All this resonates with me because I too am perplexed by the cruelty and pain in the world and I am also at times – sometimes for many consecutive days – cosncious of God only in his absence.
But there are other times when I have an awareness, a knowledge that God is there. This is not any kind of numinous, obviously spiritual experience, but a sense of certainty, wholeness, and wellbing, much as I suppose Richard Holloway felt when he was prayed over by Graham Pulkingham. At such times words can pour from me, drawn irresistibly upwards.
I have no conscious control of the timing of these seasons of absence and presence. Both come as gifts. All I can say is that it seems to me that it is when I am aware of God’s presence in this way, I am happier, more whole, more generous, more fully me, more completely alive. And so, in the absence, I try to live in the truth of what I have seen in the presence.
However, even at those times of absence I am aware of a flow, when I stop and think and reflect, of creative ideas and solutions to problems. Such insights may not come in the same profusion in the absence as they do in the presence, but their quality is identical. No doubt these creative insights could be explained purely in term of human psychology, but I believe they are God-prompted.
I guess where Richard and I differ most profoundly is that he sees all religious storytelling as the fruit of human enterprise, whereas while freely acknowledging the human-ness of the Bible, I believe it is perfectly reasonable assuming that God is self-revealing, to detect God’s creative engagement in the writing and editing process, and to conclude that the great metanarrative bears divine fingerprints. I appreciate that I may be searching for evidence to support what I already want to believe, but I simply don’t find convincing attempts to explain much of the gospel material as fables spun by 1st century Christians to authenticate their theological views rather than accounts of historical events. In particular, the resurrection stories strike me as authentic reporting. Believing this, I think it’s legitimate to interpret the absence in the light of the presence rather than the other way round.
I also think it’s important to take into account the experience of our fellow-travellers. It would not be appropriate for us to make the decision to go on the pilgrimage purely because of what others tell us (although it would do us no harm to accompany them on a few stages of their journey with a healthy, questing agnosticism.) But it is utterly relevant for us to hone our understanding of a journey we have already begun by listening to the stories of those we are walking alongside. Some will share their experiences of absence as Richard Holloway does, but others will speak of blessing, frequent joy and a sense of inspirational presence.
And I believe Richard is much too pessimistic in seeing so little of the transforming presence of Jesus in the world. Yes there are the unanswered questions posed by poverty and tragedy. Yes, our struggles to do theodicy don’t totally convince. But I am certain that there is evidence of grace, of the presence of God in God’s creation working in nature, and working in our lives, in our choosings and thinking and dreaming, bringing peace and wholeness and hope, and gifting miracles. I believe God works through us when we are acting intuitively like a Mozart, but that God is no less present when, like Richard Holloway we work with a Salieri’s tireless intentionality for peace and justice.
Christians tells us of lives transformed through faith in Christ, of people set free from addictions and destructive lifestyles. Historians tell us (in reference particularly to the 18th century evangelical revival) of whole communities changed through the re-orientation of values which vital Christian faith gives rise to. The king is on the march, the kingdom is a-building.
Richard Holloway still feels ‘tugged….by the possibility of the transcendent.’ Religion, in his experience shouts loudly to drown its sense of insecurity and strikes you in the face. ‘Yet,’ he says movingly, ‘beneath the shouting and the striking, the whisper can sometimes be heard.’ (p348-9) Or, as he puts it earlier ‘sometimes the absence came without word to me in a showing that did not tell.’ (p336)
And yet he says ‘I don’t expect to meet my maker when I die, but if I do ….’ (p351) For the reasons I have given, I believe that the story we are in is God-given story, and I believe we can celebrate that story not in the violence and shouting of strident and conflicted Christianity, but in gentleness and whisper. I know I am a man in two minds, and I accept that I may be wrong.
But I do expect to meet my maker when I die, to encounter the whisperer in the unimaginable dimension beyond, the voice heard more clearly than ever. And if I’m wrong, and the story is no more than comforting words woven by humanity? Well, I would be disappointed to think of things turning out that way. But the story has brought me wholeness and hope. It has the ring of truth, and I committed myself to it, and to the Storyteller in integrity.
Richard Holloway responded quickly to my email. ‘Brotherly hug accepted and returned,’ he typed.