The silk road to reconciliation

by Christopher Collins.

Take a fine Indian silk scarf in your hand. Feel its smooth texture and marvel at the skill of the weaver. Hold it and let me take you on a deepening journey of reconciliation through the Punjab. Travel with me and my fellow pilgrims on our peace pilgrimage.[i]

And let me tell you about our time in the Jallianwala Bagh memorial garden for the massacre of Sikh pro-independence protesters at the hands of the British Army in 1919. Imagine how awkward we felt when a Sikh man drew alongside and asked us where we were from. His response was only words of welcome.

Let me tell about a chance meeting with a Sikh couple in a hotel lift. We talked about being Christians on a pilgrimage and as they got out of the lift they cheerfully said, “well there’s one God after all”.

Let me tell about the meeting at the Golden Temple with Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh (the leader of the Sikhs at the Golden Temple). We asked him “what is one thing we should do to bring about peace”. After a moment of consideration, he replied, “in my view, we should recognise there is only one God”

These conversations were especially poignant in the year of the 70th anniversary of the partition of India when a relatively arbitrary line was drawn on a map to divide a people who didn’t realise they needed to be separated. Villages that once lived harmoniously, took against each other in acts of sectarianism.

This arbitrary line made me think about the borders we might draw in all sorts of contexts. The carefully guarded borders between religions where our different texts and experiences of the divine become our guarded borders. The lines between us and all who we dare call “other”.

What unites all such borders is our desire to dominate and to be better which is a trait we perpetuate with alarming frequency.

But, the three conversations pointed me beyond the signs of division to a deeper understanding by giving me a glimpse into what we can do to overcome division.

Firstly, there was forgiveness. In its truest sense, forgiveness is an act of our will that determines that a past wrong will not define and confine our future. It would have been easy for the gentleman in Jallianwala Bagh to see us as a threat – but instead there was a welcome. The past was not going to define our present or future relationship and a border was overcome.

Secondly, the call to see God as one across different faiths unites us beyond borders. It comes down to letting down our ego to honour divine truth in others and learning to live together without trying to outdo each other.

So back to the scarf. It’s made up of thousands of individual strands woven together. Each is unique and exists in its own right, but it only becomes a scarf when it is woven together with other individual strands. And then they become something much more useful. And each strand ceases to be one on its own. As we wrap the scarf around our neck, we can bend and mould the blanket and each fibre moves with the others to maintain the form of the scarf. No strand takes precedence. The boundary between each strand is blurred and it’s not important what each strand is on its own but what it becomes together.

The silk scarf is a metaphor for reconciliation. We find deep reconciliation when we blur our boundaries and discover that we are all made in the image of God and we can be a better people when we see God in the other: the familiar, the stranger, and the refugee.

The way to blur our boundaries is by following the way of Jesus – the sacrificial love that led him to the cross as the expression of God’s for the world. The love that people of faith are called to follow. For the gospel according to John tells us that Jesus is the way.

As Anna Briggs puts it in her hymn “You call us out to praise you”:

For changing hues and textures
new patterns, still you search
to weave your seamless garment
the fabric of your church
our tattered faith you cherish
reclaim from wear and moth
we praise your name who twine us
the weaver and the cloth.

Reconciliation is like being woven together to find new patterns hues and textures that allow life to come in all it’s glory and fullness.

 

[i] Christopher was travelling in an ecumenical group of sixteen pilgrims on a “Pilgrimage to India: Christian Witness as a Minority Witness” led by Rev’d Dr Inderjit Bhogal.

Theology Everywhere?

by James Morley.

Delegates at a Methodist gathering were asked to engage with the Biblical tradition of lament – an expression of “grief or mourning”.[i]  The invitation came as part of a response to the latest Statistics for Mission from the Methodist Church of Great Britain presented at the 2017 Conference which state that:

“Since the previous triennial report (2014), membership numbers have fallen annually by around 6,780, or 3.6 per cent year-on-year… This is high in historic terms”.[ii]

Leaving aside the question of membership figures being a meaningful measure for Methodism today, the numbers alone suggest that Methodism is in a different place now to where it has been in the past.  Whether this is necessarily a cause for lament and/or for sensing opportunity and possibility may well depend on individual and corporate discernment of God’s mission.

