‘Imagination, Ambiguity and Grace’

Posted: July 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

Genesis 28:10-19a Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 Romans 8:12-25 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

‘Imagination, Ambiguity and Grace’

When I reflect on what human life is today I am lost for words. That is at first an admission that my language or my vocabulary is inadequate yet it is also a clam that the world is chock full of divinity.  It’s a claim that we can encounter the holy in the most unlikely places.  Thin places, or in old language the places where the joining heaven and earth, abound for those for whom the doors of perception have opened.  The discovery is that life is messy, but also that it can be spiritually full in all its complexity when we open our senses to divinity within and beyond us.  A way of saying that is to say that God is in all things, and all things are in God! This is that awesome moment when we discover the place of being lost for words.

Like Jacob we might say “Surely God was in this place, and I did not know it!  How awesome is this place?”  Jacob finds himself in a thin place where heaven and earth are joined and angels ascend and descend on a ladder to the heavens.  It is interesting to note that the angels “ascend” to heaven.  A claim that the Earth is filled with divinity, or that Earth has its own angels.  God is not far off or trapped in a far-off heaven.  Divinity is on earth as it is in heaven.  We don’t need to go to heaven to find God; heaven is in this place!

 

Here is the claim for the value of imagination. We need to acknowledge here that traditionally we have some assumptions about imagination we need to put away. At first touch of imagination we have this idea that it is of the realm of fantasy and it is unreasoned and untrue waffle. It does not appear to have value because it is rooted in the idea that it is a narcissistic illusion, in other words a project of the self and thus tainted and not really sensible or of real value. And this is true as it does include the field of phantasies and images. It evolves out of the mirror stage but that is not all it is. It extends into our relationships with others. It includes pre-verbal structures making it a creative enterprise of unlimited bounds. It takes us beyond the limits of language and creates the unlimited world of creating relationships. If one wanted to give it a description one could say it is the Holy Spirit at work.

In Psalm 139 we find one of the most majestic pieces of spiritual literature.  The Psalmist discovers God everywhere.  No place is without God’s presence.  Even when we run away from God, we run into God’s hands.  In the heights, God is there; in the depths, God is also present.  God knows each of us fully, but God’s knowledge of us is liberating, not judging.

What we might give caution to here is that Psalm 139 is a hymn to divine omnipresence, and the only condition of divine omnipresence is the recognition that God is everywhere and in all things. That is consistent with our claim that God is everywhere and in all things but it introduces a theological claim that Jacob’s encounter with holiness comes by pure grace.  In the same mode we ask did the Psalmist need to cultivate the experience of divine presence through spiritual practices?  And that again, grace simply happens.  But, Damascus Road experiences also emerge – and are grounded for the long haul – through opening to God by prayer, meditation, hospitality, service, worship, and study. Here we have the Roman and Greek influence of the need for structure to one’s practice. Here we see the introduction of spiritual practices to sustain the discovery of God’s intimacy and to defining that intimacy and provide a way of protecting that discovery. Not wring but ultimately a challenge to the boundlessness of imagination.

The reading of Romans 8 continues this hymn to divine omnipresence.  God speaks within us, inspiring us to seek our original wholeness.  God also speaks through every living thing.  All creation lives in hope for transformation, sharing in the same hope for God’s realm of Shalom.  There is no dividing line between God and the world or human or non-human life.  We may be the crown of creation, but we share the breath of life and the movements of the Spirit with all reality.  Inspired by the Spirit, each thing in its own way leans in a God-ward fashion.  Joined in an interdependent ecology of hope, all creation seeks fulfillment in relationship with the Creator. Again, we hear the need for order and structure and liturgy and ritual so as to protect and describe the discovery of God’s intimacy.

There is a clear affirmation of creation theology and nature mysticism within the words of Romans 8.  This is surely God’s world – and all things declare divinity – but only those with eyes to see and ears to hear can discern the holiness embedded in the non-human world.  Yes, we can find God in nature, at the seashore and on starry nights, and this is good.  But, a life of prayer makes such moments of holiness the norm rather than exceptional in our lives.

And here we return to the claim that Jesus upsets the assumptions and raises the question of piety of spirituality. Is all the pomp and ceremony required or not? His parable notes, that growth is ambiguous, whether personal, communal, or global.  The wheat and the tares are mixed: this is not just a matter of righteous and unrighteous persons – the latter being the “evil ones” –  but our own personal righteousness and unrighteousness.  Life is ambiguous and so are we.  We are holy, but also wholly ambivalent and ambiguous at times.  In old language, we would say that we are saints who also are sinners. Spiritual stature comes from recognizing the interdependence of life, and seeking to embrace the whole of our lives in light of what we call God’s grace.  If we destroy the tares, the weeds, the wheat will eventually die.  Our power and wisdom comes from embracing the whole, not denying the parts.  In the spirit of Psalm 139, our darkness can be a vehicle of creative transformation. God is in this place.  God is in the mixture of wheat and tares; flowers and weeds.  God comes to us on the darkest night, when we like Jacob recognize our brokenness.  God cries out in wounded nature.  Wherever we are, God is present; and wherever we are, it is Beth-el, the house of God.

Having I hope made the claim that imagination has been traditionally maligned and alluded to the fact that our concepts of God and God’s activity are synonymous with ours, I want to tell a story of transition in thinking. It is not my story but it does reflect I think, the journey many of us are on today. The story begins…..

