Mersey Reflections - on Faith in the City

Tom was the lead writer in these reflections that were a collaboration among an ecumenical faith group that met at Ince Benet. They were circulated locally in response to Faith in the City - A Call for Action by Church and Nation : Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on Urban Priority Areas, published Dec 4th 1985. It had provoked hostile reactions from many Conservative Politicians, above all Mrs. Thatcher as she saw the consensus on the welfare state, social housing, state ownership of utilities, undemocratic Trade Union practices and the sustaining of declining industries as a brake on the potential for social development and wealth creation in Britain.

(Word Count 6,962)


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Thomas Cullinan, Elizabeth Crehan, , Janet Davies, Arthur Fitzgerald, Brian McClorry and others.

· PREFACE

· GOD-TALK

· NAMING THE POWERS

· HOPE IS FOR REAL

· GOD-TALK : PEOPLE-TALK

· WALKING IN WILDERNESS

These Mersey Reflections are a contribution to the debate initiated by ‘Faith in the city’ (November 1995)

MERSEY REFLECTIONS

The Mersey is murky, tidal and often choppy.

During our initial deliberations we have been conscious that documents like this are written by (and mostly for) those of us who enjoy security in life which precludes us from ever really sharing the insecurity and powerlessness of the poor. Few of us have gone to bed hungry, been totally unable to make ends meet, or faced a future in which no-one wants us. By birth or by adoption we are middle-class.

We do not see poverty, however, as the hapless lot of those who have not ‘made it’ in society. There is nothing more insulting to the poor than treating poverty as an embarrassing problem in the world that is otherwise OK. Just as internationally there cannot be a future for our planet based on the poor catching up with the rich (since the planet could not support that), so there is no real future for our country based on the poor catching up with the norms of the well-to-do. Unless all of us are willing to face radical changes in attitudes and realignment in patterns of work, housing, income and influence, there is no future.

It has been said in South Africa: “…if we can understand what we have done to the blacks, we may then understand what we have done to ourselves.” This is equally true of urban poverty in our own country. Poverty is dispossession, not unfortunate accident or what is owing to the fickle and feckless. In many ways the real problem lies with those who think it does not lie with them.

We recall Paul writing to the well-to-do church in Corinth, two decades after Pentecost. After affectionate greetings, he chides them for their sectarian bickerings and calls them to recognise the one thing that will unite them in faith. They must cease to disdain those “whom the world holds as nothing”. He teases those educated and well-positioned members out of their false security and insolence by making them recognise the Body as a whole: “…after all, how many of you, when called, were well educated? How many influential? No, it was to shame the educated and the strong that God chose the common and he weak, chose them to show up those who are everything.”

Paul was applying to the social order in Corinth his understanding of the Cross and of his own painful experience that God’s power finds its liberating scope in what is vulnerable, not in what is self-secure.

This social understanding of the mystery of the Cross is at the heart of the Christian faith. The suffering servant opted freely to bear the reproach and disdain which the poor bear by circumstance. Truly they carry the sin of society as a whole. Both the suffering of the afflicted and the sin of society are usually unrecognised for what they are. To name the suffering is to name the sin – and therefore to call for repentance and renewal. But there are deep-seated and often clever defence mechanisms working against that.

The muted cry of the poor is, however, the cry of God to us all: it is the voice of the Spirit speaking to the churches. Only the poor, at home and overseas, can reveal the illusions and idolatries of the well-to-do, the precarious fragility of the seemingly secure, the common humanity of those who feel themselves special. Indeed Paul makes the point harshly later on his letter: “…if you do not discern the Body as a whole, your communion in the body of Christ will prove to be damnation”.

Our country is increasingly breaking up into groups, each intent on looking after its own. No doubt this withdrawal into self-interest and self-preservation is what happens when people feel confused and afraid. But there are those who claim it as a virtue, who argue that the good of the whole is best served by vigorous competition of interest groups. We suggest that such a divisive social attitude implicitly denies that God is One, and that the economic pursuit of one’s own group interests amounts to idolatry, denying that God is holy.

