Archive for February, 2020

The Unfolding Interconnectedness of Life

Today in the progressive religious world, that St David’s has become part of; in the last few years, this weekend is Evolution Weekend. It began I think in the United States as congregations saw the need to claim a place for evolution in a Christian world that was being overcome by a fundamentalist movement in education and in theory. A weekend where congregations made a claim for evolution as opposed to Creationism based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Many thought that there was little need for such a movement in that such literal Creationism would soon be exposed as fantasy but amazingly it still exists for those locked in a literal approach to the bible despite the fact that it no longer makes sense in a world that has moved on.

For many outside the church even this topic is a waste of time and energy because for them the argument between science and faith seems to no longer exist, and as my Grandson has often said of the church’s wrestling with this sort of debate, “I have a very simple view of religion all you have to do is follow the golden rule; – do unto others as you would have them do to you.’ And when Karl Barth that well known theologian was faced with that same response he said; ‘I have a very simple view of astronomy – twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.’ They were and are right are they not. The science and faith argument is a strange one difficult to rationalize and one wonders why bother because what we know that has been provided by science and what we knew then now cannot be reconciled. L Charles Birch former Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney, in 2008 said and I think he was right “Such simplistic concepts are caricatures of science and religion” In many ways, the battle between religion and science, and specifically between evolution and various forms of creationism, that is being waged [in the USA] today while being more outdated is also more rancorous than it was 150 years ago.  And, although some of those on the creationist side are incredibly vocal, from a religious perspective they are clearly out of the mainstream” (Zimmerman 2010:11)

So, to celebrate this, I want to talk very personally about God. First of all, lets go to an extract of an article by Rex Hunt entitled … It’s Natural!  A ‘Forgotten Alternative’ for Progressive Spirituality. No matter how beautiful some may consider it, a supernatural worldview, and the practices that reinforce it, anaesthetizes us to things we need to do if we are to create sustainability for our planet, our children, and their children. To use Gretta Vosper’s words: “Stripped of a divine plan, we progressives are challenged to be active participants who can mould the world around us rather than simply passive recipients who engage, now and again, in acts of devotion with the hope of altering the course of events.”

So, where to start personally?  Well… Some options…. start by taking a three-year-old child, (maybe your grandson or grand-daughter) for a walk along some wet-lands track. Do not plan to be in a hurry. Every twig. Every coloured stone. Every duck. Every small grasshopper or lizard to cross your path will be an occasion for closer ‘looking’ and excitement. Such is the enchantment of a three-year-old for the natural world.

Start with your own life. With the fifty trillion cells of your body that are converting energy to make protein right now so you can read/hear these words. Or… with the awareness that the body you are carrying around now won’t be the body you’ll be carrying around one, three five years from now. It will have completely rebuilt itself from the inside out.

Allow yourself to be shaped by this creativity. This wonder. Webs of culture, life, and cosmos, resulting in unending successions of ever-evolving levels of living forms.  Each day lifts its head from the dew-strung grasses and offers new hope, new possibilities, extra chances.  Because every moment is pregnant with possibility. The miracle of each moment awaits our sensual wonder. Hosannah! Not in the highest, but right here. Right now. This. Horizontal transcendence. Nature embedded in humanity. Humanity embedded in nature.

There is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of super-naturalist traditions.

The very first sentence in L Charles Birch’s book is that: “The concept of God’s operations in the universe as a series of fitful interventions from a supernatural sphere overlaying the natural is quite unacceptable to science” (Birch 1965:7). While the third sentence said:
“On the other hand, the traditional thinking of science, sometimes called mechanism, is quite unreconcilable with any reasoned Christian position” (Birch 1965:7). He was right and it was the church’s inability to question its dependence upon super-naturalism that got in the way. The result has been a fragmentation of thinking in regard to the relationship between science and religion, three major views exist: One; the ‘conflict’ view – that science and religion are inherently, and perpetually, in opposition; Two; the ‘contrast’ view – that science and religion are different because they ask different questions; and Three: the ‘integration’ view – that science and religion can be integrated into a self-consistent worldview.

Unfortunately, what emanates from many pulpits even today is more likely to represent the ‘conflict’ view than the ‘integration’ view. The science faith debate gets swallowed up in the dualisms of secular and sacred, evil world and belief in God to name but two. This is perhaps why Evolution weekend is important. Not just in an ecological sense where man made climate change is the topic of the day, but also in a theological sense where the topic of God is also under siege.

‘G-o-d’ is a symbol or word known and used by nearly everyone who speaks the English language. But it is also a word which has many uses and meanings attached to it. The Macquarie Dictionary for one defines the word as: “the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe” (Macquarie Dictionary 1981:763).

