The events of Wednesday of last week have left many sincere adherents of Islam hanging their heads in despair that the creed they seek to live by could be so hijacked and sullied by warped and twisted minds; resulting in the barbaric killings in France. The blanket Media coverage over the past few days has reminded us that what is fashionably called `extremism` has reared its head once again and it`s hardly surprising that we`re all tarred with the same brush. You might have noticed that in the intervening days there are many propagating the notion that the very idea of following ANY kind of religious creed is at best a thoroughly anti-social thing to do.
Now, it`s not my intention this morning to mount any kind of defence against such polemical and ill-founded attacks on the way of faith; I`m far more interested in what I believe are some of OUR reactions whenever we hear the words `religious` and `extremism` in the same sentence.
It hardly needs saying that what those people did in Paris was entirely without defence or justification under any sane or rational understanding of Islam or any other faith. It was, I`m sure we`d all agree, monstrous and abhorrent. It can`t even be justified as the response of a persecuted minority or indeed a sign of rebellion against a society which in the name of `free speech` claims the right to poor scorn and insult upon some dearly cherished beliefs. No, it seems to me that the kind of actions we witnessed are (besides being evil) examples of naked aggression and mental illness masquerading as a religious `crusade` and I use the word advisedly. In short what we`re seeing are examples of people who liberally sprinkle religious terminology over their own twisted, depraved and all too human agenda. Frankly, it all boils down to a desire for control and it diminishes everyone who comes into contact with it. It might seem strange to say but I sometimes think that there is a very fine dividing line between faith and madness.
Of course, what we saw last week is just particularly virulent example of this phenomenon but what intrigues me is how the supposedly sophisticated western world is continually taken by surprise. In part this is because so many have been brought up on the notion that the days of `religion` are numbered; and so instances where the way of faith should become so perverted and reveal itself in these ugliest of ways is even more beyond comprehension. And so all-pervading is this mistaken assumption that religion no longer `matters` that our society has appointed a whole lot of people to places of influence who have no idea what it means to follow one of the world`s faith traditions… and even less interest. So blind are they that they still can`t conceive of anyone holding a world-view different from that of western capitalism and consequently, they have even less insight into how it is that faith can go so wrong… so very wrong.
But if we`re honest, we who seek to follow the way of faith, have also been put on the back foot. In some measure we`ve been guilty of incredible naivety; naivety and a lack of self-criticism particularly about how character and personality relate to faith. I recall the Franciscan, Richard Rohr telling of his time as a Prison Chaplain. He said, “You would expect me to be over the moon whenever an inmate becomes a Christian”. But he said that his enthusiasm is always tempered by the realisation that these often emotionally disturbed and troubled people; whose lives have lacked any kind of structure always seem attracted to the most rigid and dogmatic forms of faith. Now the sense of security which this can provide isn`t necessarily wrong if it starts to live and breathe a little but if it doesn`t you have the makings of a warped and fearful fundamentalism.
We are more likely to encounter this kind of thing, it seems to me when we take a closer look at those stereotypical `fallings out` for which churches are famous. On closer examination they often have little to do with matters of belief. Of course, that`s how we dress them up but (almost under the radar, so to speak) they really have far more to do with the kind of person we have become and faith and the church becomes the place where we assert our personal agenda under the guise of religious principle. So what I`m saying is that I think it`s our naivety and our refusal to name and shame some of the `games people play` that on the one hand leave the door open to these troubled characters holding sway in our congregations and on the other leave so many saying, “A plague on all your houses. If that`s what the way of faith is about it`s not for me”.
But what bothers is that this has consequences. Fear of all this stuff that gives faith such a bad name leaves a lot of Christians in a kind of limbo-land. Let me explain. I spend quite a lot of my time attempting to encourage, invite and yes `exhort` people to, shall we say, be more deliberate about their Christian faith; to make a more positive `Yes` to God. But what I often detect lurking in the background is, shall we say, a certain reluctance. Now, some of this is of our own making. Let`s be honest, we are all well-schooled in the Frank Sinatra way of living `my way`; and in our heart of hearts we struggle to entrust ourselves more fully to the way of Christ. This tension will, to some extent always be there… that`s the nature of sin. The difficulty comes I think when we start to associate any kind of enthusiasm for faith as similar to this warped and unhealthy `extremism`.
