Archive for April, 2023

‘Endurance not Atonement’

Posted: April 27, 2023 in Uncategorized

‘Endurance not Atonement’

The text left of the lectionary is 2.17, 18 which give our reading context. In leaving them off we are invited into a generalization that invites us to think about Christ. 2:18 exhorts slaves to be subject to their masters, cruel or otherwise. 2:17 had commended honouring the emperor. For slaves there is a reward of some kind for suffering unjustly; none, however, for suffering what they deserve (2:20). 1 Peter lives within a structure of authorities, including abusive authorities, and obviously sees no way out except to remain faithful and at most shame or silence the abusers, as 2:15 suggests. 2:20 indicates perhaps that more is entailed than simply doing good in a passive way – not doing evil. Akin perhaps to peace not being the absence of war but the creation of another state of being. The comparison with Christ which follows may also invite us to think more widely about the nature of goodness, not in the sense of passive acceptance but with endurance. There are times when the only alternative is to endure. Few of us know such experiences, but they happen and are happening. When we are not facing such situations, we have little idea of what such courageous tenacity means. Imprisonment, torture, abuse, are still up to date in the arsenal of oppressive regimes. One might think of people living under an oppressive governing regime or captured withing the arena of war. Without power in the face of a dominant system the only option is endurance. Christ’s endurance can be a central model.

1 Peter sees the event of Jesus’ suffering primarily against the background of vicarious atonement interpreted from Isaiah 53 and probably reflecting earlier Christian tradition. Note that it is likely a vicarious atonement and not a literalized one. Metaphorical as opposed to factual. The passage from Isaiah allows the author to reinforce sinlessness, an echo of 1:20. It also reinforces non retaliation. History shows that it is hard for oppressed people not to hate their oppressors during times of oppression and, when they are over and they assume power, they are exhorted not, themselves to become oppressors. Hate has no place for those imitating Christ nor for those seeking to be in solidarity with them. When anger at injustice and the need to confront abuse and abusers takes the further step and hates or kills, then something terrible happens to the vision: it ceases to be a vision of justice and hope, because it has sown the seeds of death. It is, perhaps, too easy to reflect wisely about loving enemies. We need to meet those who have. 1:24 reminds us that all that God did in Christ was that we might live – not that any should die or be deemed unworthy of life. In Christ meant being in a changed state.

Isaiah 53 also stimulates the imagery of sheep and shepherds, taking off from the negative comment about going astray to celebrate Christ as the shepherd and overseer (episkopos; the Greek word for bishop, supervisor, superintendent, overseer). In such adversity this is something to hold onto and in which to hope.

Taken into other contexts this passage can serve the interests of oppressive regimes, however well dressed in piety. Then it teaches people to be doormats, to put up with abuse, be brave, and not to raise questions. It misreads the text to see it as a general call to passivity. Part of the “doing good” alluded to in 2:20 must also have echoes of “doing justice”. We often find ourselves in situations where passivity is collusion, where we can speak out and become active and need to do so. The more we come to understand how oppression and exploitation work, the more we need to address them, whether in the interests of those being oppressed or in our own. Jesus ended up facing his passion only because before that he had the courage to alert people by word and deed to an alternative vision, an alternative kingdom (regime), creating enough confusion and trouble for the authorities to tidy him away. He did not get there by being a doormat. We must also see Jesus’ death in the light of his life; otherwise we will have no idea what this life is for which he died and think it some kind of promise of escape to bliss.

Our reading from John’s Gospel introduces the shepherd image as a rich and traditional image, even if it no longer forms part of everyday life for most people today and reflects practices quite foreign to the sheep farming with which most are familiar. Like images of kings and queens, which have long since lost their relevance for most in contemporary society, even where monarchies survive, this is a persistent image. Images have their own life. The Latin translation, ‘pastor’, has tended to associate the shepherd image with ministry. Originally it was most common as a metaphor for rulers, as far back as the Pharaohs. It was a way of describing royal responsibilities which included caring for subjects, the flock. It was apt symbolism when David became the shepherd king and the model for messianic hope.

