Tag Archives: Abba

Of Good and Evil: V – Abba

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jul/Aug 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may waste years in search of the admiration of others.

Until one day we realise that we have wasted our time.

Only then are we ready to live.

Never in human history have we humans had access to so much knowledge. Never has the possession of knowledge had such prestige. Especially the kind of knowledge that allows financial information to be controlled and communicated through the world’s computer systems.

And never has there been less interest in making some kind of meaningful pattern of the knowledge at our disposal. What people call western civilisation was founded on a passionate search for an overarching truth that would make sense of everything. Today you are likely to get the blankest of looks if you ask one of today’s university graduates any truly important question.

Such as: “Why have reason and science alone been unable to build a perfect world?”

Or: “What important conclusions are you able to draw from everything you know?”

Or: “Why do you think the world is in crisis?”

Or: “What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?”

Focused on increasingly narrow areas of expertise, aimed usually at making a living, our educated people have mostly lost confidence in their own ability to discern a deeper truth. They may even have bought into an arrogant “we know it all” attitude that disparages all the wisdom of the past.

Wisdom such as is compressed in the following story.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”

All Christians will be familiar with this story, but we have still to exhaust the wisdom it contains, or to apply it properly to our own time. No one may ever have pointed out to us to a key element of the story, the key that unlocks a meaning that would have been plain to every Jewish listener in Jesus’ time.

The fact that the son who left home and ‘squandered his wealth’ was the younger son.

Younger sons were especially doubtful of their own value in ancient times. Noticing and envying the dominant role of their fathers, they also noticed that their fathers tended to favour their eldest sons. And those eldest sons would inherit all of the prestige of their fathers some day. Younger sons could all too easily conclude: “Here I will always be second to someone – never first. I must go elsewhere to make a name for myself!”

Story after story in the Bible tells us of the rivalry that develops between brothers – and usually the rivalry has to do with the very same problem that we all have today:

We are chronically unsure of our own value, and have an extraordinary need for the reassurance of others.

And, repeating in our own lives the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’, we can cause ourselves extreme suffering in the years we spend looking for that reassurance. It is always a vain search, because most of those we look to for reassurance are looking for exactly the same thing themselves.

Does God punish us?

But this short story had an even greater meaning for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. To summarise their history, they were a people who went wandering in search of glory, who lost faith in the God who had delivered them from slavery, who suffered a second exile in Babylon, and who then found themselves in Jesus’ time under the captivity of Rome. For some of the Jews these humiliations were God’s punishment for their own waywardness.

But Jesus had an entirely different ‘take’ on these events. The parable just related explains it fully. Our worst humiliations are a self-punishment. They follow naturally from our vanity. But the God of Israel, and of all of us, is ‘Abba‘ – the father who never forgets his wayward sons. He sees us while we are ‘still a long way off’ and runs to us as we approach.

And today in Ireland?

We in Ireland desperately need to apply the parable to our own recent history. In times of despair in the past we sought meaning and solace in such stories – in the reassurance they bring that we are never forgotten, never ‘out of sight’, and always of value.

There were never more prodigal sons, and daughters, in need of such reassurance, than there are in Ireland today.

One of the main obstacles in the way of us seeking that reassurance is the fact that so many today are stuck fast in the Sargasso Sea of post-modern doubt. This is the intellectual outlook that pours scorn on any possibility that the Christian story told in the Creeds could be true after all. This outlook has been greatly strengthened by the revelations of ‘scandals in high places’ that Catholicism is still suffering.

Nevertheless, some of us still go to Mass today – because we have found ‘Abba’ in our own crises – and are confident that He sees everyone ‘far off’ . We need to equip ourselves to show the same compassion for those who will come seeking encouragement in the same story.

We need above all to have the confidence to ask: “What meaning can we derive from the facts of our own history?” and the confidence to pray for an answer.

It was in prayer that Jesus communed with ‘Abba’ – and found the strength to proclaim his truth until his last breath. It will be in prayer, and in reflection on the Gospels, that we will find a way of speaking the same truth to all those who are currently lost.

The worse things get, the closer everyone will be to understanding that mere facts are not enough, and that we must look for the meaning behind the facts to be truly knowledgeable.

It will always be through Jesus’ love of Abba that we human prodigals will most readily rediscover the kingdom of God – the realisation that Abba has always known us, and understands better than we do why we harm ourselves.

Views: 38

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IV – Jesus the Layperson

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

We Catholics have always been taught to see the priest as an icon, or model, of Christ – as the best possible guide to how we should live our own lives. So, in our minds eye we may see Jesus as more of a priest than a lay person.

This is especially because the central ritual of the church, the Mass, is led by a priest who takes the place of Jesus at the last supper.

But Jesus was in fact, for almost all of his ministry, simply a layperson who attacked the snobbery of the Jewish priesthood of his time – for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And his own priesthood was of an entirely different kind – a kind that we lay people can – and must – imitate if we are to fulfil our own calling as Christians living in the world.

Moreover, the church has always taught that Jesus is prophet and king as well as priest – and prophets and kings were lay people also.

Jesus spent most of his ministry as a lay teacher or Rabbi, living among his disciples in the world. His priesthood began only on the night before he died. It was for his teachings as a lay person that he was disliked by the Jewish elites – and it was for these teachings that he was crucified. It was Jesus the priest who gave us the ritual of the Eucharist – but it was Jesus the lay person who hung on the cross. He was placed there because he had identified with those Jews whom the religious elites called sinners , because he had attacked the Jewish religious authorities for their lack of compassion, and had built up a large following who saw him as the Messiah, or deliverer of his people from oppression. Priests in Jesus time did not do that sort of thing.

Before Jesus all priests had offered victims other than themselves as offerings to God. They had wielded the sacrificial knife against human, and – by Jesus’ time – animal victims. In other words they had shed not their own blood but the blood of someone, or of something, else – to deflect God’s supposed anger from themselves and from those who had provided those victims.

Jesus put an end to this evasive process by replacing a religion of sacrifice with a religion of self-sacrifice.

Alone among the teachers of his time, Jesus had picked up on the profoundly important words of the prophet Hosea, words that Hosea placed in the mouth of God himself:   “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  (Hos 6:6). Jesus reminded his enemies of this passage twice in the Gospel of Matthew (e.g. Matt 9:13).

This is profoundly important, because it makes it impossible for us to believe that God the Father, whom Jesus called Abba , wanted Jesus to die because he needed some kind of sacrificial blood offering. Quite the reverse: he gave us Jesus to stop us victimising one another – to replace victimisation with generosity. If we are hurt, bitter or angry we should never take this out on one another – but carry this cross ourselves.

Down through the centuries many Christians have somehow absorbed this message. Although all my life I have shuddered at the idea of blood sacrifice, I have absorbed from the Mass the conviction that Jesus wants me to take some pain for others. I believe that Jesus has subtly but profoundly changed the meaning of the word sacrifice itself.

When parents at Christmas time deny themselves luxuries so that they can buy expensive gifts for their children they will call that a sacrifice . The priests of Jesus time would not have understood them, but that usage of the word is now accepted and understood by everyone – because of the cross.

That simple act of putting ourselves out for others, if we can make it the centre of our lives, will fulfil our lay role as priests in the world. And since without it the world cannot be changed, that priesthood of generosity is the most important priesthood in the church. The ritual sacrifice of the Mass is an invitation to take the same holy spirit of self-sacrifice into the world – but only lay people can do that to the extent that it needs to be done.

Once, as a teacher, I reprimanded a young pupil for yawning in class. Somewhat hurt, she told me she had been up all night tending to her sick grandmother. That somehow stuck in my mind – as an example of the priesthood of the laity. But did she ever realise that?

It reminds me now to say something else. Although words are a beautiful way of expressing love, they are often useless and out of place. The world is awash with words today – but in desperate need of loving action.

