thinking theology

Posts tagged ‘religion’

Consider the Present

Fear and excitement have the same physiological origin. Everything is in the interpretation. One of the most important breakthroughs in my inner life was to realize that I am not a prisoner of either my body or my circumstances. I am an artist of whatever befalls me and an architect of the shape of my reality, whether that reality is painful or ecstatic. These are only interpretations of experience, my interpretations. To fully destroy me would be to overcome my power to define myself and bend it to the imagination and interpretation of another; this is a difficult task and can only be accomplished by psychic or extreme physical torture. If there is a sin against the Holy Spirit, it is this: to destroy the inner integrity of another. For the most part and for most of us, one way of describing our lives would be to say that we are seeking our own version of who we are and what it means to be alive in the world. We are wholeness and how our particularity resides within the whole. Another way to say this is to say that we are searching for God and for our home within the Divine reality.

In the Anglican Church in our time, and perhaps in other denominations as well, we are facing multiple layers of crisis. We may choose to see these as opportunities or as threats, but even those of us who are resisting know that we are in a whirlwind and that everything is changing around us. I believe that this is a time of great potential. I believe that there is a polishing of the faith, in effect, and we will see more clearly through the lens of Christianity when it is completed. I also believe that Christianity has a contribution to offer in the discussion of the meaning of life, but we need to formulate our conversation in ways that revisit some old ideas and take seriously the new knowledge that is unfolding in science and in biblical research.

I must acknowledge the influence of Buddhism in my faith journey. Buddhism encouraged me to think more seriously about what it means to be a Christian and why the choice of Christianity is for me, “the way, the truth and the life.” I am aware that even to entertain some of the questions I have stirred up is problematic for many of us in the church; sometimes when I preach or teach, I frighten myself! I know, however, that although Jesus promised to be with us until the end, he also promised a cross, a sword and a struggle for those who would follow him.

And so to begin this discussion, I would like to set the scene in the church in Canada, at the beginning of the third millennium, from the perspective of a middle-aged, woman priest who has lived long enough to entertain shocking ideas and who is young enough to have those ideas still make her anxious.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

I was just completing this book (In All Things Goodness) in its manuscript form when we read the above passage in church. I had also just recently returned from a liturgical consultation during which indigenous people had been voicing the question, “How long will it be before others can hear our voice?” And, on that same day, the Gay Pride parade was in full swing in Toronto. So, all week as I had struggled with how I would write the introduction, what I might say that would justify the paper that would be sacrificed for this book, these events surfaced and mingled. Then the image became clear as I prepared for Sunday.

It became clear that we need to remind ourselves that we are the church, with all that that means. We need to encourage one another in a period of the church’s history that feels storm-tossed and frightening. There is truth and grace and power in the good news of Jesus, but we must reclaim its message from the constructs of an earlier age of the Church. The “noble truths” of Christianity do not need to stand in competition with other truths, but they may stand in peace with all the ways in which the Holy has been revealed to humanity. To own these truths so that they have power for us we need to use the revelation of 2,000 years of wisdom, folly, and error so that we might see with a renewed vision and take our place with other seekers of the Holy.

The gospel passage really says everything about my motivation for the book, but my friends tell me that I need to provide commentary. And so, I want to think about four subjects that spring from this good news: the crew of the boat, their purpose, the storm and the relationship between faith and fear.

First of all the crew. This is a difficult image because it is one that has changed over time. Some have stayed in the boat; some have left; others have tried to throw a lot of people overboard in different eras and for different reasons. But crew are a resilient lot and just as we become used to one kind, our attention is called to another and we must process these through our community all over again. In reality, the different kinds of crew are always there, but we only notice those different from ourselves at those moments when we have become complacent about who is in charge… and Jesus appears to be nodding off!

At one time, the crew were exclusively Jewish followers of Jesus and probably men. But very early on, Jesus was confronted by women, by Gentiles, by the poor, by the social pariahs of his time.

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:26-29)

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:15-17)

Even children, who were not held of much account, received the special notice of Jesus:

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:14-18)

Accepting Jesus’ growing sense of inclusivity was not an easy transition and the disciples continued to work at the problem in the days of the early church when they had to make decisions about who could be included and the criteria for membership. The requirements and qualifications for “crew” were in a formative phase. The stage was set for dispute by the Romans, who had never understood nor cared for the Jews and their practices. At the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, it seemed convenient to set Jew against Jewish Christian. The first arguments were essentially within the family. And we all know the passion of family feuds!

