Why beyond the book?

Why “beyond the book”?

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

2 Timothy 3 vs 16,17

Every book has limits

“beyond the book”, is in no way intended to distract from the significance that scripture has in Christian faith. It has been written from the experience of being brought up in a community which valued memorising bible verses, and exploring their meaning prayerfully. I also believe that meditating on the Law of the Lord, and the canon of scripture as a whole, helps a person to participate in the grace of God; they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to grow in relationship with God. The particular circumstances of the composition, compilation and editing of the  canon of scripture generally regarded as acceptable by Christians in the 21st century gives the bible a unique place in the history of the Church and the history of salvation.

I do however want to emphasise that Scripture is a means, not an end. Christians are people of the Word of God, but how could the Word of God be reduced to a book? This guide has been produced to counteract a tendency in some parts of the Church to reduce the practice of faith to strict conformity that binds the truth in paper. This is a human tendency, which I recognise in myself, but it limits the growth of faith, encourages intolerance and can lead to a very “churched” form of idolatry. If you think this doesn’t apply to you, think about how the word “Word” is used in your religious context. Think about how the words ‘Bible’ (or ‘bible’?), God, Holy Spirit and Jesus are used in your sermons and everyday speech. Does your use of the words actually represent what you believe when you take time to reflect on the trinitarian understanding of God?

Scripture helps Christians understand what we believe, who we are, and helps define us as a religious group. However, scripture does not define God and the whole relationship of God with creation. It is not the last word or the whole Word. Christian understanding of scripture itself establishes that there is more to finding a full relationship with God than expressed within the Old Testament. Throughout that collection of ancient texts, we read of people encountering signs of Gods’ presence beyond the established parameters of their religious practice.

What if, rather than thinking of ourselves as Christians taking scripture to the world (which in practice often becomes a mission to make people culturally similar to us) we should instead look for the Word of God at work in the process of creating? We can test what we experience through the disciplines of prayer, rigorous thought, and maintaining community as well as in scripture.

Scripture could be a base from which we can expand in the creative diversity God has called us to, whilst retaining unity. The Word became flesh (rather than paper) to dwell among us, and is still with us through the Holy Spirit.

Revelation through relationship

 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” John 4 vs 21(NIV)

I have heard it said within Christian circles that there is a demon behind every religion or faith that is not Christianity. At the time I found this very hard to believe. It seemed to require attributing far too much creative effort to forces that the same people classified as being purely destructive. It also seemed to be an unhealthy mental state, where the whole world seems to be against you and you begin to attribute hostile motives to events that you don’t understand or which conflict with your comfort zone.

In contrast, Jesus has an optimistic approach to the diversity of religious practice. He does not deny that a time of turmoil and war is approaching where even the close bonds of family will be ripped apart in conflict[1]. However he is recorded as teaching in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (quoted above) that there will come a time when rather than worshipping on the mountaintops or in the temple in Jerusalem, people will worship in Spirit and in Truth. This optimistic outlook suggests to me that we should live lifestyles of worship, where we appreciate our daily experiences and then offer the best of it back to God. As we do this, we will notice that other people are similar to us. If we learn to explore and use our full range of “spiritual senses”, we can then ask if it is right to condone or adopt these other practices, and test whether they are beneficial to the growth of Love and faith.

Although many contradictory practices may be described as being ‘in Spirit’, the essentiality of Truth requires us to be selective in what we do. It is possible to say that there is a “Way” and that each person makes their path by walking. In this process Christian spirituality can retain its distinctiveness from general spirituality and still grow in understanding.

There is a temptation to forbid certain actions legalistically, acting in order to preserve stability and understanding within a community. A legalistic proscription depends upon human understanding of the Truth and a law-like system of customs. This is contrary to early church practice where the apostles were instructed by God to accept gentiles as gentiles into their predominantly Jewish community. More in keeping with this would be a process based on a recognition of what is beneficial to a person living in relationship with God and the community.

This process can be aided by the use of laws, especially when they are tempered through time and debate. However, a thought dies as soon as it is written down, and unless it is resurrected as a new thought and made vulnerable to change, it is disconnected from the point at which a decision needs to be made. The practice of making a decision about what is beneficial takes this process into account. It requires a person to decide what is true through conformity with the good, rather than to rehearse what is already understood to be correct and conform. Legal systems at their best recognise this and include debate and evolution of judgement within their systems. This approach encourages openness to new ways of worshipping God and frees people to be inspired by the practices of those outside their religious parameters, whilst remaining cautious to ensure that our actions are beneficial. The practice of “Sensing Spiritually” helps develop skills needed to do this.

 The word “Spirituality” is used here in a general sense to describe a recognition that there is more to being human than flesh and bones. Both theists and atheists share human experiences such as love, loss and can appreciate art. “Sensing” is used to refer to a human capacity to gain awareness of reality. The physical senses help us do this, and provide a framework within which we can discuss things like the temperature in a room and decide whether or not to adjust the thermostat. They help answer questions about whether a person feels too hot or cold. Learning to sense values would be a spiritual sense which would help a host balance their responsibility to guests with their commitment to environmental action. This may seem trivial in such an everyday domestic setting, but learning to be sensitive to each others’ needs, particularly the invisible ones, is a core relationship skill. A population without such skills and the means to communicate them is ill equipped to cope with crisis that require large scale changes to everyday life, such a political upheaval or a global pandemic.

A significant change in UK cultures throughout the recent centuries  is that churches and Christianity are increasingly less recognised as the default or even universal language for people to explore and express general spirituality. The practice of “Sensing Spirituality” is therefore also an approach to helping develop peoples “Spiritual Literacy” skills. It is hoped that by finding the words to identify, explore, and express their own personal spiritual sensations, people will become better able to value, and find the means to recognise, other peoples’ unfamiliar experiences. Even if two people believe different things, if they can at least recognise the importance and significance of the others’ belief there is hope that a discussion can be entered into with respect.

