‘Celebrating Evolution as a Reality Where People Matter’

Posted: September 2, 2021 in Uncategorized

‘Celebrating Evolution as a Reality Where People Matter’

“He had the ability to teach us startlingly new perspectives with a gentle touch. His calm, inviting delivery let us see what he was suggesting about our fundamental understanding of the historical Jesus. We were able to see how he modelled critical thinking and reflection. He made us comfortable with our discomfort at relinquishing cherished notions and opinions. He taught me that when we think critically, no one has to suffer, no one has to be made the enemy.”
David Dykes

Those words were from an online tribute to Marcus Borg. A leader within progressive Christianity, for whom we who seek to emulate his ability to offer us a way of following Jesus in our time and place honour his integrity, scholarship, and personal character.

Last week we engaged with the human propensity for the creation of exclusive circles and the insider’s and outsider’s debate and we touched on the post liberal theological journey within Christianity. I make no apology for singling out what I think is the most significant attempt to evolve the approach to a contemporary theology and a relevant Christianity and a relevant walking of the ‘Jesus Way’.

Today we have another interesting and different story from our gospel tradition. And a response guided by the thinking of Rex Hunt. It is a single-entry story (Mark 7:24-30) that not only paints Jesus in a not-so-positive light, but also seems to question the very spirituality that initially shaped him. Having redefined ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in a previous story, the anonymous storyteller we call Mark now has Jesus challenged (and by implication, the Markan community somewhere in Syria) to put that teaching into practice by ministering to those often seen as ‘unclean’—or just different.

Or as we might say in our everyday language…  Take the time to look beyond external factors like nationality, religious heritage, or social position, which by their nature often exclude. So, to use a Borg saying: what ‘lens’ did the storyteller use and why? What ‘lens’ can we use to hear this story with twenty-first century ears?

Rex tells of being on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, several years ago, attending the 4th National Gathering of The Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia/NZ. We know that Queensland is a northern state in Australia with summer temperatures perhaps ‘similar’ to Arizona… Often very high with Desert to the West, channel country and some rain forests in the middle, and the famous, but diminishing, Great Barrier Reef along the Eastern coast.
For years its tourist catch-cry was: ‘Beautiful one day. Perfect the next’.

The Keynote speaker at the Gathering was feminist theologian and Catholic religious, Miriam Therese Winter. And for many especially the men it was a truly wonderful and stimulating experience. It was also an awakening experience for many of them as they began to hear some of the biblical stories through the eyes and ears — or through the ‘lens’ — of women.

Rex’s comments are made in that spirit as he reflects on Mark’s story. The storyteller’s ‘lens’—a Phoenician woman—and her unconventional behaviour as determined by social convention, bested Jesus. If we believe the storyteller, it caught him on the hop, so to speak. What initially draws the dominant culturally conditioned male’s wrath by its increasing boldness, cleverness, and basic moral correctness, eventually subverts that discomfort into agreement. Such is the power of an authentic alternative and one might say the motivation for Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need. Now, Mark suggests, Jesus is faced with having to learn that social conventions, ingrained in his spirituality, should not do so either. And if it was good enough for Jesus to have a change of heart, then what seems implied in this story, is: why shouldn’t it be also good enough for others, especially Mark’s own community, to be so challenged?

On the surface the story is presented as one about healing. But if we dig a little deeper, we will find Mark intended it to be a story of inclusion and distributive justice. And where a woman becomes the lead actor or ‘lens’ in the interaction. The storyteller’s teaching moment seems to be: that people matter most. No one can be excluded. None can be treated like ‘dogs’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘outcast’. None! The restoration of the individual is thus sacramental of the restoration of society. Not as a preference but as a contribute to the indwelling of the reign of God. We remember here the ‘perfect generosity that we spoke of last week as the sight or ideal and manifestation of the reign of God that Jesus sought in the outworking of his vision.

Recalling last week, we saw that the search for the historical Jesus has taken us to a place where we have very little evidence but that that evidence is very compelling and that we can know Jesus by his profile, voice print and we can discern what is called his ordering vision or what his intent was and how he saw the vision unfolding as the reign of God, the alternative world the spoke of and sought.

The first two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer express the view that when God’s name is truly revered, God’s Kingdom comes and that this happens when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And the man who sells everything he owns to gain an exquisite pearl is a disaster as a businessman, but an exemplar of the singlemindedness that God’s reign calls for. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is about properly valuing goodness, not about prudently valuing property. This ‘perfect generosity that characterizes God’s reign is depicted in the father’s acceptance of his prodigal son and in contrast to the older son’s ungenerous calculations.

Having argued for an understanding of the paucity of evidence and for what we have as being significant and suggesting that we might approach our understanding by looking through a lens let me change the ‘lens’ a little. Arthur Dewey is an author, a progressive theologian and a Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus Seminar. You have no doubt heard of them
even if you haven’t heard of him.

