Friday, April 22, 2011

Forsaken by God (3)

This afternoon, Journey's "Atheism for Lent" Course created a "Forsaken by God" service for Good Friday, to reflect on the content of the Course (see here) and to encourage others to think about doubt, disbelief, and God's own atheism on the Cross.

I began with a Welcome and Introduction that explained a little about what we'd been doing over the past few weeks:
On the Cross, God experienced the absence of God, so we have been giving up God for Lent. We have looked at atheist critiques of God, religion and faith, purging ourselves of an instrumentalised religion in which God and faith are instruments for sanctioning our own means and achieving our own ends. We have sought to discover a richer and more honest faith, in which our doubt and disbelief are recognised and remembered. Our experiences of the absence of God do not signal our distance from God but, rather, our identity with God, who too was forsaken by God.
After we sang Sydney Carter's "Friday Morning," I read an imaginative re-telling of the Crucifixion narrative that I wrote:
We crucified Jesus of Nazareth with criminals, and together we mocked him, calling him Christ, King of the Jews, Friend of Elijah, Son of God. At noon, a thick darkness descended and we could hardly see his face up there, veiled in blood and black. But at three o’clock we heard him cry a loud lament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then he breathed his last. As if his body were its own, the whole earth echoed his expulsion of air; the ground trembled terribly, rocks split and burst forward, and bodies buried recent and long shifted in their tombs so that in the days to come many would say that they had seen the dead arise. But I think I also heard him say, “It is finished.”
Then we had a reading from G.K. Chesterton, "Let the Atheists Choose a God":
When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionaries of this age choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.
And Dave performed Prince's "The Cross"

I modified (adding a sprinkling of Nietzsche) a section of "Angels in America" (see here) to make a reading, "Sue the Bastard," which our Pastor Chris read wonderfully:
The prophet, yes. That is what they call me. I am like a madman in a market place.
God abandoned us. He isn’t coming back. And if he ever did come back, if he ever dared to show his face in the garden again, if he ever returned to see how much suffering his abandonment had created, and if all he had to offer was death, we should sue the bastard. That’s my only contribution to all this theology, all this a-theology. Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare he?! He walked out on us, He ought to pay.

We suffer. But we don’t want death, we want life. I want more life. So bless me anyway. I want more life, I can’t help myself, I do, I want more life. I’ve lived through such terrible times and there are people who’ve lived through much, much worse. But we see them living anyway, when they’re more spirit than body, when they’re more sores than skin, when they’re burned and in agony, when flies lay eggs in the corners of the eyes of their children, they live. I don’t know if it’s not braver to die, but I recognise the habit, the addiction of being alive. We don’t want death, we don’t want After Life, we want life, here and now. And if we can find hope anywhere, anyhow, that’s it, that’s the best we can do. So bless us anyway, we want more life. Thus spake the prophet!
Then we sang the chorus of Depeche Mode's "Blasphemous Rumours" like a Taize chant:

I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours
But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour
And when I die I expect to find Him laughing
We had a ritual, "Sacred Cows," of submerging and washing away names and images of God from paper in bowls of water, and had a wonderful poem written by a member of Journey's writing group, "Queer Ink," reflecting on the content of the "Atheism for Lent" Course, asking, "What is the name of this god you disbelieve in?"
Then Dave performed George Michael's "Praying for Time:"

I edited one of Pete Rollins' parables so that it was short enough for a reading:
There was once a preacher who possessed an unusual but powerful gift. Far from encouraging people’s religious beliefs, he found that from an early age, when he prayed for people, they would lose their religious beliefs, beliefs about the prophets, about the sacred Scriptures, even about God. Now he rarely prayed for others, instead limiting himself to sermons.

One day, however, whilst travelling across the country, he found himself in conversation with a businessman who happened to be going in the same direction. This businessman was very wealthy, having made his money in the world of international banking. The conversation had begun because the businessman possessed a deep faith and had noticed the preacher reading from the Bible. He introduced himself and they began to talk. As they chatted together, the rich man told the preacher all about his faith in God and his love of Christ. It turned out that although he worked hard in his work he was not really interested in worldly goods.

