Sunday, 7 October 2012

On Unsubstantiated Divine Guidance

Of course, it was very easy for Jazmine. Just strolled over, informed me that she's leaving the Beaker Folk. She tells me that God's will is for her to find a less liberal, more Biblical group. And naturally, I've respected her views and God's will. Although, in keeping with the Beaker tradition, I'm keeping the deposit. It's a bit sad, but there you go.

But when you inhabit the less institutionally-minded fringes of nonconformity as we do here in the Beaker Folk, it's hard to remember how wrenching the considerations of leaving a church and joining another are to some people. When we hear the words "swimming the Tiber", we are inclined to think of a relaxed dip on a sunny Mediterranean afternoon. We forget the tricky nature of Tiberial natation, what with all the bodies of Roman Emperors and their enemies that have ended up in those waters down the ages. People going to or from Rome have often agonised over their decisions - after all, the See of St Peter makes some fairly expansive claims, and some churches make some fairly strong claims about it in their turn. One needs to consider the Church's (or churches') claims, and the witness of tradition, reason and Scripture.

For people of Drayton Parslow's ilk, on the other hand, things are different. With a multitude of more-or-less equivalent  religious groups making similar claims and with comparable governance, the threat of defections and schism hangs constantly in the air like a dyspeptic pigeon. The merest slip of the tongue - rendering "Jonah" instead of "Noah", or confusing the kings of Israel with those of Judah - is enough for people to wonder whether the pastor is truly biblical enough. Knives are sharpened by ambitious deacons, and people consider their positions. Those trotting off from the Elim Pentecostal Baptists to the Salem Baptist Pentecostals will explain the nuances of their understanding of the charismatic gifts; a subtle difference in interpretation of the book of Job. Or the ultimate explanation is trotted out, as today - "God told me to leave".

The thing is, "I believe God is telling us to join the Eighth-Day Arameans" is a difficult statement to counter. Your options are either "no he isn't", or "you're deluded" or "I think God may be wrong on this one." All of which are tricky messages. The message you're really getting from them is that they're unhappy, for unspecified reasons. It may be deep doctrinal considerations (as with those Baptists in Westoning who had a schism over whether or not to have an organ). It may be personal taste - maybe they're fed up with your choice in clerical wear. It could be that your belief in the four persons of the Trinity, and the possibility of becoming a new Buddha, are irking their Calvinist sensibilities.

So often, the reasons given for someone leaving a situation are so different from reality. When our last Beaker Quire fell apart, they blamed it on "musical differences". Which meant Arfur, who could play three chords (and a fourth, but the strings buzzed) had got sick to the back teeth with Wodney, who knew only two, different chords. And they were both diminished. Obviously what was really needed was an openness to learn. And that whole "banjos at dawn" affair was quite needless, in retrospect. Or, alternatively, Arfur could just have said "God told me to seek new musical directions".

Like what happened a friend of mine who was woken up by his girlfriend, to be told she was leaving him because "God told me you're the wrong man." God, in these circumstances, being only one step down in the irrefutability stakes from her mother.

The whole "God told me" thing is a flaw in the whole idea, at the start of a church meeting, of praying for guidance. Because once you've asked God to put his or her oar (and awe) in, you're more or less bound to listen to everybody who suddenly wakes up and decides they're the divine mouthpiece. They could be subconsciously aware they've got a weak argument, and therefore the Divine Guidance aspect helps to bolster their flimsy case. They may be unsure of their rhetorical skills and needing a bit of backup. They could have delusions of prophecy, or indeed grandeur - being convinced that every word they say is inspired.  They could be facing the old "it never happened in Archdruid Ivan's day" gambit, or the "unspecified people feel very strongly that..." move, and needing a stronger card to play.

Or maybe God told them. It's always a possibility. But then what happens when somebody else announces God has told them the opposite? It's only when God starts disagreeing with Godself that the chance to reintroduce logic and consensus returns.

Lest anyone think this only applies to the foot-soldiers of the religious community, I should point out, with the backing of Keith Thomas,  that a member of the laity claiming God's backing is often merely making up for a lack of perceived authority. Whereas, I would suggest, a church-leader doing the same thing is just plain dangerous.

For reference, I always employ the following prayer before our Moots:

"O eternal and wise God, we pray for your guidance on all our decisions today. But we'd like to add the caveat that, should you deign to bless us with a glimpse of your perfect will, whoever hears your words may back them up with sound Scriptural and logical reasoning. Frankly, just taking their word for it is asking for trouble. Amen."

It sometimes works.


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  2. Yeah, but if you start studying scripture and asking advice from trusted fellow-believers, which I think you may be hinting at and which is the recommended procedure in some circles, you might come to the conclusion that it wasn't God at all speaking to you, but rather your own preferences, which now that you look at them again don't seem all that justified...and that's unpleasant.

    There was a case years ago about a religous difference about Santa Claus, which sounds funny, but wasn't, really. The husband of a family with young children converted to one of those groups which thinks that Santa is a lure of the devil, and the wife was just as devoted a member of the family's original church, a more mainstream group that had no particular objection to Santa. Both were quite convinced they were right - God both did and didn't have an objection to Santa, if you will. I don't know how it turned out long term.

  3. I have a great deal of respect for those who choose to swim the Tiber or who opt to change churches for reasons that are normally due to their treatment by their existing communities. At least do it for reasons that can be justified. It's the church hopping consumer that gets my goat. If they want to be a consumer there are various other citadels that they can visit starting with McDonalds and ending with Tesco.

    Now, theological differences or even cultural differences between believing Christians are harder to stomach. Because from a similar start point they all seem to branch of into diverse paths, like in a maze without any recognizable ends. One way in and one way out. Baptism and Death. Why in the middle of all of it can't they just agree to disagree and to love each other anyway.


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