A privatised faith?

by Christopher Collins.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, presided at an Easter Eucharist from his kitchen table, many went to social media to complain that the Church of England was becoming too domesticated or private. Many respond with the question “does it matter?” John Hull perhaps answered that question in his seminal work on missiology published in 2014, a year before his death. His book, Towards the Prophetic Church: a study of Christian mission,[i] presents an enduring challenge to the church which speaks as loudly in the response to Covid-19 as at any other time.

Throughout Hull’s published works there is a thread leading to the conviction that the church desperately needs to recapture a “prophetic faith” drawing on the tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the prophetic ministry of Jesus.

For the prophets, faith was public (see for example Jeremiah 7.2). Yet, argues Hull, public faith has been privatised by the condition of modernity and imperialism (although we might want to argue this was happening before modernity). For the prophets, faith determined how to live in the public square, shown in their concern for life in community. In the mutual relationship formed in community there is the potential for justice and injustice. Given that God is just, God is found in justice so to have a right relationship with God, one needs right relationships in community which forms justice. We can only love God by loving each other.

Hull explores this using the spatial model of horizontal and vertical transcendence. Vertical transcendence – finding God solely through an individual relationship with God – is a privatised faith and offers little compulsion to live justly. Horizontal transcendence, on the other hand, suggests that the way to a right relationship with God is through our relationships with each other.

And this is where Hull’s work can speak to us living under the conditions of Covid-19 which has been described by Arundhati Roy as a portal through which we see injustices more clearly.[ii]

Firstly, Covid-19 made us more aware of relationships that we had painfully neglected until March this year. For example, our utter reliance on “key workers.” We quickly became aware of the injustices they faced given their roles often putting them on the “front line” at risk of Covid yet they also appeared to be economically expendable. Some have realised the extent of their “middle class cushion” with plentiful access to on-line resources, greater job security and a savings buffer. Further afield, we have seen how some countries don’t have the relatively vast resources of wealthy nations to tackle the virus. This gives us plenty to consider in our missiological response.

Yet Covid-19 gives us ecclesiological challenges too. How do we maintain relationships that enable horizontal transcendence when our gatherings are limited? Of course, we have all learned a great deal more since March about meeting together on-line. Crucial as it is, it isn’t the transcendent panacea. Not only do many people find on-line interactions good only to a certain extent, there are members of our congregations who become digitally marginalised. That isn’t because they won’t join in, it’s because they can’t. Not everyone has the resources to buy equipment or connections. For some people, the pandemic disruption is more than they can handle without having to learn a new language as well.

As important as it is to minimise the possibility of marginalisation, there is the question of what remote connectedness does to our rituals which depend on presence together and in turn the impact on the practice of our faith. Holy Communion is one example. Our celebration at Christ’s table is modelled on a presiding minister leading the people gathered in the Thanksgiving which includes the invocation of the Holy Spirit to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ for us. It is a communal act envisaged for a time when the prospect of the congregation being unable to gather was unthinkable.

As unthinkable as it was, it has had to become thinkable in the last six months. Pragmatists amongst us have reignited the conversation over “on-line communion” as well as developing models such as “drive through” Holy Communion. These practical theological developments should always be encouraged but crucially not at the price of our faith retreating into a privatised relationship where it only matters to me and God.


[i] John M Hull, Towards the Prophetic Church: A study in Christian mission, (London: SCM, 2014)

[ii] Arundhati Roy: ‘The pandemic is a portal’.

13 thoughts on “A privatised faith?”

  1. I believe we can have a privatised faith and at the same time conform to the beliefs and values of a Christian community. It is a question of where does the small ‘I’ fit into the bigger ‘We’?
    I have found my privatised faith through exploration within the Methodist tradition, but I am now finding my
    place in the bigger picture within the Catholic tradition. Is this wrong? Should I have to choose?
    When we look at Jesus on the cross, we see both the vertical and the horizontal transcendence, and the place where the two meet is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
    ‘Heart of my own heart, whatever befalls, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.’

