Is the light of Christ being excluded from the church?

Holman Hunt , ‘Light of the World’ (1853) Keble College Oxford

In this post, I explore the role of Christ as light-bearer – one who shines in order to dispel darkness. We consider the need for the church to be more self-critical in response.

Holman Hunt’s famous image, Light of the World, is often interpreted as Christ knocking at the door of an unresponsive human heart — a wooden door overgrown with weeds and with no visible external handle. The metaphor is clear. The image, however, raises pertinent questions regarding both subject and object.

Regarding the subject, Hunt’s portrayal of Christ (as a Westerner) dressed in rich, flowing, almost middle-Eastern kingly robes hints at his divine role as the King of Kings. His messianic role and divine nature are reinforced by a jewelled circlet hinting at a crown of thorns and a head haloed by a rising moon. The dark garden scene is reminiscent of an unoccupied Eden. Instead of tending the garden of the world, the soul is barricaded within its own alternative, self-preoccupied reality. A kind of garden shed. Continue reading “Is the light of Christ being excluded from the church?”

Acid reign

Dealing with corrosive power-structures in a post-truth world

I feel like apologising for this post. It is too wordy and, at times, a bit pretentious. I’ve left it here as it represents another milestone on the journey. There is some good stuff!

Even the most naive political observer cannot help but notice the rise of populism worldwide. Self-appointed saviours declare that they will save their people from oppressive overlords and lead them towards new promised lands — a misguided response to the cry of those who feel oppressed. I would like to offer a theological perspective.

Continue reading “Acid reign”

Learning to see again

We all live in ‘villages’—places defined by their boundaries, prejudices, preconceptions, and traditions. Jesus’s ministry was characterised by a fundamental opposition to these restrictive forces. Here we consider what it means to be set free by Christ.

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”
He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”
Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village” (Mark 8:22–26).

Sight — correct vision — is Christ’s gift to his children. Since the first words of God — ‘let there be light’ — God has been working to give his children sight. These words were spoken by Christ at the dawn of time, for John in his gospel insists that ‘through him all things were made’ and furthermore, John also says that when Jesus came into the world, he was light incarnate – ‘the true light that gives light to everyone’. In a world of darkness — especially religious darkness — John’s first-hand witness statement declares that Jesus’s primary message was ‘God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’. Welcome news in a religious world that saw God as primarily judge and law-giver. ‘This vision of God as darkness,’ John is saying, ‘is wrong. You are seeing badly: God is light.’ Human vision regularly distorts reality. God gets the blame for all sorts of things, not least the mystery of evil — especially so when so many who claim to be representatives of ‘God’ walk in such evil and darkness. It seems to me that in these dark days we need to pray for the gift of sight, and this passage of Mark is worth exploring for it holds the key to new vision — 20/20 vision of reality. When Mark edited his gospel, it seems to me that like John — who included seven acts of Christ in his account, calling them ‘signs’, Mark included this incident for the deeper truth of which it speaks. I would like to consider this.

This blind man lived in a village. We all live in villages: those places where familiarity and predictability insulate us from the true nature of the world. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it tends to breed complacency. Villages also breed preconceptions and prejudices as we tend to absorb the values of those around us, where through osmosis we unconsciously adopt the zeitgeist of our age. They are places where we cease to truly think, where ‘that’s how things are’. The unchanging familiarity of a village gives us comfort in a fast-changing world. But Jesus wants to take us by the hand and lead us out of our villages.

The problem is that we build up a false picture of reality. If one lives in a ‘communication village’ — only speaking to, and living with, people who are the same as oneself who share the same interests, beliefs, and values — sight soon becomes distorted. Eventually, as evidenced by those who would shoot a child in the head for wanting to go to school, blindness results. Blindness comes from assuming that our view of reality is true vision — even (perhaps especially) our particularly religious view of truth. As Coleridge once sagely remarked:

He who begins by loving Christianity more than Truth, will proceed by loving his sect or church better than Christianity, and end in loving himself better than all.

Like this blind man, we need to allow Jesus to take us by the hand and lead us out of the village. It is a conscious decision to allow God to lead us beyond the walls of comfort, beyond the false security of perishable props and untruths, beyond mediocrity. Without these first steps towards sight we will be forever blind.

But Jesus then does a strange thing. I find it curious that he spits on the man’s eyes and ‘puts his hands on him’ — presumably on his eyes. There is both revulsion and vulnerability here. Revulsion for obvious reasons — I wonder what the man was thinking when Jesus spat into his face — and vulnerability as no-one particularly likes having their eyes touched by someone else. To allow this, like having a cataract removed, requires significant trust. I find this hard to express, but it brings to mind the cross.

