Pentecost B, 2018
Acts 2:1-4

Pentecost: Beyond the ‘Language Game…

Picture two scenes of beginning.

Scene one: In the beginning was the word and the word was ‘How r ya’. That’s how the New Testament book we traditionally call John might have begun if Jesus had been born a Kiwi. To some, Kiwi English is a lazy drawl of distorted vowels and suppressed consonants. But to most of us Kiwi’s it is a rich vein of regional idioms and unique slang expressions. “We don’t talk like anyone else on Earth,” some have said of Australians and we too might claim that also, even if in some cases the English put us two together in confusion.

Scene two: In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and serendipitous creativity was with God, and serendipitous creativity was God. All things came into being through Serendipitous Creativity and without it not one thing came into being. What has come into being in serendipitous creativity was life,* and the life was the light of all people.

These two stories give us the context for Pentecost and I suggests a Pentecost beyond language.

Rex Hunt suggests that like a movie director, Luke, the one we traditionally claim as the author of Acts, creates a scene with wind and fire. This is flamboyant speech. It is great drama. A Pentecost script full of symbolism which cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event does or does not lay behind this story. But is Pentecost just about a ‘language’ game as charismatics might argue?

Rex suggests a couple of interesting articles which took the Pentecost story beyond this, into some social issues.

One article claims that the ecological crisis is a ‘spirit’-ual problem. The other is about the power and dignity in other words, the ‘spirit’ – of a city. In our case the City of Auckland. Two rather unlikely subjects to be associated with Pentecost, according to Rex and he offered some random thoughts from each of those articles that might apply to us.

Lynn White, in one article suggests that Christianity’s attack on so-called pagan religion effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning. When paganism was banished what happened was that it replaced the belief that the sacred is in rivers and trees, with the doctrine that God is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth. God is up there out there unconnected and untouchable.

He wrote: “By destroying pagan (religions), Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” (White 1967) This suggests that the impact of Christianity’s teachings has tended to empty the biosphere of any sense of God’s presence in natural things. And what was created in terms of traditional theism, is that God is pictured as a sky-God.

And in turn, human beings, as bearers of God’s image, are regarded essentially as ‘souls’ taking up temporary residence in their earthly bodies. Or to put it in the common idiom: God is against nature. God is super – natural, disconnected from nature, superior to nature. ‘Dominion over’ becomes a top down idiom.

White claims, in this sense the ecological crisis – global warming, irreversible ozone depletion, massive deforestation – is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. Because… certain Christian teachings have blunted our ability to experience co-belonging with other life forms. How do you feel when we say those words in our community prayer “Forgive us when we trespass against others, human and other than human”? Do you get a sense of the challenge to review your relationship with the non- human life on this planet” What does it mean to trespass against other than human”?

The next question is “has this dominant view of nature rendered us unwilling to alter our self- destructive course and plot a new path toward sustainable living. If one holds to a doctrine of Trinity then it’s possible that the three in one relationship is distorted at best, and maybe there is a battle between pantheism and panentheism. God is Nature verses God is in Nature becomes the mechanism of avoiding the hard question.

The second article is a about St John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the 4th and early 5th centuries, who described the Festival of Pentecost as the ‘capital city of holy days’ and ‘the metropolis of the Christian year.’ While other cities may be larger, or more populated, or more fun… warmer even, Chrysostom argued they do not have the power or might or dignity of the capital city.

Living as we do in the City of Auckland, one of the most multicultural cities in the world where a myriad of languages is spoken this Chrysostom reference could be applied. The festival of Pentecost is the Auckland City of holy days, the metropolis of the Christian year. A significant image in this city of Auckland is the streets upon streets of different cultures and languages. In many of its buildings from houses to business all the peoples of the inhabited world are represented. In this city there are many people of different ethnicity’s and tongues, many cultures celebrated, much art and music and food and clothing to please the tastes of all the families of the planet.

Returning to Chrysostom’s image, in the city of Pentecost, no house or building is under siege, none has been shuttered or its families sent away by a secret order from the government, no front door has been vandalized or spray painted with insults or taunts, no refugee person has been declared persona non grata. Of course, that last claim might be challenged in our city. The issue is that the city of Pentecost is the safe place where all the cultures and languages are meant to be and the idyllic nature of this claim also reminds us that the city of Pentecost is not yet fully come.

The question we face is ‘how is ‘pentecost’ moved beyond the ‘language’ game?’ What is Pentecost as living with the planet rather than against nature? Pentecost as living in all the dignity and diversity of Auckland city. One might also say that this is the task that faces St David’s today. What is Pentecost as St David’s living in and with Uptown Auckland and of course within the greater city of Auckland.

Luke as storyteller, suggests something here. He suggests that the spirit (Sophia) is the source of unity amid diversity. (Why else the United Nations list of participants?) She does not eliminate diversity, but she makes it possible to rejoice in it instead of fighting over it. Neither Greek nor Roman, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female… Neither Irish, Indonesian nor Chinese, neither Pakeha or Maori, neither straight nor gay…

Pentecost is not yet come. It is a promise, a vision not yet achieved in practice.  Rather, it is a goal towards which we strive with greater or lesser success and indeed with greater or lesser effort. Theism or Serendipitous Creativity, Pentecost might be understood as the nudging of God in our lives which can bring about an expanding experience of what life is really designed to be about.” (Goff.P&F Web site 2003)

In this we can relate to as ‘just a bit of ‘Pentecost’ each day’. This initiates a process of empowerment found in the dynamic of relationship across complexity, which can bring satisfaction to God in creation, I might say the satisfaction is found in the healthy relationship with and understanding of Serendipitous Creativity. Found in the relationship between God and the city, and between us all.

This has got to be worth reflecting upon and celebrating, As Rex adds; especially on a day when we see ‘red’!

rexae74@gmail.com

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Easter 7B, 2018
John 17: 6-19

Prayer as Language of The Heart

Powell Davies, served as minister of All Souls Church in Washington, USA, during the late 1940s and early 50s and he wrote a book on prayer that raised a number of questions about prayer. What he said was that “Prayer… is the language of the heart, akin to poetry. Its concern is not with exact description, as that of prose so often is, but with reality itself and with the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off: it has to do with what is least known and yet most deeply felt.”  (Davies 1956:6)

In that simple statement he made some significant claims about prayer that I want to explore a little today. The first is that ‘Prayer is the language of the heart, the second that language of the heart is akin to poetry, the third was that Prayer is not concerned with exact description but rather with reality itself and this is a claim that reality is as I argued some months back when quoting the Italian Physicist Carlo Rovelli when he said Reality is ‘not what it seems”. Prayer is more akin to being not what it seems as opposed to exact description and what is important about prayer is that it has the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off, and its main concern is to explore what is least known and yet most deeply felt. What I want to explore this morning is some of the connections this approach makes with the rest of life because I think that somehow this understanding of prayer permeates almost the whole of human living.

I am currently reading a book loaned to me by Carl Becker entitled “Desiring the Kingdom’ by James K A Smith, which talks about there being an intentional nature in being human and that this intent is a desire to be a lover as opposed to being a thinker. Much of our recent history as human beings has been obsessed with thinking and our education theory has been centered on cognitive development. Not that such learning is not important but current thinking is that it is not enough to be cognitively proficient, our learning environment needs to recognize that human development is more likely to be through cultural and sociological exposure, or as Smith suggests cultural liturgies. That are formational. We note here also that Smith talks about Liturgies as the way we pull the cognitive and the practice together. In this way he can claim what I think we already know, and that is that education is a holistic endeavour that involves the whole person, including our bodies, in the process of formation that aims our desires, primes our imagination and orients us to the world, all before we start thinking about it.