I am now convinced that the leadership of the church is in serious danger of overvaluing words, and undervaluing action. I have found it extremely difficult to get priests to listen when I say that they undervalue the eloquence of Christian action, and make too little of the loving actions of their people – for example their potential to reach out to people in desperate need of self-esteem. The church will not be truly healthy, I believe, until it reverses this order of priority – and makes Christian action the centre of the church’s life.

Jesus was king and prophet as well as priest – and the first two of these are roles that can best be filled today by laity, as we too are baptised into the kingship and prophetic role of Jesus.

As Jesus was a king who insisted the last shall be first , it follows that lay Catholics are implementing that kingship when they work for an equal and just society. Prophecy was always far more a matter of speaking the truth to powerful institutions than of foretelling the future. Both of these roles are required today in a society that is becoming increasingly unjust and unequal, and in a church that has still to rise to the challenges laid down by the second Vatican Council.

Lay people were challenged by the council to consecrate the world to God – but have not yet been given ownership of this great task. The reason for this is the continuing – but now declining – power of clericalism, the mindset that accords to clergy a superior status and a controlling power in the church.

Consecrating the world to God should not, however, be seen as a matter of imposing our faith on others. Although we lay people too must participate in the New Evangelisation we need to avoid the fundamental mistake of coming across as holier than thou . Ireland has had enough of evangelists who do not fundamentally understand what the good news is: that all are loved unconditionally for themselves, even if they do not share our faith.

Despite our best intentions we Christians usually convey the message: “God will love you if you let us tell you how to run your life”. This is evangelisation as manipulation. It is counter-evangelical, because it presents our God as self-absorbed and manipulative.

Do we love our fellow-citizens unconditionally – even if they refuse to believe what we believe? Is our love superior to our need to have our faith confirmed by the conversion of others? If not, we are spiritually unready for evangelisation. We are also intellectually unready, because we have not fully understood what unconditional love means.

It means service that does not require payback of any kind: the kind of service that Jesus gave.

And that, above all, is what we Catholic laity need to pray for above all – for the spirit of love and service – both unconditional.

This is especially true because all Irish people believe they already know the Gospel – and are rejecting our church because they see it as essentially dedicated to its own power and survival. That is the lesson they have taken from the scandals of the past twelve years.

We will only rise to this challenge if we have no hidden agenda to empower our church once more – no agenda other than the service of the needs of the neediest Irish people – especially of those who are today outside the magic circle of secular power and influence.

We will rise to this challenge, I am convinced, if we pray to Jesus the layperson, and ask him to give us the gifts we need to fulfil our own lay role.

Views: 32

‘Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs’

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life March 2004

Church-of-Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman – recently retired from parish ministry in Co Cork – is chiefly concerned in this work1Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003 to stem the decline of what she calls ‘moderate Christianity’ – especially here in Ireland. By ‘moderate’ she means non-fundamentalist – and she ascribes this decline largely to “the unwillingness of all the churches, in all countries but perhaps especially now in Ireland, to look honestly and openly into what we say we believe”.

Opening with the familiar tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, she soon makes it clear that she shares the embarrassment of Episcopal bishop J.S. Spong at having to utter the Nicene creed as part of a religious service, as though it was in all respects literally true.

“Sunday by Sunday, countless Christians, reciting the Creeds in church, have the experience of metaphorically crossing their fingers behind their backs when they say some particular set of words. This brings a sense of dishonesty, of integrity apparently having to be set aside for the greater good.”

Canon Wakeman soon makes clear which creedal doctrines she sees as causing this finger-crossing: the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. She points out that surveys of belief increasingly find that many Church of England clergymen don’t actually believe these doctrines – less than half in the case of the virgin birth. (Unfortunately she provides no supporting data on the finger-crossing, so ‘countless’ it remains.)

At this point Canon Wakeman reaches for the now-familiar theory that the left and right halves of the human brain have different functions: the left is ‘analytical’, the right ‘intuitive’, and so on. She offers the possibility that religion belongs properly to the intuitive side, while doctrine tends to be a left-brain analytical and organisational matter. In the Creeds, she fears, “Christians are being asked to state that poetic-paradox statements about God are literally true”.

At this point, I must confess, alarm bells were insistently ringing for me. Are the categories ‘poetic’ and ‘literal’ (or ‘factual’) necessarily mutually exclusive? What would happen to the poetry of the Creeds, or of the Gospels for that matter, if we were to insist that they were merely poetic (i.e. fictive), and not, or not necessarily, substantially true in a historical sense. And if Christianity belongs wholly in the realm of the intuitive and fictive, who will then find it compelling as a source of meaning? Certainly the Gospels and the creeds have poetic resonance, but their endurance to this late date has surely had to do essentially with their claim to a substantive historical and factual foundation – an actual intervention by a transcendant reality into human history.

Would Canon Wakeman attempt to discern the actual as distinct from the poetic truth about such an intervention? Disappointingly for me, she ends this chapter on doctrine by proposing that Richard Dawkins’s objections to the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption are valid on the grounds that this elevation of a material body into a heaven is comprehensible only within the ‘flat-earth’ vertically ordered universe of the early first millennium.

This, for me, is an unfortunate descent into Spongian rhetoric. It is also strangely dated scientifically, stuck somewhere before 1900 C.E. – as though ‘hard’ matter had not been discovered in the last century to be mostly empty space, to consist otherwise largely of vast quantities of energy, and to be gravitationally compressible to the point of its own disappearance. Given also the theoretical possibility of multiple invisible further dimensions within what we perceive as empty four-dimensional space, just how much ‘commonsense’ certitude can there be these days on the actual nature of ‘space’ and ‘bodies’?

The fact is, surely, that the most advanced physics today has destroyed the ‘commonsense’ Newtonian universe that underpins atheistic certitude, and is as inscrutable on the precise nature of physical reality as theology ever was on the subject of heaven. I strongly wish the progressive school would progress to the point of acknowledging this. If we are to update the Creeds (an exercise not attempted in this book), we must do it properly and not leave ourselves with something that would have been spanking new and acceptable to, say, Charles Darwin.

Furthermore, for theologians, heaven has almost always had more to do with a relationship of unity with God than with questions of ‘where?’ or ‘how?’ Is there for Canon Wakeman, I wondered at this point, truly a God to relate to?

Again unfortunately, her chapter on ‘How we experience God’ is centred once more on the assertion that we experience God with the ‘right’ brain, whereas doctrine is a ‘left’ brain activity. This is ultimately inadequate, as it seems again to fudge the issue of truth. Can we really deal with people who ask “Is there truly a God?” by saying something like:

“Well, the right side of my brain – the poetic side – says ‘yes’, while the left side, the analytical side, is far less sure of it.”?

If we do we should be well prepared for the next obvious question: “But isn’t the right side of your brain the bit that makes things up?” Where, I wonder, would the Canon go from there?

On the grounds of their poetic resonance she is willing to accept doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the Fall and the Resurrection as ‘basically life affirming’ but, she insists, the concept of atonement “(that Jesus died to placate an angry God) seems to have no salvageable aspect”.

If that particular theory of atonement is the only acceptable one within the Anglican communion I shudder at such authoritarian rigidity. Especially because the earliest understanding of atonement centred upon the idea of release (or redemption) not from a debt owed to God, but from the power of evil, personified as Satan. Canon Wakeman is here identifying a travesty of Anselm’s feudal satisfaction theory of atonement with the Creeds – a clear anachronism.

The point is important, because Canon Wakeman has begun by arguing that a twenty-first mind cannot truly accept a first- or even fourth-century worldview. Given Rene Girard’s anthropological analysis of the Gospel text as an exposure of the process of scapegoating violence in the ancient world – a process still ongoing in phenomena as diverse as the war on terrorism and schoolyard bullying – the first century understanding of atonement may well in fact be bang up-to-date.

