How’s Your Spiritual Depth-of-Field?

What’s this beach post got to do with this blog post? Read on to find out…

What’s this beach post got to do with this blog post? Read on to find out…

Don’t you admire those religious people who are so convinced about everything? Christians, for example, who…

… are definite that God made the world in 6 literal 24-hour days;

…who can tell you exactly how the end times will play out (or are already playing out) and which of the latest world leaders is the Antichrist;

…who are black-and-white in their views on heaven and hell and on who will be ‘in’ those ‘places’;

…and are categorical that the Bible is entirely God’s word, historically infallible, the final authority on everything, and express no doubts about it.

Oh, you don’t admire them? Actually, neither do I. Or at least I would, if I thought that these people were being entirely genuine in their certainty.

But the truth is that I’ve often found people who claim to have such conviction betray their underlying insecurity by expressing their convictions with verbal aggression and antagonistic dogmatism.

A friend of mine began to get quite angry with me once because I was questioning a literal 6-day creation, and I thought, “Whoa, what’s that reaction all about…?”

If they were so sure, they wouldn’t need to be so hostile in their approach, because they’d be at peace about it. Wouldn’t they?

I’m probably being unfair. I have in fact also met people of such strong faith and conviction, who have no need to verbally gun down anyone who thinks differently.

Personally, I’ve found that as I’ve got older, I’ve become more certain about some things, and less certain about others. And I’ve become more comfortable about being honest with myself and others about my uncertainties.

My spiritual depth-of-field has become smaller. Let me explain…

I enjoy some (very) amateur photography.

Landscape photos are often taken with a large depth-of-field. That means that images of objects both near and far remain relatively sharp.

I took the picture above, using a wide aperture, giving a small depth-of-field. This does 3 things:

1) The subject (in this case a post on a beach) is clearly in focus;

2) Everything in front and behind is a bit fuzzy;

3) The result is that the post is highlighted even more starkly, undetracted by its surroundings.

This effect is often used in portrait photography. In the pic below, my daughter Hannah stands out, sharply defined against a blurry background:

IMG_0879a

My faith has become like that:

1) I’ve become more convinced than ever that Jesus is everything we Christians claim he is: not only saviour, King and friend, who gave himself sacrificially for me, you and squillions of others, but the “key to God’s mystery”, source of all wisdom and knowledge*, and Source of love.

…that life is a whole lot better with him than without him, and that he sets people free from addictions and dysfunctionality by filling them with divine, healing love.

He is my focus, my central point.

2) Other subjects which are often ‘givens’ in Christian teaching, like the Bible’s infallibility, origins of the universe, who is and who isn’t ‘saved’, and issues of sexuality, I’ve become far less certain about. My view of these has become fuzzier in comparison with my view of Jesus, the Centre.

But then, right from the start of my new life (begun some 26 years ago, at the age of 22), in the words of Mumford & Sons’ brilliant Whispers in the Dark: “I’d set out to serve the Lord”. It’s always been Jesus I’ve sought to follow, not Christianity.

3) But far from dampening or threatening my faith, those uncertainties of No. 2) merely serve to highlight the certainty of Jesus in my mind. He stands out against a blurry background.

My love for him – my attention to him – has grown, as he’s become more sharply in my focus, undetracted by dogmatic peripheral issues.

“Peripheral?!” I hear some of my Christian friends cry in shock and dismay.

“But the inspiration of the Bible as God’s word is essential to our understanding of who Jesus is”.

“Paul’s whole argument in Romans collapses if we don’t take the account of the fall in Genesis literally!”

“And you can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible you believe. If you can’t trust one part, how can you trust the rest of it?”

What may be fuzzy and peripheral to me may be clear and essential to someone else’s faith.

The last thing I want to do is in any way challenge anyone else’s faith. That’s not my aim, and I hope these thoughts don’t do that. My aim is simply to promote honesty and thereby increase faith.

So here are a few of my confessions:

  • I don’t believe in 6 literal 24-hour creation days (although I do believe God created and sustains the universe). But I don’t rule out a literal 6-day creation either!
  • I have doubts about the historical accuracy of other Old Testament stories (although I do believe that every part of the Bible has something to teach us and is in some way inspired by God). However, I concede it’s possible that it is all historically true!
  • I have no idea whether hell exists and, if it does, what form it takes. I certainly don’t believe that all non-Christians are hopelessly lost; I believe in a far more merciful, loving and inclusive God. But who knows?

As you’ll see from the statements in italics above, I’m not bashing traditional doctrines or standing against those who hold to them. I’m simply saying that I have doubts about these, I’m open-minded, and will graciously agree to disagree on some things.

Jesus is starkly and beautifully in my focus. The rest is a bit fuzzy! Like in this picture of a Small Tortoiseshell I took on the Isle of Wight this summer, against a blurry grassy field…

IMG_0929a

Many of us (Christians) try to believe things that we really struggle to digest, while pretending to go along with everything we’re ‘meant’ to agree with!

