Imagine A Counter World..

Posted: August 31, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 15C, 2016

Luke 14: 1, 7-13

Imagine A Counter World..

From the many stories available within the Jesus tradition, this storyteller we call Luke has selected and imagined and stitched together, a series of stories in order to create the meaning necessary for that particular moment in time. And the hearers participated in these stories in their imagination and worked together with the storyteller to discern the meaning, the reality, the so-called ‘point’ of the telling.

Today’s story is set around a meal… and the accepted protocol which went with such important public events. From previous stories we know that meal times are special times for storyteller Luke and his small community. In this story a common theme running throughout the whole collection, is again given emphasis: Jesus turns everything upside down with respect to the world’s values.

Last week Alyson indicated that one of the things that came out of the recent Hui at Ohope was that there was a growing need for the ‘Progressive’ movement to articulate just what it believed was the Christian Way of being and living. My initial thought was that if one did that one would actually be going against the very position of the ‘Progressive’ which was to resist the creation of creedal statements and fixed doctrines because they always led to the imposition of belief systems and institutionalization of ideas. In other words they ultimately lead to absolutes and an unassailable truth about things. Whereas being ‘Progressive’ means no absolutes and thus no such thing as a single simple metanarrative, or at least a big story that is always questionable. My second thought was that we actually need to articulate what we do value as opposed to what we don’t like and maybe we need to articulate just what it is that we do believe so long as it is always open to reforming. My starting point was to think of some simple statements and work from there. What I found was that even that was difficult but here they are. My first statement was as follows…….

  1. To ask whether God exists or not is the wrong question to ask.

My second statement was that ……

  1. ‘Theism’ and ‘Atheism’ are redundant positions as they have been replaced by ‘anatheism’ or ‘A God after God’.

My third was that…………

  1. God is the ‘Almost’ or the ‘yet to be’.

I then thought it was about time to include Jesus in this as I think I am a follower of the Jesus Way after all…… So my fourth was …….

  1. Jesus was a human being who was a devout Galilean Jew.

And then I thought I should say something about why I follow his Way and so I said ..

  1. Jesus provided a timeless counter-cultural approach to life.

In summary I think I said that my understanding of God is always ahead of me waiting to be discovered yet thankfully never will be.

Now I want to try to fill this out a bit. So first, some history of this God after God?

Some time ago now humanity woke to a new day when God was no longer an explanation. Logic stopped being self-evident proof for the existence of God and the order of society. The very idea of God became unnecessary rather than necessary in the 17th to 19th centuries as God and other religious ideas became subject to critical thinking based on evidence. This change meant that the existence of God or in fact anything else had to be proven not by logic but by demonstration. In turn this meant that without evidence that God existed the default position was that God was no longer necessary in reality. Here we have today’s problem, in other words without evidence God has to become belief rather than logic and believing in God has to be concerned with a blind faith based in the supernatural, and not as logic claimed; the Being behind nature.

The first great reversal was the reversal of God’s status from the assumption of truth, to that which must be proven, thus opening the way for science to replace the authority of religion and God to became a questionable idea that lacked evidence. Along with this change came the one where theology as the study of God stopped being the driver of the sciences and slipped down the academic ladder. More importantly perhaps was the shift in understanding of reality from that which was founded on a logical necessary Being, to a new reality founded on human experience. An example of this is in our own Auckland University where theology struggles to be considered even as a School of thought whereas Philosophy is a full department of study. We need to acknowledge here that the search for a God that is beyond theism and atheism, The very talk of God after God or anatheism as Richard Kearney calls it, could be seen as an attempt to save theology from disappearing even as a philosophical idea.

In our history of thinking Decartes sought to save the idea of God by establishing the power of reason over God, Spinoza sought to retain God as energy or animation of nature by bringing God out of the heavens and into the nature of things. Hume takes human reason as all we have and thus establishes that God is a construct of ideas emerging from the way common and natural impressions play out in the relationship of ideas. So today for many, God has become a complex idea, or as David Galston suggests, the question on our lips now is, does God have a value for human beings and our collective nature?

Here we have a God who is no longer the source of reason but rather a God who is accountable to reason. Galson in his response to this and one I like a lot, introduces and contemplates the future of God who ‘almost’ is. Here we have a shift from God as ‘More than’, Other than’ and I suspect a release from any theisms and a return to an debate as opposed to taking an either/or position. If that is not a counter-cultural approach in this age of personalized slanging matches between strongly held positions then I don’t know what is.

Like all parables, our Lucan story is a counter-cultural story. It is typical in that Jesus ‘revolts’ against the status quo. His language suggests a counter-world, a hoped-for world “that redresses the world as it is and… offers a new world that makes sense”.

In the story Jesus notices the way people choose the places of honour in the seating arrangements. Here we have the culture being set up for change. The expected process of showing respect is to be changed. When you choose a place to sit don’t look after your own status in the scheme of things. The suggested change is expected to disrupt the ideas of who is important and who isn’t and the action of taking the unexpected route is expected to shift the focus from culturally bound expectations to an authentic respect. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

What is quite crucial is that Jesus’ reimagining of a counter world makes sense, but it is not about agreement as not everyone agrees on all issues. What is important is that it makes sense on a collective stage. Here we have the argument that says one doesn’t have to have faith in Jesus as the one who fixes things but one does have to have faith with Jesus as one who shows a way of living that is radically different and yet makes sense.

“In the re-imagined world we stand beside Jesus and trust that his world will work, that it can provide the safe place – that it can in its counter culture reality provide a means of rebuffing and resisting all other empires be they physical, cultural or philosophical.  This makes Jesus our companion on the journey of life, not our Lord and Master. This Jesus is always human in incarnation and here I think we have the idea that our God is truly incarnate as a God who is us in our fullest human sense as companion in life as opposed to a God who has always more than us, supernatural as opposed to natural, a God who has made it to completion, made it to perfection and so on. God is the ‘almost’. I want to suggest to you like David Galston; that a God that is ‘almost’ is a valuable idea that avoids the absolutism of both a God who exists and a God who does not.

