Playing with Clay

When my family gets together, things get loud. I have a very – how shall I put it?… animated family. We feel things deeply. We engage with life and with other people with passion. That has its downside, of course. It means that most of us have battled with depression or anxiety at some stage in our lives. But the upsides far outweigh that. And as we sat around the lunch table last weekend, embroiled in the habitual spirited debate, I came to see just how wonderful a gift my family gave me.


I have been very fortunate. I grew up in a home where I was allowed to have a voice, an opinion of my own. But in my home, opinions – which we were encouraged to express – seldom went unchallenged. You could think what you liked and had the freedom to voice those thoughts, but if you didn’t have a sound rationale for holding that opinion, you could be sure that somebody would notice and comment on that. Whether you proposed, as my little sister did, that “hugebig” was a degree of comparison (ie big, bigger, biggest, hugebig), or that the pyramids – as my brother-in-law claimed – were made by aliens, or that music has become progressively worse since the 80s (I thought the argument was self-evident, but apparently I have no research to support that claim…), or that serial killers could not be regarded as evil because of the role of genetics in the development of psychopathy, if you have an opinion in my family, if it is not well-substantiated, nobody is going to show it any mercy. We love each other, we respect each other, and we are all secure in that knowledge, but stupid opinions get the treatment they deserve.


Of late, as I have walked a theological journey that has, at times, attracted a degree of hostility, I have come to understand a little better just how invaluable my upbringing has been. Quite apart from helping me to nurture the courage to speak my truth (a gift I would wish on every human being), my family’s debate culture has taught me how to hold not only opinions, but informed opinions. And in those moments when my theological stance has been labeled as heretical by more orthodox thinkers, knowing that I have a solid theoretical basis for my stance has really helped me to be confident in challenging the status quo.


But perhaps the most important skill my family’s culture has taught me is that we are not our opinions. You see, I am not a static being; I am in a constant state of flux. I never am, but am constantly becoming. And while my opinions may influence that process of becoming, that process of becoming influences them too. My opinions are shaped by me and, in turn, help shape me, but they are not me. There is a generosity of spirit in my family debates that recognises this. So while I may regard my sister’s refusal to acknowledge that the 80s/90s was a golden age of music as utterly ridiculous, I will never regard her as ridiculous. She is a sophisticated and systematic thinker. As such, she is entitled to defend her (patently absurd)stance, or to modify it in the light of new evidence, or even to discard it entirely and adopt another, and I will think nothing less of her either way.


You see, our opinions and beliefs are not birthed inside us. We acquire them through our social ties. I am certain that had I been born into a family from a different culture, a different religion, into different socio-economic circumstances in another time, I would have held very different opinions and been a very different person. Our becoming is always a product of the people we relate with, who we mimic – whether we like it or not. African culture generally understands this far better than Western culture does: Ubuntu states that “we are who we are through others”. There is no being with being-with.


Picture our opinions as lumps of clay. When we open the package of clay at birth, it has the potential to become anything. It is, so to speak, blank. We have no awareness of the clay’s existence, and are therefore ignorant of our capacity to shape it. But that does not mean it is not being shaped, nor that we are not the ones doing the shaping. From the moment we enter the world, through the words people speak to us, the way they treat us, the tones they use, the environments they place us in – the billions of sensory messages that bombard us relentlessly – the clay takes shape. It conforms to what is around it. If we are lucky, we become aware of the clay, of our power to manipulate it, of the malleable nature of it, and we gain some degree of control over our thoughts, over their influence on us, and thus – in a limited way – over our becoming. All too often, we do not.


My family culture gave me an invaluable gift – they allowed me to see my opinions as separate from myself, and – by extension – others’ opinions as separate from themselves. It makes loving myself and others much easier because I recognise that my/ their thoughts and beliefs are shaped by forces completely outside of my/ their control and often beyond my/ their comprehension. So I do not take it personally when people disagree with my opinions – it is not me that they dislike, it is what I think (although, I admit, not everyone sees the distinction).


When it comes to matters of faith, I have found this to be one of the greatest blessings my family has given me. I have no issue separating God from my thinking about God. The one is the Creator of all the universe; the other is my pitifully limited attempt to comprehend Hen. I would like to think that a God who could speak the universe into being would be capable of recognising that when mortals like me question religious doctrines and point out logical inconsistencies in our own faith systems, we are not challenging the authority of the divine, but searching for ways to serve more faithfully.