Watching coverage of Glastonbury in the summer those Statistics for Mission were published I felt that lament was also being voiced in the fields of Worthy Farm, Somerset.  For example, Stormzy paying tribute to, and demanding accountability for, the victims of Grenfell.[iii]  Then there were the chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”[iv] by thousands of the so-called “snowflake generation” who, rather than melting, expressed their grief at the current world situation by cheering their agreement with a call on President Donald Trump to “build bridges not walls”.[v]  There was also the prophetic (forth-telling/speaking out) poetry of Kate Tempest giving voice to the injustices, fears and hopes felt by her generation.  For me, Tempest’s prophetic lament is powerfully loud in her work Europe Is Lost. [vi]  For example:

“I am quiet, feeling the onset of riot
Riots are tiny though, systems are huge
Traffic keeps moving, proving there’s nothing to do
‘Cause it’s big business, baby, and its smile is hideous
Top down violence, a structural viciousness
Your kids are dosed up on medical sedatives
But don’t worry ‘bout that, man, worry ’bout terrorists
The water level’s rising! The water level’s rising!
The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying!
Stop crying, start buying, but what about the oil spill?
Shh, no one likes a party pooping spoil sport
Massacres, massacres, massacres/new shoes
Ghettoised children murdered in broad daylight
By those employed to protect them
Live porn streamed to your pre-teen’s bedrooms
Glass ceiling, no headroom
Half a generation live beneath the breadline
Oh, but it’s happy hour on the high street
Friday night at last lads, my treat!”[vii]

If Methodism is in a different place then it allows us to ask, with the lamenting Psalmist, “how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”[viii].  Perhaps it is lamenting prophets like Kate Tempest who allow us to step into, and have a map for, the terrain which is now a context for God’s mission.  If we respectfully engage with this new context we may find that, instead of the babble of Babel, the lament voiced by Tempest and her generation coming from a place of concern for people and planet is a common language shared with all God’s people who believe in a creation that carries the divine image and which has been seen to be good[ix].  Maybe then, the conversation in this contemporary context might synthesize[x] into something new as, together with Kate Tempest, we counter-culturally articulate the theology that is already everywhere and we all sing the Lord’s song in this strange land – a song of justice, peace and hope.

 

[i] Coogan, Michael D (ed) 2001.  The New Oxford Annotated Bible.  New York: Oxford University Press, p. 2278.

[ii] The Methodist Church 2017.  Statistics for Mission 2017 [Online].  Available at: https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-2017-42-Statistics-for-Mission.pdf.  [Accessed on 10/08/2018]

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4ixU_UbCx0 [Accessed on 15/08/2018]

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVO_pQIUER0 [Accessed on 15/08/2018]

[v] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6uzzZr_O8E [Accessed on 15/08/2018]

[vi] Tempest, Kate 2013.  Europe Is Lost [Online video].  Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YCcL0aj-9Y.  [Accessed on 23/02/2018]

[vii] Tempest, Kate (2015).  Let Them Eat Chaos [Kindle]London: Picador, pp. 13-23.

[viii] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ps 137:4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[ix] Genesis 1:1-31

[x] Bevans, Stephen B 2002.  New Models of Contextual Theology.  Maryknoll: Orbis.

 

‘Darkness Fell Over the Whole Land’ (Mark 15.33)

by Neil Richardson.

What has Brexit got to do with the wrath of God – if anything? Whatever the answer, the UK is in the throes of the greatest crisis of my lifetime. Of course, we should normally avoid the expression ‘wrath of God’; it is easily misunderstood. But what the Bible means by it, and the effects of that wrath are urgently relevant in this crisis.

Let’s start with its effects – darkness. That is the biblical symbol for the effects of the divine wrath.  St Paul writes of ‘darkened hearts’ (Romans 1.21 – compare 11.10),  ‘Isaiah’ of the Lord hiding his face (64.7), the very opposite of the Aaronic blessing: ‘may the Lord make his face shine on you…’, (Numbers 6.25).  The Biblical sequence is clear: idolatry leads to our dehumanization, which, in turn, leads to  dysfunctional relationships and disintegrating communities, (Romans 1.18-32, Psalm 115 etc).

Unlike the Bible – especially the Psalms – we prefer not to speak of false gods.  Yet we create false gods when we give our hearts (thus Luther) to something or someone other than our Creator. (There is plenty of room for other affections and passions within the love of God). In the life of a nation, a false god can be identified as that which is above criticism and question (1). Half of America worships its gun laws, and the constitution which underwrites them. In Britain, money and property come close to divine status, as do ‘Efficiency’ and ‘Economy’ (2).