I wasn’t at the Hui so I can only go on reports of the Hui and it seemed to me to have been caught in the dilemma of either/or. People on both sides of the debate were caught in the same bind, or as William Butler Yeats puts it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand”. The question for the Hui is I think, ‘what is that revelation?’

I want to suggest a third way or a counter-cultural approach that might get you thinking. I want to suggest that when asked if God exists or not I might say ‘almost’. And what I mean is that almost is being between something and nothing, being partially there but not fully there. I mean that two minutes before arriving here this morning I was an experience of absence and nothingness. I was nowhere in sight. I did not exist but as I was expected there was a trace of my existence in my absence that promised my presence. There was a sign that I will be but am not yet, thus I was ‘almost’.

And let’s be candid here. God is very good at being almost. For thousands of years the trace of God’s existence in human history and culture has been around but never fully present. No age has been able to fully claim God as fully present. Lots and lots of words have been written and spoken about God promising that God will turn up but God has disappointed and there is a delay. Morning arrives and God is nowhere to be seen. Of course we know that God does not really exist because we know that God is a human creation do we not? It is words about God that remain like a promissory note. If God really did exist there would be no need to ask whether God existed. I am here now so there is no question as to whether I would arrive. My absence has to occur before the question about my presence can be asked. God’s absence has to occur before the question about God’s existence can be asked.

This is one of the ironies of life. We are aware of existence because in the background is non-existence. If there was no non-existence then I could not be conscious of existing. This also says that there is a gap of emptiness that allows me to know that I do exist. There is a gap between thoughts that allows different thoughts and an ability to be aware of thinking. We only know things well when we know the gaps that compose our knowledge. Like Stuart Firestein the scientist argues when he talks about the necessity of ignorance for science to have value, we can argue that the gaps are our ignorance and it is the wise ones who know when to keep silent.

Like the gap between my existence and non-existence is the way in which I know I exist. So the gap that makes wisdom possible accounts for the existence of religion and religion exists only because there is no God but an absence of God. If God were absolutely present, there could be no question about God, no yearning for God, and no belief in God. Only absence raises the question of belief. My argument therefore is that a God that is ‘almost’ is a God more believable, and more likely to exist. This also claims that wisdom is the most likely companion of this God that is ‘almost, firstly because in wisdom teaching God is always sidelined, and never the subject. God is at the edge but never the centre of wisdom. The parables of the historical Jesus, the human culturally aware Jesus hold this quality. The parables are not about God, and God is not present in any parable. They are in fact secular theology which means applied theology or theology acted out in the world. They are concerned for a vision called the basileia of God which has been interpreted as kingdom of God but is also something like the activities or happenings of God within a realm. This means that the parable is empty of God. It may feel like the place of God but God has to be created through imagination for God to be in the parable. Again here is the claim that the parables are not about God but about the Way of God in a counter-cultural setting.

All of that is very technical in a philosophical way but it is important in trying to get a handle on this ‘almost’ sort of God. I want to see if I can now place that thinking in context and I want to ask another question as a way in. The question is; ‘what is it that we believe?

Well, for many Religion is no longer a fact like it used to be and the forms of theology related to religion are no longer self-evident. Religion is no longer necessary to ensure that blessings fall upon a culture and a people. Religion remains a sign only of what used to be and what is now absent. Religion has moved from its authoritative past, when it could explain the nature of things, to a contemplative setting where it is a matter of choice. It belongs to private life where it might be engaged in an effort to overcome anxiety, to achieve self-acceptance, or to cultivate family identities. Some would say that it religion has become therapy.

It does however still express the artistry of life. It still expresses the elements of wonder about life and still inspires acts of human compassion. It defines a culture’s history and expresses its inherited orientation in the world. The struggle it has is how to find ways to be without God, without the old beliefs in supernatural things but still be with religion in the artistic sense of valuing life, history and the expression of beauty.

Well maybe the value of religion is that it has nothing to offer us except everything. It gives us no God, but in handing over God it does give us the possibility of life. Maybe God has a future and it is a human future. Out of nothing religion creates life. Maybe that is its artistic skill, its hidden promise, its value and its vision. Maybe that is the wisdom of religion, to be a religion without God. Or as I might argue, a wisdom with a God who is ‘almost’.

 

And by that I mean:

  • My God is the ‘Almost’ or the ‘yet to be’ that never will be.
  • I am convinced religion has a human value
  • Jesus was a human being who was a devout Galilean Jew.
  • The Jesus Way was a counter-cultural approach to life.
  • I am a follower of the Jesus Way.

 

I am reminded here of the 8 points that define a progressive Christian as written at the beginning of the movement.

They are

  1. I Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus;
  2. I Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;
  3. I Understand the sharing of bread and wine in Jesus’s name to be a representation of an ancient vision of God’s feast for all peoples;
  4. I Invite all people to participate in our community and worship life without insisting that they become like us in order to be acceptable
  5. I Know that the way we behave toward one another and toward other people is the fullest expression of what we believe;
  6. I Find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty – more value in questioning than in absolutes;
  7. We form ourselves into communities dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers; and
  8. We recognize that being followers of Jesus is costly, and entails selfless love, conscientious resistance to evil, and renunciation of privilege.

Amen.

Notes: Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-imagining the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.

Galston D 2016 Gods Human Future. The struggle to define Theology Today. Salem, Oregon Polebridge Press

Website: TCPC 8 points

 

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