Archive for April, 2018

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.

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.

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.

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.