The stalking God

Rebecca de Saintonge, 2nd May 2016 4 comments

We’ve made a monster out of God and caused generations of pain to the human race with an over-emphasis on ‘sin’. But a new breed of theologians is re-interpreting scripture in an exciting and liberating way, as Rebecca de Saintonge discovered.

Sometimes I feel we’ve turned God into a huge cardboard cut-out – like those life-size images outside B&Q of Alan Titchmarsh. Have you noticed how the eyes follow you around wherever you go? Watching. Watching. Watching. There’s no escape. It’s like being stalked. That’s a bit what we’ve made of God. Spying on us. Analysing our every move. Good? Bad? Faithful? Unfaithful?

When I say ‘we’, I mean the established church, especially the Western church, whose emphasis from the earliest centuries has been on the basic ‘sinfulness’ of mankind that separates us from a God ‘out there’ who needs our perfection before we can experience his presence.

Insulting the human race

Actually, we may be complex, but we are not inherently sinful, and God is not ‘out there’ – but I only learnt this after many years in the spiritual wilderness.

I looked after my husband Jack for ten years as he battled with the physical and mental deterioration of Lewy Body Dementia. As I watched the grace with which he bore his suffering, and as we connected with the suffering of others, I was moved by the sheer courage of the human race.

After his death I struggled with the teachings I’d been brought up with, in particular with this idea that we are ‘born sinners’. It seemed an insult to the human race. The whole business of atonement theology I found frankly offensive. Who was this ‘god of love’ who demanded human sacrifice to make us fit for his presence? Was this god fit for our presence, as we battled with life? So it was a liberation for me to come across writers like Richard Rohr who pointed out that, if we are made ‘in the image of God’, our original state is grace, not ‘sin’.

“This image of an offended, even angry divine parent who then ‘lovingly’ calls for the death of his own son…our sins having to be washed away in the blood of Jesus, may have spoken to the cultural context of the early Christian community…But for me, if this is what the divine mystery we call God really is, it’s a mystery that repulses, rather than embraces.” – Paul Knitter

Redirecting our gaze

So if we believe Christ did not ‘die for our sins’ – that such an image of ‘God’ is incompatible with the notion of the extravagant, all-encompassing, unconditional love we see reflected in, for example, the parable of the prodigal son – what do we learn from his life and teaching?

It was Marcus Borg who first helped me to look at the life of Christ in a new way. Instead of focusing on the death of Christ – which we do, obsessively – we should look more closely at what his life revealed. And the main message to take from his life, says Borg, is that the material world and the spiritual world are not separate. From very early on in our Christian tradition we have separated the spiritual from the so-called ‘non-spiritual’. This, says Borg, is the dualism the life and teachings of Christ revealed as false.

God in our DNA

The traditional image of a judgemental God ( even if you interpret that as a ‘lovingly judgemental’ God ) implies a ‘God out there’, looking in on us from the outside, seeing if we tick the right boxes. It implies a separation, a barrier between human nature and the divine. But Borg and Richard Rohr, among others, argue that we are not separated from God, we never were, and never could be. As beings made in the image and likeness of God, God is within us, not ‘out there’. And this ‘God within’ is not dependent on our being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘faithful’ or ‘unfaithful’. ‘God within’ is simply our natural state, as human beings. ‘God,’ says Rohr, ‘is part of our DNA’. The spirit indwells the material, in us, in all that is created.

‘God within’ is not a new truth. The mystics have always known it. Teresa of Avila talked about ‘a consciousness of the presence of God, of such a kind, that I could not possibly doubt that He was within me or that I was wholly engulfed in Him.’

So, says Borg, Christ showed us, by the way he lived his life, how we could more perfectly fulfill our human nature by connecting with the God within.

I find this exciting. Liberating.

Time for the church to rethink its teaching

But I am also terribly angry. I am angry about the awful distortion of both divine love and humankind that we have inherited down the ages from generations of theologians who have turned our loving creator into a judgmental monster. It’s a distortion that has crippled the human race with grief and guilt, and made the liberating, inclusive, healing Christian message something utterly destructive for so many. No wonder the 21st century rejects it all.

“For most of human history God was not a likable much less a lovable character. ‘Do not be afraid’ is the most common one-liner in the Bible. Why? Because people have always been afraid of God – and afraid of themselves as a result.” – Richard Rohr

Of course different cultures in different societies interpret spiritual truth in relation to the times in which they live. As Rohr says, ‘God does not change, but our understanding of God matures’. Is it not time then, for our churches to begin to re-interpret scripture, replacing the literal with the symbolic? For those who are sustained with things as they are now that is fine, but what about those of us who need to find a new way of thinking about spiritual reality. Where do we begin?

