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LIVING BELIEF: Being Christian, Being Human – John Barton

October 19, 2017

I’ve always thought that there’s something iffy about talk of ‘God’s plan’ for ones life. This book gives me reasons for thinking thus and it derives from addresses given first to clergy or those preparing to be clergy.

Many of its ideas were first tested with congregations with whom he has preached. But also, and more tellingly, because the book is in a sense a warning to clergy and the over-religious more generally of the perils of defining beliefs, and of thinking that if you have done that, all is well.

All Christians are committed to certain ‘credal’ beliefs about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, etc. But there are other beliefs that actually influence many people more which are not in any creed: beliefs about the sense made by human suffering in relation to the sufferings of Christ, about God’s plan for our lives, about how we minister to others, and about the place of sorrow and joy in the Christian life. Much of what is believed on such matters depends on differences of temperament, and on the style of Christian living encouraged in different churches, whether Protestant or Catholic. Christians can understand each other better by reflecting on such differences and by remembering that being Christian is a way of being human, and therefore allows for diversity of life style and psychological make-up., Explores some of the beliefs Christians have which, while not in any creeds, actually guide their lives. All Christians are committed to certain ‘credal’ beliefs about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, etc. But there are other beliefs that actually influence many people more which are not in any creed: beliefs about the sense made by human suffering in relation to the sufferings of Christ, about God’s plan for our lives, about how we minister to others, and about the place of sorrow and joy in the Christian life. Much of what is believed on such matters depends on differences of temperament, and on the style of Christian living encouraged in different churches, whether Protestant or Catholic. Christians can understand each other better by reflecting on such differences and by remembering that being Christian is a way of being human, and therefore allows for diversity of life style and psychological make-up.

The book has eight short chapters exploring four areas of this: Suffering with Christ; a divine plan for life; ministering to others; and Joy. The first chapter in each case starts from what has been received from scripture and the Christian tradition, whilst the second is more focussed on working with that and making some sense of it today. Barton is well read, and draws on a rich vein of literary resources, but he also writes movingly and illuminatingly of people he knows. He can be sharp about the harm well-meaning religious people so often cause. Wendy, a hairdresser who suffers from depression, says “that the majority of comments made to her by religious people made the depression rather worse. Some diagnose her problem as a lack of trust in God, and this simply endorses one of the elements in her own distorted thinking and helps her to feel she doesn’t deserve to get better… The idea that she was sharing Christ’s sufferings struck her as pretty incomprehensible, but she could get somewhere with the idea that everyone has a cross to bear, including Jesus, including herself, perhaps even including God, whatever that could possibly mean.”

Barton is suspicious of naïve statements about meaning, and the whole idea of ‘the meaning of life’. He stands with Freud rather than Jung, so beloved by many Christians. “The healthy person, for Freud, is not someone who has pondered the question of meaning and won through to a correct interpretation of the world, but someone who finds such satisfaction and meaningfulness in their daily life that such agonised questions do not arise in their mind in the first place.”

Quotations:

Strangely enough, “the beliefs to which the creeds bear witness are not always the beliefs by which Christians actually live from day to day…. On the other hand, there are many beliefs that animate the much Christian life but are not found in the creeds at all. For many Christians the heart of their faith is to do with making sense of the world, relating to the Christ known in prayer and action, living constructively with others, fostering certain kinds of attitude and relationship.

Perhaps the most obvious passage in the Bible that appears to deal with the idea of a divine plan behind events is Ecclesiastes 3.1-8, the famous poem about there being ‘a time’ for everything:

This evocative passage, rather like Psalm 23, seems to speak to people at all times in their lives, so that I have heard it read both at weddings and at funerals. Its exact meaning is rather elusive, which is why it is so versatile. One way of understanding it is as a great affirmation of the recurring cycles in nature and in human life. Certain kinds of events and opportunities come round in their sequence. This affirmation of the regular order of things is felt by most people to be good news. It encourages patience and fortitude, based on the knowledge that in God’s good time all will be for the best.

On the other hand the passage can also be read as a comment on the pointlessness of human activity, and this seems to be endorsed by the final verse (v. 9), which is never read when it is used at rites of passage: ‘What gain have the workers from their toil?’ Everything comes round on its appointed path, and all the work you do makes not one whit of difference to it. This is specially plausible if we think, as some commentators do, that the passage had an earlier existence as a poem about the cycles of nature but has been incorporated into Ecclesiastes’ pessimistic book precisely by the addition of that final verse. People who use it at a wedding would then be in tune with the passage’s original, pre-Ecclesiastes meaning, but would be turning their eyes away from the fatalistic, bored attitude that the author or compiler of the finished book wanted to see in it. On this reading the passage buoys us up and makes us feel good about the world and God’s ordering of it, only to let us down with a great bump at the end when we realize that these orders in nature go on their way without our being able to influence them in the slightest. This is very much the usual way of thinking in Ecclesiastes, and it may well be that this is how we are meant to read the passage in its final form.