The reason I write this is because Megan (my wife), after reading one of my posts recently, observed that although she agreed with everything I had said, I might be perceived as coming across as condescending. Around the same time, some former colleagues of mine took exception to the generic nature of my description of the church as preoccupied with heaven and hell. They suggested that my descriptions created an unfair caricature that was not representative of themselves and other members of their church. I really needed to reflect on these comments, because it is certainly not my intention to personalise my attacks and I would hate for my poor attitude to become the reason why people fail to hear the gospel message.


I am hoping that some of my family history might prove helpful to those who (with every right) disagree with my positions on issues pertaining to the Christian faith. I would hope that, whoever you are, as you read my blog and perhaps even take offense, you can see that none of it is intended to target actual people. I target ideas – theologies, faith systems, cultural assumptions. Shamelessly. That is how my family has always done things. But, in my mind anyway, people and the ideas they hold are different. So I try hard not to make the target of any acerbic comment an individual – I recognise that all individuals must deviate from the group templates that shape their clays, so that they are always at once both like and unlike the general communities from which they come, slaves to the direction the body takes while simultaneously steering it. But I understand that not all people are as willing as I am to separate people from the ideas they hold, and that as a result some might take personal offence at my commentary on the church. You would not be wrong to point out that I sometimes use “a tone” (as in ‘don’t you take that tone with me, young man…’). I am trying hard to squash that. It’s hard, because the truth is that I am contemptuous of certain ideas, even though I love and respect the people who hold them. I see no paradox there. But please understand this too. That while you are unavoidably shaped by the clays of the community you are born into, and while you may deviate from the general shape the communal clay has taken in significant ways, you are also, as a member of the community, ultimately part of the force that shapes the generalized, mimetically-formed clay template that others will follow. And that gives both of us a certain responsibility. Because I understand this, at least in part, it behoves me to point out the ominous shapes our communal clay sometimes takes, and which must inevitably affect our individual clays. I point it out not out of a sense of superiority – after all, I am complicit in all of this too. Rather, I do so in the hope that, as you become aware of it too, we can begin the journey together of shaping our individual clays in such a way that as others mimic us and we them, our communal clay pattern will be one of harmonious relationship.


Before anything else, we are relational beings, and our primary responsibility, I believe, lies in creating and sustaining healthy (mutually respectful) relationships. To the extent that my or your beliefs compromise the health of our relationship, we will always have a responsibility to challenge the ideas (not people) that perpetuate the dysfunction. I want to take responsibility for my part in the relationship that is us. And your responsibility, dear reader? To take responsibility for your part too. But what does that entail?


I think the starting point – if you have not done so already – is to acknowledge, at least, that you have clay. All of your thoughts, your opinions, your beliefs, your worldviews, your creeds, are not altogether your own. They have been imprinted – indeed, are still being imprinted – on your clay by your own (unconscious) hand, as you attempt to sculpt that clay to make sense of the world as you experience it through those around you. The clays of the other individuals in the relationships in which you participate continue to shape your clay, just as you continuously contribute to shaping theirs. When you realise that fact, you will understand that you are, despite all of your noble intentions, at least complicit in creating and sustaining the mess the world is in; because your clay – with all of its flaws – helps give shape to the general clay that others mimic, you will need to take responsibility for shaping your own clay differently. You want to be able to take your theology, like a lump of clay, and examine it and say: “Who has had a hand in shaping you? Whose influence is unhelpful? Whose influence do I need to see more?” Because when you own your clay and the shape it takes, when you recognise that clay is always shaped by mimesis and you can choose the mimetic model, and so when you – as a Christian – choose to let your clay be shaped by the God of love and peace revealed in Jesus rather than by the God of blood and sacrifice who is simply the sum of our collective fears, only then will you be able to participate meaningfully in bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It is a big vision for the restoration of creation that starts with the small step of recognising that God and the way we think about God are entirely separate matters: we need have no fear that in questioning the legitimacy of the shape our clay has taken we are questioning the Lord of the universe.


I am grateful that I have a loud family. I am grateful that they don’t simply accept everything I say. I will always be thankful that they can look past my sometimes myopic ideas and press me to see more clearly. I love that we are able to disagree together, argue together, learn together, grow together. No words can express how fortunate I am to have had their hands on my clay, how privileged I am that they allowed mine on theirs. It is how, one day, I envisage the family of Christ.


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