3. The God we already know
My own faith journey, together with listening to other people telling about theirs, has led me to two basic convictions. The first is that most of us know more about God than we give ourselves credit for. God has already told us most of what we need to know. The problem is that much of it lies buried and forgotten deep within us. We need help to bring this buried treasure to the surface and to learn to trust, value and work with it. When we do so life is transformed.The second is that God’s creation is good, and we are a part of that good creation; and so life is friendly and can be trusted. Life will teach us most of what else we need to know, if we but pay attention. I am not oblivious to humanity’s failings, but reckon that we are created good with a capacity to get it wrong, rather than that we are created bad but sometimes get it right.
In this section I am going to say more about these two key convictions, and why and how I have come to hold them. I will also suggest ways in which you can become more aware of them in your own life.
I came into Christian faith through my membership of a middle of the road Anglican church in suburban London. It wasn’t a church that ‘pushed anything’ at me very much, which often felt like a weakness when I was young because I never felt I knew my Bible as well as my more evangelical Christian friends. But as I’ve grown older I’ve come to see it as a great blessing for which I’m deeply grateful because it allowed a much more intuitive, and for me much more natural, faith to grow. I used to go to church on a Sunday morning and then I’d go for a walk in the nearby forest before returning home for lunch. While I walked I’d wonder which girl I’d like to go out with, and how Spurs would get on in the match on Saturday, and I’d also ask if God existed, and what life was all about. From time to time I’d talk over my thoughts on the last of these questions with the young curate at our church, and it was he who one day asked me if I’d ever thought of becoming a priest? The idea must have struck a chord within me because some years later at the conclusion of the Midnight communion at Christmas, I had a sudden conviction that priesthood was indeed what God was calling me to. If I’d been asked what I thought becoming a priest would involve me doing, I am clear that I would have replied that I thought it would allow me paid time to walk in the woods and think about God, and that I would find myself having conversations with other people about God. Naïve of me, I admit, but it’s what I thought.
Many years later, by which time I had been ordained as a Church of England priest for some years, I went through a time of deep personal crisis. From being a man who usually went to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow I became a man who had difficulty getting to sleep, and who woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when he did. In the middle of the night my problems always seem huge, and unsolvable, and cause deep dread in my heart and soul. And night after night I was waking up feeling terrible and unable to see my way through the crisis that had enveloped me. Then one night all that changed. I woke up as usual, but felt OK. I’m sure that I stayed on the bed, but it felt as if I was held above the bed, and as sure as day, God spoke to me. I don’t imagine that anyone else awake in the room would have heard anything, and the message in one sense wasn’t telling me anything strikingly original, but the words of reassurance struck deep. To hear them spoken directly, personally to me, is a very different experience from reading them cold off the printed page. And they instantly took away my deep sense of anxiety. The crisis took much longer to resolve itself, and there remained much pain ahead, but the deep angst was gone. I knew that God loved, accepted and trusted me whatever. I think that God has nearly always been real for me, but I had never had an experience like that before and I was overwhelmed by it. Luckily I had a friend who confirmed my experience and encouraged me to trust it, which is what I very much wanted to do. And then slowly, a number of other things happened, and things began to fall into place.
First of all I came across the work of what was then called ‘The Alister Hardy Research Unit’. Alister Hardy was Professor of Marine Biology at Oxford until he retired in the 1960s, and set up the Unit to do some scientific research into people’s religious experience. He put an advertisement in the Sunday papers inviting people to write to him if “you have ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which was different from your everyday self.” He was encouraged by the high level of response he had, and a book was published [‘Seeing the Invisible’ by Maxwell and Tschudin, pub Arkana] telling some of the stories he received and distinguishing types of experience. My experience fell right into the middle of one of these types, and I realised that it was not so unusual. Indeed surveys commissioned in Nottingham and Leeds by the Research Unit suggested that two thirds of adults questioned claim to have had an experience of this sort at some time in their lives. [cf ’Exploring Inner Space’ by David Hay, pub Mowbray 1982] As David Hay, a later Director of the Unit, summarised:
National surveys had told us that about half the adult population of Britain would claim to have a spirituality that is grounded on their personal experience. In-depth work where there was time to build up trust repeatedly showed that approximately two thirds of those interviewed were prepared to acknowledge and talk about their spirituality. These figures are comparable to and in some cases higher than rates reported for the United States, which in terms of formal religious practice is a much more religious country than Britain.
Those people we have spoken with in the past about such moments of spiritual or religious insight, have usually taken them to be intimations of the plausibility of the religious interpretation of life, though not necessarily of Christianity. Contrary to certain commonly held stereotypes, they are more likely than other people to be psychologically well balanced and to be happy. They typically speak of one of the outcomes of their experience as an increasing desire to care for those close to them as well as a sense of responsibility for the larger community and the physical environment.
[‘Understanding the spirituality of people who don’t go to church’ by Hay and Hunt 2000]
Secondly, I saw that the Bible is full of stories of people being addressed by God. Indeed, a good description of the Bible is to say that it is a book which tells how God spoke to a people over a long period of time.
These two things combined took me right back to my original, naïve, sense of calling to priesthood, and awakened in me the desire to be the sort of priest that I felt God originally called me to be. That would mean that I would need time to take seriously these moments when God spoke to me, and I would need to try to nurture a sense of openness to this God Who speaks. It also meant that I felt called to try to support and encourage others who have had similar experiences.
