear, and pronounced that in due season Sarah shall have a child. Then Sarah laughs to herself. The tent was her own space, for over the years that space would have been a space for her to weep, to laugh, to pray, to lament and to sit in silence. On this occasion, Sarah in her own space, in her own freedom, laughed to herself, for all that she was, she and herself. Out of the fear generated by the patriarchal society, later on Sarah denies that she laughed and Abraham insisted that she did laugh (v15), for I think the stranger-guests and Abraham would have heard her chuckle from inside the tent. But for Sarah, laughter was an expression of her freedom, an expression of who she was and served as an act of subversion for her. It was an act of subversion against the patriarchal society which confined women to a private space like the tent, and never allowed them to laugh out loud in the public spaces.

In Sarah’s laughter, I recognise a subversive prayer. For in that laughter as Sarah spoke to herself with a question, “after I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (v12), she was being heard by God. In her laughter as a way of prayer, Sarah was not questioning the miraculous power of God. Sarah’s laughter as a way of prayer demonstrates that the God she believed in is not a God who works through unrealistic fantasy, but a God who works through people. Sarah’s laughter was not a laughter of cynicism but a laughter of realism, where prayer is about realistic things. Our prayers therefore reveal the kind of God we believe and the kind of God we believe is exhibited in the way we pray. When Sarah laughed, God not only heard and responded to her laughter, but I think God would have joined in laughing with Sarah to fulfil the promise God has made to her.

On hearing Sarah’s laughter, God was quick to speak to Abraham, opening wide the revelation of the divine. Sarah’s laughter did not make God angry. The patriarchal society demeaned and diminished Sarah’s laughter as a sign of unbelief to the promise of God, but there is freshness in Sarah’s prayer which was seen in her laughter. The laughter of Sarah was not seen by God as offensive, for God on hearing the laughter of Sarah did not curtail God’s promise nor cursed Sarah at that point, rather God revealed God’s character of doing wonderful things in their lives offering hope to them. It was because of Sarah’s laughter that God spoke to Abraham, reassuring him, ‘is anything too wonderful for God?’ Sarah’s laughter paved the way for the actions of God’s wonderful acts to flow on in their lives. When things unfolded as promised, I can imagine Sarah would have kept laughing at every point of her life that followed and eventually named her son Isaac, after her deep spiritual experiences of laughter with God.

Laughter is a natural expression of human spirit, and when the future appears bleak, when things are annoying around us, when the going gets tough, laughter as a faith space helps us as a defiance against all those oppositions. May the courage of Sarah be with each of us so that we can laugh at ourselves on hearing that God is leading us into an uncertain future with a confidence of new hope in Jesus Christ. Let us together join with Sarah in laughing out loud and celebrate hope, for God works wonderfully through each of us. God hasn’t given up on the Christian faith nor on the church, but is leading us to offer hope in our community by building on laughter, kindness, peace and justice.

Experience in Theology: From One Dimensional Quadrilateral to Multi-Dimensional Hexadecahedron[i]


by Tom Greggs.[i]


The idea of the Wesleyan quadrilateral is pervasive that it is almost no longer fittingly spoken of as ‘Wesleyan’.[ii] Theological statements rest on the coalescence of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, and what is most particular in this for the theology of Wesley’s own time is the final of those four categories—the role of experience in theological statements. [iii] In distinction from Hooker who saw the sources of theology as Scripture, reason and tradition (alongside natural law),[iv] Wesley, adds the experiential in faith as a datum for the claims of the faith: the faith by which we believe is for Wesley, with his emphasis on sanctification, a contributory component of the faith that is believed, and thereby a source of theology.

In using experience as a datum of theology, however, there is a need to be aware of its limits. Experience is not some kind of uncritical, unadulterated subjectivist interiority. Experience is rather, for Wesley, an account of the experience of the church: ‘the experience not of two or three, not of a few, but of a great multitude which no man can number. It has been confirmed, both in this and in all ages, by “a cloud of” living and dying “witnesses”’.[v] Furthermore, Wesley is overtly aware of the limitations of this source of theological knowledge, and the capacity for self-deception:

“How many have mistaken the voice of their own imagination for this ‘witness of the Spirit’ of God, and thence idly presumed they were the children of God while they were doing the works of the devil! These are truly and properly enthusiasts; and, indeed, in the worst sense of the word.”[vi]

