Seeing the Good in Unfamiliar Spiritualities

Seeing the Good in Unfamiliar Spiritualities

It's about engaging with the spiritually unfamiliar without feeling threatened by it.


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Today's believers are more likely to be switched on by a hotchpotch of the weird and the paranormal than they are by anything the church might be doing or saying. Since this is now the prevailing culture, certainly in the West, where does that leave the traditional churches? Should they see themselves alongside a range of competing spiritualities or in conflict with them? Is partnership betrayal?

I wrote this book, because I was convinced it’s as important for those who lead churches as well as for those on the edge, or outside church altogether, to realise that what is happening is not the large scale religious disaster it’s sometimes made out to be.

Rather it’s a sign of something quite profound taking place across the world and affecting Christianity in particular, but also, to a different degree, Judaism and Islam. We are living through a period of seismic change on a scale unseen since the Axial period when concepts of God, from India to Greece, from China to the Fertile Crescent, were undergoing huge and radical changes.

REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS

I am currently reading (and being amazed by) your "Unfamiliar Spiritualities" book. You cover so many of the situations which I have been seeking to explore for 50 years or more. My own early Calvinistic fundamentalism was first challenged by J.B. Phillips' book "Your God is too Small". And now this eloquent 21st century, rainbow-stole-wearing Ezekiel comes into view, flourishing these insights into so many of things which I had been so clumsily trying to fathom and weave into so many vague fragments of poems! Whereas I had been opening the door of Mystery a bare half-inch or so, and peered through that small gap, you have not only opened that door wide, but you seem to have blown it off its hinges! ~ Robert Irwin, email to author

In the global village that has postmodernism as the dominant cultural backdrop to any discourse that takes place, some appreciation of 'the other' is nec¬essary, perhaps even vital. That is why the subject matter of this short book is particularly pertinent in our generation - nurturing spirituality in a world that appears to be filled with so many perspectives on the spiri¬tual life, some of which are even contradictory. The author employs a reading of the prophet Ezekiel to chart a path through some of the polar¬ities that can characterise our search for the divine including, religion and atheism; magic and mystery; heaven and hell, as he attempts to reach a 'middle ground.' In this book, the variety of lenses through which we view the topic (Ezekiel, Celtic poetry from Wales, and references from individuals as diverse as Shakespeare, Nella Last, Chiara Lubich, Jalal al-Din Rumi, among others) make for a readable though light-touch text. Sometimes a more systematic approach would have made for a more helpful book on this important subject. ~ Short Notices, The Furrow: A Journal for the Contemporary Church

The wind blows where it wills. You hear the sound of it but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes. This is true of the spirituality movement and is certainly or uncertainly true of this book. At its core is a reflection on the life of the prophet Ezekiel. There are wheels within wheels. Now you see it, now you don’t. There is Celtic mysticism laced with the poetic genius of the author. Like Ezekiel’s prophecy it is a prophesying to the wind. Now and then there are glimpses of Welsh valleys and chapel-salted streets reminiscent of Dylan Thomas. Flowing throughout is the theme of Ezekiel’s two rivers, the Jordan and the Tigris, the Hebrews and the Babylonians. Thus spirituality makes for the middle ground, the land in between the rivers, in a search for understanding of multi-culturalism and diversity and of a Go-between God who exists in the space between religion and atheism, between your faith and mine, between magic and mystery, between heaven and hell, and most fascinating of all between merciless and merciful. Rather like the island of Iona the land between the rivers is a thin place, thin as tissue paper. There is a ‘sacred presence in things’ which makes itself aware to those who know that they are loved and between the merciless and the merciful is the power of love. Love is the dry land between the rivers, between waters that can threaten to drown us. Reaching the middle ground is a hallowing experience. The journey to the infinite sea is not unending. It is not true that we always travel never to arrive. Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones feel the winds come from every quarter and come to life. Ezekiel’s two separate pieces of wood are brought together, Judah and Joseph, and yet even today there is a fault-line between the Jordan and the Tigris, between Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. Thus this slender book has much to say to the contemporary conflicts in our world in order that ‘hearts of stone’ may be replaced as Ezekiel prayed, with ‘hearts of flesh’ whether in Syria or in Scotland. It also helps doctrinal purists, bigoted believers and extremists of all faiths or none, to let the dry land appear on which to kneel and rediscover the meaning of Brian Wren’s wonderful words: We strain to glimpse your mercy-seat and find you kneeling at our feet And yet, as the author reminds us, it has been said that ‘the truth doesn’t lie in the via media, in the middle way, but in both extremes’. All over the world, not least in Wales and Scotland, there are minority ethnicities intent on safeguarding their cultures and traditions, their languages and beliefs. Their very survival depends on inclusivity and not in the battering ram of an over-confident dogma be it religious or secular. Nor is it good enough, as the author seems to suggest, and as Hindus believe, that the rivers may finally find their resolution as they sink together into the swell of the vast ocean beyond. Surely it must be found on the dry land between the rivers, before they reach the ocean, the dry land of a love which beyond all faith, and even beyond hope, is the one thing which lasts for ever and which alone can enable all of us to see the good in the unfamiliar and become part of the one human family. ~ Murdoch MacKenzie, Coracle Reviews 0112 the iona community e-bulletin