Optimism and pessimism, however, are not the only two possibilities in the interpretation of Ecclesiastes. I should like here to introduce an interpretation by a German theologian, Gerhard Sauter. In his book The Question of Meaning, Sauter tries to show that the pattern of events described in Ecclesiastes is far from being deterministic or pre-planned. It neither rejoices that God fixes everything in advance, nor complains that he does so; it does not believe in a divine plan in that sense at all:

With these pairs of opposites Qoheleth [the Hebrew name for the author of the book] encompasses human life from its beginning — entry into the world — to its end, death. Thus he is not concerned only with the opportunities for decision on which every action depends. Equally, he is not saying that everything that happens is determined, in such a way that one can only accept it as fate. Granted that birth and death are not a matter of decision, planting and weeding are tied to the annual cycle, and the outbreak of war or the conclusion of a peace may well have struck those who belonged to a little nation that had become the plaything of the great powers as blows of fate, beyond their power to alter; still much else, many day-to-day events, were still subject to human choice — and yet at the same time determined.’

He goes on to argue that even the activities listed which are genuinely free nevertheless subject those who do them to the constraint that in doing them, their opposite ­which they might also want to do — is excluded.

Our world — the world of our experience and our action — consists of mutually exclusive opposites. In every action and in every experience the opposite of what gives it its meaning is logically excluded.

Thus, where many commentators see this passage as essen­tially an expression of ‘theological determinism’, Sauter prefers to understand it — surely more profoundly — as a reflection on the finite and contingent nature of human existence. One choice always excludes another, and time does not return for us to have a second attempt at making our lives. If there is ‘a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing’, or ‘a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted’ (3.5, 2), that is not because God fixes the destiny of each thing and controls each of our activities — so that our apparent freedom is a deception, and we are moved around like pieces on a cosmic chessboard. On the contrary, our choices are real choices; but they are subject to the constraint of linearity. tither planting or pulling up may be appropriate at any given moment, but we cannot have both, and the ‘cannot’ here is logical: no one, not even God, can do opposite things at the same time. To know the proper time is to discern which way our choices should be made, a task that requires all our skill and all the wisdom God can give us. It is not a matter of supine fatalism.

Thus Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament book that seems to many to teach a deterministic theology, is perhaps really the best source of insight into that creative use of contingency which is the heart of God’s own activity, and the greatest challenge to ours; for he is the great improviser, who is never defeated by any situation and can always bring good out of evil. The challenge to us is to do the same.

But the trouble is that if we take seriously this observed reality, whereby we can only act in a linear way in the light of all past actions, then to have a very high doctrine of God’s plan for us means that, with the best of intentions, our life can go completely and disastrously wrong because of one false choice. Whereas if the will of God for us is, rather, that we should make good and wise choices out of a large range of possible options, many of which are perfectly good in themselves, then we can be more relaxed about the whole pattern of our lives. We may make less than ideal choices, but so long as we are not making sinful ones, there is nothing with which to reproach ourselves. We shall not have failed to do the single thing God wanted us to do, because there was no such single thing: he gave us a range of options among which we chose freely. If we think of God as having one, and only one, pattern for our life that he wants us to follow, then there is in each situation only one good choice, and all the others are wrong: to misjudge what is the will of God for us today is potentially to throw away our whole life. This is why I said at the end of the last chapter that a strong sense of vocation can impart a great energy to the tasks we do in fulfilment of it, but can also result in a downgrading of all other activ­ities. They become either neutral and of no interest to God, or (more likely) they are seen as tainted with sin because they do not contribute to the fulfilment of the one thing he wants us to do. That way lies a lot of unhap­piness, not to say despair, if we think we have missed our vocation. We have all known people in the grip of a single great mission which may have been admirable in itself, but led them to neglect ordinary human relationships

this desire to discover ‘the meaning of life’ amounts, Sauter argues, to a desire for self-justification. Christians are not sent on a quest for life’s meaning. ‘Meaning’ in that sense lies beyond human sight, and is a secret that lives only with God. The danger is that in looking into the distance to discover it we shall overlook the present demands — and the present promises — of God, which lie before us. God himself, as the Old Testament hints, does not always act `meaningfully’, if that implies ‘according to a plan’. He does not have a fixed schedule of events that he contrives to bring about. For God works in partnership with his creatures, and their ability to change the course of events by their free choices is not an illusion. God is infinitely resourceful, not infinitely in control. How a mere created being can share in shaping God’s designs for the world is utterly mysterious

You can download it from here

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