Going Beyond Exclusive Boundaries

Posted: June 5, 2019 in Uncategorized

Pluralism C, 2019
Luke 6: 20-21, 24-25

Going Beyond Exclusive Boundaries

Richard Dawkins says it is the root of all evil. Christopher Hitchens says it poisons everything. Both are talking about religion. And they are not alone in their ‘evangelical atheistic’ comments. Alongside this is another approach and that is one that I have argued for in John Seel’s book and the New Copernicans series we have just finished. That is that Atheistic argument is just one position amongst a bigger picture. That if one is to examine the history of Christian thought and practice one would see that at least over the last 2015 years there have been indications that thinking has evolved not in a linear fashion but in a more spherical, spiral or chaotic manner. Some traditional and ancient thinking has prevailed and been modified and others have been super-ceded and cast aside. Most scholars today will have a list of people they cite as resource for their thinking. There have been many popular books written preaching these positions. My attempt with the New Copernican series was to argue that the complexity of though is best addressed by accepting that experience has and is a major influence upon what we think. To choose one truth is to buy into an unhelpful extremism. As one Australian newspaper columnist said some time back now; “The swelling of atheist literature is a reaction to a worldwide rise in fundamentalist religion. But in kicking back at extremism, the bestselling atheists don’t discriminate between mainstream faith and the loony fringe.  It’s religion itself they object to”. Being in the so-called religion business we need to be aware of these author’s thoughts because reality is not that simple. It is not governed by pluralistic notions.  Thought is more complex in its nature and cannot be contained within boundaries.

Today, in the traditional lectionary of the church, is Pentecost Sunday. The so-called ‘birthday’ of the Christian church, even though scholars of any repute would claim the traditional story is the result of Luke’s own literary imagination, rather than an historical report. On the other hand, today in progressive church circles also carries another title: That of Pluralism Sunday. A day that is given over to being thankful for religious diversity.

We might note here that the secular world, the world of inclusive spirituality this is almost a non-event.

This brings me to the core challenge in this sermon, that of the exclusive boundaries we have established as children of our tradition, our past and some might say the exclusiveness of the closed transcendent position we spoke of in the series on the New Copernicans. I want to further challenge our thinking by introducing the science faith connection, the imagination verses real dilemma and lastly but not lest John D Caputo’s suggestion that God does not exist but God does insist and his work in developing what is know as a weak theology, or a God who is to be found in the weak and not the strong, perhaps in the foolishness of the cross or the folly of loving ones enemies, turning the other cheek and so forth. This is a big challenge because we find it hard to let go of the transcendent or more importantly to re-imagine it as less about over and above, and outside and more about a God in and through everything in and outside of reality. I do deviate from J D Caputo when he suggests we need to create a theology of perhaps in that I prefer the word ‘almost’ because it I want to express and claim for a somewhat positive hope filled stance. God is the ‘almost’ which to me means God exists but not in the traditional way we think and that God is found as the almost, the not yet but the sure to be, the weak, vulnerable God at the mercy of humanity and yet the God that is almost here. The hope of the God with us is to be found in the God who may not arrive but is almost here. Here I think also is the New Testament Kingdom of God that is yet to come and is also within you. Do you sense the exclusive boundaries I am asking you to examine and look beyond?

Last week I spoke a little about prayer and after the service one of you asked me “Then why do we pray?” My reply was that we pray because we are human and we need to. J D Caputo in answering a similar question suggested that his book could be thought of a faithful prayer to God so what if our God as almost. Our ‘almost is actually an element of prayer? I believe in prayer, I am a man of prayer. I am praying all the time and I am dead serious about this because while I don’t think prayer is a conversation with a theistic closed transcendent God, I do pray for the serendipitous chance of an event, I am praying for the possibility of the impossible, the perhaps as Caputo puts it and the almost as I prefer. Prayer is the precariousness and we invoke prayer and grace in the name of God and my language and vocabulary might challenge the pious because of the lack of religious jargon because it is always necessary to have an ‘almost’ when it comes to God. It has to have a cloud of unknowing and uncertainty over all divine matters if we are to move out of the closed transcendent limitedness. And to put it bluntly, there is no God except insofar there is a chance of an event, which we cannot see coming and I would add yet have the expectation of an almost. One could say that God is the unforeseeable come-what-may which may be the grace of a new beginning. Here we also have the insistence of God as the insistence of the event or the serendipitous chance of the event and the corresponding faith that God can happen anywhere at any-time.