Catholic demythologisers might note at this point that this must score as a plus for the Catholic catechism, which is non-definitive on theories of atonement. It does not insist that God demanded satisfaction (or substitution for that matter) – merely that Christ’s suffering and death has forever reconciled us with God2But see Article 615 of the 1994 Catechism: 615 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.. Atonement is simply at-one-ment – final reconciliation. The doctrine in itself is not definitive on how Jesus reconciles. For me – poetically and factually – God moves towards us – and reveals himself through -Jesus – in the way that the father of the prodigal son ran to meet him on his return. (And of course I can say so while acknowledging that to speak of God as merely male is inadequate.)

In a chapter on ‘Some Basic Christian Doctrines – and New Ways to Express Them’ Canon Wakeman comes closest to defining her positions on revelation, the nature of God, and the sonship, resurrection and divinity of Jesus. She dwells sensibly upon the ineffability of God, but her account of the concept of revelation seems woefully inadequate, leaving out as it does the centrality of Jesus to the concept – the belief that it is through the revelatory Jesus above all that we come to know the ineffable God.

This is important, because the statement ‘Jesus is God’ needs to be understood as a statement that speaks as much about God as about Jesus – an assertion that we come to understand the goodness, intentions and wisdom of God uniquely and indispensably through him.

And this in turn means that the statement ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ could never have been fully understood in a simplistic biological sense – as though anyone ever thought he already knew who and what God is and how exactly he could become a biological parent. The doctrines of the sonship and divinity of Jesus are best understood as expressing a belief in the unique filiation of Jesus – the belief that his filial relationship to, understanding of, and fidelity to the being he himself called ‘Abba’, was of an order way beyond the sonship of, for example, David – so far beyond it that Jesus became for Christians the definitive, sufficient and indispensable authority on who God is and what he expects of us. Literal biological sons (e.g. Absalom) were not uniformly faithful to their parents, so that to say of Jesus that he was the ‘literal’ son of God would not pay him a unique compliment. ‘Light from Light, True God from True God’ on the other hand suggests true fidelity to and identity with the spiritual essence and benevolent purpose of God. This is a far higher claim that does not insist upon a ‘literal’ interpretation of ‘sonship’ (whatever ‘literal’ might mean in this context).

Canon Wakeman would probably object that the doctrine of the virgin birth is surely insisting upon some kind of biological sonship. As biology was an unknown science in the fourth century it could be argued equally that it is no more than an attempt to explain and justify the exaltation of Jesus to the pinnacle of the revelatory process – to explain how he could have become what he was, so entirely unaffected by, yet opposed to, the evil he confronted.

Canon Wakeman rejects even the use of the word ‘unique’ in reference to Jesus, and prefers this formula: ‘In Jesus there was so much of God that those who came in contact with him could not see where Jesus stopped and God began.’

I must confess that I find this embarrassingly twee – a sentimental reduction that is not only condescending but completely incapable of explaining the commitment-unto-death of so many of those who followed Jesus – precisely because they believed in his revelatory uniqueness.

It’s clear soon enough what consequences flow from such negativity. To begin with, although Jesus’s crucifixion was the result of an ‘archetypal’ confrontation between good and evil, the concept of Jesus ‘dying for our sins’ can only be understood through the unacceptable Anselmian lens, and must go. With it goes, of course, any notion of an historical centrality for the Gospel story.

Was ‘Abba’ a right-brain mytho-poetic (i.e. fictive) construct of Jesus? If so, did Jesus confront bogus religion and endure crucifixion essentially because he had a dangerous habit of talking to himself? Canon Wakeman does not address such questions – but they go to the heart of the larger question of whether Christianity is worth saving

And inevitably, Jesus’s bodily resurrection must go the way of ‘literal’ sonship. The intense sense of loss that was felt by the closest followers of Jesus, and their recollections of his life and teachings, led to a conviction that he was in some sense still present, and must therefore have survived death. It was the surviving Christian community that created the right-brain myth of the bodily resurrection. The possibility, strongly argued by the NT texts themselves, that it was on the contrary the unexpected eventuality of some kind of actual tangible resurrection that restored the already dispirited and fragmenting Christian community, is not one that Canon Wakeman can entertain.

A few historian’s questions surfaced in my mind at this point. If this was all there ever was to Jesus, why did his followers soon go to the suicidal lengths of making of this rejected one the cornerstone of more than one separated and excoriated community within, and then outside, Judaism? Was Stephen’s self-sacrificing testament merely another (right-) brainstorm? And why did Paul take the equally dangerous and inexplicable course of substituting belief in a liberating Jesus for rigid adherence to the minutiae of the Jewish law as expounded by the religious elites of his time – the belief system for which he had earlier been willing to kill Christians on the grounds of the threat they posed to it? Why were they such a threat?

These questions are important, I believe, because they relate to the origins of the historical phenomenon of global Christianity that lasted the two millennia needed to justify any discussion today on the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If you reduce Jesus to the status of another prophet – even a supreme prophet (and Canon Wakeman shies away even the use of the word ‘unique’ to describe him) – you are faced with the problem of explaining the emergence of Christianity from Judaism as a quite separate belief system that was willing to endure the most frightful persecution that followed. No amount of right-brain poetry can fully explain the often horrendously risky dynamism of the early church.

What other consequences flow from progressive reductionism, in Canon Wakeman’s view? Can we still celebrate Christmas and Easter, for example? Yes, we are assured – the celebration of light piercing the darkness and the victory of life over death is beneficial – and the soul does indeed need the periodic renewal that Lent can provide. The Bible can be read for its nourishment of the right brain – but the idea of divine inspiration is liable to nourish fundamentalism and so should be discarded. Lectio divina, however, is encouraged.

As for the future, Canon Wakeman sees little hope for ‘moderate’ orthodoxy, which is slowly ‘dying out’. The future lies either with reaction (going backward and tightening up) – the road taken by fundamentalism – or progressivism (going forward and loosening up) in the style of her book. The preservation of an ‘exclusive’ core of doctrine is a futile exercise. The future of ministered sacraments is tied to the problematic future of ministry itself, and we should encourage one another to see the beauty of the natural world as ‘sacramental’.

Was Jesus even archetypally sacramental? As Canon Wakeman quotes Schillebeeckz and admits that Jesus was at least an archetype of some kind, one might expect that she would explore this possibility at least. Unfortunately she doesn’t – leaving me with essentially the same disappointment that I had with J.S. Spong’s ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die’. If Christianity is worth saving shouldn’t its reductionist saviours at least attempt to be inspirationally reconstructive of the primacy of the person at its centre – if only to mitigate the pain of those exposed to so much reduction? A Chapter on ‘Jesus for Our Time’ or ‘What Jesus teaches us about God’ suggests itself – but perhaps that might be the theme of a sequel to this book.

I certainly hope so. I have learned much about progressivism from this book. Unlike Spong’s, the canon’s style is never insufferably self-congratulatory. The very last thing a minister of the Gospel should be is hypocritical or dishonest – and Canon Wakeman has certainly acquitted herself on that score. She has read widely and produced a highly stimulating and provocative text that can be easily absorbed. How would her views of Jesus and God be affected by reading Girard, I wonder, supportive as his work is of orthodoxy, and of the Bible as a supremely revelatory text – and from an unexpected rationalist direction? (So far, I believe, Girard remains undiscovered territory for progressives – suggesting that it is essentially an Anglican phenomenon).

Although Canon Wakeman’s argument rests largely upon the conviction that the decline of moderate orthodoxy has to do centrally with the prevalence of finger-crossing during the creed, she provides no data that would confirm this. A survey or even a poll would surely be possible. I can only say that I see the creeds not as an insistence upon an ancient physical cosmology but as an affirmation that, in all eras, there is, factually, a transcendant moral cosmos to which we also belong, and from which we can draw inspiration and strength – especially through the one whose belief in it was both absolute and fatal to himself. I neither cross my fingers nor switch off my left brain when I say them.

