Below the mind there is a beautiful, inarguable, direct experience that you are. I invite you to notice this fact: the felt sense of presence and all the flavors of what it is like to be, right now, going nowhere. When we are invited here, when we land in this moment, we find the simplicity and nourishment that emanate from the core of our being as we rest from the outer world. To the extent we can drop our attention away from the content of thought and open ourselves to this holy dimension of life, to presence, we are fed. We are zeroed and soothed in this stillness, resting from all of the things we've created, all the messes we've made and the victories we've had. For a time, we can just rest in a dimension deeper than thought, below the particulars, and drop into raw being.
Anything that arises to draw us away from noticing this moment, any struggles or suffering, are the essential arguments we have with our existence and places where our pain obscures the truth. None of these will be mended or addressed outside ourselves. No matter what we look for outside of ourselves in relating with others, these essential issues are ours to become conscious of, own and resolve or we will export the responsibility for it onto others and create messes.
The fact of our human predicament is underscored when relating to other human beings. How do we stay close to each other and clear in ourselves when we are faced with the simultaneous combination of our timeless depth of presence, and our shadowy collection of misguided creature motivations? We can feel pretty peaceful and perfect sitting on our cushions, but in a split second, even the tiniest little exchanges with others can take us away from this perfection into confusion. We must reclaim this ground of being as our sanctuary and resource for returning to sanity, especially in the presence of other beings. Centering in grounded presence isn’t just for the meditation hall but for every breath we take.
There are few places in life where we are more invested than in our relationships and thus relating intimately combines both love and challenge. The love makes it difficult to blow off what arises in the context of relating, which brings us closer to the inner conflicts we’d rather not face. This is one of the beauties of relationship: when we love someone, when we really value the connection we have with them, we tend to be more willing to look into what we are carrying — the things that flummox us or that we are unconscious of — in order to keep the channel between us clear. When something or someone truly matters to us, when there is something we deeply know we are for or is for us, it creates a cauldron that holds a fire. If we face the fire, it has the power to deconstruct the false in us.
Relationship is the end of spiritual bypassing. We can get by for a while on the high of romance and make a life out of avoiding things, but deep relating inevitably brings us to the heart of what matters. Rumi has a poem where he asks, “My darling, how can I love you more?” In this poem, he is constantly asking his love, “Help me refine my heart, help me refine my approach so that I may spill my devotion in a way that is useful to you.” This can be both thrilling and horrifying because when we ask, “How can I love you more?” or “Can you tell me about another little piece of my shadow that affects you?” your partner might just answer!
There is nothing sweeter than sitting with another human being or beings in the full realization of the Holy, looking into their eyes, simply and fully here. I invite you for a moment to picture and invoke the highest beauty you have experienced in the company of another being. To seed yourself with the possibility of this deep sweetness, whether it’s invoked by a cat, a child, a friend, a lover or a teacher. In my experience, the deepest beauty in relating occurs when we stop and rest in presence, and the two-ness is dissolved in the light of shared being. With this taste of sweetness, let yourself rest into the ground and abide in being, allowing your system to picture this sweet otherness as you directly experience grounding in your own sovereign, felt existence.
Now, I invite you to imagine a challenging moment you have experienced while relating with another being. Imagine resting in the same way in the middle of it, allowing whatever is triggered to coexist with breath and ground and a sense of your own sovereign being. When things start to get rough, at the soonest opportunity, it serves us to do what Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery.” In other words, get thee to zero, to virginity, to virgin-land, to sovereignty — just here, resting as simple being. Before taking one more step or uttering one more word, stop and soak in the Holy.
Hafiz says to make a list of your top three priorities, and then follows that by saying, if they are not “God, God, God,” then you’re in trouble. Nowhere is this more useful to remember than in challenging moments of relating. This right here, this being, this zero is a foundation, a haven, a sanctuary. This is the portable phone’s charging base. We need to return to it regularly when we are relating to other people. It gives us the capacity to snip anything strange that is growing between us, to cut any malignancy or falseness in a moment with the willingness to go nowhere, to get nothing, to humble ourselves, to lose everything, to return to zero. When our relationships are ruled by this commitment to the ground of being, it can only contribute to relating from what is true in an enduring and fulfilling way.
—14 JUNE 2018
Having written a book that questioned eternal torment, Rob Bell was branded ‘the biggest heretic in America’. He tells Ed Thornton what took place next
ROB BELL was once the pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was saluted by one newspaper as “the next Billy Graham”. Today, he is more likely to be found on stage at a stand-up comedy club in downtown Los Angeles than in a pulpit.