Psalm 82 has been described as the most important passage in the whole of Scripture. And this from a distinguished, if controversial New Testament scholar, (John Dominic Crossan)! The psalm doesn’t use the word ‘wrath’, but that’s what it’s talking about: both its meaning and its effects. False gods can be distinguished by their oppression of the weak and the needy (v.4); false gods ‘walk about in darkness’ ; ‘meanwhile earth’s foundations are all giving way’ (v.5).

Isn’t this a bit ‘over the top’ – theology in the service of melodrama? Well, consider the contemporary scene: the neglect of personal relationships, a national ‘epidemic of loneliness’ (thus a recent headline), a dysfunctional political system (national and local), and the erosion of the common welfare through savage cuts in public spending. (As usual, the poorest people bear the brunt).

To quote a famous hymn, ‘the darkness deepens’, even though, thank God,  there are countless people in whom the light of compassion and love still burns. But this is the effect of ‘wrath’ – the consequence of marginalizing our Creator and setting our hearts on other things. In the gathering gloom, we can no longer see what matters most, or clearly distinguish truth from falsehood and illusion. (A society which has set its heart on false gods will happily settle for ‘fake news’).

In this growing crisis, the outline of a Christian programme for action becomes clearer:

  • A silent waiting on God which alone can give us the poise, the discernment and the wisdom we need.
  • A commitment to truth – the Truth which alone sets human beings free.
  • A commitment to our Creator’s ‘kingdom’ of love, justice and peace.

And the meaning of the divine wrath? Love – that is its meaning. The hour of the crucifixion of the Son of God was the hour of judgement and of atonement. For the Creator of the Universe, the mysterious ‘I AM’, the Heart of our own hearts, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is love.

The meaning and the effects of the wrath of God are the ‘flip side’ of God’s non-coercive being – the very meaning of  our own creation. When the divine DNA is stamped all over us (Genesis 1.27), how can we humans and our communities thrive when we turn our backs on love, justice and compassion?

As for Brexit, it’s time to stop the shouting, the posturing, the soundbites, and listen to each other – within the Church, within the UK , and in Brussels, too.

And listen to God, ‘Heart of our own heart’. Where is God in Christ leading us? ‘The world has not left Jesus behind; it is getting to the point where it can just see him, far ahead, blazing the trail’(3).

 

  1. Richardson, Who on Earth is God? Making Sense of God in the Bible (Bloomsbury 2014), pp.223-5).
  2. John Austin Baker, The Foolishness of God, (DLT 1970), p.348.
  3. Baker, cit. p.331.

Jesus’ use of the Old Testament

by John Howard.

Working in the Holy Land the question of the biblical understanding of the “Land” is a very significant one. In Naim Ateek’s latest book “A Palestinian Theology of Liberation,”[i] he draws attention to the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28 10-17) and the use Jesus seems to make of it in John 1 verse 51.

In the dream the writers of Genesis describe a ladder stretching from heaven to earth with angels going up and down. The story leaves Jacob conscious of the holiness of the place. Of at least equal significance is the words God in the dream says to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your father, the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring….” It is a very familiar passage, a part of the Jewish identity with the land of the western Levant.

In John 1 verse 51 Jesus says to Nathanael “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God descending upon the Son of Man.” There does seem here to be a conscious echo of the Jacob’s ladder image but there is a very unexpected difference. Where as the ladder has its “top,” heaven and its “base,” the earth, in Jesus’ words the place of the “land,” so special and sacred to the people Jesus is speaking to, is taken by “The Son of Man.” The ladder to heaven, or rather the ladder between heaven and earth is now the ladder between heaven and Jesus – not the land.

I leave aside the question of whether the change above, and the one looked at below are those of the Gospel writers or of Jesus himself, I would accept the arguments that these are very likely passages that go back to Jesus – but don’t have the space to argue that here.

