What is Lent?

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Lent one

5.3.2017

What is Lent?

What is lent?

Traditionally Lent has been a time of preparation for Easter, a preparation for the resurrection of the mind from the darkness of its sins, doubts, and false beliefs into the light of understanding. It has also been a time for evaluating our Spiritual growth process by fasting on the negative and feasting on the positive. It has also been a time of seeking a greater degree of balance in one’s life.

What has become clearer over the years is that behind this debate lies the line of demarcation which is our notion of God. The first thing many of us ever learnt about God was that God is everywhere and that we can still believe today. The trouble is the story that developed to support that belief.  Many of us were nurtured into a story of a “fall” and we learnt more about a God who lives somewhere else – a God in heaven, a God who was male. And it seems that here we have a major stumbling block as on the traditional side of Christian thinking, or on the conservative side if that category still means anything, people focus on what we might call the “elsewhere” God, the God who lives in “heaven”.

The truth is that many of us want more than that. We want to walk in that basic Christian understanding that God is not a human construct, even if we use human limitations to talk about our God, give shape to and meaning to our God. We are no longer satisfied that our projection of God is the human projection of a “person”, a deity in the sky. Most of us would rather a universal presence in the expansiveness of our universe and beyond. Most of us think of God as energy, force, or love.

We know that God is not a localized being somewhere. In fact God is more like that reality we learnt about as a young Christian: a universal reality that holds everything in existence, a reality that sustains, energizes and gives life. Not as some sort of form in charge human but a God where nothing exists outside of God. While this is challenging to our thought patterns we have to take this seriously because it seems to us that this is the best way we can talk to people about God in the world view of today, as we learn more and more about the universe in which we live our God needs to be bigger and more in tune with our cosmic view.

 

The challenge of this is that with a focus on an elsewhere God, we are more likely to lock ourselves into the story that most of us have been nurtured into:  a male God in heaven who looked down, an overseer who chose one group and not other groups. The chosen group (and here we are talking about us) is privileged because they (we) are God’s people and Scripture is understood as God somehow directly speaking to this group – and not to the rest of humanity. This religious viewpoint is fine for the members of the chosen group because it gives them (us) special status and identity. We are God’s people and our scriptures are inspired. We have certainty on our side. But the stories of those outside are not inspired, nor are the traditional religious stories of the Buddhists or the Hindu’s or the native American people, in fact any others who don’t think like us.

The challenge for us is that we want to take seriously that God is a universal presence, never absent, at work at all times, in all places, in all peoples, all through human history and all through this universe and that this moment of revelation or awareness is not something handed down from the clouds to a select group of people, For us Revelation has to be the spirit of God working in all peoples of all times, in their world view, in their thought patterns and in particular personalities. How can it be any different?

Whether we focus on an “everywhere” Presence or an “elsewhere” God will radically affect our concept of “salvation” – and this is particularly relevant for Holy Week, especially when we consider Good Friday. What is the story of salvation that we want to tell in today’s world?  The traditional Christian story, the conservative Christian story, will be a story that is tied to a literal understanding of scripture, a “fall” and an elsewhere God who, because of this “fall” refuses to allow presence to his dwelling place in another place somewhere, where this elsewhere God resides. Jesus is interpreted, then, as the incarnation of someone who comes from that elsewhere place – and all our traditional language is about coming down, living on earth, and then going back up. John’s gospel is full of this imagery. So Jesus “saves” us because he gets us into heaven, that place of residence of the elsewhere God, and Good Friday has come to ritualize the  story of a God who won’t let us into heaven until and unless Jesus suffers and dies.

Many of us are asking what sort of God this is.  Will we continue to tell the story of Jesus and the story of salvation as someone who gets us into heaven or will we tell the story of Jesus according to what got Jesus out of bed every morning and motivated him to speak to the “crowd”, the battlers, the down and outs and anyone ready to listen?  When preaching about the reign, the kingdom, the presence of God, to these people, Jesus did not tell the story of a God distant from them, a God who locked them out. Quite the contrary. He urged his listeners to reflect on their everyday experience of life:  You are neighbour, aren’t you? You care, you clothe, you feed, you visit. You do this, don’t you? Grudgingly, perhaps, they said, “Yes”, and Jesus exhorted them to name what was going on in their own lives: Here is the presence of God in your lives. Name it – when you are neighbour, when you do the good and decent human reality. When you live in love, you live in God, God lives in you.

Salvation, then if you still want to use the concept is not about someone getting something but rather about Jesus opening eyes and minds to the reality of the God in whom we live and move and have our being. That is salvation. Salvation is about Jesus freeing us from images and thought patterns that lock us in to notions that God is elsewhere or that God is a deity to be feared, a deity who keeps notes, a deity who will punish. Jesus says in effect, “That is not my understanding of God. That is not my God.” So how have we been set free?

Does Jesus come from God? Of course Jesus comes from God, but where is God and what is the Christian religion about? Is it about continuing to play an elitist role in the world, that we have salvation and only through us will people have access to God? Will Christianity continue to do that? Or will Christianity start to do what Jesus did and go to people and proclaim the good news to all people that the presence of God is in their everyday living. When anyone lives in love, they live in God and God lives in them.