But returning to our topic; what is this to do with prayer? Well I want to suggest that the connection might be in the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Under the strain of difficult conditions, or in severe loss or bereavement, or when emotionally moved by a scene of natural beauty, there is something within us that cries out for expression and this is a natural phenomenon. This is the beginning of prayer. In traditional language, this is God, or the sacred, found in the midst of ordinary life and in the natural world. Or as K E Peters suggests prayer is “something more than ourselves in which we ‘live and move and have our being’… [and] which in various ways, calls us and the world, on the edge of time, to move beyond present states of existence” (Peters 2008: 12).

To use Smiths approach, prayer is a challenge to the person as thinker model (I think therefor I am’) as being reductionist and not recognizing that the complexity and richness of human persons is not found by reducing the core identity to something less than it should be. We are not totally defined by our thinking ability and in fact other means of learning and human development are more involved in human identity. It is here that Smith I think introduces the idea that we are more likely to be driven by love than cognitive thinking. Prayer might just be an example of this attempt to reach beyond the cognitive.

Today’s gospel story by the bloke we call John, is a very small part of the tradition
which was circulating about Jesus’ prayers or prayer life. The tone of this rather long-winded prayer is very personal. In it Jesus addresses God as someone whom he knows
very intimately indeed, and as someone whom he trusts implicitly. At one level this is classic ‘theism’, but at another it is an acknowledgement that there is more to prayer than a conversation with a supernatural being, it is rather a claim that his human identity as a son of God is more than that which is limited by human thinking. He knows in his gut that he can trust God. He feels convinced that he is in the same space as his God. They are one in existence. And in this prayer John has Jesus weaving together the past, the present and the future into a kind of timelessness, which he suggests is available for all. This particular prayer is quite different from the ‘The Abba Prayer’. Which suggests that there are many different types of prayer and many different approaches to prayer. Just as poetry engages the space between the words and evokes a person’s spirit to explore meaning and feeling and even action so does prayer.

In regard to the different types of prayer we might suggests that a prayer which somebody leads in church or in a prayer group on behalf of others, is quite different from private prayer. Any measurement of prayer has to take into account the hearer and how many hearers as well thus the cognitive dilemma. On the other hand, prayer may be just a few words, like OMG, or a waiting in silence. Whatever the sort of prayer you prefer, the common thing is that there seems to be a need for some time for silence… and the deeper we get into prayer the more it tends to be listening prayer rather than speaking prayer. Again; we have the need for room for the non-cognitive.

This silence may be when you’re outside gardening, or enjoying a bush or beach view,
or looking at a picture, or out for a brisk morning walk in winter. It may also be while
you’re ironing, or painting the shed, or washing the car. Or it may be in deliberate meditation.

Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, wrote some words on prayer to the people of his diocese, at a time when they were enduring horrific suffering. He said that Prayer was “putting our ear to the ground” in order to hear the Divine voice… to recognize that God always is by our side, even when in our agony we are silenced and unable to think at all. What I think he was saying was that prayer is not just about thinking but rather about something more than language could engage with. He wrote “Put your ear to the ground and listen, hurried, worried footsteps, bitterness, rebellion. “Hope hasn’t yet begun. Listen again. Put out your feelers. The Lord is there.  (Camara 1984)

Peter Millar from the Iona Community offers a perspective on Camara’s prayer: when he says “Is this not the essence of prayer – to see the One who is always near, and who is constantly inviting us, in gentle compassion, to come back to our inheritance as a human being made in the divine image?” (Millar 2000:37)

Another perspective on prayer, especially how ‘it works’, comes from Christine Robinson.  She suggests that prayer ‘works’: “on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear our own wisdom, to reroute habits and habitual responses, to help us adjust to and find good in all that we cannot change, and see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they are, in our lives” (C Robinson. First Unitarian, Albuquerque web site, 2007).

Here we again sense that prayer is not just about the cognitive approach, and that our fundamental way of dealing with the world is non-cognitive. It also suggests that because our fundamental nature is to be intentional about engaging with the world our engagement is neither reflectional or theoretical, in other words we do not go around all day thinking about how to live our lives. It is rather more that we simply involve ourselves in it and we orient and navigate ourselves without thinking about it.

For us as Progressive Christians prayer ‘works’ not because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural, being who just happens to be listening, waiting for our orders. Prayer works’ because our lives and our world are porous to new and creative re-imagined possibilities. As H N Wieman says: prayer ‘works’ in the re-creation of the one who prays.  (Wieman 1946)

Before I finish I want to say two things that I think undergird these claims about prayer. The first is that Prayer is part of the human intention for the world and it is born out of that which prayer seeks to manifest. The human intention is as we said; that we desire to be more fully human and that means to be more loving, that’s the ‘why’ question, and the way in which we see ourselves involved in that intent is by loving, that’s the ‘how’ question We are more fully human by loving and agents of love in that loving. It is more about what we do as opposed to what we think.

Last week I talked about plurality and how we needed to recognize that we live beyond the theory of tolerance of difference and find the experiential place of tension between the idea of assimilation and valued differences and what I did not succeed in doing was making clear what love and loving have to say in that approach to plurality. Today I am suggesting that an understanding the importance of the non-cognitive opens doors for the language of the heart and thus for love. Some would even go so far as to say that humans are essentially lovers because to be human is to love and that what we love defines who we are.

I want to conclude this talk by claiming that if ‘Religion’ has any value at all to humanity it has to be seen not as an historical organizational problem tied to the past but rather a wisdom born of centuries of experience, that tells us that qualities of heart, and mind rather than physical blessings, are a major concern in our prayer life. I would want to add here that it is the qualities of heart and especially love that exceeds even the importance of mind in this process. It also suggests that, we should pray not for more of the bounties of life, but for more awareness of life; not for more recognition and love from our peers, but for more capacity to give love and recognition. As a footnote I want to say here that this is why our liturgies begin with ‘Awesome wonder’ as acknowledgment of the bounteous beauty with which we are endowed, followed by an ‘Awareness’ as acknowledgement of the need to ask questions of our motivation, desire and expectations, followed by imaginative choice which recognizes that the scriptures and what we say makes sense as products of the human imagination and that the creative choice returns us to a place of gratitude, and an intent to love even more fully. One could say our liturgical journey is one of heart, mind, response, heart.

Notes:
Davies, A. P. The Language of the Heart. Washington DC. A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee, All Soul’s Church, 1956.
Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion and Human Becoming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.
Wieman, H. N. The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press, 1946.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom. Baker Academic, Baker Publishing Group 2009

Pluralism and Love

Posted: May 2, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pluralism and Love’

For Progressive Congregations today is ‘Pluralism Sunday’ the Sunday we make plain the non-exclusivity of Christianity. For us religious pluralism is an attitude that claims that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and that at least some truths and true values exist in other religions. It is also a claim that ecumenism, is the promotion of some level of unity, co-operation, and improved understanding between different religions or different denominations within a single religion. It is also a claim that there exists a condition of harmonious co-existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations as a social norm and not merely a synonym for religious diversity. We call this aspect Cultural pluralism as a term used when smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities, and their values and practices are accepted by the wider culture provided they are consistent with the laws and values of the wider society. Simply put we might say we all believe in the same God and that a pluralistic attitude enables this belief to manifest a sacred loving.