Another place where Jesus adapts the Old Testament is in the passage in Luke 4, 16-19. This is the passage sometimes referred to as Jesus’ manifesto. In it Jesus is fundamentally quoting Isaiah 61verses one and two. He makes some slight changes of emphasis towards the ending of verse one, very likely conflating Isaiah 58 verse 6 with the word from 61 1. The structure of the passage is however clear – as his direct quoting of the beginning of verse two “to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favour,” makes clear. What is remarkable here is where he stops. The flow of the verse in Isaiah continues with the words “and the day of vengeance of our God.” This is a very well known passage to Jesus’ listeners. They could have quoted it to Jesus, and no doubt were doing so in their minds as Jesus read it to them. They would have continued beyond where Jesus finished – and the absence of these words from what Jesus spoke, would have spoken much more clearly than the words said themselves. Jesus it surely seems – consciously missed off the words “and the day of vengeance of our God,” as it didn’t fit into his self understanding – it was not “a part of Jesus’ manifesto.”

The common ground in these two passages is the way that Jesus seems to use two passages, very well known by his audience but adapts them for the sake of communicating his own message. He clearly feels free to change quite fundamentally what these passages mean, in the first example by placing himself – or rather “the Son of Man,” in the place of the “Land,” and by omitting the ending of the passage from Isaiah reshaping the very nature of the God the people are dedicated to – not a God of vengeance (so often this seems to be the Old Testament character of God), but it seems Jesus is having no part of it. If we have any doubt about this then we have an echo again of this a few chapters later in Luke, when in chapter 7 verse 22 Jesus again goes back to Isaiah 61 (this time in response to the questions John’s disciples ask Jesus) and again he avoids the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God.”

There is, of course, much more to study in Jesus’ use of the Old Testament, and such more extensive studies are available. My issue in this essay is the ability of Jesus to take well known passages, adapt them and as a result make very different theological points than the original passage indicated, while at the same time asserting an orthodoxy through associating with the passages at the heart of the orthodoxy of the faith. Is there here perhaps a lesson for us in the use of Scripture for issues such as same sex marriage – that seem to need a radical departure from the understandings of the past without a loss of the orthodoxy of the subject?

 

[i] Naim Stifan Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation: The Bible, Justice, and the Palestine-Israel Conflict (2017, New York: Orbis Books)

 

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something monastic…

by Tim Baker.

There is something in the air at the moment – something connected to the New Monastic movement, something to do with a way of life, a community gathering, an opportunity to grow closer and deeper. It’s something very Methodist (though clearly borrowed from elsewhere too), entirely ancient, and yet as fresh as the sunrise. A brief glance at our monastic heritage might show us something of why it is experiencing a resurgence.

As with any church at its best, the monastic movement was born out of a combination of abstract thinking about spirituality and the practical issues of the time.  The desert fathers and mothers in Egypt around 330-460 AD were responding directly to their own encounter with God in seeking solace and poverty, but they were also escaping and rejecting the excesses of the established church, the ‘career clergy’ and the dangerous alliance of religion and state.

Monasticism raises a variety of theological issues: the interplay between individual and communal faith, the dangers of excess, an earthly ‘poverty’, silence in worship (see, for example, the Benedictine rule chapter 52), a focus on prayer and the use of liturgy.  All these reflect a theological position which involves a withdrawal from the world in order to encounter the divine.  Not all monastics, however, remain in that mode of isolation. Rather, they took the experience of God back with them into the world with a clear sense of mission.

To touch on one of these ideas – intentional worldly poverty – shows us why monasticism is helping us to stretch, regroup and ‘emerge’ as a church today. A monk’s commitment to poverty was born out of a scriptural understanding of God as ‘for’ the poor, coupled with the recognition that material things can be an obstruction to our relationship with God. Jesus in the wilderness becomes the model to emulate here: turning away from worldly things, resisting the physical temptation of food and the more abstract vices of the world – the opportunity to show off and to claim power. It’s important to note, however, that this asceticism does not represent a rejection of the body, but a desire to rediscover the interconnectedness of body, mind and spirit. In Jesus, God becomes fully human and the monastic tradition understood something of the respect for the human body that this incarnation calls us all to live up to.

In the writings of Abbot Jamison (Finding Sanctuary),[i] Joan Chittister (Monastery of the Heart)[ii] and many others, we see an application of this idea of ‘lack’ for our times.  The twenty-first century version of capitalism is more rampant and more materialistic than ever.  The age of personalised and targeted advertising (particularly prevalent on social media) pushes its materialistic message into our eyeballs all the time, trying to sell us the next solution, the next product.

We are just beginning to understand the negative mental and physical consequences of the society we have built.  There is much temptation to eat luxurious high-calorie food, or satisfy hunger with fast food and ready meals, many of which are high in salt, fat, cholesterol and sugar.  As the expendable income of the average person grows, we seem to develop new and more dangerous ways of spending it.