But he has not stopped preaching. “I get a screen and put up sections from the book of Ecclesiastes, and it somehow works,” he says of his shows at the Largo comedy club, where he has a residency. “People just realise, ‘Wait, was that a sermon? Did I just buy a ticket for a show and I just heard a sermon? And I’m not only OK with it, it was kind of great to be there.’”
Bell moved to LA in 2012, a year after the publication of Love Wins (Features, 5 August 2011), which cast doubt on the idea of hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment. To the US’s Evangelical gatekeepers, such as Franklin Graham and John Piper, this amounted to denial of the gospel itself, and a reason to warn their flocks off his work.
As a result of the book, Bell went from “being the coolest Christian in America” to “the biggest heretic in America”, Kent Dobson, his successor at Mars Hill Bible Church, says in The Heretic, a documentary about Bell released this year and directed by Andrew Morgan.
Bell notes that Love Wins contained nothing “which isn’t firmly within the historic Jesus tradition”, but the heretic label has stuck. It has even, perhaps, become a badge of honour, denoting a thinker unafraid to push theological boundaries and unsettle cherished assumptions.
Bell says that the move to California was not a direct result of Love Wins: the church, which he founded with his wife, Kirsten, in 1999, was “loving and supportive” and supported his decision “to follow the work where it takes you”.
“At some level, I’m telling a story, and, at some point, you say: ‘Where do people tell stories? And if I was in one of the capitals of storytelling would that do something new for the work? Would that do something new in me?’”
Bell had absolutely no intention to lead a church in LA. “I’m not ever in churches or overtly religious spaces. The whole thing is a temple. That drives what I do more than anything. As opposed to trying to build a temple, I come along and announce that the whole thing is a temple, the whole earth.”
AWAY from the demands of preaching weekly to a congregation of thousands, he has done more or less as he pleases: hosting a weekly podcast (“The RobCast” the comedy-club residency; writing books and a play; going on speaking tours; and surfing. He even had a slot on the Oprah Winfrey Network, in which he mixed motivational life-coaching — “You have more power to create your life than you realise” — with exposition of the Hebrew scriptures.
Unshackled from the expectations of a congregation, he has also voiced support for same-sex marriage. “Whoever you are, gay or straight, it is totally normal, natural, and healthy to want someone to go through life with,” he told Oprah in one interview.
“The past few years have been. . . shall I use the word ‘fun’?” Bell says. “It’s just been absolutely amazing. . . The environment here in Los Angeles is . . . like being home.”
Bell’s job and location might have changed, but his fundamental sense of calling has not: he believes the sermon is “an art form” which needs reclaiming as “somewhere between guerrilla theatre and performance art”.
“I’ve been trying to reclaim the sermon for everybody, not for a group of religious people over here, but for everybody, about what it means to be human.”
This desire to open the sermon up to people outside Christian subcultures has always animated him, he says: it led to his starting Mars Hill, in a disused shopping mall; to his touring clubs and theatres with shows such as Everything is Spiritual and The Gods aren’t Angry, and his hugely popular Nooma DVDs; and, ultimately, to where he is today, talking about Ecclesiastes in a sweaty comedy club.
People outside the churches are hungry for depth, he says. Western culture is consumed by “treble notes”, the “of-the-moment, pressing concerns, what hit the internet 17 minutes ago”. People increasingly crave “the bass notes”, he says: the deeper matters that human beings have talked about for thousands of years.
“And when somebody can tell you a story, can quote a text, they can help you see that the thing that you are facing, that you are struggling with, that you are confronted by — oh yeah, people have been wrestling with that for thousands of years. And here’s some of the truths, some of the insights, some of the wisdom in the shared human experience.
“It’s amazing how much we’re craving this. And especially as people leave what you think of as conventional religion — they’re desperate for bass notes.”
BELL played drums in an indie rock band as a student at Wheaton College, Illinois, and he clearly still enjoys the buzz of touring and the immediacy of live performance (although he is rarely away from his family for more than a couple of nights, and takes his wife and three children with him on longer tours). “The people in a room — I love that more than ever.”
Next month, he brings the “Holy Shift” tour, which has already been around the US, to the UK and Ireland. The organisers, Greenbelt, with whom Bell has often collaborated in recent years, say that the shows contain a “mix of philosophy, comedy, theology, and subversive insight”.