Our title suggests pluralism is an attitude and that it can be seen as a metaphor of Love. But what do I mean by making this claim? What In think I am saying is that conceptions of love can provide a useful metaphor to argue for balanced pluralism. In his seminal work “The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm defines motherly and fatherly love. In his words: “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved… Motherly love by its very nature is unconditional.” On fatherly love, Fromm suggests it is quite different, based on the principle: “I love you because you fulfill my expectation, because you do your duty…” Fromm recognized, by the way, that motherly and fatherly principles were not necessarily related to people’s gender and it is with this assumption that I want to make my claims today. I want to suggest that both attitudes are about love. Love as peace, that which is always out ahead unconditionally waiting to be found and Love as a result of the human action of caring for one another within the reality of human life. But what do these conceptions of love have to do with pluralism? Well, perhaps nothing. But perhaps, we can use them as a metaphor to see our differences in views and attitudes in a more constructive way.

One Love is unconditional and pure, just like the Christian Love we talk about in theology. It demands nothing in return; it’s not always practical; and it may break your heart – but it is pure and gives us a safe haven. The other love expects good behaviour. It demands, provides rules, is more-strict, and love is only forthcoming if the potential recipient performs adequately. This is quite pragmatic, and there are important lessons we can learn from this love: accept and find an approach to live with the harsh realities of life, and you will succeed. This has parallels with conserving nature for its utilitarian values: we will preserve the wetlands, if (and only if) it provides us with clean water.

I want to suggest that both approaches to love are essential if pluralism has any credibility and essential if we are to understand love in its fullness. Gregory J Kerr in ‘A Pluralism Within’ makes it clear that Love is an indispensable condition. He quotes G K Chesterton in ‘What’s Wrong with The World when claiming the need for Love; Chesterton writes;

I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.

He also suggests that we are in a time in the history of humanity when there never been a greater need for an emphasis on pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, and difference. And just as assuredly, there has never been a time when we needed a greater generic and homogenized similarity. Without a love that welcomes difference and a homogenized unity we will struggle in our future.

We are without a doubt shocked at the quote above and we are shocked at the idea of other people being incompatible with us, but equally certain, on the other hand, people in our modem world are very wary of affecting the lives of others for fear of appearing intolerant. We are both so different and unique that we fear that we will impose our personal preferences upon others and that our differences will limit them. We will inhibit their personal growth as unique human beings. Who are we, we ask, to affect their lives? Just think about the changes to marriage liturgy as we see this struggle.

Today’s candidates for marriage would rather say “I love you,” than, “I’ll always love you.” Their dreams about the future with a partner, are conditional and avoid impose a rigid, authoritarian pattern on expectations of the future …. A serious person today does not want to force the feelings of others.

The same goes for possessiveness. When we hear such things, we find them sensible and in harmony with a liberal post-modern society but the sad part of this is that we, struggle with the temporary, conditioned contemporary liberal vision of pluralism. We are tolerant, yes! And we wish to be pluralists but with one caveat: no one’s view of reality can really be true. No one’s view can be better than the others. This means that while we are affirmed in our right to come up with our own theory or believe our own religion, we can never claim it to be true.

The result, of course, is that we never feel free to think or believe anything. It is not surprising that for Allan Bloom, in ‘The Closing of the American Mind, students no longer say “I love you” for they do not want to impose themselves on others. According to their view, they are all too biased and limited in their views. Only God would have the knowledge required!

And the popular contemporary writer on love, M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, believes that to tell others what is good for them is indeed like playing God. For Peck, if we are going to be genuinely loving, that is exactly what we have to do! We need to play God. Pope John Paul II said that no one can think for us and no one can will for us but still we can show, without claiming divine inspiration, that it is meaningful to talk about loving human beings and assisting their growth in a positive way. His claim is that there are truths in this area and through an analysis of the necessary elements involved in human discourse we can arrive at certain central truths about our humanity and about how to love others.

First, all human beings desire to communicate with one another. Second, as Jacques Maritain observes, this desire can only be accomplished when our words and ideas comply with the transcendental principles of the one, the true, the good, and the beautiful. I would say here, regardless of its status. The latest thinking in science is that there is a finiteness in the field of infinity. Maritain writes: “The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself …. It is remarkable that men really communicate with one another only by passing through being or one of its properties.” This is true because people cannot communicate with one another if their ideas and words are logically incoherent (in other words our conversation lacks unity if we do not understand each other), we cannot communicate if we do intend there is a relationship to reality (it remains not true), nor do we communicate if we do not intend that our conversation has value (or we intend no worth to the other), nor is their communication if we do not address the beauty of the existentially unique and concrete situation that they are in.

If this is true then human beings are communicators who must rely upon the transcendental principles, and these principles must be fundamental aspects of human nature itself. If to be human is to know and communicate through the transcendentals, then love will be those thoughts, feelings, and actions that contribute to the growth of our or another’s abilities to do this better. To love others is to help them develop their ability to learn about the true and to have a unified vision of the whole of reality, to help them to become more-free to respond to what is truly good and valuable, and to help them to be able to appropriate themselves aesthetically and existentially as unique human beings. I was making this claim of serendipitous creativity two weeks ago.

Paul J. Wadell, says “A human being is a creature of appetites, of powerful, perduring tendencies. A human being is one whose very nature is appetite, whose whole being is a turning toward all those goods which promise fullness of life. We are hungry for completion … ” To do this, however, we must love the right things in the right way. In part, this can be translated into saying that the human being has a natural appetite for truth, goodness, and beauty, and, to truly love is to nurture one’s own or another’s intellectual and moral virtues that regulate these appetites towards the true, the good, and the beautiful. Contrary to an educational theory that heralds only cognitive development, the growth of these abilities is not automatic. These abilities, like muscles, do not flourish but atrophy when left alone. People-parents, friends, and lovers-don’t help the beloved when they only leave them alone to decide and learn for themselves all the time. To develop virtue, according to Aristotle, we must endure some degree of pain or discomfort in attempting to repeatedly hit the mean between two extremes by aiming away from the extreme that hitherto has brought us inappropriate pleasure. People love when they, through time, effort, and guidance, help themselves or others build virtues or good habits along these transcendental lines. But there is a catch, a problem: these lines often are in tension with each other. Each appetite, each aspiration, each type of knowing has a blind spot towards the value of the others. There can even be fighting among them. As Maritain wrote in his essay “Concerning Poetic Knowledge:”

The fact is that all these [human] energies, insofar as they pertain to the transcendental

universe, aspire like poetry to surpass their nature and to infinitize themselves …. Art, poetry, metaphysics, prayer, contemplation, each one is wounded, struck traitorously in the best of itself, and that is the very condition of its living. Each one of these has a desire to be finite, concrete and the exclusive true and Man unites them by force.”

It can be shown Plato, and M. Scott Peck, who focus upon the good and practical nature of love are blind to the bodily truth about human nature and of the guidelines it provides. Just as those like C.S. Lewis who focus upon the truth about friendships and provide brilliant insight into genuine friendship diminish its moral element. There are others, like Montaigne, Kierkegaard, and Marcel, who take an existential or aesthetic approach but then leave no possibilities for any natural guidelines or principles at all. All of these theorists want to preserve and value something that is truly worthwhile, but they neglect other valuable aspects of love in doing so ..

Gregory claims that the solution to this difficulty involves a kind of pluralism . . . not a pluralism concerning truth, but a pluralism within. It involves affirming that while there is indeed one reality, there are different and incommensurable ways of accessing it. To love ourselves and others means to affirm these important but conflicting aspirations within all human beings. It means to affirm the unity of reality with the plurality of the ways of knowing it. To love, then, is at least this: to nurture the growth of these natural but conflicting, and yet interdependent, aspirations and appetites within us all. Notwithstanding certain interpretations of Plato, no one can be at ease with the speed with which he guides our minds to love that which is invisible, eternal, form-like, and divine. Even in the earthy Symposium, where there is much talk of bodily love, Socrates’ major contribution is to provide us with a ladder out of that. He goads us on to ascend to the form of beauty! Thus, the ultimate love is not that of other persons but that of a reality that is out of this world and impersonal. I would suggest this might be called the true Creativity. For Plato, the true is fused into the good and, as with Augustine, there is an impatience with the material aspects of truth in reality. Here we have the Serendipitous. The great insight of the Platonic view lies in the highlighting of the special nature and dignity of the human soul as it rises in its partial freedom from matter. The error is the identification of the soul with the real self and the forgetting our bodies and the spirit-incarnate whole that we really are.