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  2. Yes! We can only love God by loving each other and God in fact only comes to mind in the context of our ethical relationships with each other. So what is the point of seeking and encouraging a privatised faith based on vertical transcendence – finding God solely through an individual relationship with God?
    I try to imagine a church service based on horizontal transcendence. It would certainly be inclusive, based on the unconditional love of God that extends to the stranger, the outsider, the sinner, even the non-Christian! Love, forgiveness, courage and hope do not come with “if” statements and are freely given to all. And such a service would probably not refer to the idea of God’s presence, God’s Chosen People and most of the metaphysical stuff like the Trinity that are used to bolster privatised faith.
    Increasingly I find that the horizontal transcendence of a social faith moves me. The events that stir my heart into praise and renewed commitment to Faith generally occur in everyday life. Sometimes a write poems about them – like this one.

    Marks and Spencer

    I bumped into God the other day
    Though it was God that bumped into me!
    I wanted a shirt – pink stripe would be nice,
    But Marks had little to see.

    An old lady fell at the queue by the tills
    She was embarrassed and shaken, but actually alright.
    The thing that struck me about this event
    Was the concern of strangers at this ladies plight.

    Were all of them Saints or off-duty Angels?
    Or Christians, nurses or coppers?
    Or did God’s demand that we love all we meet
    Stir the hearts of all the shoppers?

    So there was God among men, children, mothers –
    The God that appears as we respond, to others.

    Robert

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  3. Great poem, Robert!
    Why though does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t we have both? The desert fathers didn’t need other people to make them feel close to God. You might say I want the best of both worlds. Well yes, I do! Isn’t that what faith is all about? Peace in this world (the one that passes all understanding) and eternal life in the next.
    Here is a poem I wrote when I applied to be a Street Angel, and I worried that I wasn’t quite angelic enough:

    What if an angel should come to your door,
    not for tea and a bun, but seeking much more?
    An angel who questions, an angel who doubts,
    an angel who sulks and an angel who shouts.
    An angel who doesn’t mind treading on toes,
    who muddies the water wherever she goes.
    An angel-in-training, who knows you can see
    that she has little horns where her halo should be.
    Will you welcome her in to your circle of light
    and equip her to work on the streets at night (??)
    Wrapped in your prayers,
    with God’s love in her heart,
    a ‘wannabe’ angel, who seeks a fresh start.

    I’m pleased to say I made it as a Street Angel, and that I have learned to be slightly more angelic than I used to be. When Christians admit their shortcomings, it gets them a bit more street cred 😉
    Hope you found the pink-striped shirt!

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  4. Yvonne, I take your point about horizontal and vertical transcendence but for me, and possibly Christopher, vertical transcendence can become an individualistic pietism (or even competitive piety) that has little to do with an ethical concern for others. As I see it Christ IS the stranger, the other, the alien so it has to be one or the other. For me horizontal transcendence is where I find God and a search for vertical transcendence would be a betrayal.
    My intention here is not to be contentious but to suggest that the Methodist Church needs to engage with mission in this postmodern world where many do not see the relevance of the structures of credal Christianity and yet find their God in the ethical concern they have for each other.
    No, I did not find my pink striped shirt!

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  5. Much church teaching promotes a self-centred faith – that the critical thing is whether we personally are ‘saved’ and where we will spend eternity. This runs the danger of producing a two-dimensional faith, which focuses disproportionally on how we personally will benefit from our own relationship with God. A full Christian life needs to give full recognition to the added dimension of the second love commandment and to what Jesus taught about the kingdom of God. The cross is our central symbol; but do we see the cross as a sign that we are saved from the world or as a challenge to how we live in the world? “Take up the cross and follow me” is a call to undertake the risks of commitment, of self-sacrificing love, of embracing life whole-heartedly. Being “cross-centred” should not mean turning our back on the world as we wonder at the cross. We have to place ourselves by the cross, at the heart of our hurting world, and try to see what Jesus saw and loved in people, even as he suffered. If we are to follow Jesus, we must take on the mission he declared – to struggle for justice for the oppressed, minister to the broken-hearted, support and encourage the poor and give those leading restricted lives new horizons. We must see the value that God places on each of them. We are called not to save ourselves but to spend ourselves, as we help people to transform their lives and to achieve wholeness in the power of the Spirit. Loving in this way makes us vulnerable, and we may have to take some knocks in the process; but when we truly love, we gain far more than we give and that makes it all worthwhile.

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  6. Living A Cross-shaped Space

    Each day make space
    to reach up to God
    in prayer, petition and praise.
    Not God high in the sky,
    but God beyond all names,
    greater than our finite minds can comprehend
    yet God encountered in our inner being.