“The world of business is a cold one,” he confided to the preacher, “and in my line of work there are situations in which I find myself that challenge my Christian convictions. I try to remain true to my faith. Indeed, it is my faith that stops me from getting too caught up in that heartless world of work, reminding me that I am really a man of God.”

The preacher thought for a moment and then asked, “Can I pray for you?” The businessman readily agreed, not knowing what he was letting himself in for. And sure enough, after the preached had said his simple prayer, the businessman opened his eyes in astonishment. “What a fool I have been for all these years,” he said. “There is no God who is looking out for me, there are no sacred texts to guide me, there is no spirit to inspire me.”

They parted company and the businessman returned home to work. But now that he no longer had any religious beliefs to make him question his work and to hold it lightly, knowing himself to be, deep down, a man of God, he was no longer able to continue with it. Faced with the fact that he was now just a hard-nosed businessman working in a corrupt system, he began to despise himself. And so, shortly after his meeting with the preacher, he gave up his line of work completely, gave the money he had accumulated to the poor, and started to use his considerable expertise helping a local charity.

One day, years later, he happened upon the preacher again. He ran up to him and fell to his knees. “Thank you,” he cried, “for helping me to lose my religion and find my faith.”
I also modified a wonderful poem by Kester Brewin, which he shared on his blog this morning, and added a few lines of my own (inspired by Pete):
Today, there is no hope.
God is nowhere.

There is no resurrection,
No looking forward to a Sunday which does not yet exist in even the wildest imaginations.
There is no prayer, no solace, no point.
God has died.
It’s over. Finished.

The best you can do is carry on the memory.
The only remainder of belief (now all has been strung up and screwed up) is to consider that maybe his life was well lived,
And that helping the poor, and standing up for the oppressed
Was worth dying for.

God has died.
But we live still… this Friday… to do Good.

God is nowhere.
God is now here.
Then I said:
During our closing song, we invite you blow out a candle to symbolise your doubt, disbelief and atheism, and to recollect that we all find our home in Babylon, in exile, forsaken by God, without God and yet with God still.
And while we sang Pádraig ô Tuama's "Maranatha," we extinguished all the candles in the room and then I closed the service, in the dark, by saying:
At three o’clock we heard him cry a loud lament. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I think I also heard him say, “It is finished. Go in pieces to love and serve the Lord.” Amen.
We left the room as it was... to re-light all the candles as part of the liturgy on Easter Sunday.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Forsaken by God (2)

Here's some of the material that we're using for the "Forsaken by God" Good Friday service that the "Atheism for Lent" are putting together at Journey, Birmingham, UK, tomorrow, 3pm.

Sydney Carter's "Friday Morning" will sound awesome when played by Dave, our very talented musician.

It was on a Friday morning
That they took me from the cell,
And I saw they had a carpenter
To crucify as well.
You can blame it on to Pilate,
You can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil,
It’s God I accuse.

Chorus: “It’s God they ought to crucify,
Instead of you and me,”
I said to the carpenter
A-hanging on the tree.

You can blame it on to Adam,
You can blame it on to Eve,
You can blame it on the apple,
But that I can’t believe.
It was God that made the Devil,
The woman and the man,
And there wouldn’t be an apple,
If it wasn’t in the plan.

Now Barabbas was a killer,
And they let Barabbas go.
But you are being crucified
For nothing here below.
But God is up in heaven
And he doesn’t do a thing,
With a million angels watching,
And they never move a wing.

“To hell with Jehovah,”
To the carpenter I said.
“I wish that a carpenter
Had made this world instead.
Goodbye and good luck to you,
Our way will soon divide.
Remember me in heaven,
The man you hung beside.”

And we'll end with Pádraig ô Tuama's "Maranatha."

Maranatha from Peter Rollins on Vimeo.

