I have been sharing a number of theological papers on ministry that I have written down the years. This paper was given at a conference in Bangor in North Wales hosted by Cynnal, the clergy counselling service, and the Living Room, a community-based recovery centre in Cardiff. With thanks to Wynford Ellis Owen for inspiring my ideas on the spirituality of imperfection.
Some years back I was taking a service at a care home. I read confidently from Matthew’s Gospel: ‘The greatest commandment is love God with all your heart, your mind, and your soul; and the second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself’. Without warning, an elderly woman at the back of the room suddenly shouted: ‘I don’t love my neighbour’. I was left speechless. I looked at the care assistants, they looked at me. But the moment of silence gave the woman the opportunity to add: ‘and, listen ’ere vicar, if you knew her, you wouldn’t love her either’.
That woman, of course, had stumbled across a timeless truth – it’s easier to preach love and compassion than it is to live it out. Those who are struggling with addiction know all too well that people can be judgmental and can be hurtful in their speech and actions. Similarly, those of us who care for the afflicted and addicted can sometimes be treated with indifference and ingratitude by those whom we are trying to help. Whatever our experience, Jesus was unequivocally clear – we are called to love the other, however difficult that is, however idealistic that sounds. To do so, though, we need an understanding, firstly, of what Christian love demands of us, and, secondly, of what a spirituality of imperfection should entail.
The Reformation was a watershed moment in Western history which reformed a faith that was in need of spiritual revival. But it also planted seeds that resulted in the triumph of individualism. In terms of our faith, this led to a championing of individual and personal salvation over-and-above the communal, along with all-too-often harsh judgementalism of words and actions. In the secular sphere, there is also a direct link between individualism and the rampant commodification, consumerism and materialism that besets modern society.
An individual relationship with the divine is integral to faith, but that relationship will become stagnant if it doesn’t inspire us to reach out to others. We are called to love God and love neighbour. The challenge is to step beyond our own individual egos to recognise our commonality. Most Christians pray “our father” each week, yet our theological emphasis has traditionally been on the “father”, rather than on the little word “our”. If God is “our” father, that means, whether we like it or not, all of us are God’s children and are brothers and sisters to one another. This is at the foundation of radical compassion.
The phrase ‘brothers and sisters’ is, in fact, used very often in scripture. Also, the New Testament frequently uses the Greek word ‘brothers’ (adelphoi) to refer to men and women, to brothers and sisters (e.g. in Acts 1:15). In later translations, this is often translated “believers” or “disciples” for inclusivity. But this misses something important about the original word and reflects a general move away from the use of “brothers” and “sisters” in Christian circles. Other groups, whether other faiths (such as Islam) or ethnic and racial groups, still regularly use ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ when addressing each other. My dad, an ordained minister in the Anglican Church in Wales, continues to use these terms when meeting strangers. It is such a rare thing to hear, though, that, on saying ‘Thank you, brother’ to one shopkeeper, he was surprised to be asked to which masonic lodge he belonged! Something of the familial side of the human journey is being lost for Christians by the waning of this biblical tradition. To view others as brothers and sisters leads to a recognition of both our intimacy with, and our duty to, each other.
Love of God and love of our neighbour, then, are not separate dimensions of our spiritual lives: they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. ‘We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other’, wrote social activist Dorothy Day who stood alongside the addicted on the streets of New York and elsewhere. Interestingly, the word for ‘compassion’ in the Old Testament is related to the Hebrew term for womb, rechem. In other words, our treatment of each other should reflect the love of family. We should treat others as if they had shared the same womb as we did, as if they were our own flesh and blood.
Despite its Western roots in the Reformation, though, this is certainly not a modern, western issue. Tribes and peoples across the world have, in the past and present, divided themselves from others, seeing the world through the lens of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The word dinka for the Dinka people of Sudan means ‘people’, thereby suggesting that other tribes are not people, but are subhuman. Their bitter enemies, the Nuer people, have the same attitude, with the word nuer meaning ‘original people’. Similarly, many thousands of miles away, the word yupik for the Alaskan Yupik tribe means ‘real people’.
As Christians, our call is to go beyond such divisions and discords – to recognise our common unity, to see others as family and to move away from a tribal, insular, inward-looking attitude that values only ‘people like us’. By doing so, we can be inspired to create loving, compassionate communities. If God is father of all, then we must treat everyone as if they were in the same family as us – those with whom we don’t get along, those with whom we don’t agree, those who are ill or injured, immigrants, the poor, the hungry, the addicted, those of different nationalities and races, those in our prisons, those of different faiths, the unemployed, the homeless, the helpless, the hopeless, the hated. As Desmond Tutu puts it: ‘In God’s family, there are no outsiders. All are insiders. Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Roman Catholic and Protestant, Serb and Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Christian, Buddhist and Hindu, Pakistani and Indian – all belong… We are members of one family. We belong… God says, ‘All, all are my children’. It is shocking. It is radical’.
