A New Teaching?
Let’s think about religion and spirituality. I know what religion is. My favourite definition comes from dictinary.com:
“a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”
Spirituality, by contrast is not concerned with externally created observances. it tends to be more individualistic and idiosyncratic. It may have a moral component, but not necessarily.
So what is Christianity? I think Jesus had no interest in creating another set of ritual practices or a theology or even a morality. I think he said that we already had all those tings that we could apply to our lives whenever we chose. What Jesus offered was the idea of deep, intentional relationship that had nothing to do with moral behaviour or belief. It remained endlessly perplexing for his followers, and continues to be so right until now.
For Christians of our era, this is a time of repentance, and by that I mean turning to a different insight. As a lifelong Anglican, I love our rituals and the possibility of the mystical wonder of life that interrupts the mundane. I just don’t think that has much to do with the particular faith that is Christ-centred.
The faith that is Christ-centred has I now think, a sense of holinesss, whole-in-us, in-relationship. That relationship usually begins with other humans. As children, we learn to trust or fear life through those early experiences. No matter how wonderful our families, however, we all enter adulthood with scars and self doubt and caution about others. Jesus teaches us to begin by letting it all go, or finding the way to let our fears about ourselves go. It begins with believing that the Spirit of the Divine, of Holiness that was present at the beginning of creation, resides still within the creation. Within us, despite our fears. Jesus has very little interest in people’s worthiness, but a lot of interest in their yearning to be whole, in their willingness to reach out, and to trust in the power of relationship to change them. The stories are there for the reading and the consideration.
About Jesus, the elders remark, “Is this a new teaching?” Well, yes and no. In the Genesis story, we read about God in relationship with the creation. In the stories of the prophets, God speaks in relationship. The stories about Jesus, speak of voices and a blessing that calls Jesus beloved. Over time, however, the Divine became entombed in codes and rituals, remembered history, a set of mutual expectations resembling that of human contracts. Quid pro quo. So the teaching of humanity in relationship with the Divine and with each other is ancient, but it is a radical teaching by the time of Jesus.
Jesus, however, simply does not deal with any of that institutional or moralistic piety. He says to get on with whatever you believe to be good and right, but in the meantime, look closely at the life that is before you and let it dominate your vision and your thoughts and then you will know how to act, how to feel. What you believe is secondary to the web of relationship into which you weave yourself.
Jesus could be quite intimidating in his refusal to debate, in his insistence that people deal with his person, not the rumours about him. How would it look for us to insist that relationship is the highest calling, that being in concert as friends is the defining characteristic of the faithful life?
It would mean we would have to discover each other, not as cardboard figures of our own creation, but with humility and a willingness to put our assumptions aside. In terms of the natural order, we would have to cease seeing the reaction as a commodity but as life with its own integrity and processes. Even in terms of the other creatures, we would have to allow that they have their own thoughts, their own constructions of reality. We do not even know how alien they are from ours, because we have always used them for our own needs.
Christian faith, not a morality, not a doctrine, not a prescribed set of rituals, but people in community doing what we need to do to realize the holiness in each other and in our world, and the Spirit of God leaping up in our hearts and the blessing of Jesus who draws us to each other and to his resurrected life.