Sunday, 27 October 2013

Lex Vivendi, Lex Credendi..?

Sorry for the Latin. There's really no excuse, other than it's a punchy way of saying in four words what I'm now going to take about four hundred to explain. (And it rhymes.) For those of you who are into this kind of thing, you might well recognise my title as a variation of the ancient formulation 'Lex orandi, lex credendi', which translates into English as something like 'the law of praying is the law of believing.' In other words, what we pray and how we pray shape our belief in and about God, not the other way round. This in itself is a pretty counter-cultural way of looking at things; I've met so many non-believers who have said 'Convince me, then I'll believe.' 'Lex orandi, lex credendi' suggests that belief comes not prior to prayer, but as a result of it. At heart, this saying affirms that faith is first and foremost about prayer, worship; about relationship with God. And out of that relationship emerge beliefs about the God whom we worship.  A third clause was later added to this formulation; 'lex vivendi' ('the law of living'). As we pray, so we believe, so we live. It is a beautiful vision of how Christians' lives, shaped by worship, are expressions of the faith that come from worship. 

All of this came to mind as I had a free afternoon yesterday, and decided to soak up some Choral Evensong at my local cathedral. I think that the Holy Spirit must have led me there, because so much spoke to me, and of me, to my churches and of my churches. (See how my 'credendi' there comes from my 'orandi'; I encountered God in a place of worship, and so believe that it was the mysterious work of the Spirit to plant the idea in my mind to go in the first place.) One of the readings was from Luke 14, the healing of the man with either dropsy or swollen legs, depending on which translation of the Bible you're reading. What struck me when I heard about it yesterday was what happened immediately before and after the healing. Here's the passage:

 And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ And they could not reply to this.
Often in the Gospels, the Pharisees try to catch Jesus out with legal test-cases. But here the shoe's on the other foot; Jesus is testing them. That in itself is interesting. So Jesus heals the man who quickly leaves the scene. Other healees (so to speak) hang around much longer, speak and are listened to, and are fleshed out as real characters within the narrative. This scene isn't so much about the man who is healed, as about Jesus taking on the Pharisees in a legal precedent-setting test-case. This scene isn't so much about  healing as it is about the sabbath. What interested me yesterday as I heard it read in the cathedral was that Jesus doesn't win the argument by knowing the law better than the Pharisees. He doesn't win the argument by applying the law more wisely tan the Pharisees. He wins the argument by saying, in effect, 'Yes, you know the laws to do with the sabbath - but that's not what you really do, is it?' The precedent is set not by either knowing or applying the law, but by how the Pharisees actually live. How the Pharisees lived was a more accurate barometer of what they believed than what they knew or prayed. Jesus knew this, and used it to his advantage in this set-to.    

This got me thinking about how I live. If Jesus were to challenge me, to throw down the gauntlet of a question to which, as a good Christian I know the right answer, it's an unsettling thought that His response might well be 'Yes, but that's not what you really do, is it?' Knowing the right answers is one thing. Living as though you knew them is quite another. 

And that got me wondering. If someone were to analyse my life for one day, any day, and pore over what I'd done, where I'd gone, whom I'd spent time with, how I'd spent any money, and so on, and attempted, from their findings, to reconstruct my beliefs, what would they come up with? I'm using 'belief' here in a very generic, non-specific way; there would be beliefs about my children, about education, work, food (oh yes) and knowledge and environmental impact and all sorts of things that aren't specifically Christian. In amongst all of that, there would be beliefs about prayer and the church and God himself. Would the beliefs that emerge out of a single day of my life be a more accurate barometer of what I believe than anything I could say?  

There's much I could say, and doubtless will in later posts, about how all of this relates to grace; 'it is by grace you are saved', and also about the church and the place of the church as affirming the 'orandi' which regularly re-calibrates our 'vivendi' for us. Thank God for that. But for now I'm just going to leave the question for you to ponder; if your day, say yesterday for example, were to be forensically analysed and your beliefs reconstructed from it, what would it say about what you really believe?    