- A Spirituality of Imperfection
Allied to this emphasis on radical compassion, in which we view each other, as best we can, as family, is demanded of us a further attitudal shift. This shift demands a recognition of both the imperfection and the beauty in each of us. The doctrine of original sin asserts that the primordial sin of Adam and Eve tainted all subsequent generations. This belief is often derided or dismissed by the secular world. While its language and imagery may seem archaic and alien to modern sensibilities, few doctrines have more contemporary relevance. For us to affirm a radical compassion, we need a recognition that all of us, whoever we are, however settled our own lives seem at present, have a bias or tendency towards self-centredness and selfishness that leads to downfall.
Taken in isolation, however, the doctrine of original sin leads to an incomplete and blinkered spirituality. It needs to be regarded alongside a further Christian doctrine. In the first chapters of Genesis, God creates humanity in his own image, and, on looking back at his handiwork, we are told that he “saw that it was very good”. In other words, yes we hold a doctrine of original sin, but we also hold a doctrine of original righteousness. This crucial doctrine must never be ignored or relegated in importance – it affirms that we are all, each and everyone of us, valuable, unique, irreplaceable, and infinitely loved.
In the context of alcohol dependence and substance misuse, as in any other context, we must affirm the spirituality of original sin and original righteousness. For those of us involved in pastoral care, the doctrine of original sin is essential as a reminder of our own fallibility and of the fine line between respectability and ruin. Russell Brand, in a recent interview, put it this way: “I relinquish the idea that I’m not homeless, in the gutter, smacked up, off my nut, because I’m somehow superior; [rather, I’m not those things] because of a random set of coordinates and events that have deposited me in a comfortable life”. That fact in itself, the realisation that nature and nurture are at the root of the hand that we are dealt, helps us withstand a punitive and condescending attitude towards those with addictions.
If, as Christians, we are courageous enough to face the reality that if we had another’s genes and a similar upbringing, there is a good chance that we would be acting in the same way, then it becomes almost impossible to ignore the cries of the hurt, the addicted, the suffering, the lonely, the anxious, the homeless, the disenfranchised. As the sixteenth-century English reformer John Bradford is purported to have exclaimed when he saw a group of prisoners being led to their execution: “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”.
While the doctrine of original sin reminds us of our own fallibility, the doctrine of original righteousness reminds us of the divine spark in the other, however far down the tunnel of darkness they have fallen. After all, New Testament incarnationalism leads us to recognise that in responding to the needs of those in the throws of dependency, addiction, or recovery, we are responding to Christ’s own needs. ‘Truly I tell you,’ asserts Matthew 25:40, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The life of the Christian must be a process of recognizing Christ in the other, and especially the other who is enduring suffering or difficulty. Charles de Foucauld, the Cistercian priest of the early twentieth century, lived amongst people of a different religion, tradition, and race, but insisted that every person was to him, quite literally, “the greatest treasure of all, Jesus himself”. His house in Algeria became a place where the locals knew that they were welcome at any time, however poor they were, however sick they were. “We are all children of God;” he wrote in his journal, “we must therefore see the beloved children of God in all people, and not just in the good, not just in the Christians, not just in the Saints, but in all the people”.
A spirituality which recognises the Christ in others helps us to offer the hope of new beginnings and transformation. After all, while original sin reminds us that nature and nurture have a huge hold on our lives, original righteousness reminds us that we are not wholly in bondage to those factors. Determinism is not a philosophy that sits well with the Christian concept of Metanoia (“repentance”). We are not simply complex robots shackled by our backgrounds and our genes. In recognising the unique worth of each and every person, despite their broken and fallible natures, we affirm that none of us are fixed and finished creatures. The resurrection affirms that God’s possibilities are limitless and all have potential for development, growth, and new life. “Behold I make all things new”, asserts the book of Revelation (21:5).
The spirituality of the compassionate father of the prodigal son is at the heart of the call to be Christian. We often relate to the errant son in that parable, and we sometimes fear that we might be the jealous older brother. But God is calling us to join him as the running father, who loves and welcomes even his most rebellious, abandoned or lost children. As physician Paul Tournier wrote, considering a friend who was going through a divorce: “The circumstances of our lives are different, but the reality of our hearts is the same. If I were in his place, would I act any differently from him? I have no idea. At least I know that I should need friends who loved me unreservedly just as I am, with all my weaknesses, and who would trust me without judging me.”
Sadly, it is often the case that neither our churches nor our lives exhibit such a grace-full and compassionate spirituality. Most of us can find a reason, biblical or otherwise, why a certain person or particular group of people can be viewed as unwelcome or undesirable. Yet the challenge of radical compassion and the challenge of a spirituality of imperfection should be our modelling of a kingdom where no prodigal son is unwelcome and where there are no undesirables. Jesus did not turn his back on anybody; he welcomed them with open arms in the shape of a cross.