Having given us a necessary condition of love, Peck, tells us that feeling, romantic love, and affection are not genuine forms of love. In doing so, he clearly wants to steer his patients away from unhealthy, delusional, codependent, and abusive relationships. He, like life management theorist Stephen R. Covey, wants to assert the importance of the idea that “love is a verb.”

Perhaps as a conclusion for today we can reflect upon what Kierkegaard said,

The true is no higher than the good and the beautiful, but the true and the good and the beautiful belong essentially to every human existence and are unified for an existing individual not in thought but in existence.

 And to repeat what Maritain has said,

Art, poetry, metaphysics, prayer, contemplation, each one is wounded, struck

traitorously in the best of itself, and that is the very condition of its living. Man

unites them by force.”

Pluralism and love. Amen.

 

When Life Matters

Posted: April 11, 2018 in Uncategorized

Easter 3B, 2018. Luke 24: 36b-48

When Life Matters

The first thing I want to say today is that while this year in the lectionary year is the year of Mark we are yet to get into Mark properly. In the case of Lent there was only four of Mark’s stories selected and there will not be any more until we move into Pentecost. While this may not seem to be too important we need to remember that we think Marks gospel came first and the others followed. This is an argument that Mark’s is more likely to be unembellished than the others because of human propensity to add rather than detract. If that is so then what Mark has to say or not say has significance. First as the earliest story in the new testament and as such more likely to be a surprising story. The first surprise is that Mark’s story is so brief.  Eight verses to be exact. The second surprise is: that Mark does not have any so-called ‘appearance’ stories. All the appearance stories are found in the other, much later, gospel accounts. What Mark does have is the indication that the disciples will see/experience/be aware of, Jesus in Galilee. And the third surprise is that Mark’s Easter story ends very abruptly. The women fled from the tomb. “They didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone: talk about terrified…” (Mark 16:8 Scholars Version).

Just how surprising the story was, is borne out when it was considered as early as the second century, when a longer ending was added to Mark (16:9-20)” (Borg & Crossan 2006:196). Then we note that it is on to this story, Mark’s story, that the other storytellers – Matthew and John and Luke – expanded and changed. Our reading from Luke is centered on Jerusalem combined with a commissioning. It is here that Borg and Crossan remind us that the Gospels are the product of the experience and reflection of Jesus’ followers in the days, months, years, and decades after his death.

And bringing us back to today we could say with Rick Marshall from his web site that we are “still in the shadow, or afterglow, of the resurrection at Easter” We have wrestled with an understanding of doubt as a positive catalyst for re-examination, of good healthy skepticism, of the need for a healthy critique and we have seen the empty tomb as the invitation to explore meaning, to seek a culturally authentic resurrection understanding rooted in all the realities of human living.

What I think we have been doing is what Richard Kearney would say is, reimagining the sacred, finding God after God. Manley Hopkins calls this finding poetic epiphany, meaning that certain deep experiences can be followed by periods of disenchantment, after which one returns to a primal experience in a new light; one returns over and over. As a religious poet Hopkins is speaking of what could be said to be sacred reimagining.

Here we are now at the aftermath of Easter and we are seeking the sacred reimagining and when speaking of serendipitous creativity last week, I think we began this task. I and others have suggested that it is no longer helpful to think of God as Creator of the heavens and the earth because we are now in receipt of knowledge that challenges that.

Just the widespread serendipitous creativity manifest in the cosmos as conceived today challenges the Creator, Created approach. The very notion of cosmic, evolutionary, and historical trajectories or directional movements have shown us activity we have not known before. These phenomena have emerged spontaneously in the universe at large and on planet Earth in particular and through the consequences we have seen a divine creative activity in the world that has newly become visible to us humans. Climate change for instance, not in its normal cycles but in its evolutionary vulnerability to human interaction. and then there is genetic modification that has been around for a while but the results of its implementation have shown us another perspective on God.

Kaufmann suggest we might use the term serendipitous creativity as a means to thinking about God in this new environment. Why should we consider this way of thinking? Maybe its because some scholars in the past have suggested that in a pluralist universe the divine is finite not as of the whole of things but only of the ideal tendency of things. In this view of the universe God signifies a reality that is finite in both knowledge and power but calls forth an active human response. Humans can co-operate with God in effecting changes in the world. The problem with this view is that Quantum theory brought an end to the mechanistic worldview of Newtonian physics and thus encouraged the development of notions of God as in process. In contrast to the emphasis of traditional theism on the divine simplicity that entails immutability and infinity, the process theisms of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) distinguish between the abstract essence of God (as absolute, eternal, unchangeable) and God’s concrete actuality, which is temporal, relative, changing, and dependent on decisions made by finite actualities. Humans are creators not just the created creatures.

Hartshorne, moreover, claims his language about God is more biblical and personal than that, evoking the God of classical theism. In Whitehead’s understanding, God offers to each “actual occasion” that possibility which would be best but does not control or determine the finite occasion’s self-actualizing; God works by persuasion and is not in total control of the events of the world. Again; humans are co-creators not just created creatures.

In these and other similar developments as you can hear, there is a continual crisscrossing of popular and reflective images and conceptions nurturing and fertilizing each other, giving birth to widely different ways of speaking and thinking of God. So the meaning(s) of the word “God” have expanded in many directions, producing rich new possibilities for its employment but also much disagreement about how it is to be used, and many have begun to wonder whether it can any longer be usefully employed.

The challenge for us here and now is that the power of this symbol still remains great in our popular culture, despite the complexity of meanings and theologians and philosophers of quite diverse commitments will continue to struggle with its meaning for human life in today’s world. I would want to say that this is a healthy sign that reimagining of the sacred is possible and that seeing God as serendipitous creativity is a good place to start.

So, given all the above what can we say of all this?  Can we say that Jesus lives? Maybe we can say that he is among the living. Just as for the early followers, His spirit “was still coursing through their veins” (Patterson 2004:4). Can we say that serendipitous creativity has said ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the powers who executed him. Stephen Patterson suggests that “The followers of Jesus did not believe in him because of the resurrection.  They believed in the resurrection because they first believed in him and in the spiritual life he unleashed among them” (Patterson 2004:121). It is true, that his death mattered to them.  But only because his life mattered more… So they began to speak of his death in ways that affirmed his life. And they came to see he stood for something so important he was willing to give his life for it (Patterson 2004:127). And every indication is that that something was his passion or vision of life called the empire of God.

And we can say that slowly they came to reaffirm their own commitment to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds. They believed that “in his words were God’s words” (Patterson 2004:127). And that his vision of a new empire, cultivated by him among them long before he died, no executioner or cross could kill.

Likewise, when we believe in this vision of a possible new empire, we too can reaffirm our commitment to the values and vision, and a ‘resurrection’ invitation, to live life deeply and generously. And we do this by reimagining the sacred beginning by seeing God as serendipitous creativity. What makes this important is not just a philosophical exercise or a head trip but rather a practical application of understanding. To be embraced by life, and not scared of it is the challenge. In all its particularity life is participation in the serendipitous reality. Life cannot remain visionary! It must be concretely practiced.

