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The nausea of things being uniform

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
 
(From Snow by Louis MacNeice) 
Some people seem to find everything so straightforward. And that is why I must make everything extra-specially complicated, to compensate.

At my university Christian Union, they got you to sign the UCCF doctrinal basis if you were nominated to serve on committee. (Cue horrified gasps from political idealists at student's unions everywhere…but our CU wasn't in the student's union and besides, there is a certain logic to the idea that the people running a 'religious society' be in some sense 'adherents'…) I signed it myself back in the day, and, although some of points a) through k) touch on things that I've still much to learn about, I reckon I'd sign it again in an instant. It is, after all, a pretty good summary of what I understand and believe about the reality of the world and God's interaction with it, and I have no reservation about stating so publicly.

Summaries summarise though. A bullet-pointed list might be a constructive framework for understanding, and for exercising discernment in the face of new or unusual teaching -- and it seems to help unite Christians around things of first importance -- but, well, it's not the whole truth. God didn't give us a list of doctrines -- He chose to reveal Himself in creation, in history, in personal relationship, and ultimately in Jesus, and gave us the Bible as a complex, interwoven, many-authored, literarily-diverse account of these things.

To me, this comes as a massive relief… The UCCF DB chimes glib as a reply to my experience of reality and of God's intervention. It looks like having "all the right answers", but it doesn't within itself provide supporting evidence for the claims it makes. Likewise, it's strong on "logical reasons not to feel bad or sad or mad", but in the face of real brokenness, heartache and confusion it reads more like a "you should know better" accusation than a source of healing or comfort. And, well, it manages to state the most beautiful and profound truths with all the awe and wonder of a shopping list. Of course, these truths still change everything -- but in their blunt brevity they do little to connect with my intellectual, theodicean and aesthetic longings. The Bible, on the other hand, is plenty rich and complicated enough to engage with all of the complexity, heartache and beauty of life...

I get the impression (and usually the accompanying dose of self-righteous frustration) that "some Christians" [1] would prefer it to be otherwise. The 'tangerine' of God's revelation requires peeling and portioning, and figuring out what to do with the pips. Doctrine is a little like one of those tiny orange vitamin C pills enthusiastic mothers swear by as universal protection against all imaginable ailments: gone in a gulp, it accomplishes some (but not all) of the recognised benefits of eating a tangerine, without any of the effort of food preparation or the unpleasantness and inconvenience of pips.

We're in danger of missing out, I think, if we're too afraid of pips to open the Bible and see what it actually says -- instead, reading it with a doctrinal checklist in hand and glossing over the bits that don't fit neatly. "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16) Or, if we are afraid to hear God speak to us through the complexity, beauty and brokenness of the world -- which, again, doesn't always seem to fit neatly with doctrine, but (I find) finds many answers in the Bible and in Jesus. "For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." (Romans 1: 19-20) Cue favourite C.S. Lewis quote: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

We're also in danger of missing out if we're too lazy to peel and portion. We can get ourselves into a mindset where 'faith' amounts to taking a mental inventory every now and then and...yep, we'd still sign our names at the bottom of the DB, so we're fine. Reading the Bible's probably a good thing, but let's not get into 'shoulds' because that goes against the doctrine of grace. Whether or not such a 'receive it and stow it in a corner' response to the gospel makes us 'ok' with God, it is a tragedy because we put ourselves out of the way of so much of the good that He has in store for us. Besides, it does at least appear to be the case that wilfully unnourished, shallow faith puts us in the way of the temptation to abandon following Jesus altogether when it suits our circumstances or desires to do so: habitually resisting the opportunity to engage with God's reality can produce a disconnect between what we claim to believe and what we experience to the point where our instinctive reactions in moments of crisis are no longer informed by faith at all. Perhaps a bit like what Jesus talks about in the Parable of the Sower:
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” [...]
“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23)
I long for the "word of the kingdom" to take root and bear fruit in my life, and although this is a work of God's grace, and not my own effort, that doesn't mean I'm not actively a part of that work as I try to make the most of what He has already given me -- which includes the Bible and the invite to read it in prayerful conversation with Him. There's a place for doctrine, in the same way there's a place for pills. But I like tangerines, clementines even more so, and I'd rather be bewildered by the Bible than placated by a check-list; many a fruitful dialogue has sprouted as I've brought the pips to Him in my confusion. And yes, I am mixing my metaphors, and there's pips and pills and seeds and fruit and wheat and it's all starting to sound a lot like breakfast. But that's ok, because sometimes things don't seem to make much sense and I don't pretend to know what we're supposed to do at those times but I'm pretty sure pretending to know isn't it.

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly..." (Colossians 3:16a)



[1] "Some Christians"...now, there's a phrase that should trigger alarm bells :-/ "I'm sorry, could you open that door a little wider for me -- only, see, I've got this plank in my eye..."

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