The Word calls us to realise our solidarity and interdependence. And it is the poor who have the capacity to liberate us from ourselves. We discern the Body or …

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It is sometimes assumed that any radical reflection on these issues comes from an unhealthy guilt in middle-class people with a romantic view of the poor. Nothing blocks the discussion more effectively than this assumption. But what can we say? Only that the morality we find in scripture and especially in the prophets and gospels is not that sort of morality. It does not assume that all well-to-do people are sinners or that all poor people are saints. God’s bias for the poor is because they are uncared for in the pyramids of political and economic power. The questions are, initially, about what is happening to people; who is doing what and how?

Our own deliberations and sharing with friends in our city have kept returning to the question: what is it about urban life today and about our churches that makes overt faith seem irrelevant?

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GOD-TALK (Not Tom)

We understand theology as the art of “giving an account of the hope that is within us.” (1 Peter 3:15)

The New Testament collects together a variety of theologies. These were not received ready-made from heaven. They emerged from the ambiguities and struggles of early Christians seeking to articulate the good news they had received, within the social, economic and political realities in which they lived.

Christians today often feel closer to those early churches, finding themselves to be in a minority and odd people in a largely indifferent or antagonistic world. The age of Christendom lies between them and ourselves, and age in which to be a Christian and to be a member of society were virtually the same; this was a different setting for faith and theology.

Today we need to recover the same sort of contextual theology which gave rise to the New Testament. We are called to the same responsibility and empowered by the same Spirit. No-one can do it but ourselves. And there is an urgency to it because things are changing so rapidly today that people are tempted to save their skins by withdrawing into irrational and subjective forms of belief, private insurance policies.

Contextual theology is a three-course meal, though each course can happen only if the other are happening also; at least, you can come in on the meal at any course because it does not end. And since this meal is to do with learning a new consciousness and new forms of conversation, it cannot be rushed or picked at; it is not on offer at a snack bar. It demands “long leisure and diligent search”.

1 It is necessary first to seek a right understanding of the social realities in which people live. These are the realities in which God has placed us and in which he calls us. They are not less vibrant with his presence than any other age; but to respond to that presence requires understanding and analysis.

The analysis is political and economic, but it also requires a sense of history, a recovery of memory. And it seeks, too, to understand the subtle forces which shape people’s attitudes and ideologies.

Such an analysis seeks to be non-judgemental but it is never unbiased. It has to be made from someone’s point of view. It has, indeed, to be made from the point of view of the poor, of those without power. We say this because familiarity with scripture reveals a God who sees society from the stance of the poor. It is their viewpoint and their story which is significant for society as a whole. But working towards such an analysis is clearly no easy task, because it is not the point of view, nor the story, of the poor which is normally recorded or which has access to the media. One only has to think whose story I/is normally told in the teaching of history.

2. Analysis calls for reflection and interpretation. The Word of God, Christian tradition and worship, provide models, symbols and a language of faith which reflect on and interpret reality. And indeed the other way round: it is experience of our own social realities which brings out the significance of scripture, tradition and worship.

We observe today deep divisions and suspicions in our churches between groups who take the first course of the meal (analysis) seriously but are uneasy about the second, and those who take the second course (reflection) and leave the first. This separation of analysis and reflection is fatal for each – if, that is, our mysterious God is one who chooses to be incarnate in history.

For reasons we look at later, it seems hard for Christians in Britain today to combine social realism and faith realism – harder than in other cultures such as Latin America or south Africa. But it is urgent that our churches do learn the art of bringing them together.

3. The third course of the meal of contextual theology is that of concrete decisions and options. These come from and lead to analysis and reflection. Action is not merely an accidental extra, because understanding and perception depend as much on concrete action as the other way round. One learns by doing, even if that doing is of its very nature partial and ambiguous.