And for our gospel storyteller this morning, Luke, “to fulfil the hope of the resurrection is to tell the story of Jesus.  That means telling what he did, how he was rejected and then vindicated; and it is at the same time to live it by the power of the same Spirit, by doing good and bringing liberation for all” (WLoader web site, 2003). The ‘truth’ of the resurrection stories are not about their historical factuality. Their ‘truth’ is rooted in the Source of Life we name as Serendipitous Creativity, and which lives on as such for us and through us and among us, today. Our God is the free randomness that makes things happen in ways we do not expect, cannot fully contain yet things that only happen when we live our lives.

After this service today we will be asked to make a decision about our future as a Congregation, and if what I have suggested today is correct it will be a decision about what we believe about God or who or what God is for us. Will God be the omnipotent God of recent tradition who intervenes and makes things bad or good dependent upon our behaviour? This means that if we get it wrong that God might either bless our work as a pleased God or cause all sorts of problems that suggest its too big a risk, or its too grand an ideal for us. This sort of God’s actions will be proven by what happens. And it will be a hindsight revelation for us.

Or will God be a Serendipitous Creativity rooted deep in the bio-history of this planet, as the source of the dynamism of the human intellect, which in its striving to unify experience is taken to be the source of our ideas of God? How does the proposed project reflect our participation in the serendipitous evolutionary reality of our lives?

In taking the leap now to St David’s today we might ask how did I come to the conclusion that a decision about our mission direction and our school project was actually a decision about our understanding of God? Well I think it came about because I think that the distinctive image of Christianity is that it is a faith, or a way of living that is always relevant, always a theological application, always a faith in action. What we believe dictates what we do. The challenge for us is to recognize that for some 400 years we Christians have become comfortable with our stories. We have tied them up all nice and neat so that we can say this is the truth only to find that today, truth no longer makes that sort of exclusive claim about itself. The line between truth and non-truth is blurred now, Fake news is one way we talk about this blurring.

What is crucial for us as we look to our future is to look into the unknown and on the basis of what we understand today, prepare our children for all eventualities. Has a world based on truths shown itself in the rise in mental illness and depression, has a world based on fear shown itself in a growing disparity between the intellectual and the practical, between the poor and the rich. Has preaching the gospel replaced living the gospel? This modern development in the idea of God as serendipitous creativity has opened the door for historical studies and the sociology of knowledge to call attention to the sacred – in connection with their exploration of the social and linguistic character of all human knowing. Gordon Kaufmann says that he has no memory of a specific moment when “God;’ became an issue for him but he notes a perpetual perplexity from his home and childhood community that has been with him as far back as he can remember, sometimes becoming quite strong, sometimes receding, but always there. He says that the “God is dead” theological movement of the 1960s sharply focused this question for him, and from that point on he felt increasingly driven to address it directly. It became clear to him in the mid-sixties that the so-called neo-orthodox theology that had been dominant in his country needed to change.

His proposal is that the traditional metaphors of creator, lord, and father- on the basis of which the Western image/concept of God has been largely constructed- be replaced by the metaphor of serendipitous creativity, as we seek to construct a conception of God more appropriate to today’s understandings of the world and of our human existence in it. Later today we will make decisions to continue to make an investment in this congregation. To make an investment of energy. An investment of financial support, and most importantly, an investment of personal spirit. You see; to really be a member of St David’s is to participate, rather than watch and wait or stop for a while because it is too big a risk. In fact, the too-big a risk, is to be a spectator remaining on the sidelines. And let’s be clear that St David’s is a rare place in the religious community of today. I am not just saying this because it’s what people say of us. St David’s is a place that provides a challenge, a valuable counterpoint to current and prevailing points of view. So, in the spirit of what Jesus was passionate about, and in the spirit of the wider Easter stories by several storytellers, let us again be captivated by the vision of a new empire. Let us be an invitation into a way of life which was reflected in Jesus’ own life – in his words and deeds. Our God is within reach, our God is at hand, as Jesus said the Kingdom always was. And just in case anyone thinks we are too progressive or non-traditional we might say with Benedikt that “Perhaps this is why God prefers a good atheist to a wicked believer” (Benedikt 2007:13). Amen.

Notes:
Benedikt, M. 2007. God is the Good we Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books.
Borg, M. J. & J. D. Crossan. 2006. The Last Week. A day-by-day account of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Funk, R. W. & R. W. Hoover. 1993. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. MacMillan Press.
Patterson, S. J. 2004. Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus. Minniapolis. Fortress Press.

Gordon D. Kaufman. In the Beginning Hardcover (Kindle Locations 19-21). Kindle Edition.

rexae74@gmail.com

Yes! To Life…

Posted: April 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

Easter2B, 2018
John 20:19-23

Yes! To Life…

It is the evening of the first day of the week, and the doors are closed.
Locked. The anxious and fearful disciples are shut tightly inside. The suspicious world is shut tightly outside. Then, all of a sudden, defying locked doors, locked hearts,
locked vision… A dead faith is re-created.  A dead hope is born again. Is it all over? Is he dead? What of his message now that he is gone? What next?

We can recognize these questions as questions born out of fear and we know that fear is a very powerful thing in our lives. It prompts us to seek protection in times of very real danger. It saves us from harm and it motivates us into needed changes and surprising adventures. It serves as a constant reminder that we are fragile, limited, human beings.

On the other side of these impulses, we also know fear also prompts us to ‘close the doors of our lives’ to hide from the mystery and wonder of the unknown and to run into places of isolated hiding. Here is the challenge to see that doubt and questioning is motivated by fear, fear of the unknown and fear of the mysterious and the different. Fear if the stranger who challenges the status quo or the comfortable. There are very few emotions that are stronger than fear. And we know that the response is not to banish fear itself because we can’t but it is about what we do next. It is how we handle fear that matters.

We are in the period of Easter, the period in our Christian year when we confront the tragedy of the cross, not as a wonderful gift of sacrifice by one who died for our sin but as a wonderful person of insight, understanding and compassion and then we come to the empty tomb, the horrible truth of execution, of cultural extermination, of social and corporate power is replaced by utter fear for the future. The grave clothes prove he is forever gone. What next? Voices from beyond arrive and the doors are closed for fear of the unknown. We are left wondering whether Jesus’ followers, were afraid of death
he is gone, or terrified of life, what next? Is this resurrection both a wonderful and a terrifying thing?

Leonardo Boff, a liberation theologian from Brazil, in one of his articles says:
‘Wherever, in mortal life, goodness triumphs over the instincts of hatred, wherever one heart opens to another, wherever a righteous attitude is built and room is created for God, there the Resurrection has begun’. And retired Melbourne Uniting Church minister, Dr Francis Macnab, offers this Easter prayer: “God, on this Easter morning, help us to say
Yes to life, Yes to a new beginning, Yes to the presence that gives us courage
for whatever is ahead of us.” (Macnab 1996: 75)

And as if responding to Macnab’s prayer, English philosopher and founder of Sea of Faith, Don Cupitt, writes: “We should say ‘Yes’ to life in all its contingency because it is the accidentalness of life that makes happy accidents possible, and that makes innovation and creativity possible.  We wouldn’t wish the self-replication of DNA always to proceed with precise accuracy, because without all the slippage and the accidents there would not have occurred the favourable mutations on which evolution depends – and so it is also in the realm of… personal life.” (Cupitt 2003: 16-17) Watch out for fear in case it closes the doors of life, remains trapped in tragedy and in the language of bitterness and hopelessness. Find the fear of not embracing the doubt, the opportunity, the resurrection and be motivated for goodness. Be afraid of death but not to the detriment of life. Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors
and leave our places of hiding. Put fear behind us and risk exposure as a human being.