These associations are swirling around in the background as we consider our passage. The sheep are unambiguously people who are to be cared for. That fact, in itself, represents a value implicit in the image. For us it might evoke Jesus’ parable about caring even for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), which Matthew then applies to care for members of the church who have fallen morally (18:12-14), an important value in a vengeful, unforgiving age. John’s Jesus is ambitious to make the whole world a flock for divine love, far beyond Israel (10:16; 3:16). The idea of Peter’s endurance comes to mind when thinking about herding sheep. The text from John introduces assumptions within which 10:1-6 focuses on leadership. When John reports in 10:6 that Jesus’ hearers did not know what the parable meant, John’s hearers are being challenged to get it and so are we. This was not too difficult with the image of call and response. A call to endure perhaps? Perhaps, the call to endure is a model of leadership of importance. It makes sense in an environment of systemic oppression where the new is an option some way off and endurance becomes a significant difference. Sheep belonging to a particular shepherd who endures would follow that shepherd through the gate in the morning out into the new day.

The parable may imply the instruction: make sure you listen to his voice! It might also be explaining why some sheep belong and why some do not, an assurance for those who belong that they are special and a comfort for the failure to attract others. The parable of the sower also came to serve that function. John’s gospel has a number of sayings which suggest a closed system according to which only those in the light respond to the light (eg. 3:19-21) and only those who are drawn may come (eg. 6:44). It is important to recognise their function and not to make them the basis for exclusive systems, because it is equally apparent that whoever hears and responds may come and will move from darkness to light. The paradox is promising.

There is more, however, to the parable than urging response and explaining rejection. It is warning about rival claims to leadership. In the context of Jesus’ ministry which forms the primary setting for the gospel story those rivals are the other Jewish leaders with whom Jesus is in dispute. In the context of the gospel they are doubtless also other Jewish leaders who compete for the loyalty of John’s sheep. The dangers envisaged here may be a range of rivals from other Jewish leaders even to Christian Jewish leaders and, perhaps, non Jewish as well. If we read this from the world of 1 John we would recognise such leaders as those who disputed the writer’s teaching and had led their Christians out to a new Spirit-inspired understanding of Christ which elevated him above the flesh and blood which appeared to compromise his divinity (2:19; 4:1-6).

It is difficult to discern how far these disputes already formed the background for the gospel, but it is clear here and in Jesus’ parting words and prayer (especially John 15-17), that disunity was a major threat. Certainly the image interprets Jesus’ conflicts with ‘the Jews’ at the feast, as 10:26-30 show. There the association of shepherd and ‘messiah-king’ is assumed (10:22-25). But like in most of John’s gospel, contemporary concerns are never far away. There is an ongoing tension between the will to include all and the need to explain rejection and console the flock who respond. The latter is quite dangerous and in some hands leads to hate and exclusivity (including antisemitism). Yet this is the gospel grounded in John 3:16 and a vision of unity, which ultimately wants to embrace all in compassion.

What seems to many a romantic and gentle image and even one of defeat, endurance is in fact a very theologically political statement. It invites us to look out for dangers in our own times and to recognise that rejection and punishment and success will sometimes present themselves as religiously plausible. What is important in the challenge is the place of endurance in suffering sometimes is a challenge to the status quo. What is apparent in this challenge is that thinking critically about theology remains crucial to the leader’s task. Endurance is ultimately a way of engaging and being engaged by God and being called out into the day. This could be an argument for including the first two verses of the text, and for acknowledging the part that endurance plays in the change process. It might have spoilt the generalization of the passage from 1st Peter but then that should alert us to the limited (yet valid) application of the passage and remind us that in many contexts endurance is not submission but rather endurance and as such is in harmony with the way of Jesus. Amen

William Loader

Food, Community and the Importance of Metaphor!