In the earliest texts, Christians do not yet exist and the complaint is amongst people who share a faith but who are moving apart in what they believe to be true. The ground work for anti-Semitism was the political situation in Rome and its territories. Unfortunately, as Christians became detached from their Jewish roots, they sided with the state and abandoned the Jewish people. One might wonder if much of our later mistrust of “otherness” was formed first by the experience of persecution and later, by the phenomenon of the hatred of those who have been vulnerable for those who have become vulnerable.

At various times, different nations, different layers of society, and always women and children, have had to protest against exclusion at the hands of the church. Most recently, indigenous peoples in Canada have been insisting that their voices be heard, that what they have experienced needs to be included in the church’s story of both sin and redemption. Gay and lesbian people throughout the world are demanding that they no longer be required to be invisible within the courts of the church. These are valuable crew; they have been faithful while the church has at best ignored them and at worst abused them. And the saga of the relationship of women to the church also continues. In some parts of the Anglican Communion, women bishops still are not recognized and women priests are still unthinkable. Indigenous people, gay people, women, children, the far left and the far right: these are the crew we are not sure that we want on board. These are the crew that we keep attempting to toss overboard. They are so many and they frighten us so much. One concerned Christian commented to me once that it was all right to have all sorts of people in church (meaning immigrants and citizens of colour) but they would have to learn how to be Canadian, which to this woman meant speaking English, using the Book of Common Prayer and dressing in “church camouflage.” In much the same way, we claim that we want to have our churches full of children and young people, but only if they dress like older folks and they let older folks make all the noise. At this time in the church’s life, these are some of the crew who must not be thrown out and I wish that they would not leap out in desperation. We need to live Jesus’ good news for all people, not just those of whom we approve or those who do not disturb us.

Someone once said to me that it was all very well to include people, but only if they were willing to accept the discipline of the church and the “rules.” They quoted from the gospel of John,

“Jesus said to Thomas, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except through me….’” (14:6)

This expression has caught the imagination of many and is indeed, the inspiration for one of my favourite hymns from the poem by George Herbert, “The Temple,” but it is also one of those sayings that is subject to broad interpretation. A text like this needs to be balanced with other texts like, “In God’s house are many mansions” (John 14:1-3) and “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (15:12) What we mean by the “way and the truth and the life” has something to do with how we have heard the call of Jesus across the centuries. For me, to follow the way of Jesus means to be in the company of men and women who care deeply for each other and for the whole created order, to be part of a vision that sees the possibility of peace as the norm, and food and shelter for every child. For me and people like me, the way of Jesus stretches beyond the geography, history and religion of Israel in the 1st century c.e. The truth that I respond to in the teaching we have received about Jesus is the truth of the human heart and soul that yearns for integration, for compassion, and for healing. And the life –the life is about acting with integrity, having the courage to change our minds, amend our ways, be open to new insight, new friends on the journey. The life is a banquet where the most surprising guests may come and go as they bring sustenance and as they receive it. The mansion within God’s house where I reside has a few quiet rooms, but mostly there is a lot of hustle and bustle as new guests arrive, as parties are sent out on search and rescue missions, as workers return for rest and relaxation. In this mansion, there are both tears and laughter; the healthy and the healing; there is dancing and prayer; there are “sighs too deep for words” and pentecostal fire. There is only the rule of love in this house, the most ancient creed of all, “Love what is holy for you and love your neighbour as yourself.” It is undoubtedly the most difficult and complex commandment ever given, but we are called to grow into it, to learn it through prayer and through the challenges of hospitality and generosity of spirit in this life.

I really do not care whether or not people know Jesus or call him by a different name, as long as they share the work and the vision. Part of accepting the way of Jesus and participation as crew means a particular kind of self-discipline; that is to cease from the condemnation of others. Of course we all make judgements as we go along; it would be impossible to refrain and stay alert. But there is a significant difference between judgement and condemnation. We must be able to judge in order to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, but beyond protection, we are not permitted to act. We may not kill although we may contain; we may not throw crew from the boat, although for the sake of our vulnerable ones there may be certain constraints. Even murderers and violent offenders who come to us may not receive our communal condemnation. Indeed, we must visit them in prison, pray for them and for their healing with as much fervency as we pray for the victims of their violence. We must pray for the conversion of the heart of oppressors as much as we must pray for the persecuted.

This is the challenge for the church: to see within each human heart the potential for violence and the potential for redemption. About lifestyles, we may have crew we prefer to be with and crew we prefer to avoid, but we are all on the boat together and to lose any is to lose part of the incarnation of Jesus as the Body, the Church. We may not judge until we are as complete and as mature as the Christ, an unlikely fulfillment for any one of us in the immediate future.