    Each day make space
    to reach out to one another
    with ears to listen, hands to help,
    faces to smile, feet to visit,
    compassion to care.
    Reach out in both directions
    easily to those you love,
    but harder to those you find difficult,
    even dislike.

    Each day make space
    to reach down to the earth.
    Treat the earth gently –
    the cradle of our creatureliness,
    the home we share with all that has been created,
    our heritage from the past,
    our bequest to those yet to come,
    where we are stewards, not rulers.

    Each day make space
    to reach up and outwards and down,
    creating a cross-shaped space in our lives,
    Not always easy,
    but at its heart,
    where the beams cross,
    we find the enabling of Christ’s resurrection love,
    equipping us through the power of the Spirit,
    to be the body of Christ on earth.

    Each day make space
    for through that space can stream
    the healing light of the world,
    beacons witnessing to God’s all-encompassing love,
    reaching out to all humanity –
    if you make space.

    Ros Murphy, ‘Inspired by the ‘empty cross’ sculptures of Jonathon Hemingray – pictures on his web-site

    Maybe a shorter version is more inspiring.

    Cross-shaped Spaces

    Christians.
    We are people infused
    with the Christ light
    that streams through
    the cross-shaped space
    between time and eternity.

    We are members of Christ’s body
    here on earth,
    reaching out in love.
    up to God,
    out to friend and to stranger,
    down to care for our planet.
    Living cross-shaped spaces
    of light, hope and love,
    apertures for God in our dark world.

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  7. Deeply inspiring words Patel! Encouraged me to take this conversation further, particularly about vertical transcendence. I came across this poem by R. S. Thomas and found a commentary on the theology of it by Jim Gordon on a blog site called Living Wittily:

    Praise

    I praise you because
    you are artist and scientist
    in one. When I am somewhat
    fearful of your power,
    your ability to work miracles
    with a set-square, I hear
    you murmuring to yourself
    in a notation Beethoven
    dreamed of but never achieved.
    You run off your scales of
    rain water and sea water, play
    the chords of the morning
    and evening light, sculpture
    with shadow, join together leaf
    by leaf, when spring
    comes, the stanzas of
    an immense poem. You speak
    all languages and none,
    answering our most complex
    prayers with the simplicity
    of a flower, confronting
    us, when we would domesticate you
    to our uses, with the rioting
    viruses under our lens.

    Jim points out that when we domesticate God “The over-familiar spiritualities of God as provider and source of blessing become utilitarian, prayer becomes self-referential, petition for our needs replaces intercession for others, and both eclipse adoration and the proper praise of the God who Is rather than the God we insist God has to be”. As in Pavel’s Question “Do we see the cross as a sign that we are saved from the world or as a challenge to how we live in the world” there is an ethical turn. Horizontal transcendence is obviously ethical but vertical transcendence drifts into self-concern and it is in that sense I affirm that for me God only arises in the context of our ethical concern for others and vertical transcendence would be a betrayal.

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  8. While we’re into poems, let me add one

    Journey in Exile

    The boy enjoys the loving fellowship of church;
    But as a youth he hears evangelists decry:
    “You’re sinners all, condemned to God’s eternal wrath!
    Repent! Believe in Christ’s all-saving blood or die!”
    The youth has doubts which prompt these prophets’ scathing scorn,
    “Then you will writhe in hell, while we’re in heaven above.”
    – “I will not fawn in fear to satisfy a God,
    So strict he can’t forgive from feelings full of love
    Without a sacrifice; condemning most to pain;
    Who could ignore the Auschwitz cry of deep distress,
    But cures a Christian’s common cold – or so you claim.
    I’d rather risk the rigours of the wilderness.”

    In anger thus he speaks and turns his back on church.
    But there is sorrow too, a hunger never stilled,
    A shadow always cast through all the world’s bright lights,
    A sense of loss, a feel of purpose unfulfilled.
    By now a man he starts a search for truth, and finds
    His fount of faith within a back street gutter, where
    He meets a modest man with vomit on his sleeve,
    Who’s tending to a tramp with conscientious care.
    He asks him, “Why?” – “Because I see my God in him.”
    – “Now here’s no God enthroned on high we must placate;
    No king who says ‘Don’t judge’, but would be judge of all.
    This God is living love, the power to liberate.”

