Heavy Soul 2 What Do You Really Believe And Why?

A long time ago I started writing a book but life has gotten in the way and that plan has faltered. In order to try and complete the writing I’m going to put it out as a blog instead. Chapter 1 is a few posts back. This is chapter 2.

To the left of my side of the bed, as you may expect, you can find a three-drawer bedside cabinet. This cabinet, its contents and the random artefacts from the life of Dave Magill are perhaps the biggest strain upon our marriage. At any one time the top surface of this cabinet will have a mix of electrical cables, receipts, coins, a book or two and a rarely charged kindle; a mess. The surface betrays the state of the drawers, the final resting place of old cameras, chargers, glasses with out of date prescriptions, keys for long left properties and guitar strings. To my wonderfully organised wife, who knows where every single item we own is, for she has lovingly found them a home, this cabinet is an abomination worthy of a listing in Leviticus.

My wife, like many organised people, is a big fan of the patron saint of underwear folding, Marie Kondo. I once returned from a work trip to find that my t-shirts had stood to attention in the drawer, and I reluctantly admit that this new system to be life-changing and it  has improved my life. It was not only the folding though, it was the filtering of our possessions through the lens of joy-giving, which has really made the difference. 

Like many western people, well off in global terms, we had gathered up years worth of detritus. If you had come to our home you would not have noticed, but we had just too much stuff. Much of this stuff had once served a purpose, an old iPad that didn’t hold a charge any longer, a coat with a damaged zip, emergency dinner sets (X2). However, much of these items had never served any real purpose, they had come into our lives by accident or in a moment of cutsie humour; plastic and metal clogging up space for no good reason. Marie Kondo, helped us to declare war on the clutter and clean out our home and it has truly been a life-giving experience, as advertised of course. 

It was this experience with our physical stuff that inspired me to ask questions of my own spiritual ‘stuff.’ I was truly aware, as I’ve already said in chapter 1, that my spiritual practice, my beliefs and my worldview was littered with beliefs and practices that I had sort of absorbed without thinking too much about them. Alongside those were beliefs and behaviours which had once fitted well into my theology, but that theology has changed and developed and I had never stopped to consider whether there were things to expunge and eschew from my thinking and actions that were better left in the past. 

The process of going through our earthly possessions and choosing to say goodbye to some of them, was not an easy process. Every slightly crusty t-shirt which had to leave was laced with memories of people and places, every book was bought in good faith that one day it would be read. The lens of ‘does this spark joy’ made saying farewell a much easier process. Making the time and finding the energy to do the same with our spirituality is no easier. Our beliefs are wrapped up in memories and faces. If we grew up in church there are things that we believe that we were told and taught by people we loved and who loved us. Our favourite youth worker, may have taught us something that, in the cold and honest light of day, we no longer believe, but the nostalgia of our youth group days and the youth worker’s kindness to us, may cause it to be hard to let go of the things we learned from them, even when we know that we no longer believe them.

Decluttering our faith is not an easy process, it is hard and takes time but it can be life-giving and will feel like breathing fresh air on the other side. 

Since the earliest days of Christianity the different streams of our faith have gathered around statements of beliefs known as creeds. The most well known of these are The Apostles Creed, The Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. If you have never taken time to read these before I recommend putting this book down now for a few minutes and googling them. They give a fascinating glimpse into the past of Christianity. These three statements of faith have lived long in the church and are survivors of the earliest expressions of Christianity. There were other creeds which have not survived, as streams of Christianity were absorbed into others or ran out of steam and ceased to exist in any real form. 

A creed is a useful foundation from which our faith builds. It lays out the base upon which all other beliefs are built. From a creed a church movement finds it’s form and identity. It is the source from which the smaller points of theology find their direction. Each of us will have one of the these three creeds woven into the fabric of our own belief systems, what I like to call our personal creeds. Our personal creeds are the system of belief by which we live our lives. If it was possible to take the time to truly examine our beliefs the end result would be the purest form of a personal creed. 

If you could take the time to write out a 10 or 20 point personal creed I wonder what would be included. Would it be a simple list-like system like the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian creeds or would it be something more complex. I wager that if we all took the time to write out our beliefs, and if it was possible to do this under laboratory conditions without any outside influence or bias, we would all be surprised by what we include and what we do not include. 

