In my last blog I proposed the strange image of the universe and all its living beings as a foetus in the womb of God, growing towards the perfect creation he/she expects.
A probable reaction to this bizarre image, is to ask why on earth anyone should imagine it far less believe it.
This blog attempts to answer that question with a history of my own discipleship of Jesus of Nazareth. That means the reader should beware. Few people can write about themselves without lying and I am probably not one of them. I hope I will not lie consciously but there are doubtless still areas of my life in which I am self-deceived.
When I look back on myself as a young man, I cringe. I had the advantages of a stable upbringing, a reasonable education, a loving partner and a calling that gave scope to some of my abilities, and I identified myself as a disciple of Jesus, yet I continually made an arse of it. I use this coarse expression not only because I remain a coarse person, but also because it expresses my impatience at the blind immaturity of my treatment of others, my frequent posturing, my persistent selfishness. My self-knowledge was scanty enough to let me see myself as an existential hero, while desperately covering up my very ordinary faults. My huge attention to myself and my needs, got in the way of my attention to my wife, my daughter, my friends and the people I was employed to care for.
At some level I knew that what I was actually doing was far from true discipleship, and I chose to disguise this fact by changing my calling from minister to community worker, enabling me to confer upon myself the glamour of worker priest or Christian radical like the Berrigans in the USA. This at least had the beneficial effect of proving that I was not well- equipped to be a good community worker and that any success I had achieved in this line in the past had in fact been due to the wisdom and support of the members of my church. It also exposed me to the company of decent people from a great variety of social and religious traditions who were well-equipped to care for others in ways that made a difference. In particular I was challenged by men and women influenced by the Englsih socialist tradition, who had a greater respect for equality than I had. This led me into a fruitful kind of self-examination which took me back towards my Christian discipleship with a new readiness to be taught by Jesus.
It would be nice to record this increased self-awareness as a true conversion, but honesty compels me to note that it was very partial, not least because it took me back into the ministry of the church, with all the scope for arrogance and self-deception it provides. I was perhaps more aware of the goodness of others than formerly and therefore more appreciative of the rich humanity of the congregation I served, and able to learn from them. I was also more appreciative of colleagues with their special gifts. But I was still driven by the imperative of hiding my real self some distance below layer upon layer of public persona. It did not help that many others, deceived by my deception, treated me as if I were indeed my persona.
In that context, my genuine attempts to be a disciple of Jesus resulted in repeated, often clumsy attempts to identify with people in need or suffering injustice. These were not however without value, for me at any rate, as they reminded me of the courage, endurance, creativity and humour of people who had been given fewer advantages than me. They helped me put my arrogant follies in truer perspective.
Over the course of further ministries in two very different parishes, and involvement in the lives of some wonderful people, I began to recognise in myself a beneficial process which has continued ever since, which I can best describe as a hollowing out of my ego. This process is twofold: on the one hand it punctures my self deceptions by bringing them up against the hard rock of reality, exposing my failures as a disciple of Jesus, as a citizen and as a human being; on the other hand it pushes me to learn from the goodness of others. I did not ask for the process in my life and there are times when I try to ignore it. It has come about through my continuing desire to be a disciple of Jesus, from whom I have never wavered in my allegiance however many times I have ignored his teaching and example.
Am I in control of this process? Clearly I contribute to it, but I am sure I don’t control it. Who then controls it?
I found the key to answering this question in a strand of my experience which has been with me since childhood, but has often been disregarded by me: my experience of the natural world. I have always needed to spend time alone in whatever natural environments I could find, from city parks to remote mountains. Over time I’ve learned more about their flora and fauna, and owe a great deal to those who have informed me about them, especially the books which have been with me since the days of the “Observer Guides”.
My discovery was that my egocentricity dropped away when I was alone in a natural environment. Taking a holiday how ever brief from society was also taking a holiday from arrogance, which was and is still a blessing, the freedom not to be a competitive self but to be a member along with other creatures of a web of life. This was not at all the experience of an elated moment, but rather of being an ordinary creature, that is, of being created, along with other living things and therefore being in development. I want to emphasise the ordinariness of this experience which is characterised by ease, sobriety and trust.
It took me a long time to realise that my experience of Jesus is similar. When I say “experience of Jesus” I am not referring to anything mystical, or ultra- emotional or profound like that of a terrifying and fascinating holiness, but rather of Jesus present in the reading of the Gospels, or the usual worship of the church, or the bread and wine of Communion. In his company I am at ease because he welcomed sinners without fuss; his companionship is sober because he has things he wants me to do and we both know my weaknesses; and I trust him because he trusts me. In his presence also I know I am being created, that I am not yet complete. And the life into which he persuades me is a life shared with the other creatures of my time and place. I guess this is what it means to be “born again,” although none of this feels at all religious, for which reason I have always found it difficult to relate to religious Christians.
These are some of the facts of discipleship on which my theology of the pregnant God depends and which give me confidence to include my small experience of development within a universal process of evolution which I trust is guided by the wisdom of God.