In this context the church needs to apply the ideas developed by the monks over a millennium – that it is important to resist the temptation of the worldly things in order to experience the divine.  As we desire material wealth for ourselves, for our chapel, for our circuit, our Connexional funds, our multi-million pound mission schemes, to need to retain a theology of poverty too. As with early monasticism, and the monastic movement at its purest throughout history, perhaps this will remain a niche idea kept alive by a minority, but my instinct is that we need it now more than ever. How can we discover again the power in choosing to go without? What would a movement towards sacrifice, towards lack, look like in your community?

To conclude, Diarmaid Maculloch in his History of Christianity points out that Monasticism always contains an element of ‘silent rebellion’, against the church but also against the excesses of society in general.[iii]  There is a great deal of monastic theology and practice to which we need to return today in order to keep that rebellion alive.  The challenge will be to keep finding ways to learn from the often-rebellious monks and begin again the revolution of going without so that we might experience in full.

 

[i] Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary: Monastic steps for Everyday Life (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2006)

[ii] Joan Chittister, The Monastery of the Heart: An invitation to the meaningful life (London: SPCK, 2011)

[iii] Dairmaid Maculloch, The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009)

 

[1] Dairmaid Maculloch, The History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009)

Sadhu Sundar Singh

by Inderjit Bhogal.

I first came across Sadhu Sundar Singh when, aged twenty two [1975], when I came across a photograph of him. It showed him as a bearded man, wearing a turban, a full length robe, and sandals. I took it to be a photo of a Sikh gentleman.  I was staggered when I was told he was a follower of Jesus Christ. I determined to find out as much as I could about Sadhu Sundar Singh.

Popularly known as The Sadhu [the term Sadhu means holy person], Sundar Singh wrote a number of books, and many books have been written about him. Most of the books about the Sadhu have been written by western theologians interpreting him as a great Panjabi and Hindi speaking evangelist who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was God’s gift to help hasten the “evangelisation of the world in this generation”.

My interest is in who Sadhu Sundar Singh was, what defined his spirituality, and what he had and has to say. I am intrigued by the fact that some writers have questioned whether his background and upbringing was Sikh or Hindu. An element of this puzzle entered into my mind too. His name, especially his middle name Singh is clearly of Sikh derivation. Singh is the name every Sikh male has.  It means “lion”, and goes back to the seventeenth century and specifically to the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh. Singh designates Sikh.

I am researching the life of Sadhu Sundar Singh. My research has included visiting the village of Rampur, in Panjab, where Sadhu Sundar Singh was born and brought up. His descendants still live there. I like to meet with them. Most significantly I met with Harpal Singh Mangat, the great grandson of Channan Singh Mangat, the brother of Sadhu Sundar Singh. I discuss with Harpal, my primary source, whether Sadhu Sundar Singh was a Sikh or a Hindu.

Rampur is almost hundred percent populated by the wealthy Mangat family who are all Sikhs and farmers. Harpal has no doubt that Sadhu Sundar Singh was a Sikh, who was deeply influenced by his mother who respected the Sikh and the Hindu faiths, and related well to Hindu and Sikh religious leaders. His immediate family now are “Amritdhari Sikhs” [baptised Sikhs]. A photo of Sadhu Sundar Singh hangs in his family home which has become a place to visit for pilgrims like me. His family hold important memories of Sadhu Sundar Singh. They are “neutral” to Sadhu Sundar Singh, “neither proud nor embarrassed” but honour the fact that “he served Christ, and that is good”.

Sadhu Sundar Singh’s description of himself is clear. “I was born in a family that was commonly considered Sikh but in which the teaching of Hinduism was most essential”. He was familiar with the scriptures of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. He was a Biblical theologian. The reluctance of some scholars to accept his Sikh heritage may be rooted in their reluctance to acknowledge that there are people of Sikh background who have been prepared to follow other Gurus than the Ten Gurus, and the Guru Granth Sahib [the Holy Scriptures of the Sikhs acknowledged as the ultimate living Guru].

The inspiration I find in Sadhu Sundar Singh is that he followed Christ in his own way, refused to be institutionally reduced by the established Church of the western mode, courageously chose to be himself adopting a distinctively Indian spirituality and demeanour, and that he reflected Christ. The Church throughout the world was fascinated and inspired by him. His contemporaries, like his friend Rebecca Parker, commented “how like he is to Christ”.