As this is pluralism Sunday in many progressive churches it might be helpful to apply all of the above to the interfaith challenges, we face with the movement of people ll around the world. In recent years two American based groups have been at the forefront of the church’s attempt at keeping up with this change. One, the Institute for Progressive Christianity, and the other, The Centre for Progressive Christianity. In an interview back in 2006/7 the coordinator of the Project, Revd Jim Burklo, said there were three general ways in which religions relate to each other: The first is (i) Exclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is correct, and all other religions are wrong, at best, and evil, the worst… The second is (ii) Inclusivism, which is the idea that my religion is the only true one, but yours is interesting. So we should tolerate each other’s religions and find ways to cooperate and communicate… And the third is (ii) Pluralism, the idea that my religion is good for me and your religion may turn out to be as good for you as mine is for me. I quote Jim Burklo: “pluralism is the concept that there are multiple loci of truth and salvation among the religions. [It] does not imply that all religions are the same or that all religions are equal; but it does recognize the possibility that my way is not the only way and that my religion is not necessarily superior to your” (Burklo. TCPC web site, Pluralism Sunday, 2007).

In saying that I think it is almost redundant to say what was just quoted in that the focus on differences has been part of our culture for some years now already and I wonder if we have moved on because we are now asking if it is important to recognize the difference in order to reach harmony and just acceptance of the differences or is it time to recognize the things that hold us together, the things that are as far as we can tell intrinsically human.

We might ask what some churches have been doing on pluralism Sunday and we might see that some years back First Congregational Church, Long Beach: has had an Islamic leader as the preacher; Christ Community Church, Spring Lake: has studied the book ‘The faith club’ – a book by three women, a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian – who sought to find common ground on which to share their faiths; University Place Christian Church, Enid: has used multiple languages to express the wisdom of different world religions in worship; And Mizpah United Church of Christ and Beth Shalom (Reformed Jewish), Minneapolis:  has had a ‘pulpit’ exchange between faiths. Some of you might remember that we too had an Islamic scholar preach in St David’s but what has this dome for interfaith relations in our daily lives?

Some years back now His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetian Buddhists, visited Canberra and the people were told that the Dalai Lama advises his lamas who travel to different countries not to emphasize the teaching of Buddhism too much,
as trying to convert people may not only fail but could also weaken their faith in their own religion. He said that it’s better to encourage those who believe in something, to deepen their own faith. “The point isn’t to convert people, but to contribute to their well-being” (Ian Lawton. 3C/Christ Community Church web site, 2007).

The Dalai Lama said that he didn’t go to the West to make one or two more Buddhists, but simply to share his experiences of the wisdom that Buddhism has developed over the centuries.  He  said that if you find anything I’ve said useful, make use of it.  Otherwise just forget it” (Quoted in Ian Lawton, Christ Community Church, 2007).

In response, someone said: “Now there’s a balanced attitude to east/west dialogue.  I can just hear a new form of Christian evangelism – which states ‘This is our tradition.  This is what it has meant for us.  If you find it useful, use it.  If Christianity contributes to the well-being of people, and contributes to world peace by inter-faith relations, then take and apply it.  Otherwise, just forget it…” (Ian Lawton).

And then Ian Lawton who was vicar at St Matthews in the city some years back  concludes:, “This is the attitude which will give Christianity a bright future. It should come as no surprise to us.  This was also the way of Jesus” (Ian Lawton). While another wrote:
“In a time of religious tension, and in what I see as increasing tribalism, when Christians think the only way to peace is to convert Muslims to Christianity and when Muslims think the only way to peace is to convert Christians to Islam, I think Jesus would shout: ‘Enough!  Convert yourselves!  Listen and discover the better way’” (John Shuck. Shuck&Jive blog site, 2007)

And again that same cleric says; “I am a Christian.  Christianity is unique and it has much to offer our world.  But being unique does not necessarily mean being right or being the only way to be.  Hinduism is also unique, as is Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Wicca, Native [Aboriginal] religions, you name it.  We all have truths and shortcomings.  We all have something to offer.  We all have something to learn from one another.  Pentecost is a great day to listen to the Spirit’s voice present in other traditions as well as our own” (John Shuck)

So here we are on the day of Pentecost  saying that we need to break through exclusive boundaries and embracing not only other religions and honouring them at a deep level of respect and openness but also break through the exclusive boundaries that separate us from the secular and worldy world. Those boundaries do not exist as immovable unhealthy support systems unless we leave them unchallenged. Pluralism Sunday is about letting the world of newspaper columnists and TV producers and the neighbours with whom you chat over the back fence, know there are Christians who are unafraid of humility, of the hard questions and Christians who challenge the exclusive dogmatism of the fundamentalist churches who claim Christianity is religiously superior.

There is a way to be authentically and particularly religious, involved and immersed in a religious culture, and practice a specific religion and path, but…“if you go all the way with that, you will discover that we all end up on the top of the same mountain [with]… brothers and sisters of other faiths who have done the same sort of thing” (Burklo, TCPC).

So let us this Pentecost, commit ourselves to a deeper pluralism which both encourages and allows us to: enrich our own faith, as well as celebrate with those who think differently from us; our neighbours. Amen.

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