We recall Paul urging the Romans to re-shape their whole lives in the light of their new awareness, so that they would then come to see the will of God. (Romans 12)

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NAMING THE POWERS

Words used in any language take their meaning partly from their definition, partly from their context, partly from the way in which they are being used. For example, the word ‘competition’ in itself means striving for something together; but it has come to be used to mean the opposite. Words have context and they have grammar.

So do people. The human person is not an autonomous self whose relationships are incidental and whose political setting is arbitrary. One is who one is, in one’s relationships and in one’s political structures. One knows oneself as personal, inter-personal and political, all at the same time. It is in all three that meaning and identity are received; in all three one is affirmed or denied. Any social analysis or theological reflection has to aim at taking all three seriously.

If we understand sin as everything in human affairs which blocks God’s will and the realisation of his kingdom, must we not also recognise sin at the personal, inter-personal and political level? If we recognise that God only reveals sin in the context of his determination to set human affairs free for the kingdom, must we not also recognise that grace and life and love are mediated at these levels also? In other words, the institutions and structures of politics are not dealing merely with the pragmatic necessities of life, they mediate (or destroy) life and grace and love and meaning itself. They are as divine and demonic, fallen and being redeemed, life-destroying and life-giving, as any other part of human existence.

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One of the most important roles of prophets in scripture is to insist on unmasking those structures and powers in society which hold dominion over people’s lives. They ‘name’ these powers, which are normally able to hold dominion, precisely because they go unquestioned, unnamed. Part of the reason why the poor remain poor, why those on the margins can never enter the main text of the story, is that the structures (and powers which make them) are assumed to be ‘the way things are’. They are the will of God.

In Britain today there is a deep-seated mythology about mass unemployment, housing conditions and powerlessness. It is a mythology which, for all the language of concern, is fatalistic in assuming that poverty is part of the nature of things, (and anyway, vaguely, somehow ‘their own fault’). But the prophets, and Jesus himself, refuse to accept such fatalism, because it not only destroys life but is a blasphemous distortion of ‘the will of God’. Unmasking these powers, dismantling them, is a crucial step towards liberation. Paul sees that the cross of Jesus dismantles and dethrones the powers, sovereignties and dominions.

This role of ‘naming the powers’ is of great importance in our churches. It is not that the powers are evil or that institutions destroy life, in themselves. It is rather the opposite; structures and powers should play such an important part in affirming people and giving a sense of meaning and identity, that it is crucial to get them right and to know them for what they are.

The gospel liberates by revealing God as God, and therefore every other power as relative. It is part of evangelism to bring under the scrutiny of faith those powers which act as God-substitutes in people’s lives.

We try here to ‘name’ two of the powers we have in mind.

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The first is that of “distant tigers roarin’.”

Social injustice happens less through conscious malice than through the physical and psychological distance between those who make decisions and those whose lives are affected by them. This distancing is certainly increasing in Liverpool at this present time. There is a deep sense that the crucial decisions which shape industrial, educational and civic life are taken by people at a great distance – by ‘them over there’. And that there is no foreseeable way in which ‘they’ will ever understand, or that ‘we’ shall ever be allowed entrée into such decision-making.

We anticipate that this sense of being fodder for distant tigers – or perhaps their embarrassing problem – will grow worse, especially in industry, because power and wealth become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and traditional mass industries give way to more capital-intensive ones.

Real poverty, of which financial poverty is both cause and effect, is the poverty of psychological alienation. It is that condition in which people are not at home to themselves, do not believe in themselves, believe it is actually their own fault. The victims are not only treated as culprits but suspect themselves somehow to be so.

Democracy is not about voting for national or local people every now and then, and then leaving them to sort things out. At the heart of democracy is the basic moral imperative that the people whose lives are affected by decisions should be involved in the processes which make those decisions. Many community initiatives, in local communities or industry, spring from this moral imperative. But they stand little chance of truly changing things unless the powers redefine their own roles, so as to enhance and energise and enable such local action. And we are not sure that the churches themselves have appreciated the full significance of these movements.