Here perhaps is the most important and life changing story we find about the celebration of Easter. It invites participation.  It is in the very best sense a faith legend, a core mythos, a central unveiling of the Jesus story. Whatever any actual experience may lie behind the story, it is now an invitation.  It invites us to join the journey of what we call the Jesus Way, the active human participation in a story that unveils the meaning of what it means to be human.

Bill Loader, the Uniting Church theologian from Western Australia suggests that this story. The   ‘Road to Emmaus’ story is indeed a wonderful, original story by the storyteller we call Luke imagining, sharing, celebrating and teaching. Especially ‘imagining’, because imagination never numbs us with a description, nor locks us in literalism or any historical context but coaxes us into a new situation, I would suggest a new and more tenable mysterious truth. This can be said to be the appropriate contextualization that is required in the hermeneutic, the living breathing interpretation of and for the now.

As the story is told and the plot revealed we can find ourselves engaged in the questions, not just asking them but bringing them to life in a new context and in the new possibilities of the story, as a different re-imagining of the world dawns. This is why this story is a great story.
It is first a ‘metaphorical story’ not ‘history remembered’, as Marcus Borg nudges us and reminds us.  (Borg 2001:44)

This is the challenge of parable, of the biblical story that plays with contradiction and rhetoric inviting us for just a moment visit the non-metaphorical historical treatment and note that many brilliant scholars have revisited this story and sought the historical context and the location where Emmaus actually was and four places seem to have been suggested:

  • Amwas, near Latrun – approx. 20 miles from Jerusalem;
  • Abu Ghosh – approx. 7.5 miles from Jerusalem;
  • Qubelba – approx. 7 miles from Jerusalem, and
  • Moza – approx. 4 miles from Jerusalem).

This highlights also the number of others who have heard and interpreted this story. For instance, some commentators seek to explain aspects of this story in terms of an ‘interventionist’ God. That on the road back home toward Emmaus, God intervened deliberately, and kept Cleopas (and his wife?) from ‘seeing’ Jesus, so Jesus could explain the scriptures to them. On the other hand, others see the work of a ‘supernaturalist’ God in this story. When Jesus suddenly appears spirit-like, and then later on, is suddenly whisked away. And when Jesus can no longer be ‘seen’ with eyes because he had gone from this world to the ‘Father’. An outcome of these approaches ensures that this new literalistic world can evade our senses and thus our participation in being human in this world. It steals from us the richness of imagination, art poetry and metaphor which is the very essence of the biblical text.

Those of you who are reading this will of course have heard this challenge before, The challenge to move on from the creation of dogma to somehow protect the faith and from doctrine as the listing of so-called facts that are pillars of the faith. To put aside the use of creed and repetition of fact as a pathway to truth and to hear again the song of the sacred. Many of you are living these questions as so-called ‘Progressive Christians”. I’m pretty sure that none of these literalist and proof seeking literary attempts to control and limit resonate with most of you, especially the theology of those suggestions. Indeed, like me you may well be at the point where they be little more than brainteasers that kill off the story. However, their presence doesn’t mean we can’t seek to unravel and appreciate the context of the story. To aid this I want to raise some pointes Rex Hunt has used to help nurture the imagination and thus explore the metaphorical reality.

All stories are very concrete. They ‘live’ within a particular context that we know little about but can discern the image of in a number of ways. One bold suggestion is that this story’s context may have been when some debates were taking  place about how Gentile Jesus followers could sense the present-ness of the Post-Easter Christ after the death of Jesus. This suggests there would have been clever and innovative use of language in order to cross the cultural understandings.

Luke tells a story about the most common and important community occasion these followers had experienced. The experience is of a meal in community rather than an ‘out-of-this-world’ experience. So, this is a meal story and a bonding story. The storyteller Luke is grounded enough to know we become what we eat, and that a meal story holds significant weight as a communicative genre.