It is only in conjunction with Scripture, the teaching of the church (tradition), and reason that experience can recognize that which is sanctified, and thereby as that which is part of the material of theology. Doing theology is not a case of reflecting uncritically on any and every experience the human has, but rather a case of locating experience in relation to the other sources and norms of theology to judge experience’s capacity to offer theological truth: only when adjudged as part of the sanctified life can the experience of the creature be understood as s source for theology. Part of this judgment is a critical appraisal of experience because the sanctified believer realizes that the fundamental form of sanctification rests on the recognition of the believer’s own propensity to sin and self-deception, and the need to fall back on the grace and mercy of God.[vii] The one who does not, in being conscious of God’s presence in her spirit, repent,[viii] but becomes confident of her assurance, grows ‘haughty’ in her behaviour and thereby in the sense of confidence she may have in her own experience. There is always the need in relation to the category of experience to be reminded: ‘Discover thyself, thou poor self-deceiver! Thou who art confident of being a child of God … O cry unto him, that the scales may fall from thine eyes …’[ix]  Enthusiasm in the unlovely sense of the word is what it means to mistake our own voice with the voice of God; Methodism is more about the experience of the believer methodically and reasonably related to the life and experience of the church as a whole in its traditions as the church lives under the sovereign authority of Scripture as witness to Jesus Christ.[x]

This description of experience points out something very fundamental: in describing the quadrilateral of sources for theology, these four locations of theological data do not exist as independent and un-related or competitive sources of theological information; they exist rather only in relation to each other. Anna Williams points helpfully in this direction when she states about the point of the quadrilateral:

“do not stand on a par with each other: the claims of tradition, reason, and experience to the states of free-standing warrants are exceedingly weak. They serve as interpreters of scripture, rarely as autonomous alternatives to it. The claim of scripture to be the sole warrant is equally implausible…”[xi]

Key is the relationality of the different components of the quadrilateral to each other: they are ‘radically interpretable’.[xii] They do not function to provide end points to theological discussion, but starting points (as sources), and the interpretation of each of them rests in each’s relation to the others by and through which their interpretation will be made possible.

Theological method is not, for Methodism, about locating what Scripture, then tradition, then reason, then experience may say about a given topic, and then coming to some judgement on it. Theological method is about what each area of theological data says in relation and in conversation with the other. It is not that we have four squares, so to speak, but rather four sides to the one quadrilateral. Indeed, I would want to argue that we need to move from thinking about the single one-dimensional quadrilateral to thinking more fully about theology as a multi-dimensional hexadecahedron: an expression of the sources and norms of theology variously inter-related to one another in complex and multi-dimensional ways.


[i] The ideas in this piece (and some of its content) are taken from a longer treatment of these themes. See Tom Greggs, ‘On the Nature, Task and Method of Theology: A Very Methodist Account’, International Journal of Systematic Theology (2018), vol. 20, no. 3, 309-334.

[ii] Indeed, Anna Williams, discusses these in an extremely helpful summary as ‘warrants’, discussing Wesley largely in relation to her consideration of experience; see Anna Williams, The Architecture of Theology: System, Structure, and Ratio (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 89-91.

[iii] The origins of this approach to theology are, however, remarkably recent. The term ‘quadrilateral’ is not one original to Wesley, but is a coda or hermeneutical key for unlocking Wesley’s approach to theology, as described by the great Wesley scholar Albert C. Outler. However, it is certainly true (with an acknowledgment of the complexity of this and of these terms) that for Wesley the data of theology (the authority on which theological statements might rest) is fourfold. For a survey of Outler’s approach, see ‘The Wesleyan Quadrilateral – in John Wesley’, Wesleyan Theological Journal vol. 20:1 (1985), 7-18; cf. Gunter W. Stephen, Ted A. Campbell, Scott J. Jones, Rebekah L. Miles, Randy L. Maddox, Wesley and the quadrilateral: renewing the conversation (Nashville: Abingdon: 1997). The term is foreshadowed in the work of Colin W. Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (London: Epworth, 1960) in his account of authority and experience (ch. 2).

[iv] Cf. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, edited by Arthur McGrade(Oxford: OUP, 2013), 1.16 & 3.9.

[v] Wesley, Sermons I, 290.

[vi] Wesley, Sermons I, 269.

[vii] As Wesley puts it in his sermon on the witness of the Spirit: ‘The Scriptures describe that joy in the Lord which accompanies the witness of his Spirit as an humble joy, a joy that abases to the dust; that makes a pardoned sinner cry out, “I am vile! …” And wherever lowliness is, there is patience, gentleness, long-suffering. There is a soft, yielding spirit, a mildness and sweetness, a tenderness of soul which words cannot express. But do these fruits attend that supposed testimony of the Spirit in a presumptuous man? Just the reverse.’ Wesley, Sermons I, 280. Cf. Luther: ‘God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to one but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite.’ Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Jaroslav Pelikan and Daniel E. Poellot (ed.), Arnold Guebert (trans.), vol. 14 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 163. 