“I’m sort of reclaiming the word ‘holy’. Can you in 2018 talk about the word ‘holy’ for an hour and 45 minutes in such a way that takes people places they haven’t been before? In some ways it’s like a giant experiment — can you do this?”
The comedic side of Bell’s work has evolved in LA, where he has been “spending lots of time with comedians”. One of these is Pete Holmes, star of the HBO show Crashing, with whom Bell has developed a two-man stand-up show.
“When we became friends, he was doing stand-up, but he was going after big truths, trying to work out the big questions, and I’ve been doing the big questions, but leaning into comedy. We both realised that we were leaning into the other person’s work.”
Bell insists that he does not employ comedy as a device to “get people to pay attention to the work. This is central to the work.” The comedian charges through “the polite boundaries of conversation”, and asks: “Why don’t we talk about that? What line just got crossed? The comedian goes and finds that line and marches right over it.”
For Bell, comedy can be redemptive.
“When a comedian is working redemptively, the comedian goes: ‘Hey, look: we can go into all of these forbidden, dark, frightening places, and we’re fine. Look, you’re even laughing about it: your own shadow, your own darkness. All of the things that you’re most mortified [about] are present within you, I’m going to talk about them, name them, I’m going to list them in excruciating detail, and you’re going to bend over, you’re going to be laughing so hard, you’re going to be doubled over.’
“Seeing that, it’s like a profound gift. It’s like the release valve for the soul, like everybody can just relax.”
BELL does not miss the Evangelical sub-culture in which he was once revered, perhaps because he never felt at home in it. “Even when I was a pastor in a local church, that seemed like a strange freak-show.”
Not surprisingly, he is scathing about President Trump and the white Evangelicals who helped to elect him. When he preached at Mars Hill against the Iraq War, some left the church, which prompted his realisation that “there is a religion way more sacred to people than anything involving God, Jesus, the Bible — and that is America.
” Even the gun, the gun is more sacred: it’s the untouchable that can’t be questioned for a lot of people.”
Trump’s election, he says, revealed what the gospel amounted to for many US Evangelicals. “It was never about the grace, compassion, solidarity, non-violence of the Jesus path. It was about protecting a particular 21st-century, free-market, capitalist vision for the world. And that thing had been masquerading as Jesus for a long time, and it revealed its corrupt, stained soul. . .
“One of the gifts of this presidency has been that that’s all now out in the open. It said morality, it said faith, it said trust in God, it used the word ‘Jesus’. But it wasn’t serious: it was all a giant charade, and now way more people see it than saw it before — and that’s important.”
Bell acknowledges that his views are radical, but he notes that radical in Latin, radix, means “root”; so “The radical isn’t the person who wandered off into the deep weeds, the radical is the person who went back to the source. It’s the tradition that wandered off.
“The Jesus movement was birthed as a counter to the empire, a subversive movement that was about caring for each other. Sacrificial love is how the world is made better, not coercive military violence. We need that more than ever.”
Indeed, Bell maintains that he is “more compelled by the Bible than ever”. What is the Bible?, published last year, sought to present the Bible as “an ancient library of poems, letters and stories”, with the potential to transform its readers.
His next project is an audio book called Blood, Guts & Fire: The gospel according to Leviticus, in which he revisits the book from which he preached his first sermon series at Mars Hill. “I’m completely blown away with all of what I missed 20 years ago in Leviticus: how much of Leviticus is about justice, about equality, about living with intention, about conflict resolution, about proper relationship to the earth.”
THE public appetite for Bell’s work shows little sign of waning, and his output remains prolific. But he does not come across as hurried or busy, or anxious to meet the next deadline. (He was happy to extend the interview ten minutes over the allotted time.)
“All of life is organised around having a life, and then the work comes out of bumping into neighbours and going for a meal in the neighbourhood and meeting somebody out in the ocean surfing. . .
“I’m just thrilled with all the people I encounter who are waking up to the joy that’s possible, and who are rediscovering that the Jesus path does something to you and it does something to the world. You don’t have to live with hopeless despair. You can actually live with intention, and you can actually be shaped in profound ways. That’s endlessly interesting to me.”
