The Positively Attentional Living

I have not written for ages on this blog. I simply have been too full with my thesis but something has started bugging me and I think it is time I put it up. I have been reading quite a few Puritan writers on or off over the last couple of years and I am beginning to unearth a spiritual practice I think has been lost. We know of the Roman Catholic practice of confession, with its effort to note the sins in one lives, confess them to a confessor and then through repentance move on from them. It is also known Puritans quite often went in for a detailed examination of their lives that echoed this. What has not been asked is how the Puritans understood it. The Puritans seem to have turned the emphasis around 180 degrees.

Lets start one step back. There are many sets of techniques for assuring oneself of ones salvation. You may have come across the sinners prayer, or the conversion testimony if you have had contact with Evangelicals. You might equally find people who are concerned that their belief system matches as closely as possibly that of orthodox Christianity. Equally the more sacramental can be concerned about receiving communion and baptism. I am not suggesting one of these is right and others wrong, they are all partial. That is they grasp part of the truth about Salvation but not the whole. What the Puritans had was another such technique. It relied on the classical Reformed doctrine of Sanctification. The idea being that this was the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the believers life. The close examination was therefore not to detect sin and repent of it, but to detect the activity of the Holy Spirit and thus to rejoice at this assurance of salvation and also to help it bear fruit.

Now there is a lot to be said for this as one of the techniques. Firstly it points people towards the positive in their lives rather than the negative. Concentrating on the positive gives people energy. Secondly it changes our perspective of sin. While sin is not to be welcomed, awareness of it and repentance are; as these are signs of the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting us and healing us. I am not sure how to put it into practicebut there does seem something good about watching for where the Holy Spirit is working in our lives and those around us.


DSCF0001As I write this I am about to go on holiday (yes it was written well in advance) and amongst my plans are to do a few walks, not particularly difficult walks, maybe one out to take photos of a lighthouse, a walk around a RSPB site I have not visited before, a couple of afternoons Geocaching with my Goddaughters, that sort of thing, dry weather would be nice.

This has got me back pondering the restless nature of the Reformed, but particularly our attraction to walking. St Andrew’s has its own walking group. In that it is not unusual for a URC, the majority of those I have been in do. Indeed up until fairly recently I just assumed that having a walking group was something churches tended to do. Then for some reason I checked it out. Other traditions just don’t do it in the same way.

However by the mid-nineteenth Century many Non-Conformist churches had walking groups. These were aimed a people in the towns to provide an alternative to more hedonistic attractions for their spare time. The idea was closely linked in with the work of Wordsworth and Ruskin and seeing in nature a more spiritual connectedness than there was pleasure attractions. One Sunday in 1891 T A Leonard at the time a Congregational Minister in Colne in Lancashire got up preach a sermon extolling the advantages of a walking holiday when compared with more commercial pleasures of Blackpool. It was a sermon that was to change a life and that life was his.

The church meeting took him at his word, and he ended up leading a holiday for young men. It got heard about by a prominent Congregationalist minister and Social Reformer, John Brown Paton, who was looking for a way to keep the Book Clubs he’d set up going over the summer. The result was he approached T A Leonard about running holidays connected with the book clubs and thus the Cooperative Holiday Association (1894). T A Leonard went on to form the Holiday Fellowship (1913) and Glasgow HF Outdoor Club (1917, while serving as a minister in Glasgow) among other things. He is also credited with being one of the founders of the Ramblers Association and influential on the Youth Hostelling Association. Walking was chosen not simply because it washealthy exercise, but because the pace of it allowed a person to connect more deeply with the countryside around. It was therefore not simply a physical exercise but a spiritual one as well, and I pretty sure that the fact that they were walking together meant an emphasis on the communal and the enjoyment of being with each other. Indeed now I can say why the chores on Iona are so reminiscent of Youth Hostelling holidays in my youth, the same Reformed piety of all sharing in the work and keeping down the cost was behind both.

The Elements of Faith

I am going to try a new tack on the first five stages of faith by Fowler. I have known about Fowler’s stages of faith for over a decade now and for various reasons I have been unsatisfied with them as a model and yet have been drawn back to them as containing explanations of what I see happening around me. The two major problems I have are that I do not see faith development as the simple progression that is implied by his structure and I find the sixth stage too dependent on Liberal Christian hagiography.

Before I even start, the sense that I mean by faith here has almost nothing to do with salvation. Faith in this entries take is a human activity that most if not all humans partake in or at least most Western humans do. I am not defining what is correct to belief, I am rather describing those activities that create a person as a being of faith or at least a western person as a person of faith. There is space for the development of correct belief in the descriptions but that space could equally lead to false belief.

