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God in car lights?

March 13, 2010

J33 - M1 nr Sheffield, England, UK

I find the lights of the city and the road mesmerizing at night. They seem to invite a person into a kind of meditative state. I perceive the transcendent. The ‘beauty’ of Life shines through these experiences. I don’t believe I am the only one who feels this way. Yet, in religious settings it is very rare for a church or faith organisation to even contemplate using in worship images of  these unique, contemporary, urban phenomena as icons of the Spirit. 

I like how  nineteenth century thinker and theologian, Frederich Schleiermacher described religion, as a sense of ‘absolute dependence’ on the numinous. Evangelicals since Karl Barth have decried Schleiermacher’s definition of such ‘natural’ religion, emphasizing God’s voice being expressed primarily through the Bible, especially Jesus Christ as the Word of God. I’m not an expert on Karl Barth’s theology, but in my experience this Barthian emphasis has often been to the exclusion of  God’s communication being discerned in many forms of cultural expression and human civilisation, if still experienced in the fallen, but still beautiful natural world. Barth’s definitive rejection of ‘natural’ forms of ‘human religion’, was in part based on his personal experience and horror at the way the National Socialist Democratic movement and government in Germany of the 1930s and early 1940s, used a mixture of Germanic folk-lore and ethnic religious feeling to create a viciously persecutory and destructive cult-like society.

Barth is one of the great, if not the great, Protestant theologian of the Twentieth Century. It therefore takes a degree of conceit to criticise his thinking, and few could disagree with his dismissal of Nazi Germany’s ‘natural/cultural’ religion being the complete opposite of the love and will of God. However, I feel Barth’s emphasis on the redemptive Word of God, as expressed in the Bible, needs to be held in tension with the work, power and love of the Creative Holy Spirit. As scholar of religion Rudolf Otto described religious feeling as a sense of the ‘numinous’ (that is the presence or power of the Divine), perhaps it is NOT heretical or unorthodox to perceive the work of God the Holy Spirit in ‘ordinary culture, human technology and secular life. In fact might it not be a freeing and liberating experience to actually discern the wonder of God’s provision and prevenience in the physical matter we take so for granted. Is not perceiving the beauty of the LORD in our post-Christian society, a way of reframing our world, liberating our lives from the sacred/profane, or more typically in modern society the religious/secular divide that still predominates in many people’s practice and thinking across the secular religious spectrum. I would like to argue that in discerning the Divine presence or energy and benevolence in our every day lives we open up the whole world to become the arena of awe and wonder at God’s providence. We liberate faith (and the faithful) from their shackles to religious observance, of whatever flavour – modern or traditional, and we also invite our un-religious friends, neighbours and colleagues into a way of approaching existence that appreciates the WHOLE of life, from Subway to Ford, from non governmental charities working in distant developing countries to political parties and local government, from the world of fashion to mp3 players and laptop computers, from pubs and restaurants serving food and alcohol to gyms offering tap water and fitness classes, from chemistry and biology to physics and mathematics, from sociology and psychology to philosophy and art; from medicine to prayer …from walking down the street  on a saturday afternoon and laughing at the beauty of it all to shedding quiet tears and whispering praise to the unknown God at the sight of the sun breaking through the clouds in the sky…and ad infinitum. 

I believe that I have been born and brought up in a unique period in history, when institutional religion rapidly declines and often rejects forward thinking ‘prophets’, but as the whole world becomes accessible at the touch of a button, and the darkest most in-grown prejudices of ethnic hate and discrimination against the outsider have their pernicious grips loosened on normal peoples’ mindsets. We can begin to enjoy the diversity of different cultures while emphasizing the need for universal humanitarian and rational standards and values. 

I have often heard in the Church how Christianity is increasingly being marginalised and undermined. In some respects it’s probably true. As a friend of mine who has had a very atypical growth into Christian faith (from a non-religious upbringing to Buddhism, Sufi Islam and then Christianity) said to me: “The Church thinks it still runs the show! But it doesn’t! The world is run by different rules nowadays and the Church had better catch up.” 