We know that this way of speaking theologically is called ‘classical theism’. This ‘God’ is supernatural, interventionist, and nearly always couched in male anthropological (or human-like) language and images. And for many even some of us in this room perhaps, this is still the way to think when we hear the word ‘God’. But for those of us who have chosen to walk the ‘progressive’ path, this way of thinking doesn’t work anymore.

As I have said before; over the years my thinking has and continues, to change.
Firstly: I have come to think of God as the creative process or ‘serendipitous creativity’,
rather than a being who creates, and Secondly; I have tried, in the main, to us non-personal metaphors rather than personal ones.

The thoughts of many others have interacted with my own thinking, including those positively influenced by the work of Charles Darwin and his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species.

In that book Darwin suggested that the world/universe was:

1; unfinished and continuing;

2: involved chance events and struggle, and

3: natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint”

Put another way: Both Peters and Kaufman have said the world/universe is cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).

Or yet another way: “In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and the serendipitous creativity was with God, and the serendipitous creativity was God.  All things came into being through the mystery of serendipitous creativity; apart from serendipitous creativity nothing would have come into being. (Kaufman 2004: ix adapted).

The issue is that today, we have mentally constructed another universe. Both in science and in religion/theology. In science, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the earth’s age is approximately 4.5 billion years.  While the universe – that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting… matter-energy in space-time… of which humans are an integral part…” (Gillette 2006:1), is approximately 14 billion years old.

And “if we put our fourteen-billion-year universe on a clock of one hour,
humanity appears in only the last few seconds” (Peters 2002:127).

So, ‘modern’ science is saying and has been saying, again and again: the universe must be regarded as a whole; it is of intrinsic value, and each part, galaxy,
organism, individual atom, participates in that intrinsic value as each part or web, participates in this wonderful web of life. Each part, rather than one species or organism
separating itself out as more important than the rest.

As John Shuck has said: “This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read” (JShuck). I can recommend a good book to read on this and one is Lloyd Geering’s book, From the Big Bang to God. Our Awe-inspiring Journey of Evolution. He says in that book that “… the future of the human race remains an open question. On the one hand we must take full account of the perilous crises already facing us; like black clouds on the horizon, they indicate an imminent period of storms that could lead to catastrophic outcomes. It does seem unlikely that humans worldwide will be able to muster the willpower and the unity of action to avoid them altogether.

“On the other hand, we can draw hope from the Great Story of how we came to be here at all. It is a truly awe—inspiring universe that has brought us forth and, at least on this planet, has come to consciousness in us, displaying the human inventiveness, creativity and entrepreneurial skills that have helped to make us the creatures we are. And this potential may lead us to as—yet—unimaginable heights.

“If our descendants survive and evolve to reach an even more exalted state of being than ours, they will have arrived at what our forebears long aimed for when in their traditions (Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim or Christian) they hoped, respectively, to enter Nirvana, the Promised Land, the unity of all nations, or the Kingdom of God.”

When we ask the questions of theology, we might see that the ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former Harvard Divinity School theologian, Gordon Kaufman, presents God as a non-personal ‘serendipitous creativity’ “manifest throughout the cosmos instead of as a kind of cosmic person.  We humans are deeply embedded in, and basically sustained by, this creative activity in and through the web of life on planet Earth (Kaufman 2004:58).

Here Kaufman clearly names the problem with traditional religious language and thinking.
Likewise his alternative thinking and language embraces both our scientific knowledge and the reality beyond the symbols of biblical faith.

A growing number of people around the world, religious and scientifically minded,
and conscious of this ‘web within a web of life’, are recognising that our modern life-style is:  harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns. They are saying that the earth is under assault!  Indeed that “we are killing our very life support system in a manner unprecedented in human history.  And yet, most of us go about our daily lives more or less blissfully indifferent to the devastation” (Hill 2008:10).

Here is a strong argument for progressive religious thought that calls each and every one of us to ‘dance with’, to live in harmony with, our world. And progressive religious/Christian thought names that creativity which indwells and sustains all life forms… galaxy
organism individual atom… ‘G-o-d’ or ‘the sacred’ or ‘serendipitous creativity’.

Meanwhile, Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion, has a couple of interesting and detailed comments. They are a bit technical and a little wordy, so I invite your careful listening.

To the question: ‘How old are we?’ Peters says: “phenomenally, a few decades; culturally, a few centuries or millennia; biologically, millions of years; cosmically, about 15 billion years” (Peters 1992:412).

To the additional question: ‘How long will we continue?’ he adds: “phenomenally, a few more decades or less; culturally, maybe a few more centuries; biologically, millions of years or, if we do not destroy ourselves first, perhaps until our sun dies five (5) billion years from now; cosmically, until the universe ends, which may be never…” (Peters 1992:412).