In fact I want to go a step further by suggesting that the Easter story with its cross and empty tomb is a call to acknowledge the limitedness of the human species not as a means of acknowledging its sinfulness but rather the limitedness of its grasp of reality, its situation in life, politically culturally psychologically and physically. We are an evolutionary species subject to serendipitous creativity and this means letting go of our fear of ambiguity, and the comfort of concrete-ness and absolute truth.

To get a bit of a handle on this struggle to come to grips with reality I found Gordon D. Kaufman helpful where he writes of God as creativity rather than creator (more recently he has refined this as God being serendipitous creativity). He suggests that it is impossible-in this age of cosmological and evolutionary thinking, which emphasizes an understanding of our universe as having come into being in and through a Big Bang some 14 or 15 billion years ago- to make sense of the traditional defining idea of God as `creator of the heavens and the earth:’ By 1975, he says he had come to the conclusion that all theological ideas-including the idea of God- could best be understood stood as products of the human imagination, when employed by men and women seeking to orient themselves in life. This he says freed him to experiment with a variety of ways of thinking of God, humanity, and the world more congenial to modern/postmodern consciousness about these matters than were the more traditional formulations. I know I too have been on about God as serendipitous creativity, and it is because of its exciting possibilities. Creativity God as Creativity itself, source, existence and purpose of all life and this also suggests that Creativity may have existed in the beginning. That through Creativity the planet earth might have emerged through various random events (the serendipitous nature of creativity) that left us with a moon, oceans of water, and a gradual process of shifting landmasses to form the continents as we know them.

It might also be said that through serendipitous creativity the conditions for life on the planet fell into place, and evolution entered the story bringing with it the dynamic interchange between law and random occurrence, between finitude and infinity, the generation of novelty, and from that the emergence of life and the human. It might also be said that through serendipitous creativity this thing called reality emerged as the outcome. Process or becoming is thus revealed as the description for the essential quality of reality that exists from the beginning. The process of evolution defines this dynamism and among others, three important principles can be observed interacting in the evolutionary process.

At first, contingency and randomness elicit development. The yet to be, the almost here and the serendipitous give birth to an outcome. The universe cannot be fully rationalized; and because of its complexity the interactivity of events cannot be predicted. Meteorological events offer a good example of this randomness. Then, unexpected random events operate within a set of relatively stable chemical and physical laws and systems. Systems always exist in larger environments that interact with them. Thus, system and isolated events do not negate each other; they coexist and interact with each other. Then, this interactive process extends over the long period of time that was indicated earlier. It is difficult to adopt a neutral or object framework of time outside a human point of reference. But to imagine the age of the universe is to notice that cosmic development and evolution have had an enormous framework of time and space to work their way.

That’s the big picture with a touch of science but there is a small picture as well that we might explore a little. By small picture I mean the human existence within the cosmos. Within the constitutive dimensions of human existence there is the serendipitous reality that we create and are a part of. One might suggest that there is a basic level of the response of human freedom or human spirit to the world in which it exists and it may be characterized as sheer openness to it and dependence upon it. Some neuroscientists suggest this is a world of what is called mirror neurons. Rene Gerard I think spoke of this as the mimic factor of human behavior. A reflective human consciousness always understands the self in the here and now, as in this world and differentiated from it. There is no need to build a subject– object dualism to recognize that we are always selves in the world, open to the world and influenced by the world. However, to be a person here and now implicitly entails an open subjectivity that stands in relation to the world.

A person gains a sense of self-possession both by being defined by the space-time world in which one is, and by standing over against the world as something other than the self. Here lie the grounds by which one is able to “enter into oneself,” reflect on oneself, take stock of one’s self, and speak of “self-possession.” Such self-possession is actually enabled by one’s being in relation to the world, the other, the non-self. At this elemental level of human freedom, one can think of self in metaphors like a “clear space,” or an “expanding self,” or a “transparency.” There is of course the element of choice in this as well and this is necessary to avoid the pitfalls of narcissism when we elevate the self too far.

Self-consciousness, self-knowledge, and self-control all presume and rest on being in an open relation to non-self and world. Another level of freedom consists in what is ordinarily called choice, or free choice. In much of the debates about the nature of freedom the focus rests on choice. This was especially so in the historical debates about the role of human freedom in the process of salvation from God mediated by Jesus Christ. The question we have today is; without the supernatural interventionist God what is freedom? Here, freedom refers to the ability to choose among options. Everyday life teems with choices; the human person who lives an active life constantly makes choices; to be free is to be able to choose. At this point one measures the degree of freedom precisely by a lack of either internal or external constraint. Culture, environment serendipitous circumstance all intervene as doubt and can turn into fear if not challenged by that which is socially constituted, and seemingly challenged by the radical question of meaning. This question, about what is freedom, is implicit in the human phenomenon.

When talking about the self and the individual, the most serious challenge to any idea of personal autonomy comes from a recognition of the psychic and intellectual solidarity of human existence. From the very beginning of conscious life, the human person is given language and, with it, a social code of meaning and value. Each individual is thus socially constituted as an individual being in his or her actual consciousness. An individual becomes his or her autonomous self by socialization in a community’s set of meanings. The worldview and the set of values of any particular individual and at any given time are always constituted by the common meanings and the ideals that are carried by and channeled through the community.

But particularity does not necessarily entail idiosyncrasy. Particularity and individuality do not have to be a trap; this or that language creates a social platform and provides leverage for creativity. Thus, the social creates, supports, and complements individual initiative. And the longer-term effectiveness of individual creativity depends on its social effects, on bringing others into a common strategy of meaning and value. Marx wrote that “Consciousness, is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.”

Today the insights of the sociology of knowledge are presupposed in the academy and more generally in public discourse: people are well aware that anyone who seeks to persuade always has a background and an agenda that largely account for their views. You can always be assured that when I preach it is because it is where my thinking is at and while it may be made up of others thinking it is no one else’s thoughts.

It is true that the relatedness of thought to temporal particularities raises the question of relativism, but most people appreciate that the partiality of particular points of view can be reconciled with some elementary contact with reality that can be known and shared. Some of the things I say make sense. In fact, this represents the general condition of human knowledge, and it is not relativistic. But once again, the feigned autonomy of individualism surrenders all hope of getting at the truth, because important truths can be approached only gradually through conversation. That’s why we have our discussion time, because without that they would remain more subjective and further from the truth than they need be. The phrase “spiritual solidarity” might be used to describe the way individuals can choose their communities and create bonds of community across the lines of material, psychic, or intellectual boundaries.

Now having said all that technical stuff we return to our text and to what we think is the central focus of all of John’s writings:  Life! Hopeful life! Abundant life! John’s celebration of the Easter message points to life as its message. Before and after Easter it is still life. Indeed, in John’s story, Easter it seems, coincides with Pentecost. The post-Easter Jesus appears, breathes, sends and commissions – all in one burst of ‘holy energy’. The change is, now there are new bearers of that life. The Spirit given without measure to Jesus (to use traditional language), now operates without measure among the disciples
and makes Jesus’ presence real to them. So they came to reaffirm their own commitment
to the values and vision stamped into his life by his words and deeds.

The good news of Easter according to storyteller John, is not just the final scene as it is in fairy tales that say everyone ‘lives happily ever after’.For John, Easter is the beginning of an open-ended future. Or as Michael Benedikt says in another of his meditations: “God is practiced, like dance, like music, like kindness, like love… theopraxy.” (Benedikt 2007:4) Resurrection begins when we accept the call to open closed doors and leave our places of hiding. Amen.