So what were the crew doing in the gospel narrative? For whatever purpose were they out in a boat in stormy weather, at night, anyway? Jesus had been teaching beside the sea all day and he wanted to cross. On the next day, he would heal the Gerasene of a demon, but for the disciples, teaching and healing would be experienced on that boat. We in the church tend to think of the church as the way Jesus is conveyed from one place to another, that the message of God can only be heard or experienced through our agency, in our language, with our metaphors, and with a very particular sacred history. In the gospel narrative, one wonders if Jesus needs the disciples to ferry him across the water, or if it is an opportunity for both some testing and some reality. This is also true for the church in our time. We need some perspective on where we are in the world and a reality check on our own importance in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Christians have tended to conflate political supremacy and religious dominance so that we think God can only function through our agency. When the storm arises, it is then that we remember that we are crew, and a rather frightenedand inadequate crew at that. If we look around, we see that other ships are either caught in the storm or sailing along as if it were an afternoon diversion. Our experience of the storm causes us to doubt our survival, to look for more people to throw into the sea, to close in on ourselves and to tie down all our resources and equipment to preserve our own selves and our vessel from the storm. And that storm seems to be all encompassing in our own time, crossing orders of ministry, liturgical practices, membership and economic stability. Even our church buildings are costing more and more to maintain as they are less and less appropriate for our needs. We groan under the lash of lawsuits and past wrongs; we disagree on theological issues with a venom and a competition not befitting prayerful people. And all the while the boat threatens to capsize beneath us. Indeed, some of us would perhaps be satisfied to intentionally capsize the boat as a punishment for those who disagree with us, even if it meant ultimate peril for all. Our worship in many places has become a battle ground of language and practice rather than a sign of our hospitality, graciousness and inclusivity. Instead of gratitude and appreciation to God for our many blessings and an expression of concern for others, the secret—and not so secret—prayer of hearts is, “Thank God that I am not as they are.” Although we would say that it is the church’s job, our job, to get Jesus from place to place, to speak about the incarnation of holiness in human life and the resurrection of hope when all seems lost, we sometimes are more obsessed with judging the skills and styles of each other than with reaching out to those who need the healing touch of Christ. It would be tempting to wonder if Jesus would be better served by another boat or even by another means of travel.

Fortunately, grace means that we who are in the boat are there because we need to be there and nowhere else. And Jesus, for whatever prophetic and healing reason, has called us out into the night and into the storm to show us a miracle. Even if we see the task as not being our own transformation, we cannot get Jesus across to reach others, or even to recognize him ourselves, until we are still, until we allow for the “word,” that first word that will echo through the books of the bible, “It is good.”

Jesus says in the story,”Peace. Be still.” To whom was he speaking – the storm or the storm in the minds of the disciples? When we still ourselves in the middle of the storm, we remember that we have nothing to fear. When we stop, we are able to hear and see Jesus, although it is dark and we have been afraid. The miracle is not that Jesus stilled the storm, but that Jesus was able to calm the hysterical crew long enough for them to see the storm breaking, long enough to keep them all from jumping into the drink, long enough to keep them from hurting each other. First they had to remember the incarnation of wholeness, holiness, Jesus, to call to him and to listen.

The storms that rage around the church are natural products of the past, natural signs of changing weather. They are not to be feared, but navigated. The boat, if it is as seaworthy as we have been promised, will not fail to right itself again as it has so many times in the past. We will come around again and see the harbour and relearn to trust in the promise that we will not be abandoned. We will remember that we and the storm are part of all that is, all part of God, all sheltered in the harbour of God’s love.

This storm that we are enduring has been brewing since the beginning of our existence as a church; it is time to set our boat in order so that we will steer into clearer weather. One wave of the storm carries our anti-Semitism. Until we turn in love to the Jewish people, I do not believe we will have peace. This, our first act of spiritual warfare, requires repentance. For all that the Jewish people have suffered, we must ask pardon for our part in their persecution and commit ourselves to solidarity with the religion from which we take our sacred story, with the people who gave us our first liturgical practices, with the nation from whom Jesus was born and who nurtured the vision that he offered to the first disciples. To be at peace with the Jewish people will be to resolve an original source of conflict.

The ongoing and systemic misogyny of the church also must finally be accepted and repudiated for all time. The courage and compassion of Jesus in his relationships with women has not been honoured by the church. Although in many provinces of the church women may now be ordained, they have largely been accepted as male stand-ins rather than as a unique voice in the church. Women ourselves must learn whether we want to perpetuate the old stereotypes within the church, the old battles, or whether we have the courage to be a prophetic voice. For millennia we have been beaten and killed and understood to encompass than the humanity of a man. To dress us up like men and to encourage us to prove ourselves by working even harder than men, does not change the basic mind set that allows for gender war. If the church is to be the whole church, then this storm of gender imbalance must be addressed and dealt with.