Central to the phenomenon of progressivism so far, it seems to me, is an unnecessary intellectual embarrassment – an overwhelming desire to dissociate oneself from the fundamentalists and ‘creationists’ who have rejected so much of modern science. It originates, I suspect, at academic dinners when, reaching for the salt, the Christian theologian is assailed with a smirking “Not another Saviour, I hope?” from the eminent evolutionary biologist in the next seat. The need to make one’s own faith unembarrassing in such company is necessarily acute – and an unremitting reductionism is obviously one way to go.

But what of the intellectual hubris such a sally implies – that our own era has not only answered every important question but saved everyone in need of saving – as the archetypal anti-Christian programme, the Enlightenment of the 1700s, expressly promised? It often implies also that what is positive in modern secularism owes nothing to orthodox Christianity – as though values such as liberty, equality and fraternity originated fully formed in the mind of the late 1700s, had no earlier provenance, and have by now anywhere been fully achieved. There is so much ignorance and insouciance in such a worldview that it surely requires challenge rather than encouragement.

Era-chauvinism is as close as I can get to a name for the phenomenon – the Panglossian view that of all past and possible eras this one is by far the wisest – and especially because we are so knowledgeable, and first century folk were so superstitious.

Of course it is essential to detach Christianity from bigotry and obscurantism, but the surgery required to do this must not pierce the heart that keeps Christianity alive: the belief that, independent of both sides of our brain, there truly exists a spiritual entity that intends our good, knows and understands us intimately, and wishes to release us from cyclical self-harm.

This book has not convinced me that ‘progressive Christian’ surgery has left Christianity with a heart that can still beat. One simply cannot save Christianity by implying (without quite saying) that Jesus’s faith in Abba was no more than a right-brain poetic fancy. The death of what this kind of progressivism proposes to save would surely be too high a price to pay for the approval of an intellectual elite that is often every bit as arrogant and insouciant as the one Paul found in the Athens of his day. And, let’s face it, nothing less than the final death of the Christian tradition will fully satisfy that self-satisfied coterie anyway.

Notes

  1. Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003

Views: 7

Understanding the Downward Journey

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

The essence of the downward journey is freedom from the illusion that it is the world that gives us both our identity and our worth.

We have almost as much difficulty understanding that biblical term ‘the world’ as we do the nature of God. This shouldn’t be – because our world also is the enemy of the soul. It demands that we compete for its approval. It rewards a tiny minority with its fickle adulation – which often destroys them – and consigns the rest of us to the role of ‘loser’ or ‘wannabe’. It is, in other words, a vast pyramid of esteem, a composite of all the smaller pyramids we pass through in life – family, school, neighbourhood, firm, city, state – and (often if not always) church.

So long as we play the game all these pyramids demand – postponing self-acceptance until we have been accepted or recognised by them – so long will we be Sisyphus, rolling the stone of self-dislike interminably uphill, until our strength gives out. That is a moment of terrible danger – but also a fleeting window of opportunity. It is dangerous because it tempts us to respond with despair, anger and sometimes murderous aggression or suicide. It is also an opportunity because we may then tumble to the essential stupidity of ordering human community, and valuing ourselves, in this way. We may then recognise this tendency as the root of all evil – and understand the cross as an expression of divine solidarity with our humiliation. Unfortunately, the churches’ historical participation in the pyramid system, and the stupid theology that results (e.g. God as medieval king angrily demanding Jesus’s pain in reparation for his lost ‘honour’) may deprive us of this insight.

Even the spirituality market implies a pyramid, at the summit of which must be those who have read deeply the writings of all the accredited spiritual masters from Buddha to Theresa of Lisieux. And so one may buy all of these books and begin the rolling of the stone – perhaps missing the fact that the unique characteristic of the journey of both was not towards the acquisition of knowledge – a matter of addition, and of the head – but towards acceptance of their own vulnerability – a matter of subtraction, and of the heart.

But what is the point of becoming spiritual if you cannot make it work for you? I hear this question – and its ambiguity. ‘Working for you’ could mean doing for you what it did for Buddha or Therese (i.e. make sense) – or it could mean making you well known as a wise and spiritual person. The trouble is that the spirituality market will exploit particularly the second meaning – because your purchases will burgeon with your desire to move always upward, in deep dissatisfaction with where you are, in order to become a spirituality expert. Notice again the world’s magnetic force – you are setting out to be spiritual in order to be ‘up there’ – the antithesis of the spiritual. The last thing you may consider is the possibility of moving in the opposite direction – of seeking to know less by knowing only the most important thing.

That most important thing in the Judeo-Christian tradition – that pearl of great price – is that you are already as loved and as worthy of esteem as you will ever be – already infinitely loved and respected. The condition of not knowing this, and fleeing from it towards the approval of the world, is sin. The tears that follow its discovery are called repentance – in which you weep also for the sin of ever having thought of yourself as unloved – for not having loved yourself as you are.

It follows from this that all of us are equally, and infinitely, loved – and that the pyramids we build are the product of an illusion. That illusion is the notion that the overall sum of our worth is what others think of us – when they are equally insecure. Gripped by this illusion we are slaves to it – and escape is virtually impossible

For Jesus the single most important truth was that he was loved by the creator of all things, the Father. From this great truth – and the relationship it gave him with the Father – came the revelatory journey which unlocked ‘things hidden since the beginning of the world’. Essentially what was hidden, and what remains hidden from most, is that the world preserves its power over us not just by insisting that we compete for its approval, but by victimising those at its base. From their plight we must flee – upwards, driven by fear. Ambition – desire to be at the top, adored and invulnerable, draws us in the same direction. Fear and hubris rule the world, imprisoning the spirit of generosity which desperately seeks escape.

These days throughout the west we are amazed by the sudden fall of ‘great men’ who not so long ago ‘bestrode the world’. Their gifts were also their temptation. Their ability to climb the political pyramid made them susceptible to flattery and sycophantic attention of all kinds – and they succumbed to sexual or monetary temptation on a scale that shamed them when revealed. Great wisdom can be gained by pondering the meaning of these events – for they merely reiterate the lives of ancient heroes, archetypally David.

If Jesus was not divine he was then even more mysterious – for neither fear nor hubris determined his actions from first to last (although he experienced – i.e. was ‘tempted’ by both). To the degree that we study him as a mere human he becomes unlike any other man. To the degree that we insist that he was God, he reveals God to be unlike our expectation. For us, both Gods and heroes must triumph and remain invulnerable. Yet Jesus accepted humiliation and defeat, and revealed God as both humble and vulnerable. Psychologically he is impossible to explain – unless we accept the reality of what he insisted upon. That reality was the Father, a spiritual being with whom he could communicate at will, who gave him the specific task of revealing and upending the spirits of fear and hubris which build the pyramids of esteem that govern the world.

Yet Jesus also tells us that those who follow him become his brothers and sisters, to whom he has revealed all that the Father had told him, and with whom he and the Father will live in the same intimacy. How do we find our way to this point of meeting?

Ancient heroes had to do something violently heroic to win the recognition of the world. Think of Theseus who must destroy the monsters who fall in his way as he journeys to Athens to be recognised by his father, King Aegeus. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus was recognised by Abba at the very beginning of his own journey – for doing nothing more than stepping down into the waters of the Jordan, in fellowship with repentant sinners who also sought the baptism of John. This episode is immediately followed by Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, and his rejection of the temptations to ascend the worldly pyramids of state and temple. His mission becomes the granting of forgiveness and esteem freely to those at the base of these pyramids, (usually far from Jerusalem), to whom he gives most of the rest of his life. For this effrontery he is hated ‘by the world’, and murdered by it, in the time-honoured manner.

