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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!

faithful betrayal...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


Pete Rollins was at Blah Manchester last night, with the clever title
'Faithful Betrayals: the ir/religious nature of Christianity'. The gist of his argument, and the point I found most valuable, was to suggest that revelation, far from being something that ties up all the loose ends and clarifies belief, actually 'ruptures' our understanding of God. Through revelation we glimpse God in a new light and are overwhelmed with him, such that we realise the limits of our understanding and become open to our present frameworks being challenged, even destroyed. In a wonderfully quotable phrase, Pete argued that revelation is not the opposite of concealment but is "the encounter with the unknown God who remains unknown in the knowing."

In the discussion afterwards, Jonny helpfully raised the example of Peter's vision in Acts 10, where in the dream of unkosher food on the heavenly table-cloth (!) God literally told Peter to disobey the Word of God! Eating this 'unclean' meat was contrary to the Hebrew Scriptures and to all Peter had been raised to believe and do. In this act of revelation, Peter's religious framework was being blown apart.

The vital question in all this, though, is how do we know a genuine revelation of God when we see/hear/sense one? There is a danger in all this that faith could simply become individualistic, and that we could justify any belief and practice by claiming 'revelation'. So, is Scripture somehow a normative revelation that stands as the benchmark for future revelation? And even if it is, how can we be sure that our reading of it is correct? Far better perhaps to recognise our place in the worldwide and historic community of the faithful, and weigh revelation in relationship with others.

But Peter even stepped outside of this - he took a unilateral risk and followed the prompting of the Spirit even though it meant betraying his beliefs and his faith community. Fortunately for him, the validity of his risk-taking was affirmed when he met Cornelius and his household and witnessed the Spirit of God at work there.

All of this reminds me of a question that was asked at a panel discussion I was chairing in Liverpool City Centre a couple of years ago. The question was about 'blind spots' in our faith. Next year marks the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade and Liverpool is gearing up to appropriately commemorate this as a city whose wealth was largely built on the back of this abhorrent trade. But we know that prior to this, Christians actually justified slavery using Scripture - they even thought that Scripture promoted it. As we look back 200 years later, we wonder how on earth such a reading could have been held; how could Christians have justified such barbarity?

And so the question stands for us today... How are we reading and interpreting Scripture and our faith in ways that future generations of Christians will look back on with disbelief and shame? What new revelations will God send our way that will rupture our current faith understanding, maybe even leading us to betray our previously held faith in order to remain faithful, and lead us closer to the heart of God?

update... take a look at Jonny Baker's post on the same 'here', Mark Berry 'here', Fat Roland (Sanctus 1) 'here', and Lou Davis 'here'

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:46 AM

5 Comments:

Malcolm, I wonder how Tom Wright would engage with Pete's thinking - do Pete's reflections effectively affirm and therefore help us deepen our understanding of the significance of, and need for, Wright's "faithful improvisation" within the "fifth act” of God's unfolding drama? I imagine “faithful improvisation” and risky “abandonment” to something bigger (than we can grasp or imagine) could readily include Pete’s “faithful betrayals.”

Seems to me that in "faithful improvisation," re-improvisation resulting from praxis , and in “faithful abandonment” we draw our ‘inspiration,’ our characterisation and acting-out from: Spirit-"revelation" (including the dis-ruptive Spirit), Scripture, Reason, Tradition; all from within the needful and the faith(ful) community. I think this is partly a response to your question: "how do we know a genuine revelation of God when we see/hear/sense one?"

I don't think we can underestimate the role of the Spirit (I’m thinking here particularly of Romans 8 and Galatians 5)

Personally, for me this "faithful improvisation," this Spirit-responsiveness is underpinned by practices such as St Ignatius' EXAMEN, and other corporate practices of discernment which necessitate listening "inside and outside of the fences"...A discerning that will need to listen for both affirmation and rupture (the God of Suprises!)