A second power that we name is that of the media.

Nowadays whenever we meet people from beyond Runcorn and say we are from Liverpool – ah yes! They know all about Liverpool. What they ‘know’ is a weird amalgam of Militant Tendency, Letter to Brezhnev, International Garden Festival, the Toxteth riots, and memories of the Beatles.

But then we ‘know’ about Northern Ireland, South Africa, Nicaragua and Handsworth, don’t we?

News certainly broadens the world in which people live. But it broadens not to a real appreciation of the normal daily lives of other people but of the abnormal, the sensational. That is the very nature of ‘the news’. It creates the impression that the action is everywhere other than at home –where home is the drab round of daily existence.

Perhaps we Christians have been guilty of the same, in our reading and presentation of scripture. We tend to present the creating and redeeming work of God as a succession of more or less dramatic interventions by God in the lives of more or less privileged people , Abraham, Moses, prophets, apostles; and this creates the impression that most people most of the time are insignificant, are there as infill.

There is a great need for a theology of the ordinary, of daily life as the locus of God’s grace. Young people in our city receive many of the images and symbols they live by, from television programmes. They come to live by vicarious experience and stimuli. It is hardly surprising if they do not have confidence in their own experience, if they do not have a self they feel is their own. Who can savour the creative secrets of daily life when Dallas and the A Team have become what ‘real life’ is all about?

This alienation of self is compounded by the constant bombardment of advertising. Advertising is precisely about creating ‘needs’ and keeping alive in people a sense of inadequacy. Its subtlety is to make people believe they are free to have or not to have, while at the same time operating a moral blackmail that leaves people totally unfree. It presents a very clear picture of what it is to be someone, to have arrived, to belong (from details of home life to car ownership and holidays abroad, etc.). This constant presentation of what one ought to have in order to be someone is one of the causes of mental illness, especially among those poor who can never aspire to such a lifestyle. But even short of breakdowns, we believe it is the cause of deep psychological alienation and not unconnected with violence.

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HOPE IS FOR REAL

A few years ago a priest living with peasant people in Lima, Peru, asked himself, honestly, why he was unable to celebrate life in the same spontaneous way the people did. Why did he, who had received so much by way of education and background benefits, not experience life with their immediate sense of gratitude and celebration?

It is a paradox of faith, he realised, that the people who never receive anything for nothing, celebrate everything to do with life as a gift. What he experienced in his life as his by right, they experienced as theirs by gift – gift from ‘the other’, that is, from God and from their community at the same time. They knew that these things were theirs by right, but experienced them as gifts; he knew (in his head) that they were gifts, yet experienced them (in his guts) as rights. They could celebrate, he could not, because one celebrates one’s experiences and not one’s knowledge.

In a similar way, when we have had with us in Liverpool people from El Salvador, South Africa, Nicaragua or the Philippines, people who have suffered deeply in the conflicts and killings of those countries, we have found in them an extraordinary sense of hope. And those of us who have experience in such countries have found the same hope and a remarkable integration of political social language with the language of gospel faith.

We find ourselves asking many questions.

Why is it not like that here? Why does the poverty of our city foster boredom and dampen hope?

Why does any mention of God or the gospel feel to most people like a flight into unreality, sentiment or make-believe?

Why, for instance, at meetings seeking to be tough-minded and serious about social realities is there a feeling that any hint of God-talk is escapist?

These are serious questions for our churches. A living faith, a real hope, and an ability to celebrate life and God together presuppose an experience of life as having its root source and its potential flowering beyond the immediate and obvious. But it is precisely that experience which has broken down; we find this breakdown in ourselves also.

It is not that Liverpool people lack a natural capacity to celebrate! It is rather that their celebration is more to do with coping and surviving than with authentic hope. And it certainly feels little rapport with what Christians do in church. For those of parent age, church is largely associated with memories of clan identity and fairly coercive loyalties; for the children, its largely irrelevant.