[viii] This is a point that is made repeatedly by the Blumhardts. For a helpful account of the dangers of experience as a warrant or norm, see Williams, Architecture, 89-94.

[ix] Wesley, Sermons I, 281-2.

[x] See Clive Marsh ‘Appealing to Experience: What does it mean’ in Methodist Theology Today, ed. Marsh et al., 118-30 for an account of some of the complexities and issues at stake in the role of experience in Methodist theology.

[xi] Williams, Architecture, 94.

[xii] Williams, Architecture, 111.

A Holy Path?

by Christopher Collins.

“this path
carries the sacred and holy
around life’s circumference
in the expecting family
and excited toddlers,
and arm-locked lovers,
and funeral go-toers

“For what wears down your sole
Works in you to raise your soul
for on holy ground, you stand,
I made it so.”

From the anonymous poem “City Paths”[i]

This ugly, tarmac, dirty footpath is not holy ground, so I was prone to protest as I walked suburban streets in January this year.  I was sponsored to walk a hundred miles in the month and I deliberately chose to walk the same route of about three miles every day so I didn’t have to think too hard during an otherwise busy month. Over the thirty-one days I learned all the nooks, crannies and cracks of the walk. Met the frequent dog-walkers and the one-time passers by off to a funeral, or the pub, or both. It was, mostly, an unremarkable path. But, something kept nagging me about “holy ground” but I persisted in my resistance that this was holy.  The route had not been declared “holy” or “sacred” nor had centuries of pilgrims trod the path before me on a way-marked route guaranteed to lead to a holy place. Yet, over the course of the hundred miles, something began to change in me that transformed by ambivalence about tarmac which had seen better days into a eucharistic connection with this holy ground. This trammeled tarmac woke up something of God within me.

This has come back to mind since I joined in the “Camino to COP” as pilgrims passed through my circuit between Malvern and Worcester. The route was designed to get us from A to B and had no particular historical significance as far as we knew. Nevertheless, we reflected in our ramblings about what made this a pilgrimage as we weren’t following, as we would perhaps usually do on such a journey, a path described as sacred.

Was it a pilgrimage, we wondered, because we were walking it with a holy intention – to highlight the cause for climate justice and to demand that proper action is taken when the COP meets in Glasgow in November? Yes, that is surely part of it within the great tradition of historical marches – Jarrow, Salt and Washington to name a few.

But I’ve been troubled that this reduces the potential for holiness to what humans can do to the earth. We make it holy by walking it? Isn’t the ground already holy because it is made and shaped by the creator’s hand. It was God, remember, who declared the ground on which Moses stood as holy. We forget to our peril that Genesis tells us God formed humanity out of the ground of earth, and to the earth we shall all return. And isn’t it the attitude that we have complete dominion and control over the earth that has got us into the mess we were walking about anyway?

So I wonder if the pilgrimage was having the opposite effect. The holy earth shaping holiness in us as we felt the connection between our bodies and the ground under our feet pulling us closer and reminding us that we are all part the wholeness of creation. Reminding us that neither earth nor humanity can fulfil our destiny to flourish in God’s gaze if we don’t recognise the holiness in each.

The pilgrimage led me to a “thin place,” where, as Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes: “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. They are places that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in place between worlds, beyond experience”[ii]

Which led to that led to the great hymn in Paul’s letter to the saints in Philippi:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross”[iii]

For Jesus chose a non-violent path of humility that opened up the possibility of new life.

A Camino to COP reminds me that I need to let go of my vested interests in our domination over the earth and our siblings for whom climate’s crisis has a greater devastating impact than I can ever imagine. We are all holy, shaped by God in God’s image and that’s why we need COP26 to deliver a holy justice.


[i] You can read the full poem here: City Paths (revdchristopherjcollins.com)

[ii] Kerri ní Dochartaigh, “thin places”, (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2021), p.23

[iii] Philippians 2:5 & 8 [NRSV]

The Theology We Shy Away From

by Neil Richardson.

We Christians in the western world relate our faith readily enough (more or less) to our personal lives and our churches. We find it harder to relate it to national and international affairs. Think of our divisions or our silences about the nuclear deterrent, Brexit,  Britain’s housing crisis, and much, much more. Yet, in these dark times, King Zedekiah’s question to Jeremiah must be ours: ‘Is there a word from the Lord?’

   In listening for such a word, we may have to  wrestle with biblical and theological themes we usually shy away from. But the vocation of a prophetic Church is to preach the truth. We’re called, not to offer opinions, solutions or programmes for action, not even to preach Kingdom values – a slippery term! (1)- but the truth which sets us free, (John 8.32).