As churches we will need to listen for the uncomfortable, radical rupture of genuine critique (e.g. Paul’s critique of Peter, or the Cornelius / Peter encounter) both from within and without; critique that unsettles us, challenges us and invites us to think and act again beyond ourselves, our unknowing; beyond the familiar, the assumption, and the smallness.

I sense that Pete could be a helpful guide in this improvisation.

Malcolm, sorry for going on. I appreciated the "stimulus" that your post provided, and the opportunity to express something of my reaction as a “comment.”

commented by Blogger Paul Fromont, 2:46 AM  

Paul, these comments are really helpful - thanks for taking the time to post them. I think there is a definite parallel between Pete's 'faithful betrayals'and Tom Wright's 'faithful improvisation'. I guess the term 'betrayal' is somewhat more provocative, however, but it does communicate something of the dynamic developing faith journey and understanding. I think it's a helpful concept because it causes us to think carefully about what we might be 'betraying' - if it is our own limited understanding and appreciation of God (even if it is and has been shared by others in the Christian community) then we are able to continue to journey with the expectation that, in relationship with him, God will continue to surprise us.

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 8:04 PM  

"The question was about 'blind spots' in our faith."

More and more I'm loving the fact that it's okay - in fact impossible not - to have 'blind spots' in my faith.

Two natural blind spots that God has give us are:
1. Forward facing eyes
2. Consciousness that runs parallel with subconsciousness but cannot address it directly (Malcolm 'Tipping Point' Gladwell's new book, 'Blink', deals with this).
Therefore it doesn't surprise me that we should have supernatural blind spots too!

It occurs to me that the apophatic tradition - which Pete Rollins' quote about the unknown God sums up admirably - confronts the issue of blind spots in faith and concludes not only that they exist but that by piercing such 'clouds of unknowing' directly we meet God in person. (And the blind spot of the apophatic tradition is often that it doesn't perceive that God can also be met in the full light of 'knowing'....).

You ask: "What new revelations will God send our way that will rupture our current faith understanding, maybe even leading us to betray our previously held faith in order to remain faithful, and lead us closer to the heart of God?"

Let me cut to the chase and answer the question directly. God will reveal that:
1. The Church is not necessary to His revelation.
2. The Bible is not necessary either.
3. Even Jesus was/is not necessary.
Pierce these blind spots and the Church begins to get somewhere.

(And of course, from the blind spot from which I have written the last paragraph, I fail to see that, paradoxically, the Church, the Bible and Jesus are all absolutely necessary in the full evangelical sense of the word to God's continuing revelation.)

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 12:41 PM  

Steve - wow!

Thanks for this comment - not even Pete Rollins was this provocative! My gut reaction to your three 'blind spots' was a simple 'amen' to your first (perhaps unsurprisingly), a cautious 'amen' to your second (for reasons I've described in previous posts), but a fairly strong 'what?!' to your third.

I think if we reduce the term 'necessary' to it's natural conclusion, then we could naturally say that for God nothing is 'necessary'. However, it seems to me that in the act of revelation, God willingly puts certain restrictions upon himself. And so, to return to a theme you wrote about in response to one of my earlier posts, 'God is love' is a self-revelation of God. The fact that God cannot act unlovingly is a restriction he (I use 'he' for convenience) has willingly placed on himself, even though we may not always understand or recognise the difference between a loving and an unloving act. Indeed, our understanding of love is limited and further revelation from God will tend to rupture that understanding too.

If this is the case, then while we might philosophically be able to argue that 'Jesus was/is not necessary', it seems that the revelation of 'the Word made flesh' reframes this, even ruptures this, to cause us to now see that Jesus is fundamentally 'necessary'. Revelation does offer us the benefit of hindsight after the revelation has taken place, and we should not be afraid of this benefit.

The key I guess is to allow God to lead us to a greater understanding of 'necessary for what?'

This is an 'off the top of my head' response to your comments and so may not engage fully with what you've written, so feel free to come back on me. I did very much appreciate your comment "More and more I'm loving the fact that it's okay - in fact impossible not - to have 'blind spots' in my faith" as this resonates with me. The unknowing is part and parcel of the excitment of the journey of faith.