From all that we are now discovering about early Christian culture, meals played an important role in both community life, and in the Jesus tradition. Not just as food for the body but also as the place where conversation becomes sacred, transformative and creative, not just a place where fear or anxiety driven questions take place but also where they are recognised as vital for life and for community as questions that are part of the human life journey. Discussion and debate are crucial in an oral culture and they will still hold such importance in a cross-cultural exercise. Last week we dealt with the part doubt plays in this context. Indeed, ‘Christians’ regularly ate together, even before they began to conduct worship services. And Jesus seems so closely associated with meals that one of the criticisms levelled against him, you will remember, was as a ‘glutton and drunkard’.  (Matt 11:19)

It’s very likely that Luke heard some of those stories, re-imagined them, as well as having shared in some of the meals. He knew the power of story. So, he tells a meal story at a crucial point in this local community’s history. And if we continue to accept the findings of modern biblical scholarship, then we can affirm that: Jesus regularly accepted invitations to attend meals, but as a guest rather than as a host, and Jesus used these occasions for re-imagining and ‘indirect’ teaching, rather than the so-called ‘whiteboard and text’ kind.

“Words and food are made out of the same stuff”, writes Rubem Alves. “They are both born of the same mother: hunger.” (Alves 1990:77) For around a meal, food is shared not hoarded,
friendships are made and relationships strengthened.  And “experimentation, adventure and innovation lure us toward new horizons.” (O’Donohue 2003:146)

We can also assume that in the continued celebration of meals – early Christianity often called it ‘breaking of bread’ -which was motivated primarily by the needs of community, rather than establishing or remembering the so-called ‘upper room’ meal event. There was an embodied practical reason for the meal in the first instance. This story then is not a forerunner to, or about, Holy Communion and it certainly has got nothing to do with the Roman Catholic doctrine of ‘transubstantiation’! But on the other hand, because all religious language is metaphorical…
When bread and wine common meals and BBQs are eaten, they become body and blood. Our body and blood.  And when they are eaten, they become compassionate deeds. Our compassionate deeds. And when compassionate deeds are eaten, they become as Christ in our neighbour.

“Since the beginning of time,” author Robert Fulghum writes, “people who trust one another, care for one another, and are deeply connected to one another have shared food as a sign of and a reaffirmation of their relationship…  Every time we hold hands and say a blessing before a meal, every time we lift a glass and say fine words to one another, every time we eat in peace and grace together, we have celebrated the covenants that bind us together.”  (Fulghum 1995:81-82)

Because the storyteller Luke knows we become what we eat! His Easter stories are an invitation to share, to journey, and to celebrate. And as his Emmaus story particularly notes,
“hospitality is the open door to creative transformation and an expanded vision of possibilities.”  (Bruce Epperly P&F web site, 2008)

The disciples travel on a journey chatting together; human beings are social beings who live the journey of conscious life as community; they share stories of their experience; others join unexpectedly and bring their life stories as well; the stories are embodied in the new context. They recognize that their stories have different contexts and experiences even while they don’t recognise the message being introduced by the stranger. They share the story of how their concerns about change and the richness of life have been lost in circumstance and human power and control and manipulation even from those they have considered wise and leaders. They don’t know what to make of the events that brought about this change in their lives and they talked about the failure of reasoning as a path towards an answer. And then it was only when sitting in the most vulnerable place at the meal table they saw what was never there, the purpose of their life’s journey walking the Jesus Way as response to the opportunities presented in their metaphorical reality.

The Easter story beyond the historical and literal execution as a criminal and the literalization and individualization of the resurrection story is the invitation. The cross is about the systemic collective use of a violent act upon a truth and the later personalization of a collective national symbol of restoration personified by the use of words such as ‘died for our sins’ as opposed to ‘was executed as a pawn in the struggle to retain social political and religious power’. The Emmaus Road story that invites us to contextualize a metaphor as opposed to literalize and control the truth. Amen.

Alves, R. The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press, 1990.
Borg, M. J. Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally.  New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Fulghum, R. From Beginning to End. The Rituals of our Lives. Moorebank. Bantam Press, 1995.
O’Donohue, J. Divine Beauty. The Invisible Embrace. London. Transworld Publishers/Bantam Press, 2003. 

Easter: An Open-ended Future, Alive!