We find that many people, well-to-do or poor, envisage God as a distant, anxious spectator of human affairs – and as the intermittent cause of catastrophes; envisage Jesus as the dealer-out of a set of moral obligations; and envisage the Spirit as a mystical fantasy.

What we are asking, perhaps, is why in our oh-so-complex and clever western society are the realities of daily life experienced as self-contained and open to nothing beyond themselves?

One suggested answer is that western Europe, and Britain especially, spent two or three centuries treating human reason and science as capable of dealing with everything in life that is real. We now live in the last years of that arrogant pretension, but we inherit deep-seated assumptions that what is real and true and objective in life lies in the public domain of work, politics, finance, etc – whereas faith, religion and anything vaguely godly, is to do with private opinion, subjective taste and fantasy.

This dis-integration of experience shows itself in many different ways. Is it not the reason, for many Christians, why the language of faith does not speak to their financial pursuits? Is it not the reason why some would keep God-talk to the realm of ‘the spiritual’ and well out of the ‘realities’ of politics and economics?

But for the poor, certainly, it is a real factor why, in trying to come to terms with affliction, it is difficult to associate Christian belief with anything real and objective in their experience. If faith is subjective and private, then hope is wishful thinking. If life is not experienced as bonus and gift, as communal and shared, nor felt to spring from sources which transcend here-and-now experience, it will hardly be celebrated.

It may be our culture will not recover a sense that God is for real until what is now taken as real (science and economics) has proved even less capable of delivering its promises than at present. In other words, our culture may have to pass through a greater disillusionment and collapse before the good news can again be experienced as good. We hope and pray that it will not be so.

But our churches are surely being called to re-integrate life and faith, to get a feeling for the ‘secular’ as the locus of the sacred.

This re-integration will involve a certain redefinition of what it is to be church at all. Many people, inside and outside the churches, think of them as enclaves of the saved, enclaves which at least give the impression that human affairs outside their confines are indifferent to God. Are we not called to affirm the presence of God in all of people’s lives, to acknowledge and indeed to celebrate the creative and redeeming power of Christ wherever it is discernible? After all, we profess a God who creates all people in his image and likeness, and a Word of God who enlightens all people. Our role as churches is to be sacraments of this creative and redeeming God, communities of those who freely want to be living witnesses to ‘the one who stand in their midst, unrecognised’.

Although notionally we assent to this unfettered presence of God – of God who is always in situations before we get there – yet we confess to finding many of our churchly attitudes, actions and structures in fact belie it. We are humbled by Augustine’s comment: “God knows many whom the church knows not, and the church knows many whom God knows not”.

A broadening and deepening of our churches’ self-understanding along these lines will clearly involve a hunger for truth and compassion in every area of human life. It will be in sharp contrast to those movements and sects which are offering intense subjective security but are ignoring the public and social order as ‘merely secular’.

We would mention briefly one other reason why people find God-talk unrelated to the ‘real’ issues of their lives.

Urban life today is all but devoid of those natural symbols which have been the language of Christian faith. Life is cars and shops and streets and offices and factories and queues. In contrast our scriptural and liturgical language is mountains and fishing and harvesting and sheep with shepherds. These rural images are all known at one remove, and a romantic remove at that. (Sheep are not romantic to those who know them!)

Seasons are less to do with summer and winter than with routines of work, what’s in the shops, etc.

Even our basic symbols of bread and wine are distanced from daily life in a way which is quite foreign to earlier culture.

So can we evolve a theology of the city, both from experience of urban life and from scriptural models of the city? Can we come to the point of seeing computers, cars and clothes as sacraments of the divine as much as crops, clouds and cattle? Since the supreme symbol of the divine is people, not at all absent from urban life, can there be a deliberate move away from rural imagery, even that used by Jesus, towards that of the human person and human society?

We ask these as practical, not rhetorical questions.

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GOD-TALK : PEOPLE-TALK

One of the great insights running through Jewish and Christian scripture is that every social issue is theological. Since God is, in himself, unknowable in rational terms, he comes to be known and worshipped through his mediated presence in human affairs. The God whom we worship, in fact, is the God incarnate in our social affairs; and that God is often masked by the God we consciously profess in religion.

