‘Beyond Boundaries’

Posted: May 31, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Beyond Boundaries’

I think that our readings today are that we need to listen the Pentecost Spirit more keenly. That what our present religious situation calls for first of all is not a set of updated creedal affirmations, like new statements of faith, or new phrases to govern our thinking by but rather something prior: something like an unconditional commitment to veracity, and to authenticity and to what, to the best of our knowledge, corresponds with our reality. Our theology and response to the call of the sacred needs to be contextual and real on the ground of living. That is the most pertinent answer, (for those who are inclined to ask,) to the question, “What would Jesus do?” His parables and aphorisms are expressions of his own vision of reality and of what that reality implied for him and his contemporaries and called upon them to do about the way they think and the way they live. Basing our faith and life on what is our reality is, in that sense, to do what Jesus would do, even if that leads us to understand ourselves and our world in ways that never occurred to him. An unconditional commitment to veracity and authenticity is the narrow gate that will admit us to terrain where we will be able to identify the meaning that can nourish our spirits in a new axial age. We need to manifest the bizarre hope of the gospel not as a recitation of statements or a protection of some sort of historical truth. The gospel and the church and the faith community doesn’t need protection it needs risking within this time and place

Richard Dawkins says it is the root of all evil. Christopher Hitchens says it poisons everything. Both were talking about religion. And they are not alone in their ‘evangelical nontheistic’ comments. Alongside this is another approach and that is one that I have argued for. It is in John Seel’s, book on the millennial generation called the New Copernicans. His argument is  that the 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 two thousand and more years there have been indications that thinking has evolved; not in a linear fashion but in a more spherical, spiral or chaotic manner. I think this is an indication of how that which we name God works for us. Some traditional and ancient thinking has prevailed and been modified and other thinking has been super-ceded and cast aside. Most scholars today will have a list of people they cite as resource for their thinking. There have also been many popular books written about preaching these positions. My attempt back in 2019, with the New Copernican series was to argue that the complexity of thought is best addressed by accepting that experience has and is a major influence upon what we think. In other words 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 either-or notions.  Thought is more complex in its nature and cannot be contained within simple boundaries. Look at the most recent discoveries are propositions that the brain works in multi universal networking. Think about the impact on our understanding of collective consciousness and pan psychism this can have.

Today, in the traditional lectionary of the church, we celebrate 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 Pentecost 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 in the emerging approach to sacred and secular as dichotomies’ the secular world, can be said to be a world of inclusive spirituality, pluralism itself is almost a non-event. In the so noted decline in belief of God is a rise in the search for an authentic spirituality. While less and less people attend church mor and more appear to believe in that which we name God. The main issue is that it is not just two paths it is multi path environment. Meta narratives and common thinking is no longer of value.

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 or the exclusive fixed supernatural position I spoke of in the series on the New Copernicans. Remember this is a challenge to the super – natural claims not the God is real or not issue. I want to again challenge our thinking by introducing the science faith connection, the imagination verses real dilemma and lastly but not least, the John D Caputo’s suggestion that God does not exist but rather insists and I acknowledge Caputo’s work in developing what is known as a weak theology, or a God who is to be found in the weak and not the strong, in the vulnerable and not the mighty, in the inverse power of vulnerability and perhaps in the foolishness of the cross or the folly of loving one’s 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 in control of and more about a God in and through everything in and outside of reality. A new sort of panentheism. I do however deviate from J D Caputo when he suggests we need to create a theology of ‘perhaps’ in that I prefer the word ‘almost’ because I want to express and make a claim for a somewhat less benign and more 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 the serendipitous and randomness reality of evolution. Yet the God that is surely in the ‘almost’. 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. About now I am wondering if you sense the exclusive boundaries, I am asking you to examine and look beyond?

Last week I spoke a little three years ago and last week about prayer and after the service three years ago a person asked me “Then why do we pray?” My reply was that we pray because we are human and we need to put into language our thinking. 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’ is actually an element of prayer? What if we believe in prayer, we are people of prayer? We are praying all the time and we are deadly serious about this because while we don’t think prayer is a conversation with a theistic interventionist all powerful transcendent God, we do pray to be able to honour the serendipitous chance of an event, event being what the name invokes. Event as the dynamic relational energy or ground of the sacred. We are praying for the possibility of the impossible, the ‘perhaps’ as Caputo puts it and the ‘almost’ that I prefer. Prayer is the precariousness itself it is an engagement with the unexpected and we invoke prayer and grace in the name of God and sure, our language and vocabulary might challenge the traditionally 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 as there is a chance of an event, which we cannot see coming and I would add has 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. I know God can exist because I know I am involved in that existence. God is always almost here. Always insisting.

To finish today we might take another look at the interfaith issue. It is the case that in recent years two American based groups have been at the forefront of the church’s attempt at keeping up with this change in thinking. One, is the Westar Institute Known initially as the Jesus Seminar and the other, The Centre for Progressive Christianity. In an interview back in 2006/7 the coordinator of a Progressive 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 yours” (Burklo. TCPC web site, Pluralism Sunday, 2007).

In saying that I think it is almost redundant to say what I just quoted. Redundant in the sense that the focus on differences has been part of our culture for some years now and we have moved on because we are now asking if it is important to recognize the difference in order to reach harmony and just an 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. It is also a challenge to change when differences become the primary goal of the search for a way forward together. Again the issue is not whether god exists or not but rather about the definition of the sacred or the God we create.  This is about authenticity and not about fact or absolutes.

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: had studied the book ‘The faith club’ – a book by three women, a Muslim, a Jew and a Christian – They sought to find common ground on which to share their faiths; University Place Christian Church, Enid: had 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:  had a ‘pulpit’ exchange between faiths. Some years back at St David’s in Auckland we too had an Islamic scholar preach but the question might be; what has this done for interfaith relations in our daily lives?

Some years back now His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, leader of the Tibetan 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 Auckland 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.  Maybe 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 celebrating Pentecost, saying that we need to break through exclusive boundaries and embrace not only other religions and honour them at a deep level of respect and openness but also and perhaps more importantly, break through the exclusive boundaries that separate us from the secular and worldy world or ambiguity, uncertainty of serendipity and discover the weak power of that which we name God the foolish power of the cross perhaps. The boundaries we have erected over time 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 uncertainty, unafraid to live humbly, unafraid of the hard questions, and there are Christians who challenge the exclusive dogmatism of fundamentalism be they conservative or liberal or even radical.and the churches who claim Christianity is religiously superior.

The challenge of this is that there is a way to be authentically and particularly religious, involved and immersed in a religious culture, and to 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). If the exclusive boundaries remain un-challenged we will all fit in one box and be shelved. It is just possible that the church decline is due to our conformity, apathy and blind fear of difference.

So, let us this Pentecost, commit ourselves to a honouring each other’s minds, asking the hard questions of each other, and together explore what the human potential might look like. Let us seek an authentic faith path which both encourages participation in the Way with others who think differently from us. They are our neighbours. Amen.

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