I am not sure who it was who actually dodged the bullet. I was on a two hour flight this week and I sat behind a man who was an elder in a charismatic church. I shall call him Mr X. For almost the entire two hours, Mr X spoke to the man next to him about his church, its missionary work in the Eastern Cape, and his various experiences of how “God” (sorry – I know it is presumptuous but I simply cannot bring myself to leave out the inverted commas) was doing miraculous work through his church. He spoke about the paucity of “spirit-filled” members in the church they were planting. He talked about how to use culturally appropriate illustrations to help Xhosa people to understand the “gospel” (again, I cannot bring myself to leave them out…). Mr X had story after story of people being prayed for, through the “laying on of hands”, who subsequently “fell over in the Spirit”. It was a painful two hour documentary on horrible theology. Two hours later, as we got off the plane, Mr X was still going, and the poor man next to him sat patiently and listened. That’s why I don’t know who dodged the bullet. I am grateful I was not next to Mr X, but I am not so sure I would have shut up and listened. He was spared me as much as I was spared him.
I have been wrestling with why that kind of thing irritates me so much. After all, I am convinced by Richard Rohr’s argument that subscribing to a terrible theology is an inevitable part of each person’s faith journey, and that we ought simply to let the people who hold such beliefs be –the harsh realities of life will always challenge the foundations of simplistic and insensible belief systems, and hopefully those who hold them will use those paradigm-shaking challenges to reshape and revise their theological frameworks. And if they do not, as is all too frequently the case, if instead they choose to let their theologies be shaped by brokenness, still nothing has been lost, really. We are all broken, after all; we cannot assume our own theologies are superior just because we are blind to how our own frameworks are shaped around our own brokennesses. Richard Rohr is a wise man and his argument makes sense. So why do I find myself getting so worked up by unsound theology?
I surmise it is this: the reason I cannot simply let things be is the result of my understanding of selfhood. I will probably need to elaborate a bit, so bear with me. I believe that our identities are indistinguishable from our relationships. I do not believe that relationships are things we have; they are not things we acquire and possess and lose; they are what we are. Every quality that I believe identifies me as an individual is a representation of my patterns of relating to others and the world around me: I am patient, I am kind, I am respectful etc. Those ideas are meaningless outside of a relational framework. In fact, I cannot think of a single thing that people value that has any meaning outside of our relationships: money, fame, power, material possessions, sex, love, you name it. The kingdom of God is itself a relational concept. This personal Jesus stuff is nonsense, frankly. Only in relating to others as I would have them relate to me, as Jesus instructed, am I living the Kingdom of God. In other words, as I understand the gospel, I have a responsibility – from my end, anyway – to do what is necessary to make every single one of my relationships into a life-affirming one. Even my enemies. That is what it means to accept Jesus as the Way and the Truth and the Life.
Now the thing with bad theology (and I would include my own in there, at times) is that it damages life-affirming relationships. One of the major reasons why, for example, I reject the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture as being of God is that it allows us to sanction violent relatedness. If “God” can smite half of the –ites in the Old Testament – men, women and children – and sanction the slaughter of entire cities because they did not conform to certain ways of being, then we are given permission, tacitly, to do the same, if we are on “God’s” side. But Jesus did not treat Scripture as divine revelation: he habitually omitted all of the bits pertaining to God’s violence when he quoted Scriptures, he subtly changed Scriptures to suit his message when he felt it necessary, and he sometimes outright contradicted them. Jesus saw in Scriptures the capacity for the promotion of violent relatedness and stripped them of that power. He did it far more gently and powerfully than I ever could, but Jesus habitually challenged bad theology.
The problem with bad theology is that it makes God violent and thereby endorses violent relatedness. If I see myself as existing apart from my relationships, then I can set myself up as having access to God where you do not; I can set myself up as holy and you as tainted; I can set myself up as sanctified and you as condemned by God. And if my God-picture is of a God who smites those who oppose Him (new readers, I only use the masculine pronoun when engaging with problematic representations of God, otherwise I use the gender-neutral Hen), then it is a small leap to believing that God wants me to smite you when your lifestyle doesn’t conform to my idea of holiness. Bad theology leads to violence. Every time. It is how religion is configured.
But if I see me and you as inseparable; if I see our relationship as more than merely something that exists between us, but as the very essence of us; if I accept that there is no being without being-with, then I will understand that the me and you relationship is really indistinguishable from the me-God relationship – whatever I do to the least of these I do to God. And I will recognise that anything that permits me to relate to you in any but a life-affirming way is not of God because God is life. Violence is never life-affirming. Love cannot exist where there is violence: violence strips away dignity, it instils fear and shame. Violence is the manifestation of broken relationships; love is the manifestation of the healing and sustenance of relationships. God is love. In Hen there is no shadow of turning.
