Jul 29 2014

Sea of Faith Odyssey

Published by under Talks

Sea of Faith Odyssey
When I was a child growing up in a Brethren family living in a provincial NZ town the Bible was the ultimate and only guide for belief and practise. It was seen as the inerrant Word of God and the study of it was taken very seriously. Miracles were largely seen as literal historical events as was the creation story, Noah’s ark, and the physical return of Jesus ‘as a thief in the night’ to take the true Christians to heaven and leave all the sinners behind. God was a real entity with whom you could converse and Jesus was his sinless son. My abiding memories of church as a child was being forced to sit quietly for hours listening to how sinful I was and the need to be ‘saved’ reinforced with stories of Christ’s second coming and the glories of heaven contrasted with the eternal torments of hell and the ‘lake of fire’. It was always a relief to get up in the morning and find that my parents were still there. I would quite like now to have a word or two with those preachers as such fears and scars take a long time to go away. Interestingly, even at this early stage doubts about the truth of such teaching were beginning with thoughts as – ‘It seems hard to believe that the queen is going to hell but she can’t be saved – she is Anglican and not a real Christian’.
School life was again influenced by the views of my parents and while it was certainly not an unhappy time things such as not being permitted to attend social activities such as school dances and formals and a tight restriction on Sunday activities tended to separate you from your peers. This idea of separation I suspect came from Paul’s admonition to ‘Come out from among them and be ye separate…’. Your peers were of course all going to hell if the church’s teaching was to be believed.
Unfortunately unless you could claim to have had some form of conversion experience you were also in the same boat and this feeling of exclusion and sinfulness was reinforced by the seating arrangements at the weekly communion service. This focussed on a table holding bread and wine with the seating for those accepted into the fellowship (the ‘saved’) arranged around it and with seating for the sinners at the back. Having a number of unsupervised and ‘sinful’ children and young people in the back rows was of course not a clever idea and there were often painful repercussions later for misbehaving during this time. My father held the biblical view that to spare the rod was to spoil the child and he was not going to have spoilt children.
To offset to some extent this social deprivation there was school Crusaders and a Youth for Christ group which both had an enthusiastic following and which I enjoyed and participated in. It was really nice to be part of a group with commonly held beliefs and the feeling of solidarity that goes with that especially if the group is seen as being slightly different.
Moving to the city at the start of an engineering career and having no connections other than Brethren ones it was logical that I continued my association and this time with a more open Assembly. This turned out to be a very generous and friendly community with a vibrant youth group and subsequently a very supportive ‘young marrieds’ group and over the years I became fully involved in the various activities. My wife and I met and were married there, I ran the Every Boys Rally for several years, played the organ, taught bible class, sat on the deacons court and was an elder for a number of years. Little by little however the disconnect between what was understood to be inspired truth and what I was reading from other sources started to become an issue and I took the view that since this was my church I had the right to express my increasingly liberal views on such things as evolution, virgin births and the interpretation of scripture even if these differed from what others thought. This latter period proved extremely stressful as there were so few people with whom you could discuss such things without being accused of ‘causing your brother to stumble’. There was also the associated imagery of drowning with a millstone around your neck. This growing divide was compounded by my discovery of a liberal church bookshop and being introduced to the writings of Lloyd Geering and others who were free in their criticism of a fundamentalist view of scripture and who promoted a non-realist understanding of god. This was exciting and liberating because here were people openly saying things which made so much sense but were at odds with what was considered to be the ‘truth’. In addition to this was Lloyd’s formation of a local Sea of Faith group and my enthusiastic involvement. Here was a group of people who discussed a wide range of theological and ethical issues freely and honestly and I felt at long last to be in a place where I could be truthful to myself. It was great.
Unfortunately this didn’t make for a comfortable existence at the Assembly and their concern over maintaining correct teaching led to a revision of their Statement of Faith reinforcing its very conservative bias to which I could not conform. This led to my wife and me taking leave of them and joining with our local suburban co-operating parish church.
This period was special in lots of ways as it was a community church with a warm heart and a spectrum of theological views with the Bible seen by most as being interesting rather than the inerrant Word of God. We were fortunate also to have outstanding Presbyterian and Methodist ministers who allowed room for differing views although the need to continually translate personal god talk into a much broader understanding of what the god idea could be was often a struggle. However the involvement with music, the youth group, the shared meals, the fundraising and the numerous social occasions made the effort worthwhile and was a very enjoyable few years. Unfortunately small community churches were on the decline and eventually it closed with most members moving to a variety of city churches depending on their personal preferences.
I have to confess that while I no longer agreed with much of what was traditionally believed and had embraced a non-realist understanding of god, being part of a community which made time for a weekly meeting with teaching, liturgy and music (worship if you prefer) was something I was reluctant to give away. So we still have an association with a large city church with exceptional music, a magnificent building and a kind and generous membership. Translating god talk is however ongoing.
It is clear to me now in the latter stage of life that there is no evidence for a realist personal god who can be interacted with or who interferes in any way with the events of life but it is also my experience that such beliefs are able to underpin generous and loving communities. The danger of course is that the stories and myths of our sacred texts are seen as literal truth rather than simply being the bearer of truth and that our personal beliefs come to be seen as God given truths to be defended with rules and dogma and which can easily slide into extremist ideologies.
So for me today an authentic world view should be based on reality with our mythologies seen simply for what they are. To find a coherent way of seeing life in the context of millions of years of biological evolution, to sense our place in this vast universe, and to marvel at the immense complexity of life and this collection of cells and chemicals and stuff which comprise me – this is my on-going odyssey.
Andrew Meek . October 2014

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