thinking theology

i look into the face of fear and pain;

it rolls over me, a tidal wave.
washed clean by the storm,
i look over my shoulder;
the pain and fear have passed,
the sunshine is blessing me again

As I thought through what I wanted to say in this book, I became aware that each idea kept turning in on itself; although I could examine one idea, it was attached to every other idea. Love and suffering, fear and sin, wisdom and change, healing and repentance, compassion and self knowledge, all were held together in one pattern. I would say that one pattern is composed of what we think of as the eternal mind of God, including the bits and pieces of human and other life. Early on in my thinking and praying, I became aware that I was spending time in the labyrinth of paradox, where each corridor leads both ahead and back on itself. Although we may feel like it is a maze, really we cannot ever be lost because the way out and the way in are the same, through our bodies and our experiences.

When we attempt to speculate about the eternal, or about the big picture view of life and the universe, we are arrested by the limits of our own intellect and our present store of knowledge, even though it is more than one person can assimilate. When we speak of the Divine outside strict and arbitrary limits imposed either by culture or interpretation, we must include seeming contradictions to almost everything that we can say. When we say that God is good, we also remember that for many people, the experience of suffering has been understood to be as much the will of God as their redemption. The story of Job in Hebrew scripture is a case in point. “Then Satan answered God, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” The Holy One said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (Job 1:10-12)

Although this text suggests that God assumes that God guesses what will happen, it also suggests an element of uncertainty. When we say that God is unchangeable, we acknowledge either that prayer is completely ineffectual or that if God has a plan at all, it can be amended. If God’s plan can be amended, then we must say that the Divine mind can be changed and therefore, change is a quality of the eternal, an assumption about God that we continue to make. When we say that God is the maker of heaven and earth, we must say that the only part of the universe we know is this galaxy and the only heaven we know is the one described by sages and mystics. What we know about God is either the product of our own projections, or a response to the image of the Divine within us, or a way of describing experiences that push us beyond language.

To attempt to consider the mystery that is the Divine in any way that hopes to expand our culturally biassed pictures, we must accept paradox as a working reality of all that we know. To accept paradox as a quality of the Divine is to say that god is and is not, that everything we believe about God is and is not. One of the concerns for Christians is how this affects our christology. For some this is a threat to the idea that the historical Jesus and the experience of the Risen Christ are expressions of the Divine designed and developed to fit Christian thinking, but not necessarily universal in their application. We can say that Jesus Christ is the only revelation for the church, but can we say that God is not revealed in Buddhism, in pantheism, in Hinduism, in Sufiism and so on?

An example of intentional application of paradox is to say that for those who are called, or who discover themselves as Christians, Jesus Christ is the only Way, Truth and Life. That does not mean that this can be applied to the experience of the Holy for all other people of the earth. We can say that for those who “fit” the Christian model, there is no salvation outside the acceptance of Jesus Christ, but can we say this of others who have been shaped and moulded in different structures and perspectives? Thus, we can say that Jesus is the only child of God for Christians, that Jesus is the only path to God for Christians, that in Jesus the fullness of the Divine is revealed to Christians and still allow that for other people, there are different paths, different revelations, different dreams.

We can say that whatever the nature of the Divine is, we believe that within it are held seeming contradictions of theology, of ethics, of spirituality and of lifestyle. If we say that nothing that was made was separate from the Divine and everything that has come to be is part of the Divine, then we must allow that in that fullness of being there must be contradiction and the dynamic tension of that which we perceive to be opposites. For Christians, the place of paradox is the centre of the cross, where we find the suffering Jesus and where we do not find the Risen Christ. On the cross, we place our unswerving conviction that for us, this Jesus, this Christ is the way, the truth and the life and that no one can understand Christian faith except through this mystery. What we also say is that for others, the resolution of paradox does not exist on the cross, may not even require a god, may be equally full of truth but it is not for us.

To extend this discussion, I would like to consider the contradictions and breadth of some of the ideas that we have already considered and place them in the frame of holy paradox that allows them and their opposites to exist together. We have said that change is the essential condition of the universe as we know it. We could say that God saw everything that was made and it was changing, just as easily as we can say that God saw everything and it was good. When death is no longer understood to be a threat but an unfolding of the power of life to transform and make new, then we no longer need an unchanging universe nor an immutable God. But is there anything that we want to continue to think about as eternally existing and as being eternally changeless?

This is a discussion of the essentials of reality. For Jews and Christians, the constant that occurs is the chesed of the Divine. This steadfast love is not so much fixed as it is encircling, spiralling back always to an original and indissoluble bond with the creation. After each disaster or break in the relationship with God, the stories and prophets tell us that God remembers the original love for us and the earth and “repents” of anger and judgement, turning to us with renewed concern and protection.

The sun shall no longer be
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give light to you by night;
but the Holy One will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
or your moon withdraw itself;
for the Holy One will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land forever.
They are the shoot that I planted, the work of my hands,
so that I might be glorified.
The least of them shall become a clan,
and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Holy One;
in its time I will accomplish it quickly.

We understand then that nothing can separate us from the Holy Love of God which may not always be gentle or even kind by human standards, but is constant in the sense that it always returns to its point of original holiness and blessing. This would suggest to us that the evil we intend and act out is without much point if everything spirals back into God’s love. We might remember Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, when he learns that his “crimes” will only increase his own torment rather than bring him peace or satisfaction. For the people of Hebrew and Christian scripture, then, the eternal love of God is a relative constant —relative in that it is in orbit with human experience, constant in that it always returns to the still point of the primary impulse for creation.