Friday, 18 October 2013

Why I am Not Qualified to Answer the Question of Suffering

This morning, I stumbled across (yet another) internet discussion about God and suffering. The familiar arguments were re-iterated: how can a god who is believed to be good either inflict suffering on people, or allow people to suffer without intervening? Surely that is abuse of the gravest cosmic order. It's easier simply not to believe, then this pesky question will go away and leave us all in peace. Various theists posted responses, some of which I personally find to be more compelling, and more true, than others. But as I read, the sense crept up on me that really, I am not qualified to even contribute to this discussion, that I have nothing to say at all on the matter.

So why's that? Well, it's not because I'm 'unqualified' in the common parlance. With two theology degrees and a part-finished PhD to my name, one might think that I of all people would be among the more qualified to speak about God and suffering. Neither is it to say that my religious credentials debar me from speaking to this question; I am a church minister after all, and have spent more time in church during my lifetime than might be deemed altogether healthy. I have no idea how many sermons I have sat through which have grappled, in various ways, with this enormous question. Neither is it that I know nothing of suffering; as you may know, I have suffered from auto-immune disease for almost twenty years, and certainly know what the Psalmist is talking about when he (or she, she says optimistically) says 'We have had more than enough' of suffering. So, one might think, I'm the ideal person to tackle this thorniest of questions. I know suffering, I know Christian life and I know my theological onions.

But I'm not. And weirdly, the reason I am so ill-qualified to speak on behalf of God regarding human suffering is precisely because I know suffering, I know Christian life and I know my theological onions. Firstly, I know that one human being cannot definitively weigh the sufferings of another. We can empathise, we can feel, we can walk beside another in his pain, but the one thing we cannot do is to define or to weigh it. As a long-term sufferer of various illnesses, one of the things that annoy me the most is when people try to tel me how I feel. The reality is that no-one can possibly know what it's like to be me, as I am the only person who is me, in all the complexity involved therein, including the sufferings which are only a part, not the whole, of who I am. At certain moments I might articulate with great force how I feel; however, after nearly twenty years of illness, I see all of those many moments as fragments of a greater whole, beads on a necklace. No single fragment should be mistaken for the whole.  

Come to that, we cannot even weigh or define our own sufferings definitively; what might feel at one moment like the worst grief possible might turn out to be sweetened by factors as yet far out of sight. One of the tantalising things about taking funerals is that often it seems that it is only at the end of a person's life that her sufferings can be defined, or weighed, definitively. And yet even then, the true weight of suffering almost always remains unknown, guessed at, estimated. A very clever and astute retired gentleman whom I know surprised me once by responding to my 'how are you?' with 'Oh, I have no idea. Couldn't you ask me a simpler question?' He had hit on something incredibly true; not only do we have no idea what it's like to be someone else, most of the time we have no idea what it's like to be ourselves, so elusive and complex are we in the deepest reality of who we are.

So the first reason why I am so hopelessly ill-equipped to answer the problem of suffering is to do with being human. Suffering cannot be weighed, and therefore, it cannot be subjected to any scientific, or pseudo-scientific studies. Ultimately, suffering can only be experienced, and described; it cannot be defined. It remains elusive. Given this elusive nature of suffering, it is a fool who thinks that she can explain why God allows 'it' when we cannot be objectively sure what 'it' is.  

The second is to do with God, as God is understood in the Christian faith, and it's at this point that discussions about God and suffering can go ito stalemate, with atheists saying on the one hand that they are not interested in defining a deity in whom they do not believe, and Christians saying that they can only talk about God insofar as God has made himself known in the person of Jesus.

It's no great shock that I hold the latter view; in fact, I'm almost convinced that, were it not Jesus, I'd have next to no interest in God at all, certainly not enough to lead me to spend my life as a church minister and theology student. It was Jesus who drew me to belief, and it's Jesus who keeps me believing. Appeals to an abstract 'God' are as meaningless as statements about 'animal'. What is possible or likely for any animal depend entirely on what sort of creature we mean; what a cat can do is vastly different from what a bird can do,and yet they are both creatures. Moreover, what is the nature of a cat is very different to what is in the nature of a bird, yet they are both creatures. Expecting a cat to fly through the sky because the cat is a creature is absurd, as is thinking that the bird ought to catch mice; in order to talk sensibly about animals, we need to treat them as they are.