The downward journey today could well begin with nothing more dramatic than the granting of respect and esteem – that is, of love – to someone we know who has less of these things than we ourselves, and who may have suffered a recent humiliation. If this is difficult, the difficulty lies in our greater respect for the world, the only source of our embarrassment, than for God – so prayer is strongly indicated. And this prayer should be part of our private life – for ostentatious prayer is a prayer addressed to the world rather than to God.

It must be clearly understood that this practice of according respect to those whom the world considers our inferiors must not be condescension – for they are in fact our equals. Its purpose is to discover the kind of relationship that Jesus formed very quickly with people he has just met – a relationship of fundamental equality and mutual trust. He did not presume that his relationship with Abba entitled him to greater esteem – but sought to draw others into the same relationship.

Another aspect of this journey is the discovery that the person next to us at any given moment is often the person to whom we should be speaking at that moment, for the sake of both. This is still a feature of the lives of people who live in remote places – every meeting is seen as an unmissable opportunity for conversation. Yet in our great cities people will often spend hours daily physically close to others with whom they exchange not a word. The convention in the tube in London is to avoid eye contact – so people examine one another surreptitiously, or read, or compute. Fear and hubris rule equally here also – for cities are above all else pyramids of esteem – and the person next to you might be an addict or drug rapist – or snub you as an inferior. Yet what might you be missing as your eyes slide about, looking vainly for an advertisement worth reading?

In particular you might exchange views on the reasons for the exhaustion that inevitably follows the endless busyness of modern city life. The man with the computer was told a decade a go that it would make his life less hectic – but the opposite seems to be the truth. He doesn’t have time simply to ‘shoot the breeze’ – he must switch on in transit and finish that report. The reason probably is that he believes that all his colleagues – his rivals for promotion – have this equipment too, and will steal a march. So it always will be – for it is in the nature of the world to disconnect us from where and when we are, to live in a tomorrow that never comes.

Yet what happens to the exhausted mind is eventually despair – and how will that help the firm? Tireless worship of yet another convoy of ocean-crossing buzzwords must eventually end in burnout – so who benefits? What if we all got together and said no to freneticism, technobabble and jargonising simultaneously? I reckon that nine out of ten eye-sliding city straphangers would find that question meaningful.

In Ireland it is usually in the craik in the pub that we get closest to this kind of common insight – and maybe this is the source of some alcohol addiction also – for the association of alcohol with genuine companionship and relaxation may create the false conclusion that one is impossible without the other. In those hours when today’s humiliations have been related, and their authors properly reviled, we ease down. Our friends are those who do not threaten us, and who can share in our meagre triumphs. Yet tomorrow beckons, inexorable as closing time – and battle is soon joined once more.

The tireless busyness of great cities, audible even through double or treble glazing, sets a rhythm to which we unconsciously dance. That seems to be true of any large community. And the car now allows that rhythm to radiate out into the countryside, far louder now than the hum of bees that used to be a byword for business. The discovery of the process of evolution should impress us with the slowness of God’s time – but instead it seems to have ratcheted even tighter our determination to live in tomorrow rather than today. It becomes daily more difficult to find stillness, to discover the rhythm of God’s tune, and dance to that instead.

That is why there has always been a connection between deep spiritual work, and isolation. We tend to associate the desert into which Jesus went merely with asceticism – but we should note that he went there from the Jordan, directly after the Father’s revelation of himself and recognition of his son. So we can assume that Jesus was simply seeking a stillness and peace within which he could discover the meaning of this extraordinary relationship. The hermitical and monastic traditions – which preserved the church through centuries of corruption of its superstructure – follow the same search for the one who speaks in stillness.

It is also always a search for the self – of who one is – the integrated ‘me’ shorn of pretence, falseness, that personality I put on like a shirt in order to please the world. The knowledge that it is the ‘me’ that I hide from the world that God alone fully knows – this is important knowledge that we have forgotten how to teach in our schools.

It can be rediscovered still in Ireland today – especially in the west. I did not discover that my own desert had been the wilds of Lough Corrib until I found that it was there as a teenager I had found a happiness so mysterious that when I found myself much later in the darkest valley of my own crisis, gratitude came pouring out to whoever had created it – just, it seemed, for me. In Galway again recently, determined to escape the hum of the city, I came upon a dirt road that seemed to follow inland a beautiful small river tumbling towards the sea. My wife and I followed it on foot, and within ten minutes the movement of the breeze and the rush of falling water had enveloped us completely, shutting out the rush of traffic, easing the almost imperceptible tension it builds within us. That was the Sabbath experience we must all seek – the rest from labour that only God’s music can provide.

These then are the elements of the downward journey: a realisation of the Father’s primordial and unchangeable esteem for us as brother or sister of the Lord; a determination to live in this knowledge, giving the same respect to everyone we meet; a seeking of the slower rhythm of God’s time in whatever form of wilderness we can find. Also a willingness to listen for a call that may ask of us a particular service in challenging the world, or serving its casualties. Then we will inevitably find that whatever tortuous route we have followed in life to this point will have a particular meaning for others on a similar path. No life is ever ruined once we again find fellowship with the God who so wisely – like the Father of the prodigal son – gave us our primordial freedom, and will now give meaning and redemption to our utmost waywardness.

Views: 11

Bishop J.S. Spong’s ‘Why Christianity must change or Die’

Spong on Spong 1 – Ditching the Old Man

Anxious to find out what all the fuss was about I bought the paperback version of Episcopal Bishop JS Spong’s “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”(HarperCollins 1998). I was impressed straightaway that its Alpha and Omega – Foreword and Epilogue – are essentially devoted to Spong himself – his Journey out of Theistic Darkness and his confidence that in the end the Christian world will follow Him. In between we get flashes of lightning like the following (I give the whole paragraph because it epitomises Spong’s dialectical and literary style):

“The opening phrase of the Apostles’ Creed speaks first of God as the “Father Almighty.” Both of these words offend me deeply. Here the mystery that I treasure in God begins to be filled with limiting cultural definitions. The word Father is such a human word – so male, so dated.’ It elicits the traditional God images of the old man who lives just beyond the sky. It shouts of the masculinity of the deity, a concept that has been used for thousands of years to justify the oppression of women by religious institutions. That history and that practice repel me today. The Christian Church at times has gone so far as to debate whether women actually had souls and whether girl babies ought to be baptized. That Church universally relegated women to clearly defined secondary roles until the latter years of the twentieth century, when that sexist prejudice began to dissipate. Even the recent ecclesiastical breakthrough in some faith communities, which has allowed women to be pastors, priests, and bishops, is embraced by only a small minority of the Christians of the world. The Church dedicated to the worship of a God who was called “Father” has consistently justified its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity or, at the very least, as something idolatrously called the “unchanging sacred tradition of the Church.” I do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity. I am no longer tolerant of gatherings where all the participants are men, sitting in a solemn assembly, clothed in their ecclesiastical dress, and acting as if they can determine what a woman may do morally with her own body. I have no interest in being part of an institution that is so deeply biased against women and intends to stay that way.”

In this rebuttal of the creed this is absolutely all there is on the term ‘Father’. ‘Father’ means ‘patriarch’ only, we are told, and even this term is sold short, as merely the bête noir of feminism. ‘Father’ as ‘Abba’ – with all the richness of the relationship that this implies – receives not even a defensive mention. There is not even a nod to the fidelity of the God of the Old Testament, drawn by Christ in human terms in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The term ‘Masculine’ is used, without any attempt at analysis, as a pejorative term equivalent to ‘machismo’ – an example of opportunistic rhetoric every bit as reprehensible as the maleist distortion of the term ‘female’.