The challenge we face is why does the Christian religion persistently and stubbornly refuse to preach this basic, foundational, inclusive insight that so clearly motivated Jesus’ own preaching? We have heard the words about living in love and living in God all our lives and yet so often it’s like water off a duck’s back. The issue is that this insight has nothing to do with belonging to a particular religion. This is about humanity; this is about humanity doing what humanity ought to do, to be neighbour, to care, to allow the spirit of God to be given expression in our lives. This is the message of salvation. Only a religious institution self-centered, focused on its own elitist, exclusive claims of access to God and fixated on its claims to interpret the mind and the thinking of an elsewhere God, could continue to ignore the core of Jesus’ religious insight and teaching.

So when we come to lent the dividing line is clearly facing us. What is it about? Not what it has been made into but what is it about?

This is a very big topic so I want only to skim through it today. If I was forced to say what I think Christianity is about I think I would say simply its about the challenge of walking the Jesus Way together. I say Jesus because he is at the core of faith, no Jesus , no Christianity, I say the Jesus Way because I think that his way was a Way of living with continuous alternative opportunities and a Way of continuous hope. And I say together because I believe primarily that the Jesus Way is a way of being Community on its fullest sense.

The foundational base of Christian faith has always consisted of a continuous and consistent spirituality of following Jesus. Out of this corporate spirituality have emerged organization, reflection on spiritual experience in the light of new cultures, and the gradual formulation of beliefs through theological reflection on the living experience of the community, and of course this has been codified in the scriptures and in every historical period and place. Again, this process illustrates the meaning of spirituality searching for theology. I think that our current traditional story encourages an imbalanced Christian spirituality in that its vocabulary links into the elsewhere God concept but fails to enlarge on the collective, collaborative, searching mode that much of humanity lives with. In fact “Searching” has become a common descriptor of human life in the Western world. Whether our culture is described as late modern or postmodern, it has lost many of the certainties upon which its stability rested. Those who have internalized an evolutionary worldview recognize the role of randomness in life processes, and how that randomness threatens a sense of purpose. Historical consciousness means that no idea or value can be understood apart from its particular human context. All ideas and values are linked to some particular culture. Many are not transportable. Being has yielded to becoming; process rather than permanence characterizes the world as we know it. Plato’s vision of an eternal superstructure of reality clashes not only with everything people see, hear, and opine, but also now with everything that is critically examined. Each person’s life is a narrative, a particular story within the larger story of a particular group. Narratives are constructed by constant decisions, either/ or, and each path leads in a new and different direction. Yet, precisely because constant motion is as unsettling as seasickness, because it occludes permanent moorings, it highlights by contrast a desire for coherent meaning that drives the phenomenon of searching. Searching is no longer merely implicit in life; it becomes an overt striving for something solid that will help define the self by the self’s relating to it, identifying with it, and appropriating its permanent value. Searching shows that human existence needs to be embraced by something stable that offers coherence and permanence.

Roger Haight suggests that there are two dimensions or characteristics of the dynamism of the world and they are process and complexity. The old story of the universe did not really allow for deep change. Western thought postulated a higher world above, or a metaphysical world of laws, but the ideal world did not include constant generation of new forms of being. Of course, human beings have always had some sense of historicity, in different depths and degrees. No one could ignore the way human beings constantly adjust their social arrangements and the diversity among groups. But change always occurred within permanent structures, forms of being that organized the world universally or by nature. The world itself was not moving, only individual items within it changed as they came and went. By contrast, the current picture of the world depicts change at the level of the structures of nature. New possibilities affect seemingly permanent patterns, so that change constitutes the very character of nature. This is a world of process, a world that is always becoming, where substance and permanent structures only appear so at a given time but not over vast periods of time or in radically changed conditions. Creation becomes an ongoing process that constantly introduces novelty to the given. If creation is ongoing, then the world at any given time is always imperfect, and deficiency is concomitant with being itself.

Reality is dynamic, and the dynamism entails complexity. Toolan describes this complexity in terms of constant interchange between system and new data. Reality for the most part is made up of “systems that exchange energy and matter with their environment; they are open to turbulence, fluctuation, and a degree of random chance.” Systems are never self-enclosed so that they admit no variables. The influx of energy and the ways of processing new data allow a given system to withstand and even move against the tide of entropy. “The typical dynamic system— physical, chemical, biological, or neurological— is almost never truly isolated or self-contained; it is, first, an ‘open’ system exchanging matter and energy with its environment.” The complexity of being is exemplified in the amazing variety of organizational patterns that reality assumes. This is especially true on the biological level. Kinds of being in the flow of reality keep adjusting to their environment by an internalization of new variables. The world can be perceived as layered through various strata in a scale of being according to different criteria of measurement and complexity. Some self-organizing systems are more differentiated than others and are capable of new and different kinds of activity. There seems to be a clear trajectory in evolution toward more differentiation and “higher” forms of being. The history of evolution “shows an overall trend toward greater complexity, responsiveness, and awareness. The capacity of organisms to gather, store, and process information has steadily increased. Who can doubt that a human being represents an astonishing advance over an amoeba or a worm.” Here we have the suggestion that our reflection has jumped ahead in the story. Up to now we’ve described the age, size, and motion of the cosmos that generated and constitutes us. The story has been adaptable within its vocabulary till now. Up till now we have had a story that has told us what to think and it has got us to this point, but now we need a story that takes us in and through a time of no absolutes, a time of intimate engagement with an evolutionary reality, a time when reality is not what it seems. As Roger Haight puts it maybe we need a story that attends to the transition from inorganic being to life. Robot to life perhaps. Amen.

 

Haight, Roger. Spirituality Seeking Theology (Kindle Locations 687-692). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

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