Over the last ten years my Christian faith has undergone a dramatic transformation. The beliefs that were once absolutely fundamental to my understanding of the universe and my own existence have been gradually deconstructed. It has been a confusing, unsettling and sometimes painful process, but I now feel I have in some way emerged from that confusion, and am feeling a sense of clarity, hope and excitement about my faith that I have never felt before.

In the early stages of deconstruction, it felt as if the ground beneath my feet was crumbling. The “unshakeable” truths I had been taught to build my life upon were being dismantled one by one – it was exhilarating but terrifying.

I know far less now than I did ten years ago. I have far more questions than answers, and God seems more mysterious and unfathomable than ever.

I used to have everything sorted, organized into boxes and neatly stacked. Now the boxes are torn open and their contents strewn everywhere, but I am learning to live comfortably in the mess. Free from the constraints of my boxes, God seems bigger and more loving than ever, and the life and message of Jesus seems more real, relevant and fundamentally good.

The core message, or ‘Good News’ of Christianity that I learnt growing up went as follows:

God made people, people ‘sinned’ and went against God. God, being perfect and just, cannot stand sin and therefore must punish it with death and eternal torment. However, God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to die and take the punishment for our sin so that we can go to heaven and be with God after we die. All we need to do to be saved is become a Christian, which means admitting that we are sinners bound for hell, believing that Jesus died for us and accepting him as our personal Lord and Saviour. Anyone who fails to do this will go to hell and be punished forever.

This message, or something like it, has been central to Christian teaching for a very large chunk of history, and it has only started to be seriously challenged in the last few decades. It is a message based on the threat of eternal punishment, and I would argue that it has survived in this form for so long largely because it is based on and fueled by fear. Questioning and doubting the core Christian beliefs has long been seen as a weakness, as “sinful”, so most people until fairly recently have followed along faithfully, interpreting any doubts as personal problems to be overcome or ignored.

As questioning religious beliefs has become more socially and culturally acceptable, many people have found their faith has been deconstructed to the point where they would no longer call themselves Christians, and have sought other ways to find meaning in life. Through all my own struggles with Christianity and church I have never been able to shake off the sense that there really must be more to life than what we see and experience – science alone cannot explain everything. The life and message of Jesus has continued to captivate me, and the more I have read and thought about it the more I have seen how much his message has been distorted, hijacked and misrepresented over the centuries, often with tragic consequences.

Well known Christian thinkers, speakers and writers who have moved into this new understanding of Christianity have come up against harsh criticism from other Christians. This is to be expected and I really can understand the desire to be conservative, to protect the strong framework of belief that has stood firm for so long. When your whole life and work has been built upon a particular belief system, it is a very unsettling, scary and unpleasant thing to see that system dismantled.

Those who have pioneered this rethinking process are often accused of not taking the Bible seriously. This thinking comes from people who read the Bible as if it were a scientific text book or an instruction manual for life – directly spoken from God to us, and therefore flawless and to be interpreted literally. With this mindset, taking the Bible seriously means taking individual passages, often entirely out of context, and applying them to our lives now. Theological discussions with people whose faith is based on this understanding of the Bible don’t get very far as the answer is always “because the Bible says so”. However, I am yet to meet anyone who takes the whole Bible seriously in this way – it is just not possible to interpret everything literally. So, whether they admit it or not, even the most conservative Christians have projected their own views and opinions onto the Bible, and are being selective about which parts to take seriously.

I have come to see the Bible as a family history – a rich and varied collection of texts spanning over a thousand years, telling the story of how God has interacted with people. It is written by many different people and includes eyewitness accounts, letters, poetry, songs and folklore, all inspired by people’s experiences of God. In understanding our family history, we gain a sense of who we are and who God is, and in that sense the Bible is sacred, useful and relevant today. With this understanding, taking individual verses and passages out of context and applying them to our lives makes no sense whatsoever. We need to understand the cultural background, the intention of the writer and what it would have meant to people at the time. When this is done seriously, it can often change the meanings entirely.

By taking bits of the Bible out of context and interpreting them literally, Christians have justified a whole range of atrocities and injustices that most of us would now consider to be completely wrong. The Crusades, slavery and the oppression of women are just a few examples. The overarching story of the Bible is one of love, hope and reconciliation, but by taking bits out of context we have managed to construct belief systems based on fear, guilt and oppression.

Having grown up interpreting the Bible in this literal manner, I now see it as at best narrowminded and misguided, and at worst downright dangerous. In my mind, viewing the Bible in this way is not taking it seriously enough.

The result of the deconstruction of my belief framework is that I am more passionate than ever about my Christian faith. For a while I felt like I was ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ – in weeding out the bad bits I was also losing all the good, reassuring, comforting and inspiring aspects of my faith that had once been so central to my life. For a number of years, I was confused and angry, and church was a place of frustration and bitterness. I was mourning the loss of the security I had in my neat and tidy belief framework, whilst feeling frustrated that others weren’t thinking the same as me.

I now feel like I am “the other side of angry”, as a friend recently put it; I have regained the hope and security I once felt but the whole thing seems so much bigger and better, and makes so much more sense. The ‘Good News’ seems far, far better than it did before.

I feel that the Christian message as I was taught it massively and devastatingly missed the point, and I feel an increasing sense of urgency that the world desperately needs more of us to realise this.

My summary of this personal story is that the story is a story of wheat and tares held together on the way toward harvest. Amen.

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