The God who creates all things good – and all people very good – and who reveals evil as flowing from the dis-orientation, the fallenness of all people, that God is incompatible with a social view that sees redemption as the outcome of a struggle between good and evil people, good nations and evil nations. Manichean social attitudes and policies imply a duel between a good God and an evil God – a pagan belief which Jewish-Christian faith finds blasphemous (especially if the outcome is held to be in doubt!).

The struggle between Moses and Pharaoh cannot be understood only as a political struggle for the independence of an oppressed people; it was a theological struggle between a God who is for people and their liberation, and Pharaoh’s gods whose functions were to maintain social structures in good order, come what may.

The precious belief in god who is One was and remains also a belief in people who are one. For Jews this central belief was in sharp contrast to the many gods of their pagan contemporaries, gods who made legitimate every existing social division and injustice.

The equally precious belief in God who is holy was and remains a belief in a God who will not be domesticated, as a department of state. This was in effect what happened under the sophisticated and bureaucratic regime introduced by Solomon. The liberating God became a God of the royal household, with no other function than to maintain processes of production and consumption and national security. The fact that such a social order depended on slavery and increasing deprivation of the poor of the land, was somehow forgotten in the God-talk of worship and theology.

We could trace similar social-theological equivalence throughout scripture. Let us, though, underline that it was precisely because of Jesus’ intimacy with, and understanding of, God brought him to an intense concern for people, that he came into such conflict with those who would confine God within religious categories, and therefore disdain all who could not be religious.

When Jesus kept warning that the law was made for people, not people for the law, he was socially and theologically unmasking the elites of his day.

The irony and anger of our God, who will not be domesticated forever, is that the interests and preoccupations of the well-to-do (but self-insulated) become their own enemies, their own un-doing. (Even so, when things fall apart, it is not likely to be seen in this way; we are usually ‘innocent victims of forces beyond our control’.)

It is often said that the depression of the 1930s brough far greater poverty than exists in our cities today. This may be true. But it is also true that in the 1930s people shared a collective hope, a cohesiveness, a ‘we’ determination. Today that has largely gone; the bonds of inter-dependence have somehow snapped. People dream of the big win, the break that will take them out of the common lot. ‘We’ hope has become ‘I’ hope.

This is partly the result of the psychological isolation we mentioned above. It is partly, too, the result of housing policies; for example box-like houses in new towns or vertical layers of flats do not need each other as terraced housing does.

But there is another factor we sense is very real.

Everyone builds up a sense of who they are, their sense of belonging, their identity, in the form of many symbols from many sources. These come partly from collective memory, partly from who they are being told they are. Today we are spoken to in a language wholly confined to economic prosperity. We are in real danger of seeing ourselves, of truly believing ourselves to be, no more than economic units. If that becomes a person’s basic self-image, can there be any ‘opening to the infinite’ in deepest appreciation of oneself? And of course, those who do not have easy access to other languages of self-interpretation are the most deeply affected. Is this not ‘death by bread alone’?

The same reduction of language to the narrowly economic sets up those who ‘make it’ as fully arrived human beings. We have to say that many of the assumptions of church life back jup this image. God becomes a God of white, Anglo-Saxon virtues, a God whose blessings are perceived in success, work and prosperity. For those who do not, cannot and probably never will ‘make it’, such a God will hardly be anything but a subtle condemnation of themselves.

Bumper cars go round and round and round, self-contained, autonomous vehicles needing each other only for competition and stimulus. For those who look up, the energy source is individually supplied, but the car can be driven more intensely by keeping eyes on the track and on the competition.

The tragedy of the poor is that they have the dominant western individualism thrust upon them. The notion that the human person is an autonomous self lies behind (though unperceived) much of our anguish today. Certainly, it is at the root of the more brutal aspects of new right’ economic theory.