So the only way to take the question of God even slightly seriously is to be clear about which God we mean. And I mean the God in whom Christians believe, whom Christians try to love and worship.
 I believe that it is in Jesus that God answers human need, including needs associated with suffering. And the way in which God answers human need in Jesus is that Jesus is, himself, God incarnate, literally, God made meat; God meets human need by taking on flesh and becoming part of the wondrous mess himself.

And, it turns out, although it is only in Jesus that God is made fully known, this is not out of keeping with God's nature. 'In you all peoples will be blessed' God says to Abraham. In you. Not a bolt from the blue, not a voice from on high. In you. This is the heartbeat of the Hebrew Bible; God is made known in, and through, God's people. Of course, this is an enormously risky strategy on God's part, and lo and behold, time and time again, God's people fail to live up to that high and holy calling; in fact most of they time they fall short. But every now and then, a shaft of light breaks through and God is made known in and through God's people again.

Those shafts of light light the way of the people of God down the ages, until an elderly man stands up in the temple upon seeing the infant Jesus and quotes the prophet; 'A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.' Light lives on earth, glows and spreads, dies, lives and rises to the city of  everlasting light. And before his final farewell, he breathes on his people the Spirit who will indwell and empower them so that they might live the heartbeat of God; 'in you all peoples will be blessed.' And the light spreads and glows. Of course, this is an enormously risky strategy on God's part, and lo and behold, once again, time and time again, God's people (of whom, through Jesus, I am a part) fail to live up to that high and holy calling; in fact. most of they time we fall short. I certainly do.

But every now and then, a shaft of light breaks through and God is made known in and through God's people again. One of those shafts of light came to Theresa of Avila who wrote this:

 "Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

 These words are not just religious rhetoric, poetic but meaningless; this is a powerful statement of belief that it is in us and by us that all people will be blessed. The nature of God is such that God takes on flesh and, through the Spirit of God living in people, God becomes part of the wondrous mess himself.

Which brings me to the real crux of the matter, the real reason I am so woefully inadequately qualified to speak about God and suffering. It's this: if one wants to look for a supposedly benevolent, genuinely powerful personal being who purports to care about all human beings and could, theoretically, intervene and relieve suffering, one doesn't have to look to God. One has to look in the mirror.

I, as a comparatively wealthy (by global standards), educated, relatively articulate woman in western Europe at the start of the 21st century, have the capacity to do enormous good. If I did all the good I could to relieve the sufferings of others, I could do a lot. I could follow the teachings of James in the New Testament and give away most of my clothes, most of my possessions and most of my money. I could emulate Job in the Old Testament (another person who knows all about suffering) and speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak; there are certainly enough of them to keep me gong for a lifetime. I could do what Jesus commanded and invite the outcast and the lonely and the disgusting round for dinner. I could take to heart the words of Deuteronomy, that it is because the poor will always be among us that we must be generous to the poor. If every person in the world did all this, the capacity for, in the Bible's language, 'blessing' would be awe-inspiring. And if I, and all people did all that we could - really, all that we could, right up to the limit of who we are - maybe we might be able to stand before God and ask him why he hasn't done the same. As it is, we haven't got a leg to stand on.

I know that it is in God's nature to reach out to people through people, and to bless and to relieve suffering in and by people.
I know that I am a person.
I know that I could do far more good than I am doing. By the Bible's standards, I'm doing woefully. I know that this is true of just about every other person I know.
I believe, therefore, that blaming God for human suffering is as illogical as it is hypocritical, at least until we humans get our act together and do our absolute best for this suffering planet.
Moreover, trying to blame God for other people's sufferings is illogical as we cannot have the final word on what those sufferings are.
And trying to blame God for our own sufferings is just as pointless, as most of the time, we see only the tiniest crack in the door of who we are.

So, if you don't mind, I'll sit this one out. I've nothing to say on the matter.