“In dealing with people, Jesus did not condemn those who questioned or doubted. While Jesus was harsh with scribes and Pharisees who claimed to have all the answers in water-tight belief containers, he was always ready to encourage the genuine doubter” (Webb 1995: 15).

There are many quotations over time that have confirmed the value of questioning and of the importance of doubt.

Richard Tarnas: “Our world view is not simply the way we look at the world … world views create worlds”.

Henry Thoreau; “The question is not what you look at, but what you see”.

William Blake; “As a man is, so he sees”.

And too, perhaps Iain McGilchrist, when he writes that; “Who we are, then, determines how we see. And how we see determines what we find. Given that the hemispheres ‘see’ differently, how reliable is each hemisphere in its disclosing of the world?”

The story about Thomas is a very familiar story.  Too familiar, perhaps, and therein is one of its problems. We hear it every year at this time, the first Sunday after Easter, that is, if ministers and preachers follow the set lectionary. And because we tend to hear it every year it is a difficult story to tell or preach on, because everyone, preacher and listener, reckons they know the ending, so jump ahead to ‘their’ endings and miss the story itself.

There are a couple of strange things about this Thomas story, both remembered and read,
about the many interpretations of this story. The first is that it is often titled ‘doubting’ Thomas, in a negative way, yet we are told there is no such word as ‘doubt’ in the Greek! It is as if asking questions is the same as raising a white flag of surrender, and evidence of faithlessness!

It was the German/American theologian Paul Tillich who blew that latter criticism right out of the water for many of us. In his small, blue bound book, called Dynamics of Faith, Tillich claimed authentic faith included doubt as well as affirmation. And that questions were not a sign of faithlessness, but a willingness to take faith seriously.

Others have followed Tillich’s lead, such as Australian Val Webb in her book of some years back: In Defence of Doubt.  An Invitation to Adventure. And the progressive study resource called ‘Living the Questions’.

One of the things this understanding offers is to hear anew the storyteller we call John as he sets his interpreted story within a particular community which was experiencing debates on
mission strategy, leadership issues, and discipleship. We might ask how else can we hear that Thomas does not receive a blessing as do the other disciples, despite his so-called faith statement? This is an unexpected realisation.

Second, our storyteller John seems to be making it fairly clear that the faith which marks a true disciple relies on the witness of others rather than a personal experience of the Christ.  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

  • This says that it is in the place where we can practice belonging practice hospitality practice respect practice humility practice conversation and disagreement.  (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)
  • In a safe place such as this place, in the company of others, that we can be shaped and reshaped by our questions and our search.

A good argument for the gathering together oof followers of The Way in order to wrestle with the hard questions of faith and to engage in what is sacred conversation or formative conversation, or creative critique.

Greg Jenks from FaithFutures Foundation, puts it this way: “Faith depends on accepting the witness of others, not in securing a personal miracle that removes all opportunity for doubt.”  (Jenks FFF Web site, 2008)

This is an approach that is not readily explored as we have heard that story before. And then  we might also hear the claim that it is the underlying theme running throughout the whole of John’s collection of stories being: that we experience the creative, transforming power of the divine routinely, quietly moving through life, our lives. A moving that is often subtle.  Unpredictable.  Evasive. “It is less like a hammer on the head than it is a gentle prod”, suggests Bruce Epperly of Process & Faith, “a tickle, sometimes as gentle as a feather, touching each moment into being.”  (Epperly/P&F Web site, 2008)

Again I suggest these are images that are more readily available in a weak theology than and almighty interventionist one.

Rex Hunt quotes a story told by Brazilian Rubem Alves, of a boy who found the body of a dead man washed up on the edge of a seaside village.

There is only one thing to do with the dead: they must be buried.

In that village it was the custom for the women to prepare the dead for burial, so the women began to clean the body in preparation for the funeral. As they did, the women began to talk and ponder about the dead stranger.

He was tall… and would have had to duck his head to enter their houses. His voice… was it like a whisper or like thunder. His hands… they were big. Did they play with children or sail the seas or know how to caress and embrace a woman’s body.