The full interview can be heard on the Church Times Podcast
—From Listening for the Heartbeat of God
The stream of Celtic spirituality, from Pelagius in the fourth century to George MacLeod in the twentieth, is characterized by the expectation of finding God within, of hearing the living voice of God speaking from the very heart of life, within creation and within ourselves. It is a spirituality that recognizes the authority of Saint John and reflects his way of looking and listening for God. At the decisive Synod of Whitby in 664, where two distinct ways of seeing, represented by the Celtic and Roman missions, came into conflict, the former allied itself to John. Coleman of Lindisfarne argued that the Celtic tradition originated from Saint John, the disciple who was, he said, “especially loved by our Lord.” Wilfrid, on the other hand, argued for the Roman mission, which, he claimed, was based on the authority of Saint Peter, whom he called “the most blessed Prince of the Apostles.” The tragic outcome of the synod was not that it chose the Roman mission but that it neither made room within the church for both ways of seeing or declared that both were firmly rooted in the gospel tradition.
The practice of listening for God within the whole of life was based on the perspective of Saint John’s Gospel; it is therefore not limited to the Celtic tradition, but found in various mystical traditions in the history of the church. Celtic spirituality is, however, unique in the way in which it developed and cherished John’s vision. It is important always to remember that Christianity is not confined to a single perspective; rather, it comprises a rich interweaving of approaches to God. It is not a question of choosing between the John and Peter traditions, but of attempting to hold them together. We need to ask how we can celebrate both and merge them into a spirituality for ourselves and the church today.
The great Celtic theologian of the ninth century, John Scotus Eriugena, although sharing the mystical tradition of Saint John and its listening for God in all things, understood the need to make room for both John and Peter. The former, he believed represents the way of contemplation, the latter, faithful action. Both disciples ran to the empty tomb of Jesus and both witnessed his resurrection. In a sense, they can be regarded as the male equivalents of Mary and Martha and as symbols of the tension between the contemplative and the active. This tension has always existed in the church and we experience it ourselves in trying to find a balance between the inner and the outer. In this intensely materialistic busy age, which sets great store by outward appearance and possessions and by activity, what is the balance that we need to recover in our spirituality, if we are to integrate the inner and the outer, and to allow the spiritual to shape our lives? If both the way of John and the way of Peter are to have a place in our spirituality, what are their distinct strengths and weaknesses?
In the New Testament the John tradition is of course best reflected by the Gospel according to Saint John. The Peter tradition, on the other hand, finds its clearest expression in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which includes the reference to Peter as the rock on which Christ will build his church. By comparing these gospels we can understand the conflict of Whitby and its aftermath and the tensions and complementarities between these two ways of seeing.
John’s Gospel begins with the Word that was in the beginning: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3) The perspective is a universal one. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, begins with the words, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) Here the perspective is particular. The tendency in the John tradition is always to see God in relation to the whole of creation, in relation to “all things.” It refers, for instance, to the light “that enlightens every person coming into the world.” (John 1:9) John’s canvas is the whole cosmos. Like his symbol, the eagle in flight, he sees as from a height the whole of life, its beginning and its end. His perspective is infinite. In looking at one thing, the life of Christ, his vision includes all things, for Christ is the life of all life. The tendency in the Peter tradition, however, is to see God in relation to a particular people. In Matthew’s Gospel God brings salvation to the world through a specific line of descent. Thus the first chapter reads like the record of a family tree. The symbol associated with his gospel is that of a man of Earth, so Matthew describes what is immediately in his line of vision, the details of a particular family and heritage. In writing about Jesus, he paints a vivid picture of a human family, its history, and prophetic tradition.
The strength of the John tradition is that it produces a spirituality that sees God in the whole of life and regards all things as inter-related. In all creation, and in all the people of creation, the light of God is there to be glimpsed, in the rising of the morning sun, in the moon at night, and at the heart of the life of any person, even if that person is of an entirely different religious tradition or of no religious tradition. John’s way of seeing makes room for an open encounter with the light of life wherever it is to be found. As the history of Celtic spirituality shows, it is a tradition that can stand free of the four walls of the church, for the sanctuary of God is not separate from but contained within the whole of creation. The strength of the Peter tradition is precisely that it does have four walls, as it were. It enshrines the light of truth within the church and its traditions and sacraments. It is a rock, a place of security and shelter, especially in the midst of stormy change. It allows us, even in our times of personal confusion, to turn with faith to the familiar house of prayer where our mothers and fathers and those before them have for centuries found truth and guidance.
