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Embracing the difficulty of not knowing

Open HandsInfluenced by thinking from the emerging church movement, Norfolk social worker and writer Ben Bell casts a critical eye over what he sees as unbending religion, and argues for a humble acceptance of the unknown.

My goal is the journey

I look to you, reaching out to me.

How do you evangelise to Christians? Do you ask them, have you nailed it?
A speaker who is linked with the ‘emergent church movement’, and whom I saw at last year’s Greenbelt festival, has inspired me a lot lately. His name is Peter Rollins, and I will be paraphrasing from him throughout this piece.
‘I used to be a charismatic evangelical. It creates a sense of mastery and security. Getting people to believe is easy. Why did I stop? Because it was horrible, it didn’t do anything good. I’ve realised that it’s much harder to get people to doubt, to ask questions, to interrogate their political, religious or cultural views – that’s tough. And I found that was actually more liberating.’
The whole notion of evangelism, no matter how earnest, in my opinion, is a cowardly act. Though I am sure well-intended at times, it is at best a defence mechanism against the Other, to use the psychoanalytic term, and at worst a form of religious bullying. You are essentially being a salesperson, and working from the implicit arrogance that what you’ve got, the world around you needs.
‘God isn’t a patch of meaning that we put on the wound of our unknowing, God is the wound, and we generate patches to attempt to describe the experience.’
When holding out your hands in worship, with your head held up and eyes shut, why not instead, turn your head down to your open hands, and acknowledge the absence that they hold. Grieve for the god that religion has forsaken, and become fully human through accepting the loss, the uncertainty, the mystery that a religion of surfaces wants to mask, or get a grasp on. When you rip open the curtain of the Holy of Holies, the truth is that there is nothing there, or at least nothing reducible to our eyes, and this is what needs to be absorbed and accepted, anything else is an idol to strive for.
Embrace the wonder that cannot be limited to any one story, any one belief system, anyone’s exclusive idea of how it all goes down.
When you see things in a different light, it reminds you that there is more than just one light, or one way of seeing things. The light for one person may be the darkness for another. Some religious people claim that their version of the light is the only light. They are what’s known in the Bible as Pharisees. By trying to possess the unknown, the mystery of life, they use labels such as god, holy spirit, worship, to claim it for their own, whilst the Christ figure; the rich vagabond; the unpopular revolutionary; the artist, peers in from the outside, wondering what the hell they’re playing at.
‘The good news is that you don’t have to enjoy, but you might actually find deeper joy when you find freedom from this obsessive pursuit. The important challenge is for people to accept that it is okay not to know, to be uncertain. But people find it very difficult not knowing things, and will make up answers.’
‘Faith is not a mode of belief, but a way of being.’
‘People think it’s courageous to talk about what they believe, fight for what they believe and die for what they believe, but that’s the cowardly thing. Batman’s courage is actually fear, of looking at the death of his parents, fear of actually dealing with it and working it through, so he’s out there beating up criminals because he’s too afraid to look at his own brokenness. The courage is to look at whatever belief system you have, and not to create a new system to think that we’re right, but to rather circumvent every confessional system, to put a philosopher into every metaphysical system, to deconstruct religion, atheism, and create a space where we can encounter each other in our brokenness. People think this is depressing. I’m saying you already are depressed, you just don’t know it. The way to overcome that depression is to look at the ghosts and do some exorcisms.’
Why is religion insistent on orchestrating spirituality? Like, if you sing songs with Christian themes in them, then that’s worshiping. Well okay, but what if to me, that is not worshipping, it is just people singing songs that make them feel an emotional connection with their idea or interpretation of god? Would they say, ‘You’re wrong, it is worship? i.e. they are trying to have a monopoly on what worship is, and if you don’t like it, leave. This is the very definition of religion, or as some might say, a religious/Pharisee spirit.
‘The question that faces us, then, is how Christianity, in its most radical and subversive form, critiques the church and offers us real freedom.’
It is not creation or evolution, science or religion; it is not reason or superstition, Richard Dawkins or the Christian apologist. It is the gap that is unknowable, and only gained in glimpses but never fully realised in this life. If science and religion made love, they might conceive something closer to the immaculate than our current man-made babies. This is the ever unattainable purity. Or you can call it Christ, the Holy Spirit, whatever, it’s just man stamping on experiences with titles, and it will never end as long as man is alive. But it holds no interest for me. It does not matter how authentic you feel your experiences, how unquestionably you know in yourself, there is always a sense in which no one knows anything. If Christians want to be like Christ, then in my opinion, they need to see their religion as just one part of the jigsaw, not the thing in its entirety. To not see this is nothing other than human arrogance and ignorance. 

Ben Bell works as a social worker and is a keen writer, covering themes of faith, conflict and personal journey. He is also involved in art groups and projects within Norwich.

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