Sadhu Sundar Singh is remembered as one of the great followers of Christ by the Church in India. He is listed among the commemorated saints and honoured on his birth and baptism date 3rd September [born 1889, baptised 1905].

In the forty three years since I first came across the photo and story of Sadhu Sundar Singh, I have found that one of my biggest challenges in church, ministry and personal life has been to be myself while many people have wanted me to be someone else. The loneliest part of my journey over the years has been that I am the only Sikh born and Panjabi Presbyter in the Methodist Church in Britain. I describe myself as a follower of Christ with roots in the Sikh faith. Sadhu Sundar Singh has been a good companion. I remind myself that Jesus’ first disciples followed him as Jews. Paul found confidence and pride in being a “Hebrew of Hebrews” [Philippians 3:5].

Thinking Teenagers

by Anne Ostrowicz.

Having just started one-to-one Theology lessons with a pupil considering studying Philosophy and Theology at university, we found ourselves discussing the first chapter of “Proverbs of Ashes” [1] which outlines six different theologies of the cross, the authors explaining the difficulties they have with some of them. For each approach I asked him what sort of God was being presented, and what sort of people it assumed we are and should be becoming. This pupil started life in a village in China to which Christianity had only newly arrived, embraced by some of the older villagers and expressed in a theology mediated by individuals with limited learning, and which endorsed the existing patriarchal social structure.

“When I came to England”, my pupil said, “I thought how very rational everything here is in contrast with life in my village. However, when I go to the Christian Union [he identifies as an atheist] I find reason, science, human experience, all sometimes abandoned. I have great trouble with the idea that two people sinning thousands of years ago somehow affects each of us today, and that God wants ‘atonement’ for our sins. Some of these other interpretations of the cross make more sense to me, but my Christian friends seem unaware of them.”

He went on to say that he was delighted to study religion at school in England but it wasn’t the intricacies of kosher, or variations in practices like eucharist, that teenagers needed to learn about. Far more meaningful to them are the fundamental ideas asserted by religion and philosophy which underly these practices, like the one we had been discussing, ideas which require deep consideration, with potentially major possibilities both for individuals and societies.

At the risk of being controversial, I mention that in the last two years there has been a government-led change in focus in RE in schools, more to learning the facts about “what people of a particular faith believe and do”, less on engaging with what I would regard as a more in-depth study and discussion of theological, ethical and philosophical concepts and issues. In many schools, numbers of pupils opting to study the subject at exam level have suffered.

Much of my own thinking has been engaged in asking, If we focus in RE on deep discussion of central ideas in religion, which concepts and ideas are really significant and of value and interest for our teenagers to study? My own list includes exploring what faith might be; where theists ultimately get their ideas from; why people believe and disbelieve; modern movements in theology to realise it is an ongoing , organic, exciting area of study, responding to political and social conditions; the  reality of the range of interpretations of a text within any one religion; some of the significant overlaps between religions; understanding the idea of what a personal, living faith might entail as well as engaging with the idea of the possibility of God as a Mover in history and in what sense this might be; exploring the concepts of forgiveness and of non-violence. As long as these concepts are grounded in a specific text, individual or event, they become something young people can understand, find genuinely stimulating and are keen to discuss.

Turning to our religious communities, I wonder if we need to think carefully here, too, on what our teenagers really need from us. Do we create an environment where they feel able to ask their deepest questions? Are we aware of how interested they are in the possibility of the existence of a spiritual reality and in what that might consist? Can faith and reason co-exist? Do we have serious study and discussion of a range of views and interpretations of issues? Do we realise how very much they are able to understand, and often need to understand in order to find enduring faith in a world with so many contrasting beliefs? Do we come alongside for a time, ultimately trusting to God’s ongoing work in their lives?

A few weeks ago I found myself with some of my sixth-form pupils in Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie, standing in front of Rembrandt’s powerful painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel at Jabbok [2]. This ‘wrestling’ with questions of spirituality and morality seems fundamental to humanness, to the way we acquire understanding, appreciation and eventually wisdom. And that includes teenagers!  Satish Kumar writes, “There is no destination outside the journey” [3].   Wherever we encounter teenagers, may we give them the best spiritual journey possible.

 

[1] Proverbs of Ashes, Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Beacon Press, 2001

[2] Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Rembrandt, 1659, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin

[3] Earth Pilgrim, Satish Kumar, Green Books, 2009, page 23