These ways of seeing can combine to create a spirituality that is simultaneously well-rooted in a specific tradition and open to God in the whole of life. Together they can provide access to the ancient treasury of the house of faith, while at the same time equipping us to discern God’s presence in all life. If they are not held together, however, the result will be a spirituality in part cut off from the world and, in its religious constraints, separated from life, from the Earth and its people. It may fear creation as an essentially threatening and even godless place, doubting those of other faiths, or imagine that the church’s buildings and tradition contain the holy rather than simply symbolizing the holiness that is everywhere present. Alternatively, the division might produce a spirituality that, in an attempt to broaden its vision, is no longer connected to any church and becomes cut off from the truths and mysteries traditionally protected by the walls of the church. While retaining a strong sense of the inter-relatedness of all people and of the whole of creation, it may cease to learn from the great corpus of the church’s wisdom and become an individualistic spirituality. The two traditions have often been pulled apart, but they are much stronger together. The truth of “God with us” that is celebrated by particular people in particular places need not be an exclusive celebration; it applies to every person and every form of life, because God is with and in all that has life.
The creative tension between these two ways of seeing is symbolized on Iona. Outside the main entrance to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, on the island, stand the great Celtic crosses of Saint John and Saint Martin. There need be no discontinuity in worshipping at the foot of these crosses and then moving inside to continue worship within the stone walls of the Benedictine Abbey. Rather, the one experience can enrich the other. Being part of the song of creation and, as members of the church, of the living communion of saints, are two aspects of the one mystery. Teilhard de Chardin, who was a scientist, a priest, and one of the twentieth century’s great Christian mystics, saw, for instance, that when the priest raises his hands in consecration over the bread and wine at the churches altar he is declaring all matter, all life, to be Christ’s body and blood.
Most of us will have had the experience of walking to church in the light of the morning or evening and feeling reluctant to leave the freshness of the wind or the colors of the sky to enter an enclosed building, sometimes terribly stifling or cluttered and unimaginative in design. Sometimes we need not the busyness of a church but the solitude of a hill to be still and attentive to God. On the other hand, most of us have also experienced in the words, silence, and sacraments of church liturgy an opening of our inner vision, so that on our return home we see the elements of creation around us with fresh eyes. And at times we can feel isolated in creation. As Coleridge wrote:
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ‘twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part VII, lines 598-600)
In times of trouble and loneliness, have we not all drawn comfort from singing hymns and saying prayers in a congregation of men and women who, like us, have known temptation, loss and emptiness?
Occasionally it is not the open air or the church that we desire, but both. My memory of an evening on the Isle of Wight is, I am sure, a universal sort of memory. Towards sunset, I was out walking, with open fields on one side and trees lining the path. The air was clear and calm and I was hearing the birds’ closing song for the day. For a long time I stood under a great pine, looking at its height and feeling its ancient life, aware that all was being enfolded by the sun’s last light. I did not have to move; I was alone. I could have had another ten minutes, but I chose to move and a minute later was standing in the chapel of Quarr Abbey listening to the monks chanting and allowing my prayers to rise with the incense. I knew that in two different ways I had experienced one continuous act of worship.
This does not mean that it is only in the beautiful, in the glorious rays of the sunset and the fine singing of Benedictine monks, that the connection can be made between the bounded walls of a church sanctuary and the life around it. Equally, in times of confusion, betrayal or failure, when from our depths we are calling out for help, we often find that the words of a church service give voice to our yearnings. We may even discover that traditional prayers more truly express our despair than we can ourselves. Similarly, the church can guide our longings for justice in the world. The words of the Old Testament prophetic tradition, for instance, will sometimes sharpen our sense of urgency and passion for justice in society.
An aspect of life that the church has often found difficult to express is the passion for life that is within us and the delight in life’s sensuousness. Certain traditions have wonderfully developed the use of the senses in worship. To experience the divine liturgy in Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, is to know a full religious incorporation of the senses, through light and color, touch, sound, and scent, but Western religious traditions have tended to stop short in approaching sensuality, especially where it relates to relationship and sexuality. The way in which the church has so often either ignored or allegorized the Song of Songs and its clear delight in the goodness and God-giveness of sexual attraction and intimacy typifies religious inhibition, with its fear of passion and the sensual.