The women laughed “and were surprised as they realised that the funeral had become resurrection: a moment in their flesh, dreams, long believed to be dead, returning… their bodies alive again”.  (Alves 1990: 23)

The husbands, waiting outside, and watching what was happening, became jealous of the drowned man as they realised he had power which they did not have. And they thought about the dreams they had never had… Alves ends this part of the story by telling that they finally buried the dead man. But the village was never the same again.

Easter Friday and the execution of Jesus invites us to look again at the two parades on Palm Sunday and to see the dichotomy of the two parades as alternative approached to life. To know the reality of resurrection is to experience it. Not as some doctrine which involves belief in a supposedly empty tomb. Not as a doctrinal atonement doctrine, a death for the removal of our sin. Nor on an insistence on the literal historicity of the biblical stories. Why? Well! As this story says; We all experience it “by simply being alive, and going through all the normal, routine transformations of human growth and love and death”.  (Epperly, P&F Web site, 2008)

Einstein said: “At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason … Imagination is more important than knowledge … It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

He also said a number of other things that reflect on the process of scientific or mathematical discovery: the mind can proceed only so far upon what it knows and can prove. There comes a point where the mind takes a leap – call it intuition or what you will – and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap. This discontinuity, the necessity for a leap or sudden shift of thinking, is often mentioned by creative problem-solvers:

I would suggest that this is where the importance of doubt comes in. Without is we as products of the last 350 years of study could remain with our negative limited view of doubt as the Thomas story has been interpreted.

There is no mistaking the passion Einstein had, but what was he referring to? He told the violinist Shinichi Suzuki that ‘the theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.’ Indeed, he said to the poet George Viereck “I often think in music”, and his sister Maja reported that when working on a problem he would play the piano, and then get up saying ‘there, now I’ve got it’. He is said to have told the psychologist Max Wertheimer that he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but in images, feelings, and musical architecture. He called mathematics ‘the poetry of logical ideas’, an ‘effort toward logical beauty’ in which ‘spiritual formulas are discovered necessary for the deeper penetration into the laws of nature.’

According to McGilchrist, Einstein is making several points here. That for him scientific and mathematical discovery involves intuition is clear; that the intuition uses shapes (‘musical’ or ‘architectural’) as metaphors for ideas; and is led on by a deep attraction towards beauty. The beauty was, certainly, bound up with logic – but not just with logic: it also involved feeling, and a sense of something spiritual.

The good news of Easter, then, is not the so-called final scene as it is in fairy tales that says everyone ‘lives happily ever after.’ Easter is rather ‘the beginning of an open-ended future. A moment in our flesh, when dreams long believed to be dead, return, and our bodies – individually and as a church community – are alive again. Keep asking the questions because doubt is required for the journey of the Way.

Alves, R. The Poet, The Warrior, The Prophet. London. SCM Press/Trinity Press, 1990.
Bessler-Northcutt, J. “Learning to See God: Prayer and Practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in (ed) R. W. Hoover. The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004
Webb, V. In Defense of Doubt. An Invitation to Adventure. St Louis. Chalice Press, 1995 (Expanded Edition 2012). McGilchrist, Iain . The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (p. 1158). Perspectiva Press. Kindle Edition

The Need For Humour (A Weak Theology) in Our Lives

“It is true that at least one medieval theologian, Petrus Cantor,
is known to have asked during the course of his ruminations whether Christ
ever laughed. Cantor was of the solemn opinion that he must have 
if he was truly [hu]man. What disturbs us today is that Cantor 
should ever have felt the need to ask the question.”
(Harvey Cox)

In recent studies seeking to understand and define consciousness it is suggested that consciousness is far more widespread that just the human species, Scientists have told us, so the saying goes, that of all the creatures that live on earth, only humans have the gift of laughter. But not all know how to laugh. Recent studies suggest that its possible that many animals and maybe even plants might include humour in their being.