    Inspired, he searches scripture where he finds the one,
    Who welcomed all – the leper, quisling, faithless wife,
    And offered freely wholeness, hope and sense of worth,
    Who came to serve. He sees that God was in that life.
    In service now he spends himself, but seeking still,
    And soon he glimpses this same God-shaped spark again
    In family and friends, and then in those he meets.
    This God does not direct, but suffers in our pain.
    He then perceives this power within himself, and knows
    That faith is in relationships, not ancient creeds;
    That love accepts us all completely as we are,
    With all our inner hopes and fears, our strengths and needs.

    © Philip Sudworth 2004

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  9. There is a mountain in Spain with a café near the top. Moving higher, at the very peak, reached by a steep and rough path is a Calvary – a depiction of the crucifixion scene. To leave the crowd at the café and struggle up to the Calvary and to meditate on the scene against the backdrop of the grandeur seen in the panoramic views across the other peaks and the valleys can be a wonderful spiritual experience. Yet the depth of that experience and the effect it has had on you is only revealed, when you walk back down to the café level. It is seen in how you respond when you rejoin normal life and encounter the diverse range of people there. It is seen in how we respond when things don’t go our way and life isn’t easy.

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  10. Pavel and Robert, you are both doing an excellent job of trying to convince us that vertical transcendence is self-centred and self-serving, and that only horizontal transcendence is a worthy outcome of our faith. Well I’m sorry but you will never convince me.
    During the summer when the churches were closed, I often drove out on a Sunday morning to a village not far from where I live. I then took a walk up a hill, passing the stations of the cross on the way, which led me to a tiny, ancient church which was left unlocked for private prayer. There is a crucifix there, and a statue of the blessed Mother.
    I would sit for a short time in silent meditation and kneel alone in silent prayer, and I would come away knowing that this is all I need. The power of the cross. When I have this, I can cope with whatever life brings. Whatever I am, whatever I do, whatever I believe, is enough for God. I don’t have to earn God’s love; it is already mine. I don’t have to earn anyone’s admiration or approval; I can just be me. I don’t have to solve the world’s problems, but in thankfulness and humility in all I have been given, I want to live in peace with my neighbour, and help others come to know what a precious gift God has given us in Jesus Christ.

    ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’

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  11. Whether or not vertical transcendence is self-centred depends on the motivation and the focus. If one believes in, worships and serves God in order that one will be forgiven, blessed in this life and received into Heaven – in other words, if it is all about oneself and how one will personally benefit and be rewarded – then, yes, it is self-centred. On the other hand, if one’s focus is on God and on what one can do for God, even if that involves personal sacrifices and a denial of one’s own wishes that is clearly God-centred rather than self-centred.
    The same principle applies to horizontal faith. If one does ‘good works’ in order to earn favour with God, to earn a place in Heaven or to look good in the eyes of other people, or even just in order to feel good about oneself, that too is self-centred. It is when we feel called to do some act or we just see it as the right thing to do without any thought of reward or payback that we are doing it out of love for others rather than from love of ourselves. (Matt 6:1-4 spells that out as does the prayer of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:
    “Teach us, good Lord,
    to serve you as you deserve,
    to give and not to count the cost,
    to fight and not to heed the wounds,
    to toil and not to seek for rest,
    to labour and not to ask for any reward,
    save that of knowing that we do your will.”
    Jesus taught a lot about the kingdom of God. One might say that it is the major theme of his sermons and parables. He also taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done. On earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). But we aren’t supposed just to pray about it, we are expected to contribute. Perhaps by responding to a call to be a street angel or encouraging others on line! I think you under-estimate how much you are involved in horizontal faith.

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  12. Perhaps I do. We are obviously both looking at faith from different angles, Pavel. I’m not saying either is wrong, just different. Hopefully we can all find a balance which is right for us personally. Jesus did also speak about the blessings that people of faith can expect to receive, though. ‘They will see God, they will be called children of God, they will inherit the earth, they will be comforted, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.’

    Ye saints who toil below, adore your Heavenly King,
    And onward as ye go some joyful anthem sing.
    Take what he gives,
    And praise him still through good or ill.
    Whoever lives.
    (StF 69)

    I’ll say no more! 😉

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