Notes:
Alves, R. The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press, 1990.
Benedikt, M. God is the Good We Do. Theology of Theopraxy. New York. Bottino Books, 2007.
Cupitt, D. Life, Life. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2003.
Macnab, F.  Hope: The Deeper Longings of the Mind and Heart. Richmond. Spectrum Publications, 1996.

 

Easter/April Fool’s Day, 2018

Mark 16: 1-8

Fools Day vs Poetry of Transcendence

Paul R. Fleischman in his book “Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Gives us our starting point for today when he says “The universes underpins and permits life, of which we are a local manifestation”.

‘A pinch and a punch for the first of the month’. ‘Rabbits. Rabbits. Rabbits’. Or if you are Irish: ‘White Rabbits’. Today is a ‘first of the month’ day. It is 1st April —April Fool’s Day —sometimes called All Fool’s Day. One of the most light-hearted days of the year. It has to be said also that the history of April Fools’ Day is particularly blurry, as there are several competing claims for the invention.  But whatever its origins, April Fool’s Day appears it received its name from the custom of playing practical jokes on this day. You no doubt will have either been the brunt of an April Fools joke or participated in creating one. There are also many stories of significant April Fools Day jokes perpetrated.

One such practical joke occurred in 1957. The BBC current affairs programme Panorama hoaxed the nation with a report about the annual spaghetti harvest. The report showed Swiss farmers were experiencing a record spaghetti crop and showed footage of people harvesting noodles from trees and laying the strands out to dry. Numerous viewers were fooled. Among those hoaxed included the then-BBC Director General, Sir Ian Jacob. Newspapers were split over whether this was a great joke or a terrible hoax on the public.

Our powerpoint slide alludes to one of these jokes a bit closer to home… Last year, 2017, Ikea the multinational furniture company unveiled plans to launch the world’s first non-stop flight from Australia to Sweden, as part of its plans to launch a low-cost airline,
aptly named Flikea. “Using a fleet of five custom-fit aircraft,” the media release said,
“the single-class airline will launch in 2019 and will use the five dimensions of Democratic Design unique to IKEA to reduce aircraft weight and fuel requirements, resulting in a dramatically reduced transit time, lower ticket price, and cutting out the need for any stopovers.”

Not to be outdone, Virgin Australia announced it was introducing a world-first Canine Crew service. “Hundreds of dogs have been specially trained at a new purpose built canine crew training facility over the past few months in preparation for their introduction to service on all Boeing 737, Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 aircraft in the Virgin Australia fleet.” Virgin even posted a video on social media showing the said Canine Crew in training.

And… Gelatissimo posted online they were launching the world’s first artisan gelato
“that treats sensitive teeth. The company has worked with leading Australian dentists to create a flavour that is clinically proven to relieve the symptoms caused by tooth sensitivity.”

What we do know is that April Fool’s Day is not a religious festival. However, some traditions have tried to link the celebrations to the medieval Christianity’s Feast of Fools,
which took place each January, particularly in France. Popular belief holds that the Feast of Fools was “a disorderly, even transgressive Christian festival, in which reveling clergy elected a burlesque Lord of Misrule, who presided over the divine office wearing animal masks or women’s clothes, sang obscene songs, swung censers that gave off foul-smelling smoke, played dice at the altar, and otherwise parodied the liturgy of the church.” It has to be said that such belief—even fostered by Encyclopaedia Britannica—
is highly exaggerated if not deliberately misreported.

According to more recent scholarly accounts,“The Feast of Fools developed in the late 12th and early 13th centuries as an elaborate and orderly liturgy for the day of the Circumcision (1 January). Celebrating the biblical principle that ‘God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise’ (1 Cor. 1:27), the feast allowed low-ranking subdeacons to assume leadership roles in worship, usually reserved for the bishop or the cantor.” (Max Harris)

What this does exhibit is that there were aspects of merriment, humour, and festivity ‘inside’ the church, even if people in power don’t always have a sense of humor about their power being questioned… The challenge of April Fools Day being Easter Day is an indication of just how important festivity is for faith. To celebrate is to live out “the universal assent to the world as a whole. Easter Day as April Fools Day is a special time when we affirm all of life by saying a joyous yes to part of life. Easter Day And April Fools Day is a real celebration, rather than a retreat from the reality of injustice and evil. The celebration, occurs most authentically where these negative realities are recognised and tackled, not where they are avoided, where laughter and humour challenge the piety. An antiseptic religion shies away from guilt and terror as well as eros and mirth. Its world becomes flat and anemic.”  (Harvey Cox)

Rex Hunt reminds us in his sermon for today of an article by Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox’s entitled ‘God’s Last Laugh’. He points to a paragraph that stands out that reads: “On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Good Friday becomes Easter Sunday, Crucifixion becomes resurrection. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil.

A particular challenge of April Fools Day as Easter Day is the introduction of humour, or the practical joke. Not wanting to even introduce a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Harvey Cox asks; Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?”  And again, near the end of the article, Cox suggests; Rightly rendered, the comic spirit transcends tragedy. It steps outside the probability tables and enables us to catch a fleeting glimpse of what might be, even of what ultimatelyalready is.” In the end is not all this that so seriously attempts to tell the truth of it all, just a human language construct? One has to laugh at oneself in the end.

Whether any of this aligns with your personal theology or not, it has to be said that both Easter and April Fool’s humour are about affirming life. A call to be embraced by life, not scared of it. A call to its ambiguous particularity. A call to practise humour and to anchor it concretely in everyday life. A call to make ‘Faith’ a ‘way of life’.

Rex suggests some thoughts that might help us practise an Easter Faith. He says that maybe the ‘way of life’ could be a way of living shaped by the following thoughts;

  • How do we care for each other interpersonally in ways which do not suffocate and oppress?
  • How is the well-being of our neighbour pursued in the complex problem of global hunger and threats of international war?
  • How are communities developed positively around respect and care for each person rather than around a common enemy?
  • How are the systemic causes of non-love eliminated?

To live with these particularities coursing in our veins, Rex says; is to live in the spirit of the one called Jesus.

We note here that the suggestion of these thoughts is to look beyond oneself, to think of others as a way of shaping one’s own life. It is to care for each other. Concern ourselves with the wellbeing of our neighbour, care about how our communities develop and seek out the alternatives to systems that work against love.

Here we have the claim that resurrection is not a selfish event but rather a communal one. And this is borne out by Dominic Crossan when he reminds us that when we look at Eastern Christianity’s images, either for the great feasts of the liturgical year or for traditional events in Jesus’ life, they are all — save one — quite recognizable to Western as to Eastern eyes. They are in common. The great exception he says, is how Eastern Christianity portrays the “Resurrection,” that is, in Greek, the “Anastasis,” of Jesus. Across vast stretches of time, place, art, and tradition, icons and illustrations, frescoes and mosaics show always a communal and not an individual resurrection for Jesus. We can watch that magnificent tradition develop across half a millennium — from 700 to 1200 — before its varied elements and successive stages are fully established.

The call to live in the spirit of Jesus is a required practise because Easter is not just a collection of religious stories about a so-called once-only event in the past. Nor is it a story locked away in ancient cultural understandings or in medieval doctrinal or creedal form, it is an evolutionary, dynamic story of human living that is alive now.