I recently tried to write my own personal creed. I failed many times. My first attempts were an attempt to write a list of the most important things that I believe. It wasn’t long before I realised that this was difficult. I found that I would write a statement in the form of, ‘I believe THAT _______’ but very soon would challenge myself to caveat that statement, so the form of almost every statement became, ‘I believe that __________  BUT I ALSO believe ______ AND _______.’ I was raised with the understanding that beliefs were absolutes, that the building blocks of orthodoxy had no flexibility within them, they were strong and secure and fit together perfectly. Yet, as I have grown older and experienced the world, I have realised that far from being uniform and solid in shape much of my theological beliefs are soft and amorphous and malleable. In days gone by I would have seen this as a sign of weak faith or poor theology. Nowadays, I see it as a sign of honesty, nuance and the inclusion of my whole experience into my thinking. 

Very soon my personal creed was sprawled out across the page. Every statement of belief which I wrote became a hub for explanation and nuance. The ALSO, BUT, ANDS and ORS, of faith spread my belief far from the beginning of each statement. Any attempt at simplistic communication of a belief instantly opens a torrent of questions. As an example let’s take the first line of the Apostles Creed. 

We believe in God. 

Who is this God? Is this God trinitarian or a modalist deity? Is your God gendered? Is your God immanent or transcendent? What is your God’s name? Does your God interfere into the affairs of humanity or has your God set your world in motion and is now watching from some place afar as history has unfolded? This list could go on. 

The reality of our faith is that it is both simple and complex. We do believe in God but the answers to endless questions about that statement show that there is a lot of room for variance as to the definition of the original statement. It is in these nuances that the detritus creeps into our faith. The spaces between the simplist of statements and their full definitions are filled with half truths and theology by osmosis. This is where the things we hold within our faith systems that we may not actually believe are stored, crammed into the bedside cabinet of our minds. 

I have found in Marie Kondo’s system for tidying up my home a helpful way to tidy up those spaces but before we get to that it is important that we give ourselves permission to embrace the nuance; to accept that the truth is that our theology is much less black and white than we hope and is in fact many shades of grey. Much of what we believe lives in tension with other things that we believe, but many of us, particularly those of us who grew up through evangelicalism, have never been given permission to admit that to ourselves. We have been taught that contradictions do not exist in our faith systems, and we have attempted to perform theological and linguistic acrobatics to hold things together. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we just accepted that we don’t have to know it all and that in every other area of our life we live with contrast and contradiction? Why don’t we do that with these things that are living at the core of our thinking?

Another thought experiment, grab some paper and in three minutes write down as many names of God around the edge of the page. Write some along the top of the page, then turn the page and write them along the side and so on until the whole edge of the page is filled with names you have for God. The centre of the page will be left white, bordered by the names you have come up with. Here are some examples to get you started; Friend of Sinner, Holy One, Love, Justice etc. I’ll wait here and finish my coffee whilst you’re doing that. Ok. Go. 

Welcome back. Did you manage to fill the edges? Part two is to look at the list, I would imagine that very quickly you will have to ask questions as to how the same deity can be some of these things simultaneously. So in the examples I gave you to get started there are already some contradictions. How can God be Holy and yet be a friend to sinners? Surely holiness and sinners can not live next to one another. How can God be fully loving to all and be just? Soon we realise that the God we believe in as times definable but at the same time ineffable. Our understandings of who God is when all held together create a truth in which God is both knowable and unknowable, both definable and indefinable. For the evangelical mind which I am still breaking out of, that feels both scary and heretical. I must know, but the truth is I cannot know it all.  

Now we are faced with a choice. If our personal creeds are so complex that the first line of the apostles’ creed send us into what feels like a huge task then what is the point of continuing? Is this an insurmountable task or something that is worth pursuing? 

My feeling is that it must be worth pursuing because it is the only path to being honest with ourselves. It is the only way to uncover that which we actually believe rather than a system of practices and habits which stem from theologies we have long stopped believing but that have held on in our behaviours. We just pursue this because it will have an effect upon everything. It touches our money, our relationships, how we treat the planet, how we treat others and of course our spiritual practice. 

To do this we have to create our own system of lenses akin to Marie Kondo’s Joy. I chose the lenses of what Christians know as fruits of the Spirit but are widely accepted as good character traits throughout all religions and societies. Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, kindness, self-control. If a practice or belief sparks those things then they are worth considering as valuable.

In the next chapter we will try and define what each of those might mean and how we might use them to filter the clutter from our lives.

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