Thirdly, I read ‘The Historical Figure of Jesus’ by E. P. Sanders [pub Penguin Books 1993], a leading New Testament theologian. Sanders points out that scholars often have difficulty distinguishing between the words of the historical Jesus and the words which the early church later attributed to Him.
Christians believed that Jesus had ascended into heaven and that they could address him in prayer. Sometimes he answered. These answers they attributed to ‘the Lord’. We now want to know which Lord: Jesus before he was crucified, or the risen Lord resident in heaven? The Christians thought it was all the same Lord………..In other terms, the Spirit that freely communicated with Paul and other Christians could be thought of as the Spirit of the risen Lord, who was in some way or other continuous with the historical Jesus.
What I found interesting, and what had never struck me before in quite this way before, was the idea that the early Christians identified the Spirit that spoke to Paul and other New Testament Christians with the Jesus who walked about Palestine. If this is true, then why can we not say that the Spirit that speaks to people today is also to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth? Put it more personally and specifically, maybe I can say, maybe I should have the courage to recognise, that the voice that spoke to me when I woke up that night in bed was the voice of the Risen Jesus.
The more that I thought about this, the more comfortable I became with it. And if this is so for me, why not for others too? When I hear other people talk about their religious experiences of God I find it quite natural to draw the conclusion that these are quite possibly encounters with the Risen Christ. Perhaps the two thirds of the population who claim to have had some sort of religious experience are in fact being addressed by the Risen Lord? I am not suggesting that the religious experiences of which David Hay speaks are all necessarily experiences of the risen Lord, but I am suggesting that we ought to be willing to assume that they might be. At a time when the institutional churches are in decline across western Europe, we would be foolish not to be willing to listen to the voice of our Risen Lord even if the words are not coming from where we might expect them!
Even as I write this I can hear a cautionary voice in my head. It reminds me that some people have done some pretty terrible things because they thought that Jesus had told them to do so. Isn’t what I’m saying here very dangerous? There is truth in what this cautionary voice is saying. There is danger here. But is there not also danger in not attending to what might plausibly be the voice of the Risen Lord addressing us? Is it not true that if we refused to touch anything that had a potential danger in it we would end up by not touching anything much at all? Is it not true that if we suppress something that is in us, then there is a real danger that it will manifest itself in some other less healthy way?
How might we begin to take our religious experiences of God more seriously? And what checks and balances can we find that will help us guard against our mis-reading or mis-using them?
A Personal Bible
I have suggested that one way of describing the Bible is to say that it is a book that tells of how God has spoken with a people over a long period of time. The Bible tells how God spoke through a wide range of things. Let me offer you a list of some of those ways:
You could no doubt add to this list.
I believe that in addition to ‘The Bible’ we each have access to what I call our own ‘Personal Bible’, the ways that God has ‘spoken’ to us through our lives. Go through the above list and make your own list containing the ways that God has spoken to you at some point in your life. Only list what lies within your experience. So if you agree that God can speak through dreams, but God has not so far spoken to you through a dream, don’t put dreams on your list.
It may be that other categories come to you as you make this list, but which are not in the Bible. [ e.g. photographs and novels]. Add them to your list, and when your list is finished [it will never be really finished, you can always add to it] then, next to each category, note down a specific example. So if you’ve written music on your list, next to it write the name of a particular piece of music through which God had spoken to you. And next to that, if you can recall it, write what it was that you felt God was saying to you through it: see if you can find a word, phrase or short sentence, that catches the meaning.
I would guess that if you put all these words, phrases and sentences on one sheet of paper, there will be a consistent message, and they will give you a sense of Who this God is Who has been addressing you.
Now you have what I call your own ‘Personal Bible.’ One of the amazing things about the Bible is that the words in it continue to speak to us, centuries after they were written. They seem to stay alive. Like coals, even when they seem dead, you can breathe on them and bring them back to life. This is what the preacher tries to do every Sunday morning in their sermon: making the Bible’s words live for us anew.
Well the same is true for the things you’ve written in your Personal Bible. You will find that if you revisit the things in it, they will continue to speak to you. So listen again to that piece of music; revisit in your imagination that special place; imagine yourself with that person who was so important to you.
You might like to revisit one of the things in your personal bible each day, on a regular basis. It may well be that God is saying something different to you now than what you sensed God saying at the original time. It may be that in a time of trouble, you could name your trouble to yourself and to God, and then revisit something in your Personal Bible and see if God is saying something to you through it about what is on your mind.
One other thing might surprise you. Look again at the list you wrote of the ways through which God has spoken to you during your life so far. What are the three or four ways through which God has spoken to you most often? My guess is that they will be both painful and difficult times; and things that you very much enjoy doing. Just pause and digest that latter fact. God seems to be able to speak to us successfully and often when we are doing something we enjoy. So we ought as a matter of spiritual discipline, to spend time doing enjoyable things, should we not?
I have a personal bible, with memories of moments when God spoke to me, poems that have touched me deeply, pictures that I value, and various ‘bon mots’ and prayers that are important to me. I read parts of it each day, after I’ve said my prayers and read my Bible. It’s my greatest treasure.