thinking theology

Archive for January, 2018

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.

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A Responsive Soul

The best description of the irresistible call of Jesus is perhaps best characterized by Dorothee Söelle who wrote the following poem, “not without you.”

he needs you
that’s all there is to it
without you he’s left hanging
goes up in dachau’s smoke
is sugar and spice in the baker’s hands
gets revalued in the next stock market crash
he’s consumed and blown away
used up
without you

help him
that’s what faith is
he can’t bring it about
his kingdom
couldn’t then couldn’t later can’t now
not at any rate without you
and that is his irresistible appeal

What made Simon and Andrew, James and John follow him, leaving behind work and family for a relatively unknown, itinerant preacher? We will never know except to ask ourselves why we are here today. What yearning in our souls draws us from our warm covers, from our book, our coffee, our devices? What is here that calls us from our comfort?

And to what call does Jesus respond? I think it is the call from a people who are alienated, disconnected; a people who are suffering and have lost hope for a better future. Jesus shapes his call as he walks the roads of Palestine, healing and challenging, teaching and practising compassion. He himself learns as he goes and sees that this road that he has chosen will inevitably lead to a confrontation with the powers in charge of the people for whom he cares.

I am not sure that there is anything such thing as an exterior call, that the Holy One singles anyone out for a special purpose. I think it is the incarnation, the abiding spirit of God that calls through our humanity, through our psychology, through our experience, even through our relationships. For Christians, that gets shaped in following the Way of Christ, and indeed, in his personal charisma that has stood the test of millennia now. In our heart, there is an unfulfilled longing that sends tendrils out into the world and for those of us here, those tendrils connect with Jesus. But that is just the beginning. Like Jesus, we are presented with choices at every branch in the road, The choices invite us to choose compassion or hate, indifference or connection, commitment or apathy. We are free agents, able to ignore the pulling of our hearts, the deep questions of our minds, the teaching in our relationships.

The touchstone for us around our choices is of course our baptismal covenant, which for many of us must be re-thought and re-chosen from time to time. It is the map that tells us how close we are to Gethsemane, how near the cross, how willing we are not only to love Jesus, but to make his choices.

The call that Christians hear begins within our hearts, but to be fully realized, we must hear also the cry of the poor, stand in solidarity with those who suffer, move from judgement to compassion.

Here is what Marcus Borg says: We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have to minds and hearts that are shaped by the Spirit of God. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have – minds dominated and blinded by conventional categories, identities, pre occupations – to minds and hearts centred in the Spirit, alive to wonder, alive to seeing, and alive to compassion. We are invited to go beyond the minds that we have – minds dominated by the ideologies and preoccupations of individualism – to minds and hearts that see and hear the suffering caused by systemic injustice, minds alive to God’s passion for justice. (Days of Awe and Wonder)

Open to the Call

1 Samuel 3:1-20; John (1:43-51)

The readings for this Sunday are about improbable calls. In the Samuel passage, the boy in training for the priesthood is very new and unprepared. He has no idea what is happening and has to have to spelled it or for him. The disturbance in his sleep is neither too much hummus, nor a scary dream, nor an unreasonable demand. Instead, it is a call from the Holy One that disturbs his sleep and will overturn the course of his life. He is to replace the descendants of Eli in the family dynasty of priests. We know as the story proceeds that he will call the first kings; he will advise and chastise; reprimand and encourage. But he is still a boy when he is called, with no idea of what his future will hold.

In the gospel passage, Nathaniel is called by Jesus despite his racist and classist attitudes. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”, he sneers about Jesus. Jesus teases him by acknowledging his prejudices. Nathaniel, astounded at the insight, is completely won over. Jesus remarks that if he thinks this is a big deal, he will have to stick around for the denouement, the fireworks, as it were.

Both of these passage ask some different questions about who and how people are called. St. Paul himself a murderer and a bigot is called into Jesus company. The first men called by Jesus were simple men. Women followed and financially supported him. Children could not be driven off; nor would Jesus permit them to be chased away.

You might be noticing who is not called. There are no stories about God calling the rich and powerful, the brokers of deals or the politicians. Some of these do follow Jesus, Nicodemus, for example, but they have to seek out Jesus, rather than the reverse.

The ones who are called are called because they have nothing to lose. They are open to the voices because nothing else filters their hope. That have no status, no power, nothing to look forward to particularly. Jesus offers them a cosmic adventure, s spiritual ride of transformation and insight.

A challenge to ourselves: ask what filters stand between us and the call. What elevator music blocks out the call? What busy anxiety cancels the seeking Spirit? What possessions or status makes us deaf and blind in our souls?

Rumi

A Star Without a Name

When a baby is taken from the wet nurse,
she easily forgets her
and starts eating solid food.

Seeds feed awhile on ground,
then lift up into the sun.

So you should taste the filtered light
and work your way toward wisdom
with no personal covering.

That’s how you came here,
like a nameless star
Move across the night sky
with those anonymous lights.