I’m now 77 and I have been outside the walls of ‘traditional’ Christianity for some 40 years. I’ve never had any formal theological training but as I look back especially over the last 18 years, I’m amazed at how much my beliefs have changed in that time. An old friend once said, “Peter, you have the knack of asking the awkward questions to which there are no easy answers”. I came to the conclusion many years ago that there is an enormous difference between the Christian RELIGION and the Christian FAITH. I have far more empathy with many agnostics and even some atheists than I do with those Christians who think they have all the answers. On this blog I have tried to share something of what seems to be a very unusual journey.
I have been in touch with many former Christians who now describe themselves as atheists, some of whom reject religion of any kind, but who accept that there may be a spiritual aspect of life that they are not aware of. There have always been people who do not believe in God. Writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennet are very vociferous in their attack on theism (belief in God), insisting that you cannot prove beyond any doubt that God exists. But they often ask some very valid questions that the Christian religion doesn’t seem to have good answers for. The reality is surely that we can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. If God exists he/she/it originates from a place beyond the physical universe, and if this is true it is surely impossible for the evidence to exist within our human understanding. This has led me to think that a belief in God is something that lies outside the realms of intellect, logic and reason. To me the belief in sola scriptura and the inerrancy of the Bible makes no sense. Religion I would suggest, is all about what we think we know about God, while faith is about the personal relationship we think we have with God.
Although I walked away from traditional Christianity over 40 years ago I have no recollection of ever doubting the existence of God. Despite a very unusual journey I had always considered myself to be a believer. It was in June 2012 that I came across the expression agnostic theist for the first time, and that really set me thinking. I have had many deep discussions over the years with believers (theists), agnostics and atheists. Atheists are commonly thought of as those who have no belief in God, but there is a lot of confusion caused by misunderstanding what people see as the differences. Let me suggest for the sake of discussion that a theist is someone who is convinced that God exists, while an atheist is convinced that a god does not exist, and an agnostic has some doubts (on a sliding scale from close to being a theist to close to being an atheist) which would suggest that almost all of us are agnostic to some extent. I would describe myself as an agnostic theist – I have no doubt that God exists but I do have many questions about the details. At the same time I know from the experiences of my own family how others can be agnostic atheists.
I am not convinced that God can only be approached through the Christian faith, but for me I sense that it is only through the Holy Spirit that I can really begin to understand something of the things of God. I have seen it suggested that faith is a catalyst that brings about a fusion between man and God – an intimate encounter – a treasure that needs to be experienced. Bob Greaves – The Unconventional Pastor suggests that the presence of Christ is self evident and requires no one else to confirm it. I think this highlights what I have described as the difference between head knowledge and heart awareness; the difference between knowing something about God and a relationship with God. But which comes first?
I have described in some detail (see ‘Some Background’), something of my own journey from the rejection of what I was being taught about the trinity in a Baptist Sunday School at the age of 13 to being treasurer of an Anglican Parish Church for 8 years in the 1960’s before becoming disillusioned with the lack of ‘radical’ Christianity. It was in 1978 that I became a member of a very legalistic Sabbath keeping church. It had been based almost entirely on head knowledge. Then in 1995 the leadership announced that much of it’s theology had been misguided. This caused serious family breakups (we had been part of a family of 14 related by marriage, that was torn apart). I was forced for the second time to reconsider just about everything I had ever been taught, without ever doubting the existence of God.
This was the beginning of what I now see as a very long ‘wilderness journey‘. It was in 1998 that I became aware of that freedom and liberation from the slavery of legalism, but it wasn’t until 2003 that I really began to make contact on the internet with many of those who were at the time being referred to as the out of church Christians. I was very interested in the work of Alan Jamieson in New Zealand and developed my own thoughts on “Stages of Faith”. About the same time I found “So you don’t want to go to church anymore” on the internet when the authors had only written the first three chapters. This was the beginning of my ongoing contact with Wayne Jacobsen and “Lifestream”. This led to an awareness of the story behind the publication of ‘The Shack‘ in 2007 and the chance to read one of the 11,000 original copies when Wayne brought some with him to the UK. It’s hard to describe the impact that book had – let’s just say that after reading it once I sat down with it for three days and just lived that weekend with Mack. This was a real turning point for me – the beginning of some heart awareness that had previously been missing. At the end of the day I found myself wondering why it had taken 57 years for someone to give me a picture of the trinity that began to make sense – but I still have reservations about trinitarian theology.
In 2008 when the book was published worldwide there were hundreds of reviews on the internet both for and against. Ironically, I learned so much from the reviews of those who hated the book. With hindsight this was the time when I really began to understand so much about why people believe what they believe, often as a result of divisive, denominational theology.
It had been early in 2010 that I was introduced to the book “The Undefended Life” by an Anglican priest – Simon Walker. As a former Anglican (who walked away in 1971) I could relate to much of what Simon was saying and I wrote some quite extensive notes (see menu for links). With hindsight what I wrote about “Mission” now seems to be particularly significant, especially when linked to “Follow me” that I had written some years earlier.
Also early in 2010 I was introduced by another Anglican priest to the writings of a former Anglican, Richard Holloway who had been Primus of the Church of Scotland until 2000. Richard has many controversial views that make interesting reading, but there was one in particular that struck me as being especially significant – the place of broken myths.
Elsewhere Richard suggests that the myth of original sin has to be one of the most unsympathetic Christian doctrines – those who are not baptised go to hell after death! What is this sin that babies are born with? The doctrine is not found in the story of Adam and Eve. Genesis 3 says nothing about the transmission to humanity of Adam’s guilt. It is interpreted by Jewish scholars as an allegory of the human condition, not an historic event – a myth!
Early in 2012 I had been redeveloping my blog with a view to telling something of my own story with the help of my friend Dave. He had written, “The Church and the Genie in the Bottle” and that really summed up much of the common ground between us. When I read, “What I really believe” by Bob Greaves in June, I highlighted some of the lengthy post and shared it with Bob’s permission on my blog. When Dave (who died suddenly of a heart attack in July) saw what Bob had written he suggested, “it’s almost as if Bob has crawled into your heart and communicated the essence of your faith”. Here was an academic who was raising similar questions and expressing his thoughts somewhat differently (and making the point that some of his thoughts could change at any time).
The first point Bob made was, I do not understand the trinity. This really caught my attention as did his suggestion that he usually relates to God as a whole, making little distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Shortly after that he wrote, I believe the scripture shows a progressive revelation of God . . that God deliberately chose to reveal Himself in a progressive transition from our distortions into His true representation. Bob then suggests that Jesus did not save us from an angry Father God, but rather saved us from our own delusions of an angry God.
Bob went on to say, We were created as individuals and as a race to grow from full naivete into participators of the divine nature. From the beginning it has always been God’s plan to prepare us to be His home, so to speak, and that He would live mysteriously deep within us as our spiritual energy and life. From within us He would generate all the character that would resonate with our mysterious likeness to Him having been created in His image. Jesus through His indwelling presence is our ultimate source of abundant life and our indismissible hope of eternally existing glory.
Then there was the comment: Lucifer is spoken of as an angelic spirit-being, and it is unclear to me if as such he is a personified figment of our powerful imagination or an actual creation of God. But I suspect that he is little more than a figment of the natural imagination of a mind unconcerned with the spiritual quest of love.
This was followed by Bob’s thoughts about Adam and Eve where he suggests that the actual historical origin of all things is irrelevant to the biblical account.
By this time it was obvious that although we had been on very different journeys, we had arrived at some very similar conclusions.
Starting with “Some Awkward Questions” this blog is basically the story of how I reached the position I am in now, early in 2013.