Women must speak out of the experience of fear and insecurity, out of our experience of being the witch, the Jew, the whore, the person of colour, the conquered spoils of war (only a partial list of accusations intended to be slurs). Until women understand that we must continue to name the place of oppression from which we come, until men stop minimizing the experience of millennia, I believe the grief that is between the genders will simmer at the horizon, always ready to become a storm within the church. Dressing women in men’s clerical clothes and “allowing” us voice in the courts of the church is an initial step, but the way women experience God, the language of women for God, and a practice of worship that is life-giving for women, must become as important as the tradition of men, which is what most liturgy is at present.

The storm also brews in our relationship with First Nation’s people. The native people of Canada, in challenging the systems of oppression that have perpetuated policies of genocide and cultural assimilation, not to speak of physical and emotional torture of children, have offered this storm as a gift to the church. These voices remind the church which side of the coin we are called to serve. We were in error whenever we served the interest of the economy and the state through the use of our faith and by promulgating culture instead of gospel, conformity instead of hospitality. Although this storm is costly to the present church, it is not as dear a price as all the lives that have been hurt by our complicity with the forces of violence and oppression. I am not speaking here of individual acts of violence. Repugnant as they may be to those of us who think the church must be about protection, there will always be instances of either unprincipled or disturbed individuals who harm others. The church’s obligation is to ensure that there is not a systematized and structural acceptance of harm.

We as church must ensure that we stand on the side of “the little ones,” the vulnerable, even if it alarms the state or causes us to be in conflict with the state. This storm that is related to the era of religious and political imperialism must be stilled by our penitence and by our willingness to address every structure, every policy that teaches us to be arrogant rather than humble, controlling rather than serving, and confident in ourselves rather than learning from each other and from the Holy One. We must learn how to sidestep our own cultural blinders, to reach out in love and acceptance. Every time we undertake a new partnership or a new relationship, we need to ask ourselves what we are willing to give up, what we will sacrifice for the sake of this new love. Jesus showed us that love will always ask us to sacrifice something to which we cling, even him sometimes.

As much as these issues of exclusivity seem enough of a storm, I want to address the issue of life styles. At the General Synod of 1998, the Anglican Church of Canada foundered on the question of human rights. The real question on the table was not human rights, but our fear and confusion about human sexuality. In former times, before we were able to control our reproduction. Before we understood the nature of human foetal development, we could be forgiven perhaps for seeing reproduction as the sole function of human sexuality. It is quite clear in our time that reproduction is only one and perhaps, the least common, motivation for human sexual expression. The diversity of ways to be sexual is both a gift and a huge anxiety to the church. If sexual activity is for pleasure as much as, or perhaps more than, for reproduction, then it follows that we are speaking of a different set of values and ethics than that of earlier times. Few couples who come for marriage in the church are virginal; indeed, many have had multiple sexual partners. They seem at least as loving, ethical and serious about life as the couples of another era. I hear priests saying, “Oh, they are only coming for the pretty church.” I ask you, are there not prettier structures that would not require so much bother? I believe that people come to religious institutions for rites of passage because at heart most people are religious and they want their lives to blessed, even if only at the doorways and exits of those lives.* Is the church about serving or about making law, about contributing to celebration or about constraint and demand? When we consider human sexuality and we think about physical pleasure, I want to remember that God looked at us and said that we were good, not just our elbows or our minds, not just our hands or our feet, but our mouths, our breasts, our genitalia, our hearts. Throughout we are very good. Perhaps, if we spoke of our sexuality as very good, we would seek the excesses less.

Still, I am less concerned about a person who loves too much physically than I am about a person who uses their hands to batter or their mouths to spew hate. Yet these people we do not dismiss from our midst. The storm around human sexuality will not calm until we settle this question: is sexuality for pleasure? If it is, then it follows that it is individuals who must decide what the boundaries of their pleasure are, within the permission and pleasure of another. Gay and straight people will not feel comfortable with each other until we stop pretending that only gay people have sex for pleasure and straight people are simply doing their duty. This storm invites us to accept our bodies and our relationships in new ways. It leads us to accept the gift of sexuality and pleasure as part of the goodness of creation, a source of wonder and spiritual insight as powerful as fasting, as silence, as singing, as prayer — all physical expressions of inward mystery.