The purpose of this site

Perhaps we start with those who have trodden the path before us. Our hope is that this website will put those who are interested in touch with some of the liberating thinking that is already spreading worldwide – even though it might not have reached quite as far as the pulpits – or at least, not many.

Most of the people contributing to this site have, in one way or another, travelled that dark night of soul where doubt has eroded belief. Clergy and laity alike, they have gone through the often painful business of reassessing their faith and trying to find a new way to understand the relationship between humankind and the divine. On the way I, like many of them, have been helped by a new breed of theologians and teachers who have opened our eyes to new interpretations of the faith and reconnected to the mysticism of the early Eastern church.

My hope is that this website will be a place where we can get in touch with some of these ideas, where we can exchange doubts, hopes and new insights, with freedom, and without hesitation.

Please join in. Feel free to respond, either directly on the website, or by email. You can reach us at info@lifelinespress.co.uk

About the author

Rebecca de Saintonge is a journalist and biographer, author of ‘One Yellow Door‘ and co-founder of LifeLines Press. She left the Anglican church some years ago and is now a Quaker.

References and attributions

Books mentioned in this post

Cartoon: David Hayward founder of The Lasting Supper

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Responses

  • William Johnson, 10th May 2016

    I think this site – and the discussions on it – could prove very useful for Christians
    struggling with conventional theology.

    I was raised in the Church and tried for many years to embrace its teachings.
    But, no matter how hard I tried, I could not make sense of what I was being
    told. On a rational, intellectual level, the teachings felt increasingly like
    outlandish fairy stories. On an emotional, spiritual level, all the things I dutifully
    did because the Church told me they would bring me closer to Jesus left me
    cold. And, in my darkest hours, as I went through my own periods of grief and
    suffering, I felt a distinct absence of anything that felt like the presence of God.

    Now I feel a mixture of incredulity and envy when people talk so confidently
    about who or what God is, what s/he expects from us, what s/he wants us to
    believe. How can they possibly know?

    I am at a point where I’m happy just to say: “I don’t know.” It’s all a mystery.
    And only if I observe – very quietly and very attentively – can I see something
    divine in this mystery.

    When you turn from conventional religion, it can feel like a lonely path. So it’s
    great to have projects like this – to connect people on a similar journey.

  • Rebecca de Saintonge, 2nd Jun 2016

    I’ve just written a piece for The Times faith page about an amazing
    young woman, Natalie Esther, who last year started a charity for victims of
    child sexual abuse – SOSAA. She told me about her first understanding of
    who God was. This is a quote from the article, and illustrates why I
    personally get so upset with the theology we have inherited, and which
    so wickedly distorts the love of God,damaging our relationship with the
    divine and hurting humankind.

    Natalie’s first experience of God had not been good. Fostered as a baby,
    she was later adopted by a dysfunctional family who began their
    sexual abuse when she was just a few years old. By the time she was nine
    she had begun a series of attempts to take her life.

    “I knew God existed, but I thought he was just this big thing in the sky
    who sees everything, and if you’re naughty, you got into trouble. So
    when I was about seven I began writing to him and asking why he was
    so angry with me. I thought, because of all that was happening to me, that
    I was always disappointing him.”

    Natalie has now left the church, found a more personal and authentic
    faith in God, and started this amazing charity – SOSAA – Survivors
    of Sexual Abuse Anon.

  • Rich Lewis, 7th Jun 2016

    As beings made in the image and likeness of God, God is within us, not ‘out
    there’. And this ‘God within’ is not dependent on our being ‘good’ or ‘bad’,
    ‘faithful’ or ‘unfaithful’. ‘God within’ is simply our natural state, as human
    beings. ‘God,’ says Rohr, ‘is part of our DNA’. The spirit indwells the material,
    in us, in all that is created.

    So true. I connect to the God within via my daily centering prayer practice.
    Silent prayer teaches me how to live. My life flows from the God within. I
    searched half of my life looking for God to realize I simply needed to look
    within. God was always there patiently waiting for me.

    I look forward to perusing your site!

  • Rebecca de Saintonge, 7th Jun 2016

    Thanks Rich. And I think people would really enjoy your site:
    Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots
    which I know they can find at http://www.amossmith.org