Spong’s dismissal of the rest of the Apostles’ creed is every bit as unscrupulous and perfunctory as this example. Leave this man in charge of the family jewellery store and you will come back to find he has sold gold as lead. This is bad enough – but then you have to put up with him flashing in your face the brass pennies he has sold it for – in this case the applause of the more superficial proponents of the women’s liberation movement. (It’s time we accepted that feminism is often just another ideology, a bias as unbalanced and self-serving as masculinism – but don’t expect Spong to offend his feminist readership by saying so.)

Why the continual self-referencing? (‘Both of these words offend *ME* deeply?’ ‘That history and that practice repel *ME* today?’. ‘*I* do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity,’ and so on.) This self-absorption is the most consistent theme of the book, and it gives the game away. Spong suffers from the debilitating illness that afflicted his mentor, Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ – a fundamental embarrassment that his calling has associated him with ‘Theism’. There he is in this antique jewellery shop when all the salesmen who visit show him the glitzy early success of rationalism. “Where is your Old Man in the Sky?” they ask. As insecure as an adolescent with acne, he immediately values the family stock in terms of this patently absurd caricature – and sells it off at their altogether self-interested and superficial valuation.

Notice too the dismissal of the term ‘Father’ as ‘human’ and therefore ‘dated’. Spong is not a humanist either, it seems. His ‘intoxication’ with God is a mystical affinity with ‘The Ground of All Being’ (henceforward ‘Goab’ here for the sake of economy). Goab cannot be in any sense human – because, it seems, if you allocate any aspect of the human to Goab you are anthropocentric and a believer in ‘The Old Man in the Sky’. The possibility of a creative conscious being in love with his creation, and supremely in love with the only one of its creatures aware of its own certain death, is not admitted. Spong lives intellectually ‘in exile’ from the theistic thought systems of the church.

Inevitably then, the Lord’s Prayer later goes the way of the Apostle’s Creed. According to Spong, Jesus made assumptions in that prayer that ‘exile people’ (Spong’s disciples) are not capable of making.

He assumed, first, that God was a person who could be addressed as “Father.” He assumed, second, that this divine being was external to life, or “in heaven.” Finally, he assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name.  Those were all aspects of a theistic belief system that simply is no  more. The concept of a personal deity who directs the affairs of  individual human history from a vantage point above this earth,  watching, intervening, rewarding, and punishing, has died.

 In a thoroughly Goabian Church, then, Jesus is to be patronised for his theism and gently put right. Later he will be taught – by Spong – how he should have prayed. Where Jesus had Good News for mankind, Spong has better news for Jesus – he needn’t any longer believe in ‘the Father’.

Those of you who are still awake may anticipate a problem here. Did not Jesus explain his mission in terms of his love for and obedience to ‘the Father’? If Jesus was guided in everything up to and including the crucifixion by nothing more than mistaken ‘assumptions’ how can he remain the central figure of the enterprise that Spong is supposedly rescuing from itself – Christianity?

Let’s keep that important question for the second item in this series.

*****

Spong on Spong: 2 – ‘Rescuing’ the Son

You will all remember that in my first bulletin from Bishop Spong’s ‘Why Christianity must Change or Die’ I described how God the Father had been summarily fired by the good bishop for political incorrectness. (Father = Patriarch, and just look at what patriarchy has done to women! Spong is offended. End of ‘argument’.)

The Lord’s Prayer must therefore be dumped also, because it is addressed to the Father. Why does Jesus, author of the prayer, not go the way of the Father? Has he not made three false theistic assumptions?

The answer lies in Bishop Spong’s long training as a Baywatch lifeguard. No sooner does John Shelby see Jesus going down for the third false assumption than he streaks to the water’s edge, dives in and comes out with a Jesus that even a non-theist can love. Jesus’ outstanding features as a human being are then analysed: his inclusiveness, his assault upon those barriers which separate Jew from Samaritan and Gentile, male from female, adult from child, pure from ‘unclean’, sane from mad, high born from low born; his ability to be totally present to whomever he is addressing; his freedom to be himself in all circumstances – even facing death; his faithful love of the twelve, despite their shortcomings; his extraordinary capacity to forgive even his enemies, remaining consistent until the excruciating end.

This is indeed an impressive list, and straightaway one wonders how Jesus has acquired these characteristics, and how the good Bishop will explain them in psychological, historical and spiritual terms.

He doesn’t.

This extraordinary human being, Jesus, is presented as emerging from nothing, through no clear process of human and social development. The question of how this extraordinary man came to be what he was is left completely unanswered. Were Spong arguing that Jesus is theistically divine this would be understandable. But Spong, the rationalist, fails completely to account for Jesus the man.

Why is this? I’m not a trained psychologist but I know for certain that the human personality grows mainly through mimesis – the imitation of qualities present in those adults who have nurtured the child. In particular I know that what one becomes as a man has an enormous amount to do with the personality and attention of one’s father. Richard Rohr distills a lot of this in ‘The Wild Man’s Journey’ – arguing that one of the great problems in the typical male spiritual journey in this era is ‘the father wound’ – the typical father’s failure to admire and recognise the son’s self, and the son’s inability to forget and overcome this.

A story from the Vatican 2 mailing list illustrates this need beautifully. A contributor remembers:

“sitting by a poolside in Israel in 1982 and hearing a child shout, “Abba, look, look. Amma, look, look.” I did a double take wondering what was going on and it was a darling little boy asking his parents to applaud his diving skills.”

 “Abba, look, look.” It is so important that the Father sees what the boy can do, and acknowledges it admiringly. This need stays with the boy throughout his life. His sense of who he is, his evaluation of himself, continues to depend (albeit to a diminishing degree) upon the father’s recognition. Asked to give a talk in my own parish church some months ago it was still important to me (now 55) that my Dad, (now 86), should be there, and should approve. Without that recognition from the father for the younger man the soul can shrivel and die. The person that emerges from this deprivation is psychologically unsure and indecisive, the very opposite of the Nazarene.

Jesus’s psychological poise MUST have owed enormously to how he felt Abba’s recognition – and Abba for Jesus was Spong’s ‘Patriarch’. There is absolutely no way you can separate Jesus’ ‘Theism’ from his psychological, intellectual and spiritual poise, and towering personality.

Why separate them? Why does Spong feel obliged to ditch Jesus’ theism? Here are the passages in which he does so, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.

“(Jesus) assumed, first, that God was a person who could be addressed as ‘Father’.”

 The word ‘assumed’ is, of course, insufferably patronising in this context. The truth is that this highly intelligent young man *firmly believed* that he could address his God AS ‘Abba’. If this ‘Abba’ did not recognise Jesus – in a manner communicable to Jesus – how did the boy Jesus become the most extraordinarily balanced male in human history? Spong’s a priori assumption that this extraordinary individual could have developed *in the absence of the Abba who is so passionately addressed* is psychologically spurious and nowhere justified in his book.

All of us are capable of hearing imaginary voices, if we listen hard enough, but how many of us are absolutely convinced that the voice we hear is not our own? If Jesus couldn’t tell the difference, why was he so present to all he met, so ‘there’, rather than wrapped in some kind of psychosis? There is a mystery here that Spong does nothing to explain. Obliged by his rationalist assumptions to discount the possibility of a human dialogue with a personal God, he extols a human being who is simply inexplicable in non-theistic terms. Yet he prefers his rationalism. This, for a bishop ordained into theism, is simply perverse.

“He assumed, second, that this divine being was external to life, or “in heaven”. (Spong)

 If Jesus assumed this, and this only, how could he have addressed Abba? If the Lord’s prayer was to be heard by Abba, then Abba for Jesus could not simply be external, beyond the furthest boundary imagined by Jesus. Abba had to be in some sense here present and listening also. This Spong has a curiously one-dimensional mind: ‘Father’ must mean simply ‘Patriarch’, not also ‘Abba’; Abba cannot be for Jesus both here, and out there.