Early in Augustine of Canterbury’s Roman mission to Britain at the end of the sixth century, there were signs of this fear and of a determination to enforce clerical celibacy. In a series of questions addressed to the Pope, Augustine had expressed concern about common practices he had discovered in the British church. For instance, women took communion while they were menstruating, as did men who had recently had sexual intercourse with their wives. “These uncouth English people,” wrote Augustine, “require guidance on all these matters.” In response, Pope Gregory indicated that although it was not forbidden for women to receive communion during menstruation it was “commendable” for them to refrain from doing so during their period of “defilement,” as he called it. Also, a man who had “approached” his wife should not enter a church before washing and should even wait until his “heated desires cool in the mind.” The Pope added that, although the physical union of married people was not sinful, husbands and wives should have intercourse only in order to procreate and never “for mere pleasure.”
The Gospels of John and Matthew reflect different perspectives in relation to pleasure and the senses. Their accounts of the woman who anointed Jesus with oil, for example, describe what was probably the same event in very different ways. In John’s Gospel, the woman, Mary, takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair. “The house,” says John, “was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (John 12:3) In Matthew’s version, on the other hand, an unnamed woman is described simply as coming to Jesus and pouring oil on his head as he sits at table. (Matthew 26:7) The fragrance of the perfume and the intimacy of the anointing and drying of Jesus’s feet are entirely absent from this account. In John’s Gospel there is a readiness to delight in the sensory and in the closeness of affection. Matthew is more cautious. John’s spirituality accentuates the light that is within all life, revealing a passion for life in its fullness. The body is regarded as good and intimacy becomes an expression of God’s love. In the spirituality of the Peter tradition there is an awareness of the dangers of delighting in the senses. In time this awareness led to the extreme belief, shared by both Augustine of Hippo and his namesake in Canterbury, that sexual love is merely concupiscence.
In the modern age, with its obsession with the sexual, it is important to allow John’s vision to help shape our spirituality. “I have come that you may have life,” says Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel, “and that you may have it in abundance.” (John 10:10) We need to regain confidence in the goodness of creation and thus of the body and of our sexuality, whether we are celibate, single, or committed in relationship. This entails recovering a sense of the goodness of the creativity that is fundamental to creation’s fruitfulness and continuity. We will not be able to address the perversity of our generation’s fascination with sex by denying the essential goodness of our sexuality, but rather by declaring that it is deeply sacred, an essential part of who we are, and therefore reflecting the goodness of God’s image in us. The John tradition encourages us to honor and delight in our sexual identity. This is where the two perspectives need to be held together. The John tradition encourages us to acknowledge the goodness of our physicalness and to understand that the sensual has a place in spirituality and can express God’s love and creativity. The Peter tradition, on the other hand, can set boundaries to help us answer questions like, With whom should we be intimate? and, How does the goodness of the sensual relate to commitment in relationship, or to the demands of community life and society’s well-being? Yes, let us passionately and uninhibitedly taste the goodness and delightfulness of creation, but let us also be alert to the laws that protect sustainability and wholeness in our relationships.
Another tension between the two ways of seeing is created by their distinct approaches to wrongdoing. How should we view our failures in relationship, for instance? John’s Gospel includes the story of the woman taken in adultery (a story that today raises questions of adultery). Jesus tells those who want to stone the woman, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When no one condemns her, Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:7-11) In Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, we find these words: “I say to you that every one who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matthew 5:28-30) John’s tradition, espoused by Pelagius and others in the Celtic tradition, recognizes our capacity for goodness; even when we fail we are seen as essentially good, as capable of not failing. Christ is portrayed as forgiving and “full of grace.” God’s goodness is at the heart of the human and humanity is graced with the profound desire to be holy, as God is holy. In repenting of sin we are not turning away in order to be someone else, but re-turning to our true selves, made in the loveliness and goodness of the image of God.
The Peter tradition, on the other hand, underlines our capacity for sin and warns us to be on our guard against this tendency in ourselves and others. It sees Christ as the fulfillment of the law, a corrective to our sinfulness. It approaches our behavior with a caution that may be as wise as a serpent’s, but can overlook the intrinsic good at the heart of each life. With Augustine this way of seeing led to the extreme conviction that the essential goodness in humanity was totally erased with Adam’s fall.