Easter can and does happen every day when we are: “moved by sacred hope and convinced of the profound significance of each person as an infinitely precious being… Easter is the transformative, transcendent moment that happens when we dream and plan and implement positive change to enhance the well-being of self, others, and the whole of creation… It happens also while we are embracing and dealing with the reality of our imperfections and their impact on ourselves, others, and creation.” (Gretta Vosper)

On that note we acknowledge that copious amounts of ink and blood, sweat, and tears, have been spilt over ‘what is’ and ‘what is not’ considered to be the real Easter story, and of course, what is meant by ‘resurrection’. We also note that Brandon Scott the New Testament Scholar said that …the trouble with resurrection is that
conservative forces within church orthodoxy have literalized it, narrowed and constricted it, “turned it into a creedal belief, and in the process have forfeited its great claim and hope.” (Brandon Scott)

Here, Crossan reminds us that Eastern Christianity’s tradition of the resurrection of Jesus reminds our Western Christian imagination that only poetry — be it verbal or visual — speaks to our profoundest hopes, deepest dreams, and greatest insights. It also reminds us that theology is — no more and no less — the poetry of transcendence.

So… here we are on this April Fool’s Day and Easter Day, faced with a choice to consider, either for the first time, or yet again:

  • Does Easter remind us that we are called into deeper community?
  • Does life invite us to be challenged by Easter or scared by it.
  • Is Resurrection an escape from death, or an invitation to live life with zeal?
  • Are we alone in this life of faith?

And remember when you answer that;

  • Life is renewable.
  • The human spirit is indomitable.
  • A loving, caring existence is stronger than death itself.
  • Amen.

Notes:
Cox, H. “God’s Last Laugh” in Christianity and Crisis, 6 April 1987. Reproduced on Religion Online.
—————, The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1969
Fleischman, P. R. Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant. Amherst. Small Batch Books, 2013.
Harris, M. Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools. Ithaca. Cornell University Press, 2011.
Johnson, D. & S. Ross. “The Uncertain Origins of a Foolish Day.” <https://www.infoplease.com/calendar-holidays/major-holidays/april-fools-day-origin-and-history>  Accessed 13 January 2018.
Laskow, S. “The New Year’s Feast that transforms Fools into Popes and Kings”. 29 December 2017. <https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/feast-of-fools-medieval-tradition> Accessed 14 January 2018.
Pieper, J. In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. New York. Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965.
Real Life. “The Best April Fool’s Day jokes around Australia”. 2017. <news.com.au>
Scott, B. B. The Trouble with Resurrection. From Paul to the Fourth Gospel. Salem. Polebridge Press, 2010.
Vosper, G. “Easter Day Liturgy”. Direct from the author, 2004.

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A New Covenant

Posted: March 17, 2018 in Uncategorized

A New Covenant

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 contains dimensions that typically pass unrecognized, but which provide a rich description of an ideal polity. This prophetic vision can serve as a powerful counterpart and companion to more conventional expectations and idealized societies. This leads me into St David’s aspirations to transform itself into a school. The questions that undergird the school vision is how do we honour the minds of children? How do we provide an environment where it is safe to ask questions and not expect answers or at least expect only answers for now or answers that will change? And how do we empower our children to seize the opportunity to become more fully human.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The new covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31 is the dawn that will pierce the grueling night of a shattered people. As they face the destruction of their nation and the prospect of a long and bitter exile, God presents his people with assurance of restoration, lodging the seed of a glorious future hope in the cold, hard soil of Israel and Judah’s winter.

Walter Brueggemann identifies a number of elements to the new covenant promised here. First, there will be a new ‘solidarity’: the separation occasioned by Israel and Judah’s sin will be overcome and YHWH will identify himself as their God and them as his people. By implication, the division within the kingdom itself will end and Israel and Judah will once again be united as a single people (cf. Ezekiel 37:15-28).

Second, there will be a new ‘knowledge’ of YHWH. Brueggemann maintains that this is a reference both to the people’s knowledge of the saving tradition within which YHWH revealed himself (cf. 2:6-8) and to obedience to his ‘commands for justice’ (cf. 22:15-17). The reconstituted nation evinces both a new acquaintance with YHWH’s identity and memory of his work and displays a new loyalty and obedience to him.

Third, the new relation will no longer be characterized by intermediation and the distance that maintained between YHWH and the majority of the people. Middle men with privileged access and knowledge, brokering relations between God and his people, will no longer be necessary. Rather, from the poorest to the richest, the youngest to the oldest, all will enjoy access to God and be acquainted with his truth. ‘All know the story, all accept the sovereignty, and all embrace the commands.’

All of these elements of the new covenant relation are founded upon a great act of divine initiative, an initiative which breaks the ‘vicious cycle of sin and punishment’ within which Israel had become trapped and opens a new page. This initiative takes the form of forgiveness. This involves a re-membering of the people’s broken history, made possible by the fact that YHWH will no longer bring their sin to mind. To this point the people’s history has been a bitter burden, a tale of squandered blessings and the fear of a forfeited birthright. The popular proverb of Jeremiah’s day, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,’ describes the fatalist sense of a people imprisoned by their past. To this demoralized people, YHWH declares a release from all debts, reigniting their guttering hope. Within the past to which they once were shackled—whose weight had threatened to drag them down to the abyss—they will now discover the liberating realization of the promised new covenant knowledge of the forgiving God.

Christian appropriations of this prophetic passage have often been inattentive to its political dimensions, exhausting their applications of it within discussions of the spiritual renewal of individuals and vocational ecclesiologies. The new birth of the individual and the rebirth of the church have used up our energies to no avail.

I want to show you a short video featuring John D Caputo a Roman Catholic Theologian and philosopher. I hope that you might see this clip as an introduction to the idea of what a new covenant might look like for us today.

Video 1.                      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xBMYzPuDtQ

The covenant introduced by Jeremiah addresses the situation they find themselves in and the promise extended to those within its sphere of influence. The prophecy is declared to a riven polity, the history recalled is one of national constitution and declension; not unlike our globalization and the decline of our societies, the predicament answered is national judgment and exile, the sins forgiven are those of kingdoms, and the promised new covenant is to be made with political bodies—the houses of Israel and Judah. This new covenant is about nationhood, about society, and about the people’s future.

I want to show you a second video now and this one is about the value of education and about what a new look at its purpose and the vision that lies behind it might look like. I invite you now to see what St David school might look like as a new covenant example.

Video 2.          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY5v2lyycfs

Embedded within the Jeremiah prophecy is a fecund vision of a sort of utopian polity, a polity where social and political authority is the possession of all, where each person is the trusted bearer of the national identity, where our past is restored to us and we are furnished with a future, released from the crushing debts accumulated through past failures. It presents challenges to certain prevailing political and educational notions, not least those which present an antipathy between law and freedom, control and choice: in Jeremiah’s new covenant, the fullness of freedom arrives through the internalization of the law. The placing of the law in the heart and mind equips and empowers us freely to provide appropriate responses to God’s world, expressing his rule within his creation in loving wisdom and delight.

We have honoured the mind of our children, we have established the environment that is based on the generation of questions and we are ready to explore the adventure of humanity.

One, David Bentley Hart in an article, describes the difference between two sorts of political visions that we encounter as we look back on our human history.’ The first vision he says, ‘hovers tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages’ and in the futile pursuit of them we can all be led to our deaths. The second, visions, however, are like ‘cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.’

Jeremiah’s vision of the new covenant requires the addition of a further category to this and it is that of an espied promised land. As in pursuing Hart’s mirages, our premature attempts to enter into the reality of such a vision in our political life are doomed to perish deep within the wilderness of human weakness and wickedness unless we handle them carefully. Handled carefully, such a vision can provide benefits such as seeing the limitations of our realities, and thus protecting us from misrecognition of the relativities within our polities with more absolute ones, in other words we can critique our aspirations and discard the unhelpful directions, while being inspired to aim higher. Unlike, unlike both of Hart’s visions, this third way, this espied promised land declares the temporariness of our history and, to those with faith to receive, a rich burden of the new alterative affords a foretaste of that future hope. Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 293-294

[3] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics [Second Edition] (Leicester: Apollos, 1994) 24-26.