★★★★★ If Gethin is not a poet, then certainly his love of poetry shines. Verse mixes with prose to lend richness throughout. I think this is a book which should be read outdoors, in the squares of our busiest cities or beside the brooks of our remotest parks. It's about God, our perception and experience. It meanders thoughtfully around the topics of faith, mercy, sexism, and hell, on its journey to "reaching middle ground" between the various world religions. The stability of our society rests on "mutual respect, and a genuine attempt to understand and to appreciate the other, to detect the voice of God in the other, and to pursue a thoughtful, caring life with the other." Religious thought is evolving, but the evolution of our understanding of God has been a gradual process, and we are by no means at the end of it. Enchantment is coming back into vogue, and society may be experiencing sacralization rather than secularization. May of us yearn to "feel the Greatness and the Glory, and all those things that begin with a Capital Letter," but we're unsure how to proceed. The closer we approach the mystical (though not the magical, that stuff is evil, right?) the further away we appear. Gethin's gimmick of threading the story of Ezekiel throughout the discussion is what makes the book real. I laugh out loud as I write this, but it is so; Gethin doesn't feed us the wild-eyed, theatrical Ezekiel most of us avoid, but the human, struggling-to-understand-it-all Ezekiel. The Ezekiel strolling mournfully beside Babylon's Tigris, dreaming of Israel's Jordan. For all his extraordinary visions, Ezekiel never actually gets to see God. This book is a joy to read, and one to fill our dreams with hope. ~ Lee Harman, The Dubious Disciple

SPIRITUALITY CAN be defined as the relationship between the self and its sense of the transcendent or sacred which issues in literary and artistic expression, community, social activism and practices. A wide range of disciplines within the field of religious studies includes history, narrative studies, philosophy, theology, sociology and psychology. In the interfaith approach, Gethin Abraham-Williams includes the three Abrahamic faiths - Christianity, Jewish and Islam - also Buddhism and Hinduism seeking Middle Ground. In seven chapters of this 140-page paperback, the author's creative approach confronts the issues of our times: human rights, the conflict between atheism and religion, suffering, the challenges of pluralism, belief in the afterlife and human destiny. Inspired by the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, the author often writes in a poetic style. The 6th century BC presents a challenging study of a people caught in tough circumstances: the Temple in Jerusalem looted and destroyed and a huge proportion of the population deported to far-off Babylon with a future that seemed hopeless. Imagine the impression which the great Babylon must have made on the weary exiles as they entered the beautiful Ishtar Gate for the first time, as they gazed at Etemenanki (the massive Tower of Babel) or the incredible Hanging Gardens. To some, it may have seemed that Bel, Nebo and Marduk were at least worth a trial. "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land" must have summed up the thoughts of many. Subtly, in chapter after chapter, the author weaves in the relevance of Ezekiel as one of the architects of an evolving faith. This reviewer was both impressed and moved by the chapter dealing with mercy - merciless and merciful. In his Foreword, Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales, states that there appears to be two seemingly contradictory ideas: modern physics leaves no place for a creator, yet, while they no longer believe in God in the same way as their ancestors did, they want to hang on to a belief in a transcendent being. In this book, the Archbishop believes that these two contradictory ideas can be reconciled without abandoning either the insights of scientific discoveries or recent biblical scholarship. He shows how Ezekiel continued believing in Yahweh (God) during the exilic crisis and yet so many felt abandoned by God. The author is an Oxford University graduate in Theology, a Baptist minister (of the liberal wing), a Cardiff University tutor in the Bible in the Contemporary World and a member of the British and Irish Living Spirituality Network. He holds the Cross of St Augustine, awarded by Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2006. This publication is not representative of apophatic Theology (or via negativa) - a theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation; rather, to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God. It is probably representative of cataphatic Theology - the expressing of God, the Divine Supreme Being, through positive terminology. The book comes highly recommended by many eminent theologians: "Popular interpretation tends to dismiss Ezekiel as 'bizarre', but Ezekiel may be exactly the right text for such a 'bizarre' time such as ours." (Walter Brueggemann) "I am caught between a Church that once assumed a kingly rule and a Church that now awaits an uncertain future". (Stanley Hauerwas) It can be recommended to those involved in interfaith dialogue, to the ordinary Christian foot soldier puzzled by post-Christian attacks on the faith and to those who find the book of the prophet Ezekiel difficult to understand. ~ + Samuel Poyntz, Church of Ireland Gazette