Perhaps, we define the marginalisation of Christianity as the shifting of cultural norms away from traditional Christian religion, but is the world really becoming a worse place to live? Just a couple of weeks ago the Prime minister of Britain, Gordon Brown, apologised on behalf of the British Government for the hundreds of thousands of children sent away from this country as orphans to new ‘lives’ in Australia, often where they were institutionalised and abused and used as cheap labour. It’s funny, but we can be so tempted into glorifying the past, to the neglect of a careful attention to the unpleasant facts of the past. Another example might be secular medical science and psychology’s treatment of the mentally ill – it is only in the last fifteen to twenty years that modern effective treatments for depression, bi-polar and schizophrenia have been developed, tested and released for public use. Go back half a century and the churches may have been much fuller, but so where mental asylums and treatments were often harsh and demeaning of patients. A further example, I have learnt from talking with my elderly grandparents and aunt, when they were brought up in rural Yorkshire they were often warned to behave themselves as children or else threatened with the prospect of a ‘darky’ ( a black person) coming to get yer at night’. My Grand father before he died recalled how as a boy, children from the different Anglican and Roman Catholic churches used to call each other names and threw stones at one another. Roman Catholics were Rat Catchers (RCs) and Anglicans were ‘Prodi-dogs’ (as in Protestants). Yes, religious observance was much higher, but were people really more enlightened and more loving? 

I guess I mention these examples, as a caution against using the genius of a particular thinker, during a particular period of history – such as Karl Barth – from becoming the plumb line by which all philosophical, political, scientific or religious thought and praxis is measured and thus defined. As a Christian, I value greatly, the Bible. After fifteen years of hard struggle to be a Christian in contemporary, post-modern Britain, it has been a ‘guiding light’ for me. It is a source of inspiration and devotion, and a means of retaining a degree of self-control. To me the Bible is a beautiful mystery, so simple to understand at times, so incomprehensible at others. Yet, in spite of the difficulties in teasing out its subtle meanings and  the nuances of its  wisdom, I still struggle with it and believe…I hope I will do that till my dying day. 

However, the Bible has taught me above all to value life…to appreciate the very basic, yet glorious building blocks of life – health, daily bread, shelter, clothing, companionship, human love, divine love when not even human love can reach the depths of one’s soul and the beauty of nature. The Lord’s Prayer, Paul’s statements on rejoicing and being content in all circumstances; the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures – say Psalm 19. They all guide us to value and be deeply grateful for the good things in our lives, whether we are in a time of great pain and suffering, or whether we are in a time of happiness, fullness and ease. That way of thinking is…SO…precious to me. Is it a  sin or a heresy to take it a step further and give thanks for the gifts of human civilisation, culture and technology of the global society, I live within? Is there really no ‘numinous’ in car head lamps and traffic lights and, the artificial lighting on the horizon? I believe there is. I believe God is Present even in the darkest places, even in the most ‘ordinary’ circumstances and secularised institutions. If he isn’t then I invite him there! But I believe he is. And yes, I like Schleiermacher’s idea – the sense of ultimate dependency is the perception of the Divine, outside the confines of established religion, and also sometimes inside. 

Ultimately, I think there is a danger of becoming ‘experts’ in God, to the detriment of being amateurs of life…in the sense of lover…lovers of life. In a passage perhaps, overlooked by many devotees of religion the writer of the Letters of John brings together ethical action in the human/natural realm as the evidence of an authentic relationship with the Divine. He writes:

9Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. 10Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. 11But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.                    (1 John 2:9-11) 

Once again we find the terms ‘darkness’ and ‘light’. For John one of the measurements of a Christian’s faith is loving one’s ‘brother’. A term that is usually taught to mean a fellow Christian. Jesus, however, taught another story about a Good Samaritan, who cared for a mugged Jew with his own resources, to help us in determining who should be thought of as a ‘neighbour’. Since the Jewish people considered Samaritans as enemies, we might also argue that where John  refers to loving one’s ‘brother’, we might think of a brother as someone beyond religious tribe or family group and as perhaps someone who might be considered an outsider too – an illegal immigrant, a foreign migrant worker, a homosexual, a member of a different religious group, a  die-hard atheist, an irreligious, secular consumer, a person suffering from mental ill-health? 

In Dark Nights White Soul, I would like to discuss the special life-giving energy that comes from ‘depending’ on a force, a person/s(?), that goes beyond the everyday limitations of an unreflective, consumerist, materialistic existence AND breaks the limitations of a brittle, narrow-minded, judgemental religious worldview. Honestly, I don’t know whether anyone else would be interested. I hope they will be. However, even if others aren’t inspired by such thoughts … they matter to me!

I’m going to finish with a post-modern prayer, I have written: 

God! 

Help me to live a loving life. 

Help me to love those who I find difficult to love, 

as you have loved me, 

even when I have not been easy to love. 

Help me to find you in everything! 

Help me to see you in the ‘ordinary’, 

I know there is no such thing as ‘ordinary’. 

Everything is exceptional, if you look at it from the right perspective. 

Thank you for the extraordinaryness of all life… 

even the unglamorous, grey, dull and routine. 

I see you in car lights at night! 

Thank you for that. 

Yes, Lord, I really mean it!

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