This is supremely important, for Spong is at pains to insist that the theistic mind of Jesus’s time saw God as an embodied reality out beyond the sky. Clearly Jesus saw nothing of the kind. Why is Spong at so much pain to belittle the intellectual sophistication of the ancients, when the truth is clearly before him?

“Finally, he assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name.” (Spong)

 It’s clear from the context that Spong is referring here to “hallowed be thy name”. But how does Spong reach HIS assumption? If I say to God ‘Thou art Holy’ I am making no assumption about what God likes to hear. I am simply declaring how I feel about God. For Jesus, the Father is Holy. He says nothing of how this statement is received by God.

This is important, for Spong in his dismissal of Theism makes much of our supposed assumption that God (‘Ground of All Being’ for Spong) *needs* to be worshipped. The little boy heard at the swimming pool shouting “Abba” was simply delighting in his Father’s presence, not making a statement about what his father needed to hear. There is absolutely nothing in the text of the Our Father that compels us to believe that Jesus “assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name”. He is addressing the Father, not obliquely commenting upon him.

Yet if the Father is pleased by the Son’s recognition, why cannot this simply be the same joy that the poolside father will feel when he sees the little boy jump joyfully into the pool? There is no solipsism in this either. Holiness is simply the essence of goodness, a goodness greater than ours. The holiness of the Father, Abba, will simply express itself in the joy that he is recognised – why must this be an introverted need to be worshipped? When we say ‘Hallowed’ to God we are simply in ‘praise’ mode. What Spong makes of this is clearly forced to suit his own conclusions – it does not arise inevitably, or even naturally, from the text. His three “assumptions” turn out to be spurious.

We are discerning here the nature of Bishop Spong’s dialectic. It is not scrupulous exegesis and logic, but a rhetoric which does not hesitate to misrepresent and distort the text if this will suit his purpose. That purpose is a rejection of theism on the grounds that modern science has made it impossible. So theism has to be a belief in the materiality of God out there beyond the sky. It’s clear from the Gospels that for Jesus Abba was non-material and spiritual and therefore everywhere present. It is also clear that his relationship with Abba was something far more than fantasy. Spong will distort the text to keep this from us. He will also allege that theism requires a self-absorbed deity. This too is a distortion of the entire Bible, in which the overwhelming presence is a God who endlessly gives of himself. Spong is fundamentally unreliable in relation to the core text of his profession, and perversely so, simply to serve the needs of his rhetoric.

If Spong will deliberately misrepresent the Bible, what will he do to the findings of modern science? Fasten your seat belts, folks, we’re in for a bumpy, and mysterious, ride.

*****

Spong on Spong 3 – Too much Faith in Reason

Bishop Spong’s rejection of Theism claims the scientific achievements of the modern period as sufficient reason. Yet his account of this rationalistic demythologisation is strangely dated. There is much on Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud – but no adequate analysis of the uncertainties – the rediscovered mysteries – of current microcosmic and macrocosmic science. And absolutely no assessment of the problem of human evil.

Atheistic rationalism is grounded upon nothing more than a *belief* that we all know what matter is, and can predict in all circumstances how it will behave. Recent science proves that we don’t and can’t. Elementary particles are divisible beyond our conceptual grasp, and are bound together in relationships we cannot explain. The atom is over 99% empty space – which means that we are also. At the particle level the act of scientific observation actually produces the behaviour being observed – questioning the rationalist assumption that science could and would objectively explain everything in time. Matter is also just another mode of energy, as Einstein predicted and nuclear physics proved. Thus, matter too, we now know, is just as mysterious as spirit – is in an important sense spiritual – but don’t expect Spong to tell you this.

Also lacking is any serious analysis of our expanding knowledge of the universe – its origins and extent. We now know that it is actually far vaster than had been thought as late as the 1960s, and that the possibilities for life elsewhere in space are virtually limitless. The origin of all that exists is explained generally in terms of an original ‘big bang’ – but this takes us through one door only to encounter another that is unopenable: a spontaneous generation of the universe is far more difficult to accept than the Resurrection. Those few people who can speculate in this mysterious area are dealing in theories which are not only esoteric for most of us, but completely unverifiable – one of the preconditions for the kind of empirical rationalism that Spong appears to believe has explained, or will explain, everything. Out of nothing has come all of this beautiful cosmos, this wonderful womb in which we get to learn from and love one another? Give me a break!

Find a humble scientist (and many of them are far more arrogant than any medieval theologian) and he will admit that human birth is a falling from one womb into another. From a place in which as far as the child is aware there is nothing but darkness, warmth, movement, and sound – into this far vaster womb we call the universe. If we retain any sense of wonder and humility we must acknowledge that we have no more reason to believe this visible universe is all there is than that our mother’s womb was all there was.

So the macrocosm (everything we can observe) is as impenetrable to science as the microcosm (the tiniest particles) – for the simple reason that we live within, rather than outside of it. At both ends we are faced by mystery – but again Spong says nothing of this.

In psychology, similarly, Freud’s dismissal of theism is boosted at the expense of Jung’s far more important work on the psychological importance of religious myths as carriers of profound truth. As to the newfound interest of anthropology in the texts of the bible, there is no mention – even though Rene Girard’s work began in the 1970s, and has profound implications for Freudian analysis both of mental illness and religion.

Nor does Spong refer at any point to one of the most baffling scientific problems: the nature and origin of human consciousness. Why does each one of us have this inner presence, this extraordinary front row seat from which we observe, and know we are observing, a drama that becomes more amazing with every triumph of science? For each of us the profoundest mystery is: “Why am I here?” Science will never be able to answer this, because the answer must be particular, rather than general, and discovered by ourselves. It must address the extraordinary uniqueness of every one of us. Theism answers this question and provides an answer in terms of our being at home here, a dearly loved project of a loving creation from the beginning. The grandeur of this answer, present in all the great religions, allows us to repossess the sense of individual personal worth that mere rationalism has arrogantly and stupidly ripped from us.

Why does Spong so persistently load the dice against our doing this? It seems he is a convert to rationalism as implacable enemy and replacement for theism, and has all the enthusiasm and partiality of the convert. He does not seriously investigate the phenomenon of post-modernism – in many ways a rebuttal of the enlightenment hubris to which Spong gives himself so naively. He does not want to investigate the possibility that mere rationalism has had its day – it might prove that the stock he has sold off for pennies has a fundamental value of which he understands little or nothing.

This value was never to be found in the bible’s analysis of material reality – but in its exploration of the human spirit, that spirit’s evolving relationship to the cosmos, and the nature of good and evil. Significantly Spong gives no adequate analysis of the profound evils by which humanity is currently beset – in particular the impact of human selfishness upon community in the First world, upon the material suffering of the third – and upon the internal and external stability of both.

Spong will tell you nothing either of the total failure of the rationalist assumption, dating from the enlightenment, that rationalism could replace religion as the foundation of human goodness and social harmony. Had this prediction been valid the twentieth century would have been the most enlightened and peaceful on record, based upon one or other of the ideologies formed in the 1800s – most obviously Marxism. Now we know that no ideology, no set of abstract ideas, provides a blueprint for individual and social happiness – that all can create tyrannies greater than any that existed in the pre-modern period. Knowing nothing of this it is understandable that Voltaire and the philosophes could easily dismiss the idea of original sin. Spong has no such excuse.

It follows that he has no understanding of the crucifixion, other than as a test of courage that Jesus could heroically pass. That anthropological science, another fruit of the enlightenment, could discover an historical significance in this event that Spong knows nothing of is the most extraordinary measure of his lack of depth. I will cover this in a fourth and final piece.