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 1:54 PM  

"My gut reaction to your three 'blind spots' was a simple 'amen' to your first (perhaps unsurprisingly), a cautious 'amen' to your second (for reasons I've described in previous posts), but a fairly strong 'what?!' to your third."

I thought it might be!

I've been (justly) accused of playing with words in the past - to which, as an English graduate, I'd have to say, that's the point: it's what I know. I hope that the final paragraph in my previous comment indicates that I am very aware there is a paradox when I state baldly that 'Even Jesus was/is not necessary.'

I also think that you frame and resolve the nature of the paradox very elegantly when you say:
"while we might philosophically be able to argue that 'Jesus was/is not necessary', it seems that the revelation of 'the Word made flesh' reframes this, even ruptures this, to cause us to now see that Jesus is fundamentally 'necessary'. Revelation does offer us the benefit of hindsight after the revelation has taken place, and we should not be afraid of this benefit."

And yet...and yet...:

To say that Jesus isn't necessary doesn't itself mean that he didn't live, die and rise again, or indeed be who he is from the beginning. And perhaps we begin to get to the heart of the nature of God's Love, the depth of Jesus' sacrifice, if we at least explore the possibility that what He did/was/is has been unnecessary.

I won't marshall a long argument here, except to point out that it is surely the essence of a Gift to be unnecessary. That's why we feel uncomfortable handing out wedding lists! Or, to argue from the nature of Love - if all things are possible, and if Love is infinitely giving, then surely there was a way around our intransigency without recourse to the death of a Son. Way back in Genesis God hints that this might be the case: 'The Lord said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." (Gen 11; 6,7 NIV) (Good example, by the way, of God doing something loving which appears at first sight to be unloving.)

The challenge is then to find examples in the Gospels where Jesus might be demonstrating that He knows He is unnecessary. How about these from Matthew:
1. 14:20 - 12 baskets of 'unnecessary' bread. Shortly followed by:
2. 14:22-25 - Jesus staying behind disciples in stormy weather, thereby demonstrating his presence is not necessary for the fishermen to cross the sea safely (Question occurs: Can you even do a miracle if you believe it to be necessary? Perhaps that's why there are so few nowadays).
3. 26:36-44 - Gethsemane. Jesus 'unnecessarily' praying three times despite already admitting many times (16:21) that he is to die.
The last example, especially, is deeply complicated by the presence of sadness and immanent death. I hesitated to include it, save that it perhaps shows how a Christian culture which argues for the necessity of Jesus' actions has correlated suffering with necessity, though the 'event' can be interpreted differently.
4. 26:14 - Finally, the poignancy of Judas' betrayal of a Man who didn't even need to be there.

If part of Jesus' revelation is His lack of necessity, what might that mean for those of us called to follow him?

First that there are good grounds for claiming Church and Bible aren't necessary! Adherence to one particular interpretation of the Bible is no longer necessarily a bar to those who interpret it another way (or cannot trust it at all). And the Church can actually celebrate being unnecessary rather than worrying about it!

Second that we are freed from the need constantly to discern a reason why we are necessary for our fellow men and women before we act. We're not necessary! We're the added bonus in their lives - as they are in ours! Here's the quote: 'Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." (Isaiah 30:21). In other words, it doesn't matter which way you choose to go - it's a good way. The ultimate responsibility is not ours, it's God's.

I believe that this amount of freedom scares many people, even those who possess it already. So they look for reasons not to exercise it. One of the most convincing is 'God wouldn't want me to go there: I'm too necessary here.' Or 'Before I take the risk, I need to check whether it's actually necessary'. We forget that we are ultimately driven by Love, whether 'broken pots' or not (I'm aware I'm using an evangelical catchphrase here - but I reckon I can get away with it). That's not necessarily universalism, by the way.

There's of course a whole other comment I could make arguing for the absolute necessity of Jesus, backed up by scripture, but the Church has been making that argument for much of the past 2000 years, so I don't feel the need to!

Now, Emerging Church, really let your imagination run riot!

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 7:09 PM  

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