Peters answers are a kind of cosmic recipe for the functioning of all things. And reminds us that nature is in us as much as we are nature. “We are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and cosmos…  As webs of reality each of us is a manifestation of a larger part of the universe as a whole…  We contain in us… after many cosmic, biological, and cultural transformations, the radiation that was present at the origin of the universe” (Peters 1992:412).

For Peters and for progressives, the evolutionary epic is a religious world view. Science and faith are about the same thing.  All of this and more, is why, on Evolution Sunday/Weekend, we are bound to talk about God.


Salt, Light, Church

Posted: February 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 5: 13-20

Salt, Light, Church

Over the last few years when the focus has been on a declining church in terms of numbers and size there has been much debate and discussion in some circles as to what the role of the church is. Is it the last-ditch stand on behalf of the Gospel? Is it the time for renewal of the old or is it time for renewal in a new world where Christianity no longer hold the majority in terms of membership? What is the church in a universal sense and what is its role? And at another level, what is the ‘church’ in the local expression called a congregation.

It has to be said that our church, the PCANZ always seems to be in the middle of one of those discussions. The obvious is the seemingly perpetual discussions about restructuring. And it has to be said that some people feel all this restructuring talk will enable the PCANZ to be better at reflecting the kingdom/realm/empire of which Jesus spoke about.  What do you think?

One suggestion is that decline has more to do with dwindling resources, an outdated theology, and the rate of change in the world. And it seems to make sense. But if we digress a little, we can say that if everything changes, then change too must change. For instance, each generation finds itself further removed from its predecessor. The gap between children and their parents is always a little wider than it had been for parents and their parents (Friedman 2009:10). The same can be said for ‘church’.

Given that this change has been going on for years and this seems logical what has guided us during this time of continuing change, what has guided us in our understanding of ‘church’? And our theology? But how will this looking back help us? It is always tempting to look back.  Many do, to the so-called ‘good old days’! But as historical beings the truth is that we are not just nourished by our past. We actually live in the present, and it is a new and novel present, Gordon Kaufmann says it is “qualitatively different from any of our human pasts” (Kaufman 2006:106).

And we need to be careful here because the novel, the new is always vulnerable as are all things that are serendipitous and created. We need to be careful because it will also be tempting to do nothing, lest we upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or power structures. In fact what we do when we set out to change structures and to develop new strategies for going forward we actually set up a formidable resistance that takes out focus away from the new and eats up resources and energies for change that if any only a few small and seriously altered attempts are left.

I am now going to suggest that all of this sort of focus is bereft of a wholeness and in the most part inappropriate.  Having said that I need to do what I am not keen on doing and that is to make a suggestion as an answer. I can’t claim it as my answer because it has been suggested by many before and I think it has not been taken up because it too has suffered in the face of Western culture and its, concentration on the left hemisphere of the human brain. So, if Kaufmann is right; what will shape our new present which is qualitatively different from our past?

Perhaps today’s stories, which hint at common everyday life in first century Palestine, and as told by the storyteller we call Matthew, can be a guide, or at least offer a couple of suggestions or signposts towards the task.

First of all, we might think about the images of the ‘church’ as light or salt. These images have been eagerly grabbed hold of by many church leaders, and the interesting thing is that they seem to be in sharp contrast to much of our modern mega-church or mission thinking. These sayings appear to uncover something of the indirect and hidden nature of the church. That is, they reveal a way in which the life of a faith community should seek to express itself.  Rather than calling attention to itself, a church or congregation or a ‘follower of Jesus’, is most effective when it/they are not noticed (Reid 2001:61).

Likewise, they also make it clear ‘church’ cannot exist alongside of, or in separation from, the community that surrounds and feeds us as human beings but is that in contrast to

Being the salt and light, in other words being not noticed as individual or as a faith community or as church?

Some years ago, retired Melbourne theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson,
published a book called, A People on The Way. It was a study of ‘congregation, mission and in his case Australian culture’. It became a book used by many as a study guide. In it, Grierson picked up the three biblical images of light, salt and yeast and said they provide “a theological foundation for a local congregation as it seeks to define its mission”.

He then went on: “That mission is best understood as a continuing persisting presence…  Much of the witness of the local congregation (will be) of the kind that is hidden within the fabric of community”.

A continuing persisting presence…  Hidden, you might say, like salt? Just enough salt that we can say ‘this steak is juicy and tender and full of flavour’. Too much salt and we spit it out and complain. Not enough and after a while it becomes bland and all we have is the texture and the fibre. The key is that the salt is not detectable if it is doing its job. Its effects are.