*****

Spong on Spong: 4 – No need of Redemption?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Bishop Spong’s “Why Christianity must change or die” is its treatment of the crucifixion, and the Christian liturgy related to this. In the chapter ‘Jesus as Rescuer’ Spong presents the traditional redemption story as meaningless to moderns because of its origins in the story of the fall of man and the notion of an original sin which evolutionary theory has exploded. There was no perfect beginning to creation that man through Adam and Eve spoiled by disobedience. So humankind does not need rescuing, or redemption, and so we do not require a theology or liturgy that dwells on this. The crucifixion was a test that Christ courageously passed – that was all. The story of an obedient son accepting a Father’s commission to endure crucifixion is dismissed in the usual self-referential way: “I would choose to loathe rather than worship a deity who required the sacrifice of his son.”

What then of human evil – for example the problem of inherited ethnic resentment that perpetuates violence in modern society? You will search and search in vain in this book for an extended treatment of the problem of evil. It is written in what amounts to a moral innocence, reflecting the calm of its author’s study, rather than the seething world outside. Considering the ocean of blood shed in this century – largely by devotees of modern ideologies emanating from the Enlightenment – this is a quite extraordinary circumstance. It is as though the enlightenment prediction of a perfect society based upon reason had been fulfilled rather than completely ridiculed by the global catastrophes of the twentieth century.

Associated with this strange void is the lack of any perception of the reality that human beings can change, and change profoundly, when they experience the trauma of suffering. Spong’s elect – the ‘exile’ Christians who cannot accept Theism – seem fully formed by rationalism, incapable of moving beyond it. There is no acknowledgement of the phenomenon known as conversion or metanoia, through which people can move from one plane of being onto another.

Over the past two years I have met with dozens of everyday people who have been profoundly changed and tempered by an experience associated with suffering. Without exception the start of the process was an emotional identification with Christ on the cross. That led then to profound grief, and then to an absolutely unshakeable belief in a real, personal, spiritual reality. Grief and joy became mingled. They emerged as new people, confident of the love of God. Without exception they are theists who can say the Lord’s prayer with full conviction.

These are not poseurs, because they have absolutely no illusions about themselves. They have great humility and personal buoyancy as well as faith. They speak of their experiences with some reluctance in case they might be thought self-advertising. Far from being fundamentalist, they are anxious to grow in their understanding of God.

Some of these people’s sufferings are associated with political violence. The outstanding examples in my experience are the McGoldricks, who lost their only child to sectarian assassination in Craigavon in 1996. The chances of them finding Spong’s book enlightening are zero. It simply doesn’t connect with their experience. The Christ of the gospels dwells within them, and they are sure of the love of the Father.

But what of the historical significance of the crucifixion, its part in the the story of mankind generally? Spong has evidently no notion of this either.

As Gil Bailie’s ‘Violence Unveiled’ was published to great acclaim in 1995, there is no excuse for this. Bailie summarises the work of Rene Girard, Professor of French Literature and Civilisation at Stanford University. That work advances with astonishing clarity and erudition the thesis that all ancient religions were based upon the scapegoating mechanism as cultures collapsed into reciprocal violence. The origins of that violence (and violence today) lie in mimetic desire – the desire to possess what someone else possesses. In the story of Adam and Eve that mimetic desire is to become ‘as Gods’ by eating the forbidden fruit. This leads to the fall – and almost immediately Cain kills Abel, because the latter is seen by Cain as enjoying the favour of God – mimesis again. This problem is as prevalent today as it was in humankind’s earliest times. Saddam Hussein’s and George Bush’s mimetic desire for the oil wealth of the gulf; Milosevich’s desire for heroic status as conqueror of Serbia’s claimed national territory; Irish Nationalism’s and Unionism’s desire to control the territory of Northern Ireland. In the Bible, mimetic desire is ‘covetousness’.

In ancient times reciprocal violence created a state of terrible fear and tension – it could lead to the complete extinction of a society – so ‘it was better that one man should die than that the nation perish’. The selection of the victim fastened usually upon some unfortunate whose death would not provoke revenge from any sizeable quarter. The individual marked by some physical handicap (e.g. Oedipus) was an outstanding target. He would be accused by all of some horrendous crime. This person would then become a lightning rod for the violence of the entire society, and die, often from stoning (because in this way no-one could claim to have had no part, and all could remain undefiled by the blood of the victim).

Once the deed had been done, the memory of it would become troublesome, so the victim, who had in a sense ‘saved’ his people, would become an object of religious veneration. The violence was then veiled by the substitution of an animal sacrifice for the original victim, and a myth would develop to explain this rite. Such myths and rites are found in all ancient cultures without exception.

What makes the Judeo-Christian tradition different is that through the prophets this murderous process was gradually unveiled, and then completely revealed by Jesus. Caiphas also uses the primordial words ‘It is better for one man to die …’ But the innocence of this one man, his total lack of mimetic desire, was borne witness to by his disciples, and by those who saw him move from trial to crucifixion without responding to violence with violence. In a single life this man reveals ‘things hidden from the beginning of the world’, and exposes the process of sacrificial murder. He also bears witness to the sacredness of the individual life, and to God’s concern for that individual.

Here we have the origin of the Mass (which substitutes bread and wine for the body and blood of the ancient sacrifices), as well as the principle of the inviolability (rights) of the individual. Christ is the origin both of modern liberalism, and of the Church. These are seen by hierarchs as opposed to one another because the church leadership mimetically desires the power of the state (a mortal sin not yet confessed), and is thus in practice at odds with its founder.

However, in the Mass and in its teachings the church bears witness to its founder’s selfless pursuit of the good of the individual through self-sacrifice. This is why we must expect charisms in the grassroots, rather than in Rome. The Vatican is a kind of exoskeleton for the soft heart of God. Catholic hierarchs have scandalised the world by often sacrificing individuals to save themselves. (Among the latest victims are the children unprotected from the known predilections of paedophile priests.) You will recall that Christ finds and binds that individual to him (the lost sheep) by sharing his pain. In my experience this is the almost universal pattern of genuine conversion. The freedom of the individual to wander is accepted and vindicated – the shepherd follows her/him, simply by imaging suffering.

The crucifixion has therefore both a cosmic and an individual significance. It gives us a framework both for humanising the macrocosm, and for reconciling the individual to the creator. But in this cause the church’s mimetic desire for the power of this world must be mercilessly exposed. Christ’s love of individual human freedom – which also comes from the Father – must be vindicated. This can only be done by obliging the leadership of the church to embrace the vulnerability and brotherliness of Christ – for the first time in almost sixteen hundred years.

We cannot explain Jesus’s acceptance of this revelatory crucifixion except in terms of a cosmic concern for every single one of us. The Father, like all good fathers, wants us to run to him joyfully, not to sidle in from fear. Like Bishop Spong I detest clerical patriarchy, but I must speak up for the cosmic entity with a human heart and mind that recognised Jesus as his son, and gave him direction. Without that theos we are all lost – as a race and as individuals.

Here is Rene Girard on the importance of the crucifixion:

“To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind. Violence is the controlling agent in every form of mythic or cultural structure, and Christ is the only agent who is capable of escaping from these structures and freeing us from their dominance. This is the only hypothesis that enables us to account for the revelation in the Gospel of what violence does to us and the accompanying power of that revelation to deconstruct the whole range of cultural texts, without exception. We do not have to adopt the hypothesis of Christ’s divinity because it has always been accepted by orthodox Christians. Instead, this hypothesis is orthodox because in the first years of Christianity there existed a rigorous (though not yet explicit) intuition of the logic determining the gospel text.
A non-violent deity can only signal his existence to mankind by having himself driven out by violence – by demonstrating that he is not able to establish himself in the Kingdom of Violence.”

(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, R. Girard, 1978)

That this conclusion could be reached by the scrupulous interpretation of ancient texts shows what life is still left in Theism.

And if that non-violent deity could so love Christ, so fill him with wisdom and strength, are we not entitled to believe in the Resurrection also? Obviously the apostles did, and they, like the referee, were far closer to the ball.

Views: 24