Many of us human beings, it is said, only go through the motions of laughing. Their sense of humour is lacking, without which laughter is merely a muscular reflex. Religion in general and Christianity in particular has not for the most part appreciated the place of laughter in the human heart. In fact, religion has often taken a pretty solemn and gloomy view of life. At least that is the experience of many when religious attitudes are subjected to the so-called ‘pub test’.

Religious people including perhaps Presbyterians are often caricatured as dry and  humourless. An article by Chris McGillion in the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out:
“When humour surfaces in a church setting it seems somehow awkward if not unnatural and laughter erupts as a sense of relief more than an expression of genuine merriment.”  (McGillion 2000)

On one, occasion Rex Hunt of the Uniting Church in Australia was part of a team that wrote a ‘religious’ radio script which, in part, went something like this: “There is a man who seldom thinks about the church: but when he does he always has a vision, and in which he sees church people. “He shudders whenever he has this vision of church people for it is not
only their appearance that frightens him. It is also their message. “They tell him of all the things he dare not do, and he notices that everything they list is something he enjoys…”

And the reaction? Well, let’s say it was interesting. From the church-goers: criticism. From the people ‘on the street’: agreement. The Calvinist wing of the Reformation was not known for its exuberance or wit!

Always keen to push some theological boundaries, Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox, in his book The Feast of Fools, suggests that the “comic spirit is somehow closer to Christianity than is the tragic”.  (Cox 1969:150)

Then 18 years later, in April 1987, he published in the journal Christianity and Crisis, an article called “God’s Last Laugh”. In it he suggested: “God laughs, it seems, because God knows how [Easter] all turns out in the end.”

Cox went on to say :“On the Christian calendar Easter is a feast of gladness. Grief turns into jubilation. Bitter defeat becomes exuberant hope. Even those who walk in the valley of the shadow of death know they need fear no evil. But, without a trace of irreverence, can we not also say there is something genuinely comic about Easter? Could it be God’s hilarious answer to those who sported and derided God’s prophet, who blindfolded and buffeted him, and who continue to hound and deprive God’s children today?”  (Cox 1987)

Recent theological study responding to the challenge of a non-theistic, non-supernatural non- Almighty, omnipotent God who demands obedience and who intervenes at whim have suggested that the foolishness of the cross metaphor might be more appropriate and that a so-called weak theology might make more sense. My suggested ‘Almost’ as the word for the divine recognised the shift from object to process, noun to verb and even the adverb as a way of exploring this weak theology.

Cox had in mind, no doubt, the custom found in some Orthodox churches, where members meet in the church – usually on the Monday after Easter (through to the following Saturday), and called ‘Bright Monday/Week’ – for a feast and festival. Games would be played. And there would be much laughter, dancing and joke telling. Why? Because, they said, it was the most fitting way to celebrate the ‘big joke’ God pulled on Satan in the resurrection. And of course, this frivolity is grounded in the understanding of resurrection as the resurrection of all in God’s time, not the individualization that the western church adopted. Being able to make fun of the empire and its obsession with cruelty, and punishment as the means of power and control appeals to me.

But it leaves us with the over-all question: Why does laughter hold such a meager place in our religious life? One reason for wanting to raise this question is simple. Not just because all work, all seriousness, makes us dull and uninteresting people. Nor is it to have a go at so-called Fundamentalists, of the right and the left whom many believe have no sense of humour at all!  As someone suggested: “the Christian fundamentalist has the awful fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”  

It is important to wrestle with this propensity for stoicism, dullness and fear induced solemnity because a culture that causes people to be too serious all the time, and lacking in humour, can be a culture in which awareness of the other, the disadvantaged, the marginalized and and compassionate response can be lacking.

To say that comedy and humour are important is in no way to detract from the seriousness of life. Rather it is only to say just as there is a need to see that there is always an alternative we are called to see that seriousness must be tempered with a sense of humour. The person who can never laugh at herself/himself, or even at their own pretensions, may easily become the reactionary who wants to destroy everything that does not agree with her/his narrow focus of what is important. And ‘social media us into madness in the process! One of the problems facing AI is haw to factor in a sense of humour.