So, let`s be clear, we rightly re-coil from those many pseudo-expressions of faith which are exploitative, controlling and manipulative. The world is full of cults and sects and perversions of faith. We see them everywhere. Perhaps you have your own particular favourites; from TV Evangelists; the man on the street corner shouting “prepare to meet thy doom” or that rather queer member of the family you secretly laugh at because she`s `always down at the Church`. But how often, I wonder do we all too easily use these anecdotal examples of religious mania as a cover and a smokescreen; an excuse for continuing to wallow around in the shallows of faith? Those of you who`ve had your flu jab know what I mean. We could describe it as a permanent state of inoculation: “You keep taking a little bit of faith so that you never catch the real thing!” I`m exaggerating for effect but so often I wonder whether we hold back from a deeper engagement with Christ because we subconsciously think that the `real` thing means getting immersed in something obsessive. That`s a legitimate fear but nothing could be further from the truth.
So how do we deal with this when so many of the models we get are so nauseating? Well, I want to suggest that one thing we could do is to re-claim what we call the doctrine of the Holy Spirit? Because it seems to me that for far too long talk of the Holy Spirit has seemed to be the preserve of those we regard as Christian `extremists`. People who all too often seem inclined to claim the `authority` of the Spirit as the trump card which legitimates them and their behaviour. In short, talk of the Holy Spirit increasingly appears to be the preserve of an obsessive or (they like to believe) privileged elite.
Now, I`m in no sense pouring scorn on examples of quite genuine expressions of the gifts of the Holy Spirit… I`m trying to point out that we often fail to acknowledge that what`s going on is simply the coming to the fore of those who have a particular character… so often typified by extroversion.
I`m intrigued by that little encounter in our Epistle this morning (Acts 19.1-7) where Paul meets those Corinthian Christians who seemed unaware of the Holy Spirit. I don`t think we find ourselves in that camp but rather one which associates the Spirit with a certain extremism and I think we need to challenge this. Because you see when we talk of the Holy Spirit we`re talking firstly of God`s Gift; Jesus`s promise to abide in and with his people. Secondly this indwelling of the Spirit is for ALL of us; it`s not the preserve of an obsessive or privileged elite. And thirdly talking about the Spirit means we believe in a God who wants to as Jesus put it, lead us into `fullness of life`. THIS I believe is the key thing because far too many of our Christian `extremists` would lead you to believe that that the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to give you a particularly `religious` kind of life.
Or we can put it another way; as our first reading this morning showed us, firstly we need to remember that it is NORMAL Christian experience to know God`s Spirit living within us. This is how he keeps his promise to be with us always and to as he put it `lead us into the truth`. And secondly, always remember that talking of the Spirit means more than just the amazing events of Pentecost. That`s fine as far as it goes but Pentecost takes on a much larger meaning when we remember the Creation Story… the same Spirit or breath of God hovering over the waters and giving us life. In other words when we talk of the Holy Spirit we`re talking also of the `Creator Spirit` and it`s in this context that we appreciate the Lord`s desire to give us fullness of life. That`s how we don`t fall into the trap of thinking that he wants to give us a particularly enthusiastic and `religious` version of it. That`s how we avoid the gateway to the religious mania.
Today we rightly pray for the people of Paris and all those caught up in the violence. There`s an awful lot of chatter and tension and bigotry and hatred and it can be so very difficult to hold onto the way of faith as a life-affirming thing when we see so many twisted examples of it about. But the answer is not to withdraw into a half-hearted, equally misguided expression of faith. The answer is to re-claim this fundamental notion that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. God`s purpose is that we might become the people we were created to be…. fully alive; fully human, not people with religious bits `bolted on` or people who use religious language to get our own way in the world. It doesn’t mean that we won`t find ourselves in conflict with the world around us… but it DOES mean that preserved from religious `mania` we shall live a life of faith that is noticeable because it is world and life-affirming. So let your prayer each morning be: `Come Holy Spirit`.