It behoves our churches to challenge at the deepest level this heretical understanding of ourselves. To profess an incarnate God and a trinitarian God in whom relationships are real, is to profess that we belong to one another, as members one of another. The voice of the voiceless in our midst is God’s call, not for their salvation alone but for the body as a whole.

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WALKING IN WILDERNESS

“We trained very hard but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising and a wonderful means it can be for creating an illusion of progress while in fact producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation”

Thus wrote a Roman Consul (Gaius Petronius) centuries ago. But his words could be a warning to us all who are frankly bewildered.

Obviously it is urgent that policies in housing, in employment and in enabling people to find their own local power and vitality, are crucial. Obviously too there are certain organisational demands on our churches.

But it is impossible to avoid what the Spirit may be saying to the churches by placing too much energy and too much hope on organisation.

The mood in our city varies from place to place; it would be arrogant and naïve to give it a single name. Immense vitality intermingles with a deep sense of having been deserted. Cheerfulness and love of life intermingles with profound boredom and self-doubt. The apparent rational clarity of some leaders who claim to have answer-programmes clashes with the irrationality experienced in most lives and the potential violence latent in so many daily relations (within families, in local meetings, in parent-school relations, etc.) The over-all sense of meaninglessness is shared, at least in part, by those who seek to share, to understand, to ‘be with’.

Such bewilderment can be totally debilitating; but it can also be (as many great writers confirm from their own experience) the necessary period of positive waiting before a new language and new life can begin.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer perhaps voiced our contemporary Christian version of what Petronius said: “We are once again being driven right back to the beginnings of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, Cross and Resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship – all these are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and actions we suspect there may be something quite new and revolutionary though we cannot as yet grasp or express it … our church, which has been fighting only for its self -preservation, as if that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force; our being Christian today will be prayer and right action. All Christian thinking, speaking and organising will be born anew out of this prayer and action … Any attempt to help the church prematurely to a new expansion of its organisation will merely delay its conversion and purification.” (Letter to his friend, Eberhard Bethge)

Bonhoeffer wrote forty years ago, and in different circumstances. But surely part of our Christian bewilderment, our wilderness, is what he describes: that the language of our God-talk has somehow lost its power. It does not resonate with people’s experience.

Anyone who is close to people in our cities, especially to the young, knows how wide this gap is. Such people may also suffer a pang of longing to share a faith, a love, a meaning with people – a faith which has nurtured their own life – and yet find there is almost no way in which that faith can be expressed and shared, or even understood as relevant.

We are driven back to fundamental questions about how any of us ever come to appreciate God, to realise God’s grace in our lives, to be open to the infinite spaces of God’s love.

Faith is partly nurtured, celebrated and shared by the spoken word, by God-talk, however direct or indirect. But behind that articulated, spoken communication lies a complex world of experience, of family, social and civic life, of environment, of media, of … Most of that experience ‘speaks’ more at the level of symbols than words, of relations than ideas, of ‘story’ rather than statement.

Indeed, most communication is non-verbal; to expect the verbalisation of faith to make sense when the symbols and stories are indifferent or antagonistic to it, is to do violence both to the faith and the experience. Our dilemma is to do with pre-evangelisation, rather than evangelisation.

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We have already said that a scientific/technological way of thought treats our world (and ourselves) as a closed system. Anything is only of interest, perhaps is only real, if it can be formulated in technical language. And once so formulated, any problems are thought to be solveable within the system. Whatever realities cannot be talked about in its own technical terms are disregarded and thus come to be thought of as unreal or at least insignificant. Few scientists would go along with all that today, but the mentality persists and is in each of us to some extent.

In much the same way, urban life is experienced as closed rather than open, as self-sufficient rather than dependent on a wider and given world of reality. Its images, stories and symbols are those of human affairs in a setting of buildings, transport, shops, factories … Young people grow up with no symbols or images of dependency beyond the immediate limited experience of urban environment.