Sensing Spirituality

Sensing mystery:experiences of awe, wonder and mystery about the natural world, human achievement and for some a divinity. #SensingMystery
Sensing values:attitudes and feelings about what is really important, what really matters #SensingValues
Sensing meaningfulness:the ability to make connections or to see potential patterns in one’s life which give it meaning #SensingMeaningfulness
Sensing a changed quality in awareness:the feeling of being ‘at one’ with nature, oneself and others. #SensingAwareness
Sensing ‘otherness’:the sentiment that humans are more than their physical elements. #SensingOtherness
Sensing challenge:being challenged and moved by experiences such as love, beauty, goodness, joy, compassion, injustice, evil, suffering, death. #SensingChallenge

For John Knox in the 16th century education was essential in reforming religious life in Scotland. At the beginning of the 18th century every parish was obliged to provide a schoolhouse and pay for a schoolmaster. Scots have been proud of this commitment to providing education for both rich and poor. For centuries it was seen as a joint effort between the Family, the School and the Kirk. A recognition of this partnership as recorded when responsibility for governance of schools changed. There is an obligation in primary legislation for Scottish schools to provide Religious Observance (RO) as well as education about religion (RE). More recent changes in Scottish culture referred to above required a review of Religious Observance and this can be explored further on the Education Scotland and Scottish government websites

In this review RO/time for Reflection is defined as

“Community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school’s community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community”. (www.gov.scot Curriculum for Excellence: religious observance Published: 30 Mar 2017

In parliament and non denominational schools it is more usually referred to as “Time for Reflection” and there is a strong encouragement to ensure that

“all pupils and staff can participate with integrity in forms of RO without compromise to their personal beliefs.” (as above)

Opportunities for this are often provided at assemblies, and by chaplains from churches or other organisations which the particular school community is in contact with. It can be a challenge for some chaplains to make the adjustment from preaching to a congregation who voluntarily attend their meeting to a gathering where the participants have to opt out and be provided with another activity which meets the schools obligations. Following the review training was provided by local councils, and supporting documentation is available online in the form of Curriculum for Excellence briefings such as those referred to above. This guidance introduces the idea of Sensing Spirituality. It is a starting point to develop words to describe the experience of recognising spirituality in general.

Most people are familiar with the five physical senses. Sight, Hearing, Touch, Smell and Taste. These senses are a simplified means to describe a much more nuanced collection of sensations and experiences, which we use to engage with our environment, within our own bodies and to acquire knowledge of life. This could be compared to a game where the sense of taste is explored with a blindfold taste test – or in an adult setting, a whisky or wine tasting!

To apply this to sensing spirituality, for example in an assembly setting, the leader could present something inspiring, and then lead a time of reflection where those present could learn to identify, explore and express what they had experienced. The sensing spirituality terms in the table above can then help provide words to describe what has been sensed.

The typical format of a school assembly can limit the range of experiences which can be offered, and so the guidance encouraged schools to work with staff, parents, pupils and community specialists to develop an integrated approach throughout the life of the school and which includes parents and staff.

Approaches to this could  include things like: 

  • Inviting chaplains to talk from their personal experiences and contribute this element to RE lessons
  • A “Thought for the Day” about issues in the news. Information followed by guidance on how to reflect on its implications and pupils’ reactions.
  • Small actions which can be carried out to cope with moments of stress

All of this can be taken from the school setting, and used in a community education setting – or community life in general. This book contains many practical examples of ways in which spiritual literacy, sensing spirituality and finding ways to communicate it. At the general level the principle of helping people learn to identify, explore, and express these experiences is more important than agreeing on precise terms. The goal is to provide ways in which having experienced something personally, people are then able to talk about it, in groups of like-minded people – and especially in public. By spending time recognising the significance of personal experiences, it is hoped that people will be able to recognise their significance for others. There are significant differences between the experiences of singing in a cathedral congregation, at an old firm game or at an evangelical festival. There will also be a lot of shared emotional and psychological similarities, if we can work out the language to make them easier to discuss. Fact-checking a political rally is important. That can provide secure foundations fro arguments. Learning to discuss the significance of the way in which #SensingChallenge is invoked, and the relationship between #SensingMeaningfulness and #SensingValues is essential in a culture where experts are not trusted and all politicians are viewed as liars. It provides the ability to swim, and recognise dangerous water, even if people are adrift in a post-fact context.

It can take a while to get used to the terms used in #SensingSpirituality. As a contribution to help with this I have been using them online for some time now. I have used hashtag technology (#TagToIdentifySomthingOnline) to build up a catalogue of moments where I have identified one or other of the senses. This is primarily on Instagram and Twitter, but a simple search in your preferred browser should find them. The #SensingSpirituality terms overlap, just as the sense of taste overlaps with the sense of smell. They also include many other senses and are used in combinations to describe experiences, similar to the way in which blacksmithing uses a sense of touch to feel the metal, hearing to understand its state, and even taste to sense the fire burning. If you use the hashtag #SensingSpirituality and a search engine, you will be able to find some of these entries.

When I am describing prayer techniques in these resources I have included ‘tags’ to suggest which Spiritual Senses might be most easily associated with the experience. Please use them as well when you go online so that we can build up a digital catalogue that helps develop spiritual literacy.

Click here for a practical example where I use the #SensingSpirituality terms to help me think through my experience of travelling to a festival in Norway as a spiritual experience.

[1] Matthew 10:34- 36