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Literal to Living
 

considerably revised and expanded

INTRODUCTION (or PREFACE, or PROLOGUE)

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, disaster, the churches I was serving as minister, through their Christian Development Committee, began a series of evening meetings entitled Who Is My Neighbour? At each meeting, several individuals (usually around 4, but the number varied) from another faith tradition would join us. They would take one to two hours to talk about what their faith was for them. Following their presentation (which was always quite informal), we would gather with them over coffee and nibbles and talk freely about what they had offered, the questions we had, etc. Our visitors were always lay people, though many were quite active in their own faith communities. It was a fascinating series, and helped to put those dark days into a somewhat larger (and calmer) perspective. Like many of the members of the churches I was serving, I wondered how I would respond if I were invited by another faith community to come and talk about my Christian faith. In April of 2008, precisely that invitation came from the Unitarian Fellowship of Fredericton, New Brunswick.

What follows is a decidedly personal statement of a modern-day Christian faith. I do not offer it in order that others may adopt it, but rather in the hope that it may encourage some thought and conversation about what meaningful Christianity might look like in today's world. Though I have drawn on a variety of sources (as you will see) in arriving at this understanding of faith, it is mine and mine alone. Virtually every sentence could begin with In my opinion, or As I understand it, etc. But such writing, while technically accurate, would be insufferably boring, so I leave you the reader to supply such phrases along the way.

This is not written to inspire or convert. My hope is that, in reading these words, at least some may be invited to give thought to their own faith, to engage in conversation about it, and to challenge and probe it, and thus encourage it to grow and develop. I know that I often learn best through conversation, and I suspect that I am not alone. If this paper can be an occasion for such dialogue, then my efforts will have been well rewarded indeed. I would welcome any feedback, thoughts, comments, etc. which you may have, so that we may continue and broaden the conversation.

I would also add one further comment. The churches which I served as minister had a fairly high percentage of older people in the pews on Sunday mornings. As I got to know them and their stories, I came to realize that, over their lives, they had dealt with a vast number of very difficult circumstances, from the Depression, to wars, to deep personal losses, to economic and social upheaval ... they had come through a lot in order to be sitting in those pews. I also realized that their faith, which was for the most part very traditional and fairly conservative, was what had guided, supported, and anchored them through those difficult times. While their faith is not and cannot be my faith, I support and celebrate their deep commitment to that faith. They have taught me much about faithfulness, and I am truly grateful to them.

I have been a Christian all of my life, though the degree and intensity of that connection has varied considerably. I began as a southern (US) Presbyterian, moved on to agnosticism, thence to a fairly conservative, evangelical approach, and, at present, to what many refer to as progressive Christianity. At each step of the way, I have come to rely less and less on what others told me to believe, and more and more on my own direct experience. I have found the experiences of others, and their talking and writing about them, immensely helpful, but neither prescriptive nor definitive. It was primarily during the 11 years in which I was in active ordered ministry with the United Church of Canada that I began to realize that traditional (or even semi-traditional) Christianity would not sustain me in the hard places I encountered - the hospital rooms, the middle of the night phone calls, the funeral homes. Traditional, unquestioned and unquestioning faith simply did not have, for me, the strength or depth to be truly sustaining at such times, nor did it offer to me guidance in my day to day living. I came to realize that I needed to discern the shape of my own faith, if it was to have lasting meaning for me. I have come to believe that such a process is necessary for everyone if his or her faith is to develop fully. It has been, for me, a lengthy and challenging process. It has often been uncomfortable, as it has challenged many of the beliefs with which I grew up. But faith that cannot grow and strengthen in the face of challenge, rather than merely survive such challenges or, even worse, turn away from them, is in reality no faith at all.

The journey has often been solitary, but rarely lonesome. I have drawn heavily on many whose writings have both illuminated and challenged my way. John Westerhoff's work on faith development brought home to me many years ago that real faith is not a static thing. John Shelby Spong, the most influential of all the authors I have read, has shone a very clear (and often fairly harsh) light on the current state of Christianity, and its possible future. Greta Vosper has also written powerfully of the problems of the modern church, as have others, particularly several authors associated with the Alban Institute in of Washington, DC. Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossen, Diarmuid O'Merchu, Sallie McFague, and many others have also brought forward ideas, perspectives, and understandings which have been helpful to me. But ultimately, my faith must be truly mine - in its development, in its expression, and in its living.

I have come to realize that I have some requirements of that faith. These are the things that must be part of faith if I am to truly embrace and live it. They are distinctly personal, though I suspect many might share them, and they are not carved in stone. As my faith has evolved and developed, so too have the things that I ask and require of that faith. My faith must, first and foremost, be consistent within itself. It will not provide an answer to every question (beware of faiths that claim to do this!!), but will accept questions as invitations to explore further, and at the same time will provide grounding for those explorations. It must allow of rational thought, without being cabined, cribbed, and confined by it. I was born with the ability to think and to reason; surely any faith I hold must utilize and integrate that ability.(1) It must be welcoming to all individuals, and respectful of other faiths and those who hold them. This is not to say that I must stand silently by in the face of a faith which espouses slavery, prejudice, or other forms of injustice, but rather that I can never claim my faith as the one true faith.

There have been a lot of things, over the years, which have troubled me deeply about my faith and its practise and, by extension, my understanding of the Christian faith and its practise. Is life as we know it, life on earth, really about arranging for life after death? To what does my faith call me in the living of the here and now? What of poverty, pollution, discrimination, and a host of other social problems I see all around me? It seems quite obvious that there is evil in the world, though the definitions of that troubling word vary widely. Where does it come from, and how do I