Beginning in the middle 2

I said in the last post:

one of my reasons for starting this project was to make some kind of devotional fresh start, to get ‘back to basics’ (if British readers can ignore the nasty resonances of that phrase) – even though any complete ‘fresh start’ is always an illusion.

Let me explain that a bit further.

  1. Every so often as I was growing up I went through religious ‘crisis experiences’, in each of which I was convinced that I had been drawn to a wholly new start: to throw out my lukewarm and half-hearted ways, and embark upon a new life of commitment and authenticity. The religious atmosphere in which I was growing up gave me convenient names for these, at least to begin with. I called the first ‘conversion’ and the second ‘baptism in the Spirit’. Things got a bit more confusing when the third arrived and felt more dramatic than the second, but I didn’t let this worry me too much. What did eventually worry me was the onset of crisis-fatigue. It becomes harder and harder to believe that a new revolution was going to ‘stick’ when you have already been through several, and know that the new regime fairly swiftly comes to resemble the old – and, worse, that the effects of the revolution are only preserved by rather desperate attempts to go on generating a hothouse atmosphere in services or prayergroups, in which the intense feelings of the crisis can be rekindled without too much worry about the content…
  2. Another thing about these crises: I tended to assume that they had to involve a stripping away of all the compromised accretions of my life, and returning to a single-hearted purity. I was always stepping back from complexity into simplicity. All the negotiations, deliberations and calculations of ordinary life would be shown up to be just so many ways of avoiding the clarity and absoluteness of the Gospel’s demands on my life; and I would discover that what I had been lacking was not understanding or subtlety or wisdom but the will to put the simple Gospel into practice…

Fast forward several years, to an academic theologian who has left the religious atmosphere of his youth for chillier climes, but who nevertheless finds himself tempted from time to time with an old vision. When the complexities and doubts of his theological investigations seem to be overwhelming him, so that he no longer knows quite where he stands, and (on bad days) no longer knows quite what he believes, he is tempted to think that what he needs is a revolution – and a revolution that will consist in an act of will, seizing hold of simplicity. The temptation comes in two forms. On the one hand, on the gloomiest days, he is tempted to seize hold of the simplicity of atheism. A voice in his head suggests that it is only vacillation, only compromise and weakness of will that keeps him from cutting through the knots in which he has tied himself and admitting to himself and to the world that he no longer believes. Strip all this away! the voice says; Start again! On brighter days, a similar temptation calls in a different direction: to cut away all this complexity and subtlety in favour of simple faith.

The trouble is, I find I don’t believe in such revolutions. It is partly revolution-fatigue: the knowledge that I have been here before, and the belief that it will only make a temporary difference. It is mostly, however, the belief that the stripping away of complexity, deliberation, calculation and negotiation would be a betrayal. I no longer think things are that simple. Some of the complexity might be weak compromise and self-delusion, but some of it at least emerges from living in a complex world, with a faith whose history, structure, and contemporary reality are themselves ineradicably complex. An heroic act of will, cutting through the dross and returning to simplicity, would be a denial of much of what I think I know: a comforting illusion, a falsehood.

When the last serious bout of such longing for revolution was upon me, a couple of years ago, a new thought struck me. I realised that what I needed was not a revolutionary act of will, but instead the building of a new, ongoing, practice of contemplation. A new attention to the sources of my faith, right in the midst of the persisting complexity and negotiation. Not starting again, but the building in to a life already running of a more constant, more attentive reference to the heart of faith. How about, I thought, a return to the Gospel of Mark: not as a turning away from what I currently am (an academic theologian with all sorts of questions and opinions and involvements and worries), but precisely as what I currently am: an attempt to bring all of what I am to all of this text, and see what (over time, with effort) emerges.

One Thought on “Beginning in the middle 2

  1. Rachel on April 28, 2005 at 8:52 am said:

    Well, let me be the first to make a comment. (Probably not a fresh start). Interesting that the fresh start you describe has to do with the establishment of new fundamental relationships between complex particulars. so you don’t have to get at some simplified essence of your identity or of Mark’s Gospel in order to start. Maybe that’s a bit like the start of Mark (establishing new fundamental relationships between Jesus of Nazareth and some community’s reading of the Hebrew Bible)?

    ps like the graphics 🙂

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