Reform April 2012 Sensitive exploration of religious experience Gethin Abraham-Williams offers a timely word for Christians who are challenged by the huge variety of religious and spiritual experience in Britain today. For all who are aware of the limits of old religious certainties but are uneasy with retreat into conservatism or the twin extremes of religious fundamentalism and militant atheism, he offers a journey of careful and sensitive exploration. Gethin, a Baptist minister and university tutor, is clear about his own conventional Christian faith, but is honest and welcoming enough to recognise a genuinely common experience with those around him whose spirituality is expressed differently. As he mourns the loss of a son with his Hindu neighbours, or reflects on a time of shared prayer with Jewish and Muslim colleagues, he seeks out reliable signposts for the journey. He finds them in the person and writings of the bizarre Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, and in the work of poets who have written about the borderland between old ways of living and believing and the new. In contrast to many theologians, Gethin's writing is concise and highly readable. He roots his thinking in a properly imaginative understanding of Ezekiel's struggle to reconcile the "old" Jerusalem-based religion with the reality of life in Babylonian exile. He interweaves Ezekiel's story with that of ordinary people whose lives have been shaped by un-chosen disruption - such as the mother of a child killed 40 years ago at Aberfan who, in Christine James' poem In Expectation, still waits for her son to come home. In this hinterland between the old and the new, heaven and hell, traditional expressions of faith and contemporary challenges, Gethin finds in Ezekiel a faithful and courageous guide. This book is brief enough to read at one sitting. A rudimentary knowledge of Old Testament history would help but is not essential. The implications of Gethin's exploration, though simple and obvious, run deep, and have the potential to re-shape the reader's understanding and respect for "unfamiliar spiritualities". Ian Fosten is a United Reformed church minister at Wrentham Chapel United Reformed Church and co-director of the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft ~ Ian Fosten, Reform

I can thoroughly commend it in every way. Gethin writes throughout in beautiful prose that spills over into poetry at times, making his work an aesthetic experience as well as an enlightening one. In this new book he shows us how Christians can and should take on board features from the other great world faiths and also how both Christians and those of the other faiths can take on board features from the new Spirituality movement, and learn from secular atheism. Gethin grounds his discourse inventively in his visits to that almost unknown Hebrew prophet Ezekiel who faced a similar crisis of faith to the one we all face today, whether we admit it or not.

~ John Henson, Website

Now Gethin has written a welcome second book, in which his experience and reflection deepen and his argument becomes at once more persuasive and more challenging.

~ Eley McAinch, Living Spirituality Newsletter

This book touches a raw nerve. Like the authors of Godless Morality and God: A Guide for the Perplexed, it takes seriously the religious and moral sentiments of an age which has largely given up on organised religion but which is eager to know and feel the Divine purpose and destiny of all humanity. It is a morally serious book critically engaging with a wide range of spiritual quests, treasuring what is authentic and eschewing what is trivial and even dangerous. The author’s creative mind and poetic style provides the reader with a unique moral compass by which to explore the contemporary spiritual landscape. Inspired by the writings of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, this book promises to become a spiritual classic in our time and deserves to be widely read. ~ Myra Blyth, Tutor, Oxford University

Gethin Abtraham-Williams writes poetically, perceptively and simply about complicated and difficult matters. It is a book that could help many who want an intelligent and creative faith.

~ Most Rev Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales

Rich in insight, wisdom and hope. A treasured resource as we journey through today's changing spiritual landscape. ~ Diarmuid O'Murchu MSC, Social Psychologist and author of Ancestral Grace, etc

This important little book dares to address some of the most pressing issues of our time ... It does so without tired dogmas but with powerful images that release one’s imagination. I hope it receives a wide hearing; humanity will be better for it. ~ Gregory A. Barker, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, The University of Wales: Trinity Saint David and editor of Jesus in the World’s Faiths and, with Stephen E. Gregg, Jesus Beyond Christianity

An intriguing account, rooted in the author's biblical knowledge and drawing on his rich experience as a practitioner. This book has much to recommend it, offering a spirituality that 'spans our religious past and makes sense of our uncertain future.'

~ Lavinia Byrne

In an increasingly plural world, it is vital for Christians, people of other faith and people of no religion but 'good faith' to get beyond the stereotypes that often characterise debates about religion and secularity. Gethin Abraham-Williams encourages us to to just that, and offers a stimulating and necessarily provocative interpretation of what is happening in a mixed-belief society and how we might respond." - Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, the religion and society think-tank.

~ Simon Barrow, Co-director of Ekklesia, the religion and society think-tank.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gethin Abraham-Williams
Gethin Abraham-Williams GETHIN ABRAHAM-WILLIAMS, an Oxford University Theology graduate, was a Baptist minister, a University tutor in the Bible in the Contemporary...
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