[I’ve often heard church leaders preach on the first chapters of Genesis in such a matter-of-fact way, as if they’re taking for granted that all their listeners believe in a literal (or literalistic) interpretation.**

Here’s a plea to all preachers: when speaking on creation or the fall, please explain whether you’re taking the account literally or allegorically, and give at least a brief, rational explanation as to why you’re taking your particular approach. Otherwise, you’ve already potentially lost half your listeners. This is the 21st Century, after all.]

Continuing the honesty theme… I love that time when Jesus meets Nathanael, and declares: “Now here is a genuine son of Israel – a man of complete integrity” (John 1:47).

And the joy and relief expressed by David when he decided to stop pretending (Psalm 32:2).

And the liberation experienced by those who open up with complete honesty about their addictions, faults and misdemeanours on 12-step courses.

God is all for truthfulness, because he is Truth.

I suspect I’m not alone in these uncertainties – and we could use a little more honesty in our churches – if we’re honest!

A small or shallow depth-of-field may not be such a bad thing, if it means Jesus is shown up more clearly, more sharply, in an atmosphere of openness and honesty than in a climate of pretence and hypocrisy.

What is your spiritual depth-of-field like?

Large – you have strong convictions on a wide range of matters?

Or relatively small, like mine – your deepest convictions are limited to a central focus, while other issues are a bit fuzzy?

I suggest that either is OK, as long as you are genuine in your beliefs.

But this blog is not just for Christians… Perhaps you, dear reader, are an atheist with uncertainties, and entertain the possibility of a deity, like a guilty pleasure.

Perhaps your answer to life’s big questions is the one suggested by Douglas Adams. Then this final photo, focussing in on that answer against a blurry background, is especially for you…

IMG_1357

Or maybe you’ve been turned off Christianity because there are some things about church or its teachings that just don’t sit right, and yet you find Jesus strangely appealing?

In the Bible, when people started to follow Jesus, he didn’t demand that they follow a set of doctrines, but rather that they give everything they had to follow him, in response to his love. He called them to live with a shallow depth-of-field. Is that something you could do?

* Colossians 2:2-3

** You might need to read John Lennox’s excellent book Seven Days that Divide the World to get the difference between literal and literalistic.

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9 thoughts on “How’s Your Spiritual Depth-of-Field?

  1. Alan Freeman says:

    Roger, another great blog. The analogy with depth of field is inspired and interesting. I will read the blog again tomorrow morning before going to work, then I can ponder on it some more as I go round my delivery. Interestingly enough, I have just ordered a camera, so I’ll have to come and see you for tips on how to take lovely photographs.

  2. John Hawkins says:

    I’m challenged, as someone who preaches regularly, as to how much to ask questions like this, when there are those Paul might call weaker in the faith who can be severely rattled by anything that strays from the standard line, or questions things like hell and sexuality (see Rob Bell…). Maybe there’s a fine line between honesty and the danger of unsettling those who don’t find it easy to maintain their faith. Interesting article about hell in ‘Third Way’ this month, actually asks the question what does the bible really say about hell, and tries to separate that from the beliefs that have grown about it.

    • Good points, John. Thank you. I think that in an era when literal Creationism is dismissed by most of the secular world, it’s essential for preachers to explain where they’re coming from when speaking on those early chapters of Genesis (whichever approach they’re taking), or they’re burying their heads in the sand and possibly insulting the intelligence of their listeners. Hope that makes sense.

      • John Hawkins says:

        I agree. I don’t feel it’s necessary to believe in a literal 6 day creation as some do, but I have maybe avoided being controversial sometimes! Sometimes too, people assume that if you ask a question you are stating a position. ie Rob Bell about hell/eternal torture, you must be a universalist – just because you ask the question! This has happened to my wife (our curate). There is a fear of asking questions, because it’s challenging but ultimately we don’t know the answers to a lot of these things. People often just want comfort but I don’t believe Jesus promised comfort.

  3. Thanks, John. Yes, I agree with all you’ve said there. I loved Bell’s ‘Love Wins’ which asked lots of questions and provoked much controversy – so did Jesus!

  4. Julian searle says:

    Though i have been brought up in the rigourous evangelical apologist approach to believing I have to wonder whether understanding our doctrines of faith as correct are actually apposed to faith. What should our encounter with Christ and the bible engendour in us? A cerebral unswerving faith in doctrines we suppose to be true or an experience of an ultimate love demonstrated in Jesus which we will allow to transform us to go and do likewise.
    We have to be careful that our ability to believe (and so be saved) and create in others (so they are saved), does not eclipse true faith which in the final analysis, as Paul stated – is granted to us.
    Rather like walking on a tight rope there can be a whole lot of anxiety and doubt created when we try to get our understanding ‘right’ and stop believing a s little children in his faithfulness as a loving father. It’s not about our ability to believe but in whom we believe.
    Do we suppose that when we meet god he will point to a couple of clauses in his statement of believing that we got wrong or whether we believed, followed and practised his only ‘law’ – love and the one who gave it

  5. […] very recently wrote about this more fully in ‘How’s Your Spiritual Depth-of-Field?’, using some photographic allegory! Ever heard of photographic allegory? I just made that term […]

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