You are my strength, but I am weak
You are my strength, but I am weak
You are my strength, but I am weak
Maranatha, maranatha, maranatha.
I’ve given up some times when I've been tired
I've given up some times when I've been tired
I've given up some times when I've been tired
Does it move you? Does it move you? Does it move you?

I've fucked it up so many times
I've fucked it up so many times
I've fucked it up so many times
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

I've found my home in Babylon
I've found my home in Babylon
I've found my home in Bablyon
Here in Exile, here in Exile, here in Exile.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Forsaken by God (1)

To mark the end of the “Atheism for LentCourse, the group is going to create a worship service for Good Friday to reflect on the content of the Course. "Forsaken by God." Remembering Jesus’ words on the Cross and God’s own atheism, this service will also help us to feel something of what God felt at the Crucifixion when God experienced the absence of God.

How might a worship service enable us to call to mind those times when we have been guilty of what these great atheist critics of religion accuse us? Of using Christianity instrumentally? To fulfil our own psychological needs, desires and wishes? To legitimise various forms of oppression and justify our social complacency? Or to enact revenge through moral superiority?

What kinds of words, acts and performances can we stage to encourage others to ask these questions?

How might a worship service allow us to recollect through liturgy and ritual our doubts and our uncertainties?

Our very real experiences of the absence of the presence of God?

Our theism, atheism and a/theism?

Thinking ahead to the "Forsaken by God" service, I came across this song, "Church of No Religion" by Ed Harcourt:

Now it’s time to readdress
What is sacred?
Are you sacred?
Are you cursed or are you blessed?
Were you created
From all this hatred?

And I don’t need a devil to change my mind
And I don’t need an angel to keep me in line
I've got my head screwed on like a nail in a cross
And I'll make my own decisions

And so the cut it overfloweth
Into the Red Sea
Into the Dead Sea
Above the mountain or deep below it
It flows as freely
As you believe me

And I don’t need a devil to change my mind
And I don’t need an angel to keep me in line
I've got my head screwed on like a nail in a cross
In the church of no religion

You would think all of your cardinal sins will stay underground
You have ruined almost everything so step down down down down down

All your money and all your faith
All your miracles and holy visions
Won’t make the world a better place
So take a pew and stop to listen

I’m tellin’ you the truth
If World War III comes soon
You’ll find me singin’ in a church
Singin’ in a church
Singin’ in a church
Of no religion

Get the scissors, cut the strings
It’s time to move on
It’s time to move on
The puppeteer is out of time
We’ve waited so long
We’ve waited so long

And I don’t need a devil to change my mind
And I don’t need an angel to keep me in line
I’ve got my head screwed on like a nail in a cross
And I’ll make my own decisions

You will think all your cardinal sins will stay underground
You’ve ruined almost everything so step down down down down down

All your money and all your faith
All your miracles and holy visions
Won’t make the world a better place
So take a pew and stop to listen

I’m tellin’ you the truth
If World War III comes soon
You’ll find me singin’ in a church
Singin’ in a church
Singin’ in a church
Of no religion

Singing in a church
Singing in a church
Singing in a church
Of no religion

Singin’ in a church, singin’ in a church
Preachin’ in a church of no religion
Singin’ in a church, livin’ in a church
Prayin’ in a church of no religion

Singin’ in a church
Singin’ in a church
Singin’ in a church
Of no religion

Monday, April 18, 2011

Is Continental Philosophy of Religion Dead?

Jack Caputo's keynote from last week's Postmodernism, Culture and Religion 4 conference, "The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion," is now available online here as an audio file. You can listen to the keynote address, entitled, "Is Continental Philosophy of Religion as We Know It Dead?", as well as B. Keith Putt's introduction.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Atheism for Lent: Pete Rollins

Tonight at the "Atheism for Lent" discussion group, we talked about the atheist critiques of religion that we have been looking at in the context of the Lenten narrative wherein God confesses God's own atheism and in the context of the Journey's own story.