Former minister at All Souls Church in New York, Walter Kring, suggested: “I would almost be willing to subscribe to the thesis that the most serious person, if he/she lacks a sense of humour, may be the most dangerous person in the world, This is particularly true in our day when so much power can be concentrated in the hands of so few”. In that sermon Kring went on to make two suggestions as to what he believed made up a balanced life:

(i) Every life must have a serious purpose,

(ii) We ought to temper this serious sense of purpose with good humour.

Briefly, his commentary suggested that; The greatest people of our earth are those who have delved the deepest and who have found the most profound truths.

While philosophers, scientists, and religious prophets have differed from each other, they have all been seeking to find the basic nature of all things in all seriousness. Thus they have highlighted the fact that the only way to truth is through experimentation. That through the process of testing we shall eventually arrive at some generally accepted principles which will be felt to be true – unless something more satisfactory is arrived at. While this is true recent studies of the brain and how it works have suggested that process is too simple and limited by a dominant left hemisphere approach that ignores the right hemisphere’s contribution to meaning. Intuition, imagination and a view less bound by the need to complete and factualize is required for a more wholistic and human response to reality.

As people who take seriously ‘progressive’ religion, this should be particularly relevant to us.
Many people think of religion in terms of dogma – as law and answers, or what Bishop John Shelby Spong called “killing certainties”, rather than as search – as questioning. I would say also our obsession with the need to objectify, concretize and explain finally as a certainty or a thing, is also what is driving religion to the sidelines. Progressive Christians I suggest are seekers who honour the mind for its amazing abilities, live the questions now as a part of the life process and who know… perhaps someday in the future, gradually, and without ever noticing it, they live their way into an answer that is always new and unveiling.

David Felten Jeff Procter-Murphy in their book Living the Questions, write about these ‘christian’ seekers: “These seekers are comfortable with ambiguity and understand that through difficulties, mistakes, and challenges, and dare I say it foolishness, humour and so called failure it’s the journey that’s important. It’s what we learn along the way in relationship with the Divine and with one another that matters most.”  (Felten & Procter-Murphy 2012:69)

A ‘serious purpose in life’ must always be tempered with the realisation that no matter how inspired a leader, or catechism, or book, or we may be, in the long run, both they and we are undoubtedly not going to have the final answers to everything. Its why for me I can name God as ‘Almost’. No longer an old man up above who plays with the machine he invented but rather an energy a source, a collective Spirit that lives as I live or perhaps is part of how I live in that image. Yes… we all ought to be serious about life. And we ought to search with all of our being to find out what is true for us. We ought to use our brains to the best of our ability. But we also ought to temper this seriousness, this serious sense of purpose, with good humour.

A well- balanced life is going to be the life that truly understands the place of humour. Because laughter can help to herald in the dawn of human hope. Or at the very least, a hope about hope. Just as it is pertinent for ‘Progressive’ religion to  recapture the use of poetry and song and the aesthetic it needs to give recognition to the neglected gifts of humour, comedy, play, and laughter. They are after all ‘gifts of grace’ to be used for the healing of human lives, and for attaining balanced lives.

It would do us well to remember the words of American pastor and poet, Howard Thurman:
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  (Felten & Procter-Murphy 2012:70)

The well balanced life is valuable, not because anyone says so, but because in the long run it is the most satisfactory life.

Cox, H. “God’s Last Laugh” in Christianity and Crisis, (6 April 1987)
————, The Feast of Fools. A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969
Felten, D. M. & J. Procter-Murphy. Living the Questions. The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. New York: HarperOne, 2012
Hyers, C. “The House of Laughter” in Presbyterian Survey 80, 3, (April 1990), 29 – 31
Kring, W. D. “The Need for Humor”. All Souls Church, New York City, (17 January 1971)
(Staff Writer) “Christianity: A Laughing Matter” in Insights. The News/Magazine of the Uniting Church, NSW Synod. (August 2002), 23-24