The other thing we can say is that reality is about ongoing creation and revelation. This is a tough point for those who cling to a single act of creation rather than an unfolding process in which creatures and species have lifespans and ages and then disappear to give way to new forms and new species. Humans are fearful of this process and so we attempt to cling to all the stages of evolution at the same time. Hence we have the movies about time travel in the Star Trek future or the era of dinosaurs intruding on the present or the frozen human being revivified so that all ages can coexist. We do not like the idea that as a species we may also have a limited lifespan that is not simply threatened by large cosmic events, but in fact is part of our natural way of being to evolve and change. Although Paul speaks of the resurrection as being a major shift–in that we will inherit a materially different kind of body–Christians rapidly reinvented a resurrection in which we have the same bodies and behave in a very similar way, just without death this time. I am amazed at how much we cling to ideas about this life, not because it is necessarily so satisfying but because it is what we know. I want people to think about an eternity of sameness and then consider whether or not we want change to disappear from the experience of being alive.

Not only is creation changing and evolving or devolving, depending on perspective, but so is the revelation of who is in the universe and what our relationship is to the Creator. This is an equally sore point for those who would like the revelation to have been completed during the time of the resurrection appearances of the Anointed One, completion marked by his ascension into a literal heaven. Then the church could remain on earth as keeper of the tradition, an unchanging completely fulfilled revelation which we might struggle to understand but which is complete in itself. I believe this is a dead end for serious thinkers who can easily spot the problems with such a tidy plot that seems in almost direct contradiction to the Pentecost experience. And yet, perhaps in one possible reality, there was a plan and we followed it. In this reality, the plot clearly was adjusted as the church became the world of empire and the world became a vehicle for a state religion. The irony of the Jewish peasant rebel serving the armies of one type of tyrant or another is either shocking or tragic.

Another way of thinking about the unfolding history of the world is to acknowledge that absolutely nothing is finished. Not only is our knowledge partial, existence itself is partial because the last chapter has yet to be written. If there is a master plan, then it is not yet fully revealed. More likely, if there is no plan, then we do not yet perceive how we are to function in developing reality and of our participation in the cosmos. We have only begun to think about what it means to be in relationship with each other. Jesus taught us that as we learned to love one another, to shelter one another, to discover the power of vulnerability, the unity in the dismemberment of the cross, then we would come to know something about the Divine. We would begin to be in mutual relationship with the Holy One and it would be possible to see ourselves and our place in the universe more clearly. If what we are seeking is the way to God, which to say to wholeness, to holiness, through repentance and healing, then we want to touch the goodness that lies within our cells, the goodness that broods over the universe, the goodness that begins and ends everything with blessing and the power of love.

How do we define what is good then? The creation story tells us that essentially everything is good; that at the moment of beginning everything is good. Everything comes from goodness and has goodness as its originating spark. Everything resolves in goodness and has goodness as its motivation. But when we speak ontologically, we are able to say that whatever is close to the source of being, the originating principle, is good. Not because of what it is or is not doing or what it is or is not believing, but because of its state of being alive. At heart, then, everything is good because at one moment everything was in the state of coming into existence. If most things attempt to return to their original nature, then we can say that everything is groaning to be born again, struggling to return to another state of coming into being. Everything wants to change, everything wants to be born, everything wants to be complete, everything wants to be at that original centre of existence. But we know that when we return to that river, we will not be what we were but a new creation, something different as all that we have been is blended into the new creation. Conscious and lovingly, passionately aware of being part of all that is.

If good is the ontological nature of the universe, then matter as it changes and flows into and out of different forms of itself is all becoming a new creation. The gift for humans is to be conscious, to be aware of the process of holiness birthing us, filling us, flowing through us, breaking us and remaking us. It can destroy the tyranny of our demanding egos and our defiant need to be autonomous, but it fulfills our desperate need to belong. It acknowledges the value of the forms we take as we participate with God in the unfolding of the universe. Perhaps one day, we will stand at a crest of human development and these will have been quaint ideas of a primitive time, but until then I am going to gamble on a universe that is fully inhabited by holiness, that is the child of holiness, that is the journey of holiness, that is the alpha and omega that births change and compassion.

I remain a Christian because for me the story of Jesus, his faith and teachings are the Way, the Truth and the Life. For me, Christianity is about these four noble truths. Everything begins and ends in goodness. In the growth of wisdom, everything we know is changed. Change causes us to suffer and our suffering reunites us with our sense of belonging, of wholeness. The remedy for isolation is compassion which we learn through repentance as we discover and accept ourselves as monsters and as angels.

And finally, Jesus is the one who has walked this road before, who was able to find a pathway through distraction and fear and his own suffering. Jesus was able to stand in solidarity with everyone who suffers, to sit at table with monsters and other sinners, was able to love those whom he met. Jesus knew a loving God of goodness and mercy, a God who cared about all the little ones and not much about structures and forms and rules and labels. I do not care whether or not he walked on water or did tricks with wine. I have little interest in his parentage and whether or not it matters how much he owed to being divine and how much his DNA looked like mine. What i really care about is learning how he could love so much that people felt cared about beyond his death, beyond his humiliation. What matters to me is his strength of spirit that can reach out to me 2,000 years beyond his death to claim me, a mixture of monster and angel, for the work of love. When we speak about relationship, we re-member ourselves in the context of that relationship. When we speak about our connection to the Holy One, we re-member that we, the partial ones, are already whole and fulfilled in our beginning and in our ending and for love, we walk the pathway of possibility where anything is possible and yet all things already exist in love and goodness. We are contained within the walls of this goodness, but within these walls, within this garden that is old and new, we recreate ourselves and we learn and change and grow until this garden is full and we discover we are a star. And another star explodes into being and a new beginning is born.

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