I’m just over half way through my course of chemotherapy, and having determined to try and use these six months as a sabbatical space, as best I could, found myself wondering what this time has taught me so far. I then broadened the question so that it became ‘what has life taught me so far?’ With the implied supplementary questions, ‘so what remains to be learnt?’ and ‘have you incarnated what you think you’ve learnt?’
As I mulled my question I realised that one of the most important things that life has taught me, is the value of good questions. I’ve learnt that questioning is good, exploring is good, curiosity is good. Indeed for me it’s God-given and life-giving; it’s what makes life interesting. It lies at the heart of what it means to be human. Its one of the most important marks of our being made ‘in the image of God’.
I remember as a teenager spending time walking in nearby Epping Forest, enjoying being in the natural world, and asking myself questions. I’d wonder how Spurs would get on in the match on Saturday, and which girl in our group I might like to go out with. But I’d also ask myself questions like: ‘Why am I here?’, ‘What is life all about?’, ‘What’s the point of it?’, ‘Is there a God, and if so what sort of God are we dealing with?’, ‘Where do I come from before my birth?’, ‘What happens after death?’, ‘Why are human beings both so creative yet also so destructive?’, ‘How might we humans manage things better between us?’.
Nobody else I knew seemed much interested in questions like these. They were never mentioned in any lesson at school. So asking them felt a rather solitary and isolating business [as well as a rich and stimulating one]…….. until I started going to talk with the young priest at our church. I have no memory of how that began, or how often it happened: no memory of what he said in response. But clearly he took my questioning seriously or I wouldn’t have returned. And one day he suggested that I perhaps ought to wonder about getting ordained as a priest myself. And ever since I’ve naïvely, and yet perceptively, known that priesthood for me meant having time to walk in the woods asking questions, together with having conversations with other people like the ones I had with our curate. So that’s a second thing life has taught me
A third thing that I’ve learnt from life is what an amazing thing the human mind is; what an astonishing range of gifts consciousness offers us.[ Quite apart from the fascinating question of where consciousness, all the stuff that goes on in our heads, comes from?] .From the rational business of making everyday decisions based on factual information, at one end of the scale, through the gamut of feelings that can move and overwhelm us, to the insights that come from dreams, visions and the arts, to our capacity to imagine and intuit things at the other. The challenging thing it seems to me is to be able to know which of these range of gifts to call upon when, and to learn to use each of them well.
Of course the questions I asked as a teenager, and continue to ask as I grow older, don’t have rational answers as they are not factual questions. Indeed the rational part of my mind may say that there is no point in asking such questions. Which of course is of no use to me, as I cant help but ask them. Whereas my dreams, visions, imagination and intuition explore all manner of possible answers. And in conversation with others I discover what their dreams, visions, imaginations and intuitions have shown them, and find to my surprise and delight that their insights and mine are not so dissimilar. Moreover books, music and the arts enable me to share the insights of people I’ll never have a face to face conversation with, and who very likely lived centuries before I was born and in cultures very different from mine. And yet, again, their insights are not so dissimilar. All of which encourages me to take my own musings and mullings seriously, and to trust them, as I’ve learnt that many others do. This is the fourth thing I’ve learnt.
This is all rather counter cultural at the moment. Politicians and the general public seem to crave simple black and white measurable solutions to problems that, as far as I can see, are all too often complicated and multi-layered, and don’t admit to simple clear measurable answers, but rather require questioning and creative imaginations that are willing to take risks, explore possibilities, and embrace the possibility of failure.
And the church is no better: the thriving churches are those that offer simple clear cut fundamentalist teaching dealt out by authoritative leaders who tell you what to believe and do, and some people clearly welcome that.
Most, of course, don’t: they want to be encouraged and supported in thinking for themselves, and coming to their own conclusions. These people are not going to be attracted to the ‘thriving’ churches. Instead they’ll either go hungry, or they’ll look elsewhere to contexts that encourage their imaginations and intuitions: they’ll explore the natural world, read novels and poetry, listen to music, look at art, develop their own creativity, nurture their own spirituality.
There’s a growing body of evidence that that is exactly what many people are doing. And God will meet them there, even if un-named, and unrecognised. And the church regards it all with the utmost suspicion, because it often seems to act as if it has the sole franchise on the things of God. In doing so its turning its back on the God it claims to serve, and Who is busy primarily outside its walls. Which, sadly, is a fifth thing I’ve learnt!