The discussion focused less on Rollins' notion of a/theism (see the below posts for the material I produced) and more on the wider implications of the "Atheism for Lent" Course as a whole for Journey as a community, and I was glad to have been able to stimulate so much reflection in this direction. I was hoping that the Course would be useful for Journey, and not just an intellectual exercise. In particular, we talked about the way in which Journey's move from a church under a railway arch to a vegetarian cafe reflects a hope for fewer barriers to participation and we related this to the move from an atheistic-theistic dualism to the concept of a/theism.

Then we moved on to discuss ideas for the Good Friday "Forsaken by God" service that the group will be creating. We explored ideas for readings and music, and things will continue to take shape over the next few days.

Religion as A/Theism: Rollins (1)

Religion as A/Theism: Rollins (2)

Religion as A/Theism: Rollins (3)

Religion as A/Theism: Rollins (4)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Religion as A/Theism: Rollins (4)

While the (more traditional) strands of negative theology in Pete Rollins’ first publication, How (Not) to Speak of God, form a type of ‘believing in God while remaining dubious about what one believes about God’ (p.26), more radical implications can be drawn, since there can be not just doubt about ‘who or what God is’ but, further, ‘doubt about if God is’ (interview with Pete for my PhD thesis).

Rollins’ second book, The Fidelity of Betrayal, follows the deconstructive theology of Derridean philosopher John D. Caputo to make a distinction between, on the one hand, the name and being of God and, on the other, the event of God. This is in order suggest a betrayal of religious beliefs and practices that emphasise the existence of God in fidelity to those that encourage the transformative event of God.

This more radical thread within Rollins’ work stresses that ‘[f]or Christians, it is a happening, an event, that we affirm and respond to, regardless of the ebbs and flows of our abstract theological reflections concerning the source and nature of this happening,’ such that ‘[t]here is no doubt for the believer that God dwells with us (as an event), yet there is a deep uncertainty about who, what, or even if God is (as a being)’ (The Fidelity of Betrayal, pp.141 and 144). This betrayal, negation or atheism is, Rollins suggests, integral to the Christian religion.

This means that critics of religion can be helpful in demonstrating the essentially a/theistic nature of Christianity. In particular, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, as well as contemporary atheists like Derren Brown and Ricky Gervais, can aid our own recollection of and reflection upon those experiences of doubt and uncertainty in which we most keenly feel isolated from and abandoned by God. This is, after all, an experience that ‘we bear witness to at the very heart of Christianity itself’ (Rollins, "Dis-Courses Theory [Part 3]").

For in the Cross, when Christ cries out, “My God! my God! why have you forsaken me?” we see that the absence of God, the felt absence of the divine, is brought into the very heart of the faith. Instead of seeing it as some kind of test that we have to endure, or the result of our sin and our finitude, what we see is God experiencing the absence of God. Therefore the absence of God is seen to be a part of the life of faith. If a Christian is to participate in the Crucifixion, to stand with Christ, then part of the Christian experience is that absence itself ("Dis-Courses Theory [Part 3]").
This is, however, no ‘simple atheism’ (Ikon, "The God Delusion," Greenbelt Arts Festival, Aug 26 2007), for Christ’s cry represents God’s own feelings of abandonment by God, God’s own doubt, God’s own atheism.

This is an a/theism, then, that is both a theistic atheism in the tradition of negative theology – a mystical affirmation of God’s absence, or “distance” from, our beliefs and practices that idolatrously attempt to grasp and make God present – and a more radically atheistic theism – an existential affirmation of the absence of God’s presence itself. The latter is ‘analogous to the experience of waiting for one whom we love in a café. The later they are, the more we experience their absence. Our beloved is absent to everyone in the room but we are the only one who feels it’ (Ikon, "Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?" in Rollins, How [Not] to Speak of God, p.82). This is perhaps, then, what Rollins means when he says that ‘[o]nly the Christian can be an atheist’ (here).

What does the local atheism of our own religious beliefs and practices look like? Do we see that atheism as integral to our theism? Do our beliefs and practices celebrate or disavow our own experiences of doubt, disbelief, and abandonment by God?

If Christianity is a/theistic...

...what happens to my faith?