You know, I like John Owen, but I like him in a way that isn’t super interesting to talk about. I’m currently reading an abridged version of Owen’s Communion With God – from the same series as when I was writing about The Spirit and the Church (for instance here). For the purpose of this blog, I skipped over it, because I recognised that I didn’t have a lot to say. Owen kept going around saying unremarkable things. There wasn’t a lot for me to discuss. I mean, I’ll give you a couple examples.
“God’s love is like the sun, always the same in its light, though a cloud may sometimes hide it. Our love is like the moon. Sometimes it is full. Sometimes it is only a thin crescent.”
“The love of the Father is eternal. He loved us from before the foundation of the world. Before we ever existed or had done the least good, He thought of us and loved us and delighted in us.”
“The love of the Father is freely given to us. He loves us because He wanted to love us.”
All fine and reasonable, and not worth talking about at length. There isn’t any special system of thought going on. It’s not the sort of thing I write about.
Let’s even just clarify that briefly, for the newcomers. With this blog, I like to explore different systems and ideas from within Christianity. It’s anthropological, in some ways – so that regardless of whether you’re religious or non-religious, you can come in and go ‘Oh, that’s why Baptists think that.’ And in some ways I guess that’s part of a wider project, maybe even just for myself, of redefining the boundary between public and private faith. I used to write a lot of pretty scrappy stuff – just picking fights and arguing my case and shouting about different articles. And I think I’ve largely moved past that. Or rather, those are conversations that I have privately. By comparison, the stuff I focus on here is a relatively neutral overview of a thing someone said. I’ll give you a couple ideas from different theologians, tell you what they’ve got to say, and you can much take it from there. It’s pretty low stakes. Sometimes it’s just interesting to know what the Baptists are up to.
I guess the downside of that approach is that we end up with a bit of a one-sided view of Christianity. Our faith is personal, practical, it requires commitment, it’s very intimate – and that’s not so much the side of things I focus on. There’s a bunch of people who do focus on that side of things (6 Practical Ways To Share Your Faith During Coronavirus), so it’s not like there’s a gap in the market. I’m more trying to note that sometimes on this blog, the really basic personal elements of Christianity can get lost in the bustle. When I read Owen, it spoke to me. That doesn’t mean it’s important for you or anybody else to know about Communion With God – it just spoke to me. I mean fuck – here’s me just trying to find some interesting shit to talk about for the blog, and all I’m getting are personal revelations – completely fucking unusable. But, in the name of never missing an opportunity, I figured we might talk about why they’re so unusable. It’s valuable to think about how Christianity is discussed on this site, and the parts of Christianity that maybe don’t get appropriate airtime (at least here) as a result.
There’s this longstanding question in Christianity around how we communicate with God – not just in our own individual minds, but more specifically in the context of a church service. In its shortest form, the question goes ‘so how does church work, then?’ In theory, we all have our own weird little relationships with God, and we all communicate in different ways and different modes – but then we’re all supposed to turn up to church on Sunday morning, and one guy up the front preaches the Gospel, and that’s meant to be part of how we connect with God. It’s a single form that’s meant to work for everyone.
And there’s obviously a lot of diversity in terms of how people understand the importance of a church service more broadly. Not everyone would say that preaching the Gospel is the most important part. Some people would say it’s taking Mass, or taking communion. Some people would say it’s the routine, the fellowship, the reminder of who you are and what the guiding principles of your life should be. Personally, I grew up in a Pentecostal church, so for me it’s always been the worship. The preaching was alright, but it was always – you know, we’d heard it before. The worship was the place of true communion with the divine. Now, this situation created certain problems for the worship team. They facilitated the relationship between the church and the almighty God, and so – well, in short, they had to do a bunch of work to avoid getting fat heads. But there were also theological questions at stake. How important is the ability to play well? It’s got to be a conducive atmosphere, right, it’s got to set a mood so that people feel empowered to meet with God – but the worship team aren’t doing anything magic, they’re just setting a mood – but they have to set the mood good, because if people get distracted by your shit key change they’ll stop engaging with God and start giggling at how you’re a rubbish musician, and then you will have ruined an encounter with God, you prick.
However you understand the roles and responsibilities of the worship team, there’s clearly a very specific tension for people who are in this weird role of facilitating some sort of communion between God and the individual. It’s a tension similarly experienced by the people giving the Sunday morning sermon. What does God want them to say? How is God wanting to use that talk to reach out to people? And beyond that, what does it mean to be ‘good’ at giving a sermon? How important is the skill of public speaking? How’s your pacing, or your ability to read a room and adapt your delivery? Do those things even matter? Increasingly, I’m coming to the conclusion that they’re probably not that important. It’s probably less about the structure of the sermon and more about the procession of a bunch of individual, intimate relationships with the infinite divine that may or may not have all that much to do with the dingus up the front. The action is in the private arena, not the public. By contrast, here I mostly focus on the public side of things. I’ve just come across a 2003 Roman Catholic study of the New Age movement, called A Christian Reflection on the New Age. It sounds pretty entertaining, and we might read through it at some point. It’s apparently tied to a 1989 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called Aspects of Christian Meditation, where the Congregation warned against incorporating too much Eastern meditation into your meditative diet, and – anyway, it sounds fucking great. I just want to note in the meantime that it is just the public stuff. There are other, private things going on, even if I’m not talking about them so much.