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Exploring, questioning, experiencing non-literal faith

Scott McKenna

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Why we should approach God not by addition, but by substraction

(Below is a preview to Scott McKenna's lecture - The Most Important Journey in Life is the Inner Journey - which he gave at Cairns on November 17, 2016 and then read his own synopsis of his lecture.)


The most important journey in life is the inner journey.  In my lecture at Cairns, I discussed the theological problem of miracles and God’s intervention in human history, in an evolutionary universe. Does God help some people in moments of distress and danger but no others?  Are the prayers of some more efficacious than those of others? In light of the Holocaust, can we believe in the God of the Exodus? Rather than direct intervention, I suggest that we speak about human receptivity to the presence of God.  

The word ‘God’ is unhelpful because it too easily implies a ‘being’, and one ‘who’ is ‘up there’, ‘out there’. Drawing on the work of the Welsh poet, R S Thomas, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, St Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St Augustine and others, I suggest that we approach God not by addition, but by subtraction.   Over the course of my ministry, the more I have thought about God the fewer the claims I have wanted to make of the Eternal. This is not a lack of faith. The unknown author of the fourteenth century classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, does precisely this. We are called to wait in the darkness. God as darkness, a cloud through which we cannot penetrate, is an intellectually robust approach to the Holy. A thousand years earlier St Augustine said that before we experience God we talk about God but once we have experienced God we realise that what we are experiencing cannot be put into words. God is always in the darkness beyond our thinking.

In darkness, I suggest that the pinnacle of Christian worship is silence. Our greatest need is to be silent in the presence of God’s silence. In entering mutual silence, we surrender ourselves to the Sacred: surrender our concepts and words, our will and desire to direct God, and sit in that spiritual nakedness when we have nothing to offer, nothing to say, nothing to offer but our vulnerability, our very soul. The purpose of practising silence is to bring us in to the presence of the Presence.  St Augustine said of God, ‘You are closer to me than I am to myself.’ Based on the writings of Scripture and non-canonical works such as the Proto-Gospel of James, together insights from Rowan Williams, Desmond Tutu and others, I explore the strong tradition within Christianity that God is encountered in silence, including silent meditative gazing into an icon.

A significant moment on my spiritual pilgrimage has come through Ignatian spirituality. Ignatian spiritual practice invites us to engage imaginatively with the scenes, the moment in the life of Jesus. We are not to be bound by the telescope of orthodox Christian doctrine or didactic reductionism, as if there is only one technical meaning to a passage. Alongside Ignatian spirituality, I encourage us to explore Scripture in a manner similar to the rabbinic tradition. They allowed words and images to be suggestive. The Bible is not history, not in any regular sense that we might use that word. It is theology, mythology, spirituality, liturgy and fragments of history. Using the Bible imaginatively, suggestively, lets the Word in words meet the Living Word in the human soul. We should not be afraid to wonder and wander. 

Scott McKenna is Minister at Mayfield Salisbury Parish Church in Edinburgh. 




03.12.2016 16.25

Kate Westwood

Scott McKenna's assertion that God can be experienced through the medium of silence is really compelling and for me helps make Christianity dynamic and real.

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