I’ve written articles called Going off Austen and Gandhi, but I hardly dare write the phrase that this topic lends itself to, which has come up over the recent Easter season.
As someone who accepted a Christian faith from an unusually early age (I composed hymns of deep theology from my pot), it feels more than strange to even be tempted to say this. Austen may have been a best friend of 20 years; Gandhi a seminal leader I discovered in my teens; and both are revered and loved the world over. But because Jesus to me is on a pedestal way above either - not just as a religious teacher but the God on whom my faith is built - I feel the hurt to him, the Christians around me, and my own shock; but I do not fear divine retribution.
Let me explain my thoughts and why I do not fear.
Many people reject Christianity or even God but they respect Jesus and his teachings. Yet I find myself thinking the reverse: this Jesus who withers fig trees who don’t bear fruit (why not magic healthy figs?), won’t let his followers bury their dead, who expects them to hate their families, who is rude and cruel to a Gentile mother seeking healing for her son, who is going on about temptation and hell all the time; an angry, impatient, ascetic otherworldly person who expects us to take two slaps in the face not just the one, who speaks of being drowned with millstones and carrying crosses... how can this be a man to base your life on? Where is cuddly, wise inspiring Jesus that others find?
I don’t see him in the Gospels.
For a while, I’ve separated what I hear of God and who God is. When I read Neale Donald Walsch’s speech that whatever is of God is the highest thought, best thought, most noble and loving... I realised that I already knew that. To borrow from my forthcoming novel: God is behind the clouds and stage scenery created by humans. She peeks through, like the sun or the backcloth of a theatre, but often what is said to be of her actually obscures her.
God does not leapt in and intervene at these false assertions and actions in her name, any more than she strikes those who speak against her.
When my gut says that a God worth knowing and who’s worthy of the title is a God about expanding, affirming love (also a theme of my novel), a God bigger than jealousy and revenge – then that is God herself speaking. She says: if you hear otherwise, you know what you are hearing is wrong; it is not of Me. I realised that God’s supposed behaviours would involve social services intervention – a God who casts off those who don’t love him, or who stop loving him, or don’t love him in the very narrow way he dictates; a God with all sorts of power games, a God who rejects and tortures eternally. What human father would do that and not have his children taken into care and be put into a high security mental health unit?
But don’t those who want a warring avenging God say that their God too comes from a deep experiential intuition? Or can they?
I hope I’ve become more enlightened over the years, and as I try to be a more peaceable person I find that the God I talk to is not a smiting curser with favourites and rejectees who only find out at the pearly gates that they were not on the right team. Can a wise evolved person be violent and partisan and manipulative? And can a wise evolved God be?
Watching TV dramas about the ancient world (Rome; Cleopatra) and an imaginary one (Game of Thrones), I learned about these two views of God. It’s no wonder that these peoples - who took slaves, who were so much about ownership and honour, violence and punishment, violation as power, and who did not respect other cultures or women or animals - had gods like themselves. James Alison reimagines the story of Elisha and the Prophets of Baal (as he does the Easter story) to show that God is nothing to do with show of strength violence and destruction of enemies. But in both cases, this catholic priest theologian’s arguments regrettably don’t quite stand up and I find the Biblical text lends it self to the kind of interpretation I am trying to eschew.
So where does that leave me and the person who gives his name to my faith, the person who makes Christianity distinct from the other monotheistic religions? For a while I’ve said I’m more spiritual than Christian, more Glastonbury than Canterbury, and tend to read spiritual books daily rather than the Bible itself.
But I am not at ease to reject Jesus. I have always liked a personal relationship with a personal God, not an energy force. I find no replacement among other gods, especially not to pray to, nor the saints (I once tried praying to Mary Magdalene and had to abort, it felt too weird.)
It’s an ongoing question, but I find the words of my friend Helaina helpful at this point – that “perhaps I need a different interface.” I think she is entirely right. I’ll let you know when I’ve found it; meanwhile I’ll keep with my affirming God behind the clouds.