Equally too often in the past Christians have thought that what it is to belong to another faith is the same as what it is to belong to Christianity. There is a lot of room for different forms of faith, but I am no expert of different faiths, therefore my thinking and data which I have drawn on is at broadest a western perspective and at its narrowest a perspective from within a specific Christian Western tradition.

What I am going to suggest is that there are five elements of faith which are loosely characterised by Fowler’s stages 1 to 5 (I will leave the sixth for the present as I am not so sure about it). I have chosen elements rather than stages as I wish to make it clear that they are no successive, although I freely admit that it is possible for one element to be dominant at any stage of faith development. However, as I see it a fully developed faith would include parts of all five elements. However, it is not essential to develop all five equally or to keep a specific balance between them.

Moving onto the five elements:

  • The element I wish to draw from Fowler’s first stage (which he calls Intuitive-Projective faith), is what I call passive faith. This is perhaps the simplest. It is when the faith of others keep the faith for you. I think it is often derided and forgotten, treated as pre faith, but this simplest form of faith reminds us that at all times our faith is not ours alone but that shared with others. They hold us and we hold them. In this, I am picking up the projective part of his definition. That is the faith is projected onto us by the people around.
  • The second element I want to draw from the second stage (Mythic-Literal faith) is participatory faith. This is about performing the faith, when an individual starts to be involved in active listening and doing within the faith. It is this sort of faith that gets one to pray, read the bible, take communion, do acts of charity. This one concentrates on doing faith in a very active way. The evidence suggests that this is more basic and more important than is given credit. How one what one understands as happening when one performs will vary with age, faith stage and previous experience but the emphasis is on performing of the faith.
  • The third element that seems to predominate in Fowler’s Synthetic-Conventional faith, I call belonging faith as it stressed being part of a faith community. This really becomes about knowing what the group norms are and conforming to them. The norms can be both about the practice and about belief. Under this one also comes the developing of deeper relationships with other believers and participating in communal events. Perhaps to be understood as faith similar to that of a football team supporter.
  • The fourth element which I have drawn from Fowlers Individuative-Reflective faith is owned faith. I might well have called this is a questioning of faith, asking whether you agree with the communal norms. This is when it is no longer good enough to take other’s answers and you want to work out answers for yourself. However, as people inevitably do find answers for themselves by this process and by so doing come to ownership of faith I am referring to this as owned. It should be stressed that the process of developing an owned faith rather than just accepting what is taught often involves searching and asking awkward questions.
  • The fifth element drawn from Fowler’s Conjunctive faith stage is accepting faith; this is about learning to live with the unresolved. The struggle to understand and create a coherent faith, also in the end is doomed to failure. Things can never be that tidily sorted. There comes a stage where a person of faith needs to let go of the questions knowing they have pushed them as fully as they can and the answers that do exist are incomplete. Others may refer to this as learning to live with mystery. It is a coming to terms with the lack of answers, finding that despite not having everything tied down, that somehow faith continues and developing an ability to let go of the questions.

Now at any one stage, an individual’s faith will have different mixes of all five elements. However the lower number an element is the more basic it is. Yes, there are stories of people who have come to faith without contact with others, but I think our most find that something holds or draws them towards a faith, long before they actually make an active personal connection. Equally the second is often held to be the essence of any faith tradition. Please note at this point no intellectual assent is necessary. It is only with the third element that this starts to play a role. I suspect that for an active faith an adult needs some component of all of the first three.

Equally the final two elements are the harder ones to develop, I suspect that fifth is always a struggle and does not come easily to anyone. I am also suspicious that some people only ever have low requirements for these elements of faith. The conventional answers of their faith community, on the whole, satisfy them. For others, the very opposite happens and only when they are practising these elements do they find they can with integrity participate in the participatory and belonging elements of faith. I also suspect that some people with a tendency to approach things with their intelligence rather than emotions may find more need for owned faith than others. That is not to say people who approach things emotionally are without this struggle just that it plays a lesser role.

I also suspect that people who go through a conversion experience go through a process where different elements dominate at different stages of the process. I suspect that at the start people are developing the owned part of their faith, this leads them to question what they have received from their current community. They are then drawn to another community, passive faith if you like, as they start exploring it then participatory faith becomes dominant, finally as they make the commitment belonging faith dominates. I suspect this cycling happens to a lesser degree with those within faith traditions. Some will cycle many times, quite often moving in a consistent trajectory with each cycle, others will never need to make such big changes.

This cycling while distinctive of conversion experience but it is not the only way elements can change. For instance, I suspect that to the strengthening of owned faith leads to a weakening of belonging faith, although I suspect that for many belonging faith is important even when owned faith is quite strong. A growth in accepting faith may well produce a situation where the other four elements of faith can flourish as well.