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on 10 March 2013
Professor Lash is an emeritus Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. It is therefore, with great trepidation, that a humble student should seek to criticise his work. In essence, my argument is that it is too scholarly for the lay reader and that it requires translation in itself.
Despite this need for translation for the lay reader, its basic precepts are theologically sound and also very simple. In chapter one, Lash sets out to ask what kind of experience enables us to acquire knowledge of God. He explores both philosophical and theological interpretations of what "knowledge of God" might be and concludes that not all experience of God is religious and not all "religious" experience constitutes experience of God.
His approach is non-judgemental as he does not seek to define what might be "religious" and not experience of God, and vice versa. This in itself could be seen as the beauty of the book, allowing the reader to find out for him or herself what is their own experience of God and affirming this experience as valid. Similarly, by not describing particular experiences maybe Lash was avoiding naming his own experience and setting it higher than any other.
This approach is also liberating. It allows people seeking experience of God to establish for themselves what is their own experience of God. It is therefore non-prescriptive and defined outside the confines of organised religion. This might, at first, appear threatening to the Church, but in fact organised religion is not discredited by Lash. Lash's approach allows for organised religion to enable valid "experiences of God" but that people's experience of God should not be constrained by religion.
What this book lacked for me as a reader were practical examples. Their absence is in reality an opportunity to ponder what one's own experience of God is and not to interpret that of other people's. Lash could have quoted numerous Biblical examples of people meeting with God but has chosen not to. Why not mention Jesus' baptism, Paul's dramatic conversion on the road to Ephesus or seek to illustrate with Old Testament examples of God, such as the rainbow after the great flood?
This scholarly work lacks grit. For me, it felt that it had been written in the cosy confines of a study of a Cambridge college. This may be true and it is my own prejudices that rail against it. I needed the book to say that you can find God whilst washing the dishes, climbing a mountain or changing a baby's nappy. I think that Lash allows for this but could not possibly name this. It is almost by "naming" possible experience he feels that this would alienate the reader.
The second and third chapters discuss the philosopher William James and how James looks at religion and not experience. Lash states that in James' lecturers, "the topic he sought to circumscribe was that of religion....the notion of experience is not submitted to close scrutiny". In discussing, James and Wittgenstein and other philosophers he is seeking to look at what the very word "experience" means. Such a philosophical debate may be the food of first year divinity students but not that of a poorly read middle-aged mother who graduated many years ago.
I wanted the book to talk about experiencing God through "relationship" with others, in community as well as on one's own. In essence, this book was difficult to read, erudite and annoyingly clever. However, it would be all too easy to "throw the baby out with the bathwater". Its message was one of inclusivity, not exclusivity, of allowing people to find God wherever that might be, whether at evensong at Kings College Chapel or by listening to birdsong in a car park in central Birmingham. It allows for a multiplicity of "experiences" for many and in so doing is extremely encouraging. If only it could be written more simply.
Lash also fails to talk about experiencing God through "relationship" with others, in community as well as on one's own. This in itself leaves the reader without any context. There is plenty of philosophical justification for the validity of "experience" but no consideration of the context. A huge vortex of nothingness prevents the reader from relating this to the Bible, his/her own experience or that of living with others and all that living in community entails.
Finally, the title talks of "Easter in Ordinary" and yet the first few chapters make no mention of suffering, the crucified and risen Christ and how suffering can not only mould but define one's experience of God.
In short, as a student I need to read more...but whether I can be patient enough to wade through the turgid prose is another matter. If I can then maybe I can re-write it as a book for more simple people, myself included!!