At the heart of the Christian good news is the enigma of the cross — a violation of ‘decency’. We do not like to look at the cross: as Paul rightly notes, it is offensive — and this ‘offensive’ behaviour of Jesus also begs questions. The cross is often portrayed as God’s idea, some way of ‘satisfying’ God’s need for retribution for sin. I find this caricature of the cross offensive, for was it not fundamentally a Roman idea? — a cruel invention of empire? — a means to consolidate absolute power? The cross, it seems to me, is the ultimate symbol of God’s refusal to use power to achieve ‘selfish’ ends (if indeed any of God’s acts can be technically described as ‘selfish’, but that’s another discussion): it is God allowing sin to spit in his face. Jesus’s submission to brutality — his refusal to call down those legions of angels — destroyed, emasculated sin: Jesus cut off its balls. Sin, Paul insists, now has no power over us, and sin, as is evident in today’s turbulent world, is not at all happy about this.

I suggest that allowing Jesus to ‘spit’ in your face is not a bad deal, for he now has power over sin, the slave master. His submission to the ultimate offence means he has the power to destroy all evil embedded in human nature. But sin, the evil embedded in us, finds this offensive. Why? Because Jesus’s acts, whether on the cross or here is this short narrative, result in sin’s destruction. To rephrase this from a different perspective: allowing Jesus to lead us by the hand out of the village, to allow him to spit in our eyes (to attack the cause of blindness), and to allow him to touch our eyes, all speak of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable — to be submissive to Christ, to be re-centred on him. And this submission is the opposite of the myopic preoccupation with self that is the essence of sin — self-centredness. The choice to be submissive and vulnerable to the touch of Christ is the beginning of vision.

Sure enough, the man’s vision is restored, but it is a curious two-stage process. At first he sees falsely, ‘men like trees walking’. Sight does not necessarily result in vision: all humanity is living in the this world of light that God created, but clearly not everybody is seeing truly. As John says:

‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

To understand the reason for this we have to look no further than the village. Villages are, as I have said, places of convention and familiarity. The curious thing is that we as human beings see much less than we think: the human brain is continually producing a composite image from fragmented information that it receives from the eyes. It calls this ‘reality’. Without getting too complex here, I simply want to note that what we call ‘reality’ may in fact be made up of a series of stills — images of village life—that we think form a true picture of reality.

Perhaps this blind man is the ultimate example of this: having no sight at all, his only reference point is imaginative images constructed from other sensory input. He has constructed an idea of what a man should look like. So when Jesus asks him ‘What do you see?’ his answer reveals that his visual vocabulary is still village-based: he is interpreting the visual cues using bad reference images. This is the main problem of village life: we can be deluded into thinking that our own little village, with its conventions and beliefs that we hold so dear, represent reality. I wonder often whether some of the things I think I see so clearly are really ‘men like trees walking’. So Jesus touches his eyes a second time. Jesus, it seems to me, is giving him true reference images. I do not think this was a question of optics, but of cognition — that, having never seen a man before he had no clue what a man looked like. Now he has vision, not just sight.

But this is not the end of the story. When I first read it, I though that the village was the man’s home, but Jesus’s final admonition is revealing. He ‘sent him home’ and then says specifically: ‘Don’t even go into the village’. In short, village and home are not the same place, or, to put it another way: your home is not in the village — you belong somewhere else.

The place where you and I belong, I suggest, is in the heart of God. What I mean by this rather clichéd expression is that ultimately human being finds fulfilment and identity by being united with its creator, but more profoundly, that sight — vision — does not inhere in seeing the ‘right’ things (which, as I hope my discussion has revealed, is more about what we believe is right than anything to do with vision) but in knowing the right person — Christ. This is why I wrote the song ‘Without Walls’ which is a prayer to move beyond convention — mere human wall-encompassed safety in religious (or other) dogma — to the place where ‘I will love you without walls’. The place where heart meets heart. I would argue strongly that it is only from this relational reference point that the idea of true vision — ‘truth’ — makes any sense at all.

We live at a strategic time in human history when there is a desperate need to connect truly with the God of light. So much of what we call ‘belief’ is simply second-hand. So many of us (myself included) believe things are true on the basis that other people have told us they are true, but in reality it is just the repetition of ‘village’ dogma: some idea (perhaps even an old wives’ tale) that someone at some time bothered to think through, and is now — although perhaps once a living truth — buried in a grave of convention.

I close with a final thought. I suspect that after some time the man did go back to the village, if only to thank his friends. One problem that the image of ‘leaving the village’ evokes is the danger of disengagement from the real world. A ‘relational theology’ such as I am advocating may, if naively applied, result in two dangers. The first is simply the tendency to go and find another village to live in. Enough said. The second is the danger of a kind of Platonic dualism: of seeing the material world in which we live as somehow inferior to the relational, mystical ‘spiritual’ realm. Well, as I say, I think the man — after he had become more confident, perhaps, in his gift of sight — went back to the village and with his new-found vision I am sure he saw village life in a new light and maybe even helped to bring about change. Materiality is not the issue, but the way we see it. It is the village that is illusory, not the real world in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. It is my hope that as I — we — allow Jesus to lead us out of our villages, touch our eyes, and give us new vision, that we will be able to make a real difference in this beautiful, but damaged, world of light.