In this area, perhaps above all others, we must recover a balance in our spirituality, believing and hoping in our God-given goodness on the one hand and being wise and alert to sinful leanings on the other. Is it not always necessary to pursue two approaches to our failings, the transformative and the surgical? We should be able to cut out deep-seated wrongs and provide at the same time the right conditions for goodness to flourish. Is this not how the body operates? The aim of medicine, therapy, rest, and surgery is always to enable the healthy energy deep within us to assert itself against any disease or malaise that is threatening our essential well-being. In the same way, are we not to be liberating the image of God that is within us? If we do not, how will we deal with ourselves and others in the midst of terrible failure? How, for instance, will we deal with a young teenager who helped kick to death a young man because he was homosexual? Are we to say that she is evil at the core of her being and should be locked away for the rest of her life, unless she can become something totally other than what she is? The conviction of Celtic spirituality is that her evil behavior sprang not from the very heart of her life but from a deep confusion and loss; if she is given the grace to recover some of the goodness that was hers in infancy she will gradually be transformed into her true self. In the process, of course, she will need to be protected from her tendency to evil. However, punishment and watchfulness cannot in themselves restore people’s goodness; this can be done only by releasing their true essence, made in the image of God.
In the John tradition transformation occurs through love. “I give you a new commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Change will come through love. John’s spirituality is guided above all else by a sense of the welling up of love from life’s deepest springs, the place of God’s abiding. In the Peter tradition, on the other hand, great confidence is placed in the outward strength and rightness of the law handed down by religious tradition. Following God’s law will bring about change for the good in our lives, both individually and collectively. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” says Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until Heaven and Earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18) Part of this tradition are social justice and charity, including the practices, set forth in Matthew 25, of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, caring for the sick, and attending to those in prison. The love of others is to be combined with the law of righteousness. Otherwise, at one extreme there may be a vague, unproductive enthusiasm for the sacredness of all life and, at the other, a joyless moral dutifulness. On its own, neither approach can bring about the profound changes that are needed in our lives and in the wider relationships of the world.
In the New Testament, not only are their different perspectives generally united, but John and Peter themselves often appear together. At the Last Supper, for example, they are next to one another and after Jesus’s arrest they are the two who follow him. Separated at the crucifixion, they later run together to Jesus’s empty tomb. In the Acts of the Apostles they are referred to as sharing the experience of imprisonment. One of their greatest shared experiences, however, is the transfiguration, described in Matthew’s Gospel. On the mountain they see Christ as the light of God and are instructed to “listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5)
John and Peter did listen, in different ways, and this is why it is important to bring together their distinct perspectives and draw on the complementary gospel traditions. The brief historical sketches in this book have shown how the church has been weakened over the centuries by its rejection of Celtic spirituality and the latter’s development of the mysticism of Saint John. The church would have been infinitely richer if it had embraced both Pelagius and Augustine, affirming the essential goodness in every life while remaining alert to the evils that can destroy us. This would have provided surer foundations for integrating our spirituality with the whole of life and with what is most natural. At the Synod of Whitby, why could the way of John not have been held together with the way of Peter? The Celtic mission, which acknowledged the light present even in those who have not heard the gospel, complemented the Roman mission, with its emphatic claims of the uniqueness of the gospel. The two were not mutually exclusive. The church was the poorer for forcing Celtic spirituality underground, so that for centuries it survived primarily on the Celtic fringes of Britain, among people unsupported in their spirituality by clergy. Would not the church and the world have been better prepared to meet the challenges of the modern world – including ecological crises – if they had learned from Celtic spirituality instead of rejecting it? Would they not have been enriched by the awareness that God’s light is within creation as well as transcending it? Why was the church so frightened when, in the nineteenth century, men like Scott and MacDonald taught that we are a reflection of God’s image, the divine being inextricably interwoven with the human? Would it not have been enlarged in its spirit by affirming that our creativity, sexuality, and passion for life can be expressions of the life of God?
Finally, in the twentieth century, when the John tradition was reflected in George MacLeod and others, why did their conviction that God is the light of the world (rather than just a religious aspect of it) not burst open the doors of the church to the world? If it had more wholeheartedly accepted this belief, the church would surely have avoided many of the dangers of irrelevance, which often characterize it today. Could it not have redefined its boundaries? Instead of being shut off behind its four walls, upholding a spirituality that too often looks away from life, could it not have transformed itself into a kind of side chapel for the world? Our churches might then have become places where we could more easily step into and out of daily life and be reminded that the real cathedral of God is the whole of creation. If the church’s symbols and rituals pointed more clearly to the world as God’s dwelling-place, we might then more fully rediscover that God’s heartbeat can be heard in the whole of life and at the heart of our own lives, if we will only listen.