And finally, we must acknowledge the storm of scholarship that swirls about us. Some preachers firmly avoid sharing, or perhaps even reading, the work of the Jesus Seminar on the one hand and the more conservative theologians on the other. Christians join camps to toss theological tomatoes at each other. In this time when we have so much new, creative and innovative scholarship, it frightens us as scholarship causes the church to look again at what we believe, to look again at what we know. When the dust settles, we will be left with fresh insights and new ways to be church that will reflect both the wisdom of the tradition and the new learning of the late 20th century. It will be a new navigational map for the church, with other routes and other possibilities.To honour our own history, we have to honour the concept of the theological debate, while growing past our need to name this or that a heresy as an excuse to throw original thinkers out of the boat. From the earliest days of the church there have been different ways of understanding the history and the message of Jesus. The gospel accounts themselves reflect this divergence of understanding and emphasis. For the gospel of John, there is an ongoing dialogue that asks the question, “Is Jesus a prophet; is he divine?” Does this mean we should choose only one gospel to read, only one point of view, only one perspective on the phenomenon of Jesus and his mission. If this were an acceptable way to deal with sacred texts, then they would only need to be monochromatic, one message tersely presented with the facts and nothing but the facts, ma’am.

Actually, the text is not the book, but the human who reads or hears or considers. The sacred text is being written in people’s lives all the time, with great diversity of expressions and effect. The narratives, letters, midrash and poetry form our Christian and Jewish libraries where we go for refreshment, for inspiration, to connect with our past in error and in truth. There is no need to fear a particular kind of Christian discourse unless it causes the seeds of hatred or exclusion or a failure of compassion. At that point, what ever scholarship there may be, it is not valuable if it corrupts our hearts or causes us to be blind to the command to love. Everything else is a navigational tool, something we may need more at some times than at others, but valuable nonetheless. We cope with the storm of theological scholarship by letting it wash over us, letting it inform us and letting what we have examined without insight return to the waters of the night. Nothing that is in the mind of God can be lost. And so we can cease our wrangling, but I hope not our productive debates. We need not fear our differences but celebrate the creativity that calls us together in the same boat. In the darkness of the night, it is hard to discern the difference between the questions and the answers, the truth and the illusion. We are called to be faithful in the night, to accept the testing of the storm, to sail on in darkness and waves.

And at last, the motivation behind the book, the relationship of faith and fear rising like waves and hurling itself against the shore, like crew floundering because fear has caused them to forget their skills, their abilities, even what cargo they really carry. In the midst of the storms that have carried us into a new millennium, we have lost our voices. Perhaps we needed to do that for a while because we were too loud, too dominant in the world. But this is a new day, and it is time to reclaim our place as those who have truths to offer in the community of the world. I hesitate to say truths because that sounds like absolutes, like laws that can be bound and kept for a long time, although even stone crumbles with the aeons. This is not what I mean. With every other religion in the world, we share ways of viewing human life and the life of the cosmos; we have particular ways of acting on our underlying belief systems; we have ways of adapting as we are changed by the circumstances and knowledge of the world. I think the Judeao-Christian model has an underlying belief system that has been undervalued in favour of a system of social, cultural and political controls. Both agendas, to control people and to set them free, are reflected in the different ways the same body of scripture and the parallel histories can be seen and read. Unfortunately, the storms of our time are many and feel overwhelming to us despite much whistling in the dark on the part of the church’s leadership. To be afraid and to persist in unlocking the next door, to speak with integrity at the next trial, to allow our errors to be exposed, this is faith. Faith is hope, not belief. In order to have faith that can be pressed into service, we need to be able to name that which we hope to be truth-full. We need to be able to say these things in metaphors and language that fits our epoch, that uses the knowledge of our time. Faith requires movement, whereas belief is still. Everything that I value about Christianity has to do with that first creation story and with movement. Because movement and change are frightening to us, the sign of faith is always accompanied by fear. This little story of the boat tells us that it is in the storm the disciples reconize the power of Jesus to change the way they see their religious convictions, the way they think about storms, and to see each other in a new light.

I see myself as crew and if you see yourself that way too, I hope you will take the time to hear how I think this boat is built. If you do not think you are crew, I hope you will be encouraged either to join to gain some insight and compassion for those of us who sail the sea. There is always more to say and more to think, a lifetime is certainly not enough… which is primarily why I hope for eternity!

* Since this essay was written, the storm has changed much of the landscape. On the west coast few couples, even those who grew up in the church, choose a church wedding, or a church blessing. Funerals, now called celebrations of life, are often conducted without clergy and not within the church. No longer do people feel the need for the ministry of the church for rites of passage. This is not hostility to the church, but disinterest for the most part. People no longer expect us to be relevant or helpful, even for conversations of spirituality. This dark wave is named humility for the church.