The presence of God

This (rather long) post explores the slippery concept of ‘the presence of God’ by meditating particularly on the narrative of Moses. Since humans, in some sense, carry God’s image, we consider how, as-image bearers, our role is to fill the earth with light and partner with God to ‘fill the earth with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’. It’s a long read but (though I say it myself) well worth the effort. Continue reading “The presence of God”

Reflections on reality and the incarnation

On re-reading this article seven years later, I find this philosophising a bit tedious, even pretentious. I’ve left it here on my blog as it represents a milestone on my Musician’s Journey. I was just trying to get my head round the nature of reality . . .

The great divorce

The effect of the Fall — however one conceives that primordial divorce of humankind from the divine — was to close us off from eternity: we were exiled from the Garden of Eden.(6) At first sight it might seem as though we were sent out into an eternal night, a limitless expanse of time and space — exiled wanderers, banished for ever from the ‘island’ Garden, now guarded by angelic sentinels. (The picture that comes to mind is that of an impoverished local populace excluded from some a lavish health resort built by a foreign investor.) This picture though, in many senses, reverses reality, for is it not the Garden that is the threshold of eternity, and the ‘exterior’ that is bounded?

The ultimate boundary, the threshold, if you like, of the carceral realm in which we live, is death. Space and time may well stretch beyond the horizons of infinity, but for fallen mortals this is of little comfort if the end of our travels, the destination of the journey, is oblivion. The irony is that the Fall was an attempt to become god-like; a sudden dash for freedom —  to flee from the ‘tyranny’ of subservience to God. Ironic because we exchanged an infinite divine horizon for a finite one, and found ourselves trapped in what philosophers optimistically call ‘totality’, an immanent sphere divorced from the transcendent. (SEE NOTE 1) Continue reading “Reflections on reality and the incarnation”

God’s truth police – a consequence of fundamentalism

Rob Bell’s book Love Wins has provoked a predictable (and somewhat tiresome) debate among Christians, with accusations of universalism, heresy, and the erosion of truth taking centre stage. (The idea that God might be nice seems to be a shock for many.) As I read the vitriolic comments it appears to me that a central issue remains unaddressed, and it concerns the heart of Christianity — truth. Continue reading “God’s truth police – a consequence of fundamentalism”

Reading the Bible again

A brief exploration of truth and the Bible

Nick Clegg, according to the Daily Mail, is a devious politician who has thrown away his principles in favour of power and personal aggrandisement. Is this true? Thousands of Daily Mail readers no doubt view this as as indisputable fact, but surely there must be more to this than meets the eye? As someone who, for better or for worse, chose to take his party into a coalition with previous political enemies, there must be deeper issues here; Clegg is no doubt having to walk a very difficult tightrope, balancing principles against the fact that he is the leader of a minority within this fragile coalition. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt — that deep down he has the interests of the nation at heart.

This simple example illustrates how we are so easily swayed by words that are in print — accepting them as truth simply because someone has decided they are worth printing. Even though we know that media barons print stories simply to sell papers, and journalists are sometimes not the most truthful of people, still we are deeply affected by what we see in print. Continue reading “Reading the Bible again”

Magic mushrooms – a culinary brush with death

Yelly (my Dutch wife) has just completed a two-day mushroom-hunting and identification course as a result of which I found myself (with some hesitation) eating various dubious-looking funghi. ‘It’s quite OK,’ she told me, with what sounded like confidence (after all, she had done a two-day course). ‘Only about twelve species of English mushrooms can kill you.’  One of these, apparently, you can munch on quite happily saying things like: ‘Mmmm — what a lovely delicate flavour!’ and such, and then two days later you die abruptly of kidney failure. Continue reading “Magic mushrooms – a culinary brush with death”

The edge of darkness – thinking about reality

As a physicist (though I confess a poor one) I conceive of God’s creative act as that of an explosive sun. God exploded us into existence, gave birth to us, and we orbit around him like the rings of Saturn, cosmic dust. But in his desire for children rather than angels, the centrifugal forces of his love spun us outwards to the edges of his gravitational influence, to the cusp of oblivion. Here, at the fragile discontinuity between light and darkness, a small force from our own weak will can take us beyond escape velocity into outer darkness, or on a trajectory back towards his heart. The choice is ours. The centrifugal force of God’s dangerous creativity is balanced, on a knife edge, with the centripetal force of his inexorable gravitational love.

It is a choice between the darkness of independence, a slide towards the frozen inertness of absolute zero, or to be consumed in the embrace of nuclear love. I have made my choice.

Intellectualism—exploring mind and faith

Following on from my last post about ‘isms’, let’s have a closer look at intellectualism

Recently I was at a meeting where the gifted speaker mentioned in passing that in the West we are far too intellectual. The eastern mind, he suggested, was more open and appropriate to ‘real’ Christianity; intuitive, imaginative appropriation by the heart was of higher value than mere intellectual assent.
There are two issues which need uncovering here. Continue reading “Intellectualism—exploring mind and faith”