   To talk of ‘the truth’ these days is unfashionable, and can be intolerant and  dangerous. But this is our basic currency: the reality about ourselves, the Church, the world and  God,  the Ultimate Reality. And this, of course, includes the story of Jesus.

     What are the themes we shy away from? I suggest four: judgement and wrath, sin and  repentance.  I’m not arguing that we use the words themselves; they are widely misunderstood, or not understood at all.  They are certainly offputting, and we want naturally (but mistakenly?) to offer an attractive gospel.

    We must face the realities to which the words point, because there is no full gospel without them. To begin here with judgement: we know Christians shouldn’t be judgemental, (Matthew 7.1),  but what about God’s own judgement? When did we last preach or hear a sermon on divine judgement – final or otherwise?

   A cautionary note is necessary. Most of us have inveighed against a materialistic world and all its works. But we often think of that ‘world’ thought  as ‘out there’: a dark reality over against  the Church.  Thomas Merton, however,  searchingly asks, ‘Where do I look for the world, if not inside myself?’ In any case, what charge should the Church make against ‘the world’?

     John’s gospel points the way: ‘This is the judgement (Greek, krisis): the light has come into the world but people preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil’ (John 3.19).

    Here is the primal sin:  we humans choose darkness, illusions and idols, putting them before light, truth and  the living God. And no-one, not least the Church, (compare prophets like Amos on Israel!) is exempt from this judgement.

     Our currency is truth.  And the reality about ourselves is what it has always been: ‘original’ sin, made though we are in the image of God. Sin, of course,  is a word almost impossible for the Christian preacher to use unless he or she explains it.  Many think it refers to moral failings, especially sexual ones; but they are the symptoms, not the root. Many reject the idea of sin  altogether as an outdated, unduly negative estimate of human beings. But as a great Methodist historian once wrote: ‘faith in human nature…. Is a recent heresy and a very disastrous one’ (2).

    Yet we can’t make ‘sin’ the centre of our preaching, even though the reality of it is all around us and within us, polluting almost everything. But we live in a culture which can’t or won’t face this reality. Maybe this is because we have become strangers to holiness and the holy.

    In the Bible, people become aware of their sinfulness in the presence of the holy God. ‘Sin’ is, first and foremost,  a religious and relational term; it is to  ‘fall short’ of God’s glory, (Romans 3.21). Isaiah and Simon Peter recognized their own sinfulness in the presence of the Holy One, (Isaiah 6, Luke 5.11). With this we come to the theme of repentance.

     The story of the prodigal son reminds us that ‘sin’ is a relational term, not a moral one.  But when did the prodigal repent? Not, I suggest, in the far country. That was where he came to his senses, recognizing on which side his bread was buttered. The change of heart came later, as his father ran to embrace him, before the son had even begun his carefully prepared speech.

   Samuel Coleridge, poet and theologian, wrote that Christianity is not so much the gift of forgiveness to those who repent, but the gift of repentance to those who sin. An overstatement? Possibly, but much nearer the truth than the widespread assumption that repentance is a condition of forgiveness.

     The wrath of God is perhaps the most difficult of the four themes we tend to shy away from. As I pointed out in my blog of 2018, it’s best understood as the opposite of God’s life-giving light: God ‘hiding his face’, (e.g. Isaiah 64.7, in contrast to ‘the light of his countenance’ in Numbers 6.25).  In this darkness, spiritual, moral and social, our idolatry and illusions slowly but surely dehumanize us, degrade our behaviour and damage our communities, (Romans 1.18-32)(3).

    This is difficult language. But these disasters which we bring upon ourselves underline the truth that this is God’s world, created, redeemed and permeated by his love. But if we go against the very grain of the universe and our own God-given natures, we run into, as it were, the adverse wind of his wrath – the sure sign, especially in our current crises, that this is not only God’s world, but that God cares passionately about it and for us.

     Our currency is indeed truth. It is the truth as we believe we see it in Jesus, above all in Christ crucified and risen.  In that gospel there is a deep joy and  a hope which is unquenchable in all the darkness and pain.  We can’t make ourselves praise God in the darkness, but the Spirit will help us so to do, even in such a time as this.  In the words of a saintly, early apostle to India, Father Andrew, (H.E. Hardy (4)): ‘Man’s affliction is God’s opportunity’.

                              

  1. See Eberhard Jungel on ‘value-free truth’ in his Theological Essays II , (T&T Clark 1995), pp.191-215.
  2. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, (G. Bell 1949, Fontana 1957), p.66.
  3.  The homosexual practices referred to in this passage are now widely recognized as the exploitative, often oppressive and promiscuous relationships prevalent in the Graeco-Roman world.
  4. Author of hymn no. 172 in Hymns and Psalms, ‘O Dearest Lord…’.
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