Clearly such experience does not reflect reality. A city is in fact itself a highly complex system of dependency on the world beyond itself. Everything that is bought or sold, everything that is manufactured, everything that is consumed, has come from the land (either on it or in it). Its water comes from, in our case, the Welsh hills, its air is constantly changed by the winds. And all it uses and disposes of, finishes up somewhere else.

But it does not feel like that. It feels as if food is supplied by the supermarket, water by the tap, petrol by the pump.

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Twenty years ago, the ‘death of God’ theologians were ushering in the secular city as the brave new world for Christian faith. At last we could throw off our childish dependency on natural symbols and our superstitious ideas about God. We would mature into Christian faith in a truly incarnate God, a God wholly embedded in human affairs. We would be free of needing any ‘sacred’ addition to ‘secular’ reality. At last: no distractions from human life itself as the embodiment of God. The God of ‘religion’ would be dead, in favour of the truly incarnate and crucified God of the secular city.

Twenty years on, this thesis sounds like a sick joke. What went wrong?

Is it not partly to do with what has just been said? That for most people, most of the time, faith is underpinned by an awareness if human life as part of, and dependent on, a natural order far greater than itself. Creation itself is the primary revelation of God. When socially and culturally a radical break with that created order happens, other revelations of God lose their context and meaning. To put it another way, the spoken Word of God presupposes the creating Word of God.

If daily life battles against an appreciation of life itself, and nature in all its diversity, as given, - if it battles against the experience of life as a story, as part of a greater story, which is both received in its origins and open in its conclusion – then the spoken Word of God will hardly resonate, will hardly call to repentance and celebration.

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When we affirm that human nature is in the image and likeness of God, we are affirming not only that every person participates in the nature of God, but also that the deep yearnings and hungers in human nature are ultimately satisfied only in union with God. Human nature is radically open to the infinite.

The ‘death of God’ expectation that the secular city would de-sacralise life and leave people with a neutral setting in which faith could be a mature personal commitment free of religious conviction, failed to understand human nature.

When the ‘story’ portrayed, and the ‘symbols’ displayed, both by the environment and by the media, become closed in on themselves – an endless round of human affairs seemingly sufficient in themselves – then that ‘story’ and those ‘symbols’ in fact become not neutral, but god-substitutes. They hold out alternative life, alternative salvation; these alternatives are plausible, immediate and endlessly disappointing.

(It is no accident that advertising offers instant substitute sacraments: “washes whiter than white”, “release the spirit”, etc. But the psychological processes by which a producer-consumer society reduces life, and God, to its own dimensions, and then promises the gift of life, is far more pervasive than advertising alone.)

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The de-sacralising, or ‘pseudo-sacralising’ of life is true of western society as a whole; but it as in many other matters is more acute in our cities. It is the truly bewildering scenario for our churches and it does not seem clear where, or in what forms, God will speak anew.

There are obvious dangers in such bewilderment of going after easy solutions. Perhaps abandoning any attempt at God-talk (as seeming pious or coercive), and losing ourselves in activity and ‘relevant’ schemes. Perhaps abandoning any serious reference to the realities of the secular city, and losing ourselves, either in one-dimensional evangelism (providing a haven of Christian slogans) or in churchiness (providing a haven of religious activity).

Perhaps the crucial and painful point is to recognise the need to live with the questions, to recognise that the apparent death of God is a desert experience, a time for alert waiting, for being present for and with people. A time for prophetic imagination, for naming and unmasking the powers that dominate people’s lives, for living out alternatives, subversive, non-conformist, creative alternatives. A time to live by promise, not by proof. A time for a determined process of action/reflection/prayer. A time when the God who comes is rediscovered within that process itself.

Paths are made by those who walk them.

Prophetic Trajectories of Hope from San Salvador to Liverpool: A Celebration of the ministries of Oscar Romero, Austin Smith, Tom Cullinan and Kevin Kelly.

 

A talk by David McLoughlin,
Emeritus Fellow of Christian Theology
Newman University 

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