I do not believe that Mr X was promoting anything life-affirming. I need to be fair to him, though – I do not think he was consciously promoting violent relatedness either. But nevertheless, that was the trajectory of his thinking and way of being. For a start, I regard it as a form of violence to subject somebody to your unsolicited views on religion and the entire history of your church for two hours, when they have no viable prospects for escaping without feeling that they are being rude themselves. And don’t get me started on the deeply problematic cultural imperialist assumptions that were undergirding his missionary work.
But even had the other man willingly entered the conversation with Mr X, the relationship was still a “violent” one, simply because the theology informing the discussion was violence-oriented. Mr X (I speak of him as a type now, not as an individual), by virtue of his theology, cannot enter a conversation with a non-believer and accord them equal status – whether that is somebody next to him on a plane, or some benighted unbeliever whose soul he wants to save. His theology does not permit it. As the holder of an exclusive “truth”, the keeper of the mystical secret to opening the gates of Heaven and releasing God’s blessing, he has by default placed himself in a position of superiority. And a perceived unevenness in a relationship status, especially one where the inequality is God-sanctioned and in one’s own favour, always carries the capacity for violence.
In fact, this “violence” extends even to Mr X’s fellow believers: this setting up of some believers as “Spirit-filled” while others are not, for example, is to set up a false dichotomy where some believers are superior and favoured by God, by virtue of having had some nebulous and poorly defined spiritual experience. Now if you are using the New Testament as a basis to justify this ridiculous distinction of the “Spirit-filled” believer and the non-Spirit-filled ones, then your skills in terms of literary engagement are sorely underdeveloped. The texts do not promote any such notion, and while you are perfectly entitled to believe that the distinction exists (everyone is entitled to their opinion, to cite the mantra of the ill-informed), no robust reading of the texts will support it. This belief that some are holier just because of spiritual experiences is exactly what Paul critiques when he warns members of the Corinthian church about seeing themselves as special because they speak in tongues. In fact, the famous passage on the supremacy of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is framed by a discussion on the use of spiritual gifts in the church. It is love that gives shape to all of our acts of worship; it is love that defines us as children of God. Let me remind all Mr X theologians of the words of Jesus, as recorded in John 13: 35: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you speak in tongues and fall over in the Spirit”. No wait, that’s not right, you say? Maybe: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you don’t read offensive books or watch the wrong television programmes and try not to swear.”? No? How about: “”By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you randomly accost people who are otherwise minding their own business and try convince them that they are miserable sinners who will burn eternally unless they say a little prayer with you and invite me into their hearts”? Still not? Really? Let’s see what Jesus said:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
If the term “Spirit-filled” is going to apply to anybody, it will be to those who love one another. The early church may have had “speaking in tongues” as part of their worship, but it was never a key indicator of faith in Jesus. Loving relatedness was. Not that I believe that the modern-day phenomenon of “speaking in tongues” bears any resemblance to what was happening in the early church. And I am convinced that the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with the phenomena Mr X described happening at his church meetings. What there was, was a lot of powerful mimetic stuff, although I do not think Mr X – or many of those involved in the rituals he described – were fully cognisant of why they were experiencing this religious activity in the way they were. For example, I do not buy the story of the Spirit making people fall over when they have hands laid on them. I do not believe that what passes for “speaking in tongues” is a Holy Spirit enabled activity. But I do not believe that those who participate in these things are necessarily consciously faking it either. Mimesis is powerful and group psychology and religious ritual are formidable forces.
But that is a discussion for another day. What I am wrestling with is this: how ought I to have responded to Mr X? Was I right to remain silent, convinced that this discussion was none of my business, or do I have a social obligation? After all, bad theology always leads to suffering of some description, whether it is outright persecution of those whose behaviour we believe violates some or other divine mandate, like the way the church has hurt countless millions of people through its illogical obsession with “sexual purity” (very deliberate use of inverted commas), or whether it is the subtler guilt and shame complexes engendered by Protestant theology. And because bad theology causes suffering, do I not have a responsibility to challenge it? Is it enough to challenge bad theology through my blog, where readers can opt in or out? Indeed, normally, I do not challenge the Mr X-type theologians in my life (although I never shy away from a discussion if they lead it in that direction), because I accept that my theology is probably also deeply flawed, and if I try to convert them to my way of thinking, I become violent in my own way. I try to love them not change them. If I take responsibility for my part in the me-Mr X-God relationship, what does it mean to act in such a way that this relationship becomes life-affirming? I suspect that my silence was sufficient on that count. But am I not also responsible for my part in the me-Mr X’s “victim”-God relationship too? Did I have a responsibility to protect him from the unintentional violence of Mr X? Even though neither of them was aware that I was even there, and though there was no real “relationship” between us to speak of, does my mere proximity to an act of violence (which most likely neither party even perceived as an act of violence) make me complicit in it? What was the best way to act out of love in that situation?