In one of his many articles, he explores the possibility of viewing Jesus through the ‘lens’ of a peasant artisan or craftsman. Why? Dewey reckons this could help us work out what Jesus was about. He writes:

“It appreciates the texture of his imagination. How did Jesus craft his words? What did he envision as he worked? How did his words invite his listeners into his vision…? What can we make of those words?”

How does Dewey suggest Jesus went about crafting his words? He goes on:

“Working in wood or stone demands envisioning ‘what is there within’ the material… He ‘sees’ what is ‘there’ and works painstakingly toward it. The task is to see a vision and to use the ‘grain’ in seeking to realize that vision.”

So, what might artisan Jesus have ‘seen… what is there within’ his audiences?  Rex Hunt suggests the following suggestions and invites the reader to ponder them some more:

(i) dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality;

(ii) admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal immigrants – whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’;

(iii) challenge all to reshape their social categories, especially those of others, formed by fears and rumours and innuendo.

How could this happen? Dewey suggests:

… can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply.

In short Rex suggests we might: practice ‘ubantu’. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu explained as meaning of this Zulu word:

We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. When I de-humanize you, I inextricably de-humanize myself. The solitary human is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.

There are still many in our communities who know what it is like to be without a voice, to be flattened, to be destroyed. And when Christian politicians and pastors — we know the kind — we find them in Legislative Assemblies and all over Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter… When these seek to change laws to enable the church or businesses, to exclude or denigrate minority groups,
it is no wonder others in the community think it natural to also treat asylum seekers,
gay, lesbian, and transgender folk, and the homeless in a degenerating way.

It is sad but we can hear it today in the management of the covid invasion. The move towards legislation for punishment of the fearful the protester, the alternative thinker is a knife edge away from this non-Christian response.

Australian author Tim Winton said in his 2015 Palm Sunday address when talking about the response to the so-called boat people:

We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening.

Social commentator Hugh Mackay called this attitude ‘disengagement’. In a newspaper article he wrote: 

We prefer TV programs about backyards to news and current affairs; we have rediscovered the healing power of retail therapy; we have become more self-absorbed… We’re more prejudiced and, correspondingly, less interested in information that might challenge those prejudices.

While we might have moved on from that localized crisis, we still avoid the plight of others. We still think that ‘trickle-down economics’ is the answer to every question. Even it seems, if the planet burns itself up as a result of our obsession with wellbeing and so-called freedoms.

Until a Phoenician woman, already with two strikes against her, gives the ignored or the forgotten, a voice that is. We need to remember that prophets come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t look the way you would expect. Every generation must work out its values and its faith responses
to changing circumstances, just as those who preceded us were required to do. The world is always evolving and not everything passed down has the same value for life in the modern world.

We need to take seriously the nature of our discrimination and yes, we need to discriminate but we need to ask what lens we are using. And that goes for science, for politics, for education, and for religion. Change is what change is. This is an evolving world and we must evolve or destroy ourselves.

Perhaps another way of saying this is to say that when all is said and done, we actually live in a new present, every moment and that new present is qualitatively different from any of our human pasts. In this present, as we think about ourselves and others, how do we
find the energy to nurture a creative and compassionate lifestyle?

Sir Lloyd Geering suggests we need to take with radical seriousness the following:

• An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.

• An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.

• An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.

• An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.

• Responsibility for the care of one another.

• Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.

• Its value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.

I think that’s a pretty good ‘ordering vision’ in keeping with the one Jesus had.

Geering goes on to say:

In developing a spirituality for today’s secular world, we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves…  Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet.

As we ponder further on all this, thus completing this sermon, may our creative imaginations
become part of the ongoing discovery of new ways — a new lens — to be a human community in the world. Especially when everything around us seems fragile and unsure. And especially when we might be facing the transition of what has been called the sixth extinction of civilization.

To reiterate last week’s conclusion it has to be said that the reign of God at the heart of the Jesus Way of being was an ideal kingdom in his ordering vision and thus an ideal goodness that informs but ultimately transcends the moral virtue attained or is attainable by any individual or by any society. It was and is a goodness that transcends what is realizable in history when it offers our life in history a sense of direction. As a Christian today we are still faced with the challenge of discerning how to respond to an aspiring, enabling, but impossible ideal. That is why it can never be a journey marked by concrete doctrine or creed or absolutes that would deny evolution. It is a living dynamic ever changing faith journey. Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-Realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Clayton, P. “Marcus Borg and the New Face of Christianity”. 27/01/2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com
Dewey, A. J. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Geering, L. G. Coming Back To Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2008.
Hunt, R. A. E. Against the Stream. Progressive Christianity between Pulpit and Pew. Preston. Mosaic Press, 2013. (Re-issued by Morning Star Publishing, 2014)


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