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Christianity beyond the comfort-zone,
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This review is from: Insurrection: To Believe is Human; to Doubt, Divine (Paperback)
It is difficult within the context of this review (given necessary brevity and my own limited learning) to do justice to the depth of thought, creativity and passion contained within this book. The author's intention to challenge the reader's assumptions and convictions ensure that the book is not always a comfortable read, but it is all done with generous heart and a keen iconoclastic mind.
Peter's book sets out to challenge what may well be deeply held convictions for the reader, not by bludgeoning, but by directly encouraging self-reflection and a fresh perspective on what many might regard as the true nature of Christian faith. The profound significance of his arguments comes from the fact that this book is avowedly not seeking to be an apologetic for a specific Christian confession (or rejection of another), but rather that is is seeking to address the existential reality of Christianity. This is not a book that can be read coolly from a distance. If this book does not challenge and change you in some way, then I would suggest you have not read it properly.
The author writes with a lucid and engaging style, whilst wearing his considerable learning lightly. As a result the text is eminently quotable, e.g. "It is in experiencing the license of grace rather than the legalism of prohibition that real transformation becomes possible." Whilst it is relatively easy to speak with grandiloquence about God and love, there is so much beauty in section 'We are Desitny' that I almost want to quote the whole chapter, however as a taster:
'It [love[ does not say, "I am sublime, I am beautiful, I am glorious." Love humbly points to others and whispers, "They are beautiful sublime, they are beautiful, they are glorious."
One of Peter's main aims in this book is to expose what Chris Argyris might have described as the contradictions between espoused theory (what we say we believe) and theory-in-use (what we actually believe as evidenced by our actions). A very important example of these contradictions is the fundatmental disconnect between the extent to which individual Christians say they are able to live with doubt and uncertainty, but that this is rarely reflected in church liturgy, hymns and sermons they take part in, which largely present a picture of certainty and security. The question of how to corporately confess and live with doubt and loss openly in the form of shared liturgy is one of the key challenges facing the church today. Interestingly, to get a specific answer as to what this might look like from the author one would need to refer back to his earlier books - e.g. 'How (Not) To Speak of God', written whilst he was part of the Ikon community. I wonder whether the existentialist focus of 'Insurrection' and Peter's critique of 'religion' might also have hampered a more detailed exploration of something as corporate and obedient as liturgy.
However, despite the author's desire to encourage a paradigmatic shift in Christian belief and practice through the creative destruction of pyro-theology, many of his insights do seem to fit consistently alongside mainstream Christian reflection. For example, Peter's argument that what we often desire is God's desire, i.e. we are the focus of God's total and unconditional love - the kind of total love that we realise we cannot get from parent or lovers. In effect God acts as pyschological crutch. However, this argument does not seem at all out of line with the arguments of mainstream theologians e.g. Rowan Williams desire to counter much of the sentimentality in current theology, that "We must get to grips with the idea that we don't contribute anything to God, that God would be the same God if we had never been created. God is simply and eternally happy to be God." Or even Thomas Merton's observation that "Our idea of God tells us more about ourselves than about Him." This is not a negative criticism, but it might suggest that there is nothing as radical as orthodoxy.
Throughout this book Peter's straw-man is 'religion' or 'the God of religion'. Whilst he is careful to define his terms and goes to some length to expose the inherently religious nature of comments such as "I'm spiritual not religious" I cannot help but feel that at times he is being too simplistic. In this respect I reminded of CS Lewis' analogy of theology being something like a map. Maps (like theology and doctrine) are not the real thing, and are no substitute for experience of the real thing, but they are a useful tool and a resource that contains the accumulated experiences and wisdom of the many generations of explorers that have gone before us. Like most iconoclasts the author runs the danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Peter's interest in Lacan, both direct and via Slavoj Zizek, provides a keen internal gaze, with the book honing in with ruthless precision on the psychological devices that allow many Christians to hold and live with a range of contradictions. I felt my self squirm on more than one occasion as I attempted to muster a 'yeah, but..' response to an unnervingly resonant accusation. However, perhaps as an unintended result of deliberate brevity and directness, insufficient regard is given to the complexities and uncertainties of human motivation. Indeed there may be an argument for saying that the ability to hold such contradictions is both human and in some cases quite healthy. I suspect that a more cautious author would also hesitate to so readily attempt to make windows into men's souls.
Reading Peter's book did bring to mind David Bookless' poem Cracks:
Cracks may be uncomfortable, disturbing gaps BUT could it be that I need them?
Do you believe in cracks? Because I keep looking for God in the [unbroken surface] and find he is hiding in the cracks.
It feels to me as if Peter's aim is strip away the plaster that the church, and we as individual believers, have put up to cover the cracks in our Christian faith. This process of stripping away, though deeply unsettling, leaves something raw, real and genuinely transforming.