Grierson, also being a storyteller, digs into his local history and tells a ‘salt’ story. “During the post war years in the 1940s in Australia a small but determined Catholic woman heard of the sickness of aged neighbours in small houses in her street. South Melbourne, the suburb where she lived, was hard hit by strikes and unemployment. Many people were sick because of poor nutrition, and unable to act because of advanced age. So, Mary Kehoe mobilized some of her friends and they cooked meals for those who were ill. The problem arose as to how to carry the meals to those in need?

A solution was found in the use of an old pram. And the meals were loaded into the pram,
and pushed up the street to the houses of the unwell and needy, and to a canteen two houses from Mary Kehoe’s place. Her efforts to involve the local council had resulted in the provision of two huts to act as a relief centre.

Meals cooked at her house were wheeled to the canteen where many gathered for emergency help. Thus began ‘Meals on Wheels’, which today it is so much a part of our social service environment that its beginnings are lost and forgotten. It gives hope and support to hundreds of people, who without it, would not survive. A continuing persisting presence, hidden, like salt.

Biblical scholar Barbara Reid puts Matthew’s ‘salt’ story in some sort of context “…the uses of salt in the ancient world included: seasoning, preservation, purification, and judgment…” She goes on: “In saying to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ Jesus could have meant that they perform any and all of these functions: that they draw out the liveliness and flavour of God’s love in the world; they are a sign of God’s eternal fidelity; they bring to judgment all that is opposed to God’s basiliea” (Reid 2001:48).

Then this important comment: “The task of Christians in every age is to discern what it means in a new context to be faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus.  Just as Christians of the last century determined that abolition of slavery was being most faithful to the gospel, even though Jesus’ teachings presumed the institution of slavery. Today we face the challenge of eliminating all sorts of discrimination such as that within sexism and systems of domination, political and economic empire and let’s reflect that these too are woven into the fabric of the Gospels” If everything changes, then change must change too.

I can remember helping a congregation to shape both a Vision Statement and a Statement on Evangelism. As to the latter we agreed our response would be characterized or shaped by: One: listening to the community first rather than talking about what it needs; Two; letting what we hear and feel and sense genuinely shape our gospel response; and Three; letting our response be original and creative. The model of evangelism was to be a continuing persisting presence, hidden if you like, like salt. And amid change that too is changing.

If we are to face a ‘church’ which is continually discussing change and restructuring and if we are to face this changing situation with integrity and purpose, then how we become ‘church’ in the community, will be more important than how we are structured within a set of Regulations or a Constitution. How to be a continuing persisting presence…is the question, and I want to make another suggestion here. I want to suggest that we might think about becoming skeptical mystics and apply that understanding to the task.

The truth is that we are in uncharted territory in terms of global population growth and ecosystem stress. We are currently living in heightened conflict with almost everything. Our environment, our political and organizational structures and with each other. We do not learn from our past because we have been gathering in communities with social conflict for at least 25000 years and we have even seen throughout cultural and lasting traditions that practices like fostering gratitude, holding detachments and understanding one’s opponent are ways of expanding one’s perspective and foster innovative solutions. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot resolve a problem with the same thinking we used to create it.

Matthew Fox suggests that we need to act as mystic warriors but I prefer to suggest that when implementing change, we act with mystic intent. In explaining what I mean I think that mystics listen to the greater whole. They empty themselves so that they can be a channel. They are the ultimate skeptic, the endless questioner, the one that seems unafraid of the questions and is somehow wise. They tap into the vastness of the Universe and recognise the endless possibility available through the divine spark within their hearts. They share forth immense love and compassion that arises out of a deep listening. They never rest in any knowing but instead bathe in a sea of uncertainty. As Meister Eckhart once said, ‘I pray to God to rid me of God”.

People who engage in life with mystic intent are people who pay attention to the here and now. Acting with intent, mystics are not passive peace makers. They are strong in their weakness, sure in their compassion and love. As Margaret Wheatley noted; A leader is anyone who wishes to help at this time, and leadership is intentional work. Being mystic with intent is about being both salt and light, in other words being one who knows they are unique in all the universe and the same time as being nothing but dust. Without them the world is but a place of persistent conflict. With them despair is overcome by joy and peace is possible. Change has meaning and purpose. With mystic intent at work the liturgical words of returning to the earth dust to dust become, alive in the cosmos, stardust to stardust and the wise mystic knows which to say from moment to moment knowing both are equally true. Amen.

Friedman, E. H. What are You Going to Do with Your Life? Unpublished Writing and Diaries. New York. Seabury Books, 2009.
Grierson, D. A People on The Way. Congregation, Mission and Australian Culture. Melbourne. JBCE, 1991.
Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minniapolis. Fortress Press, 2006.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.

Matthew Fox. Skylar Wilson, Jennifer Berrit Listug; Order of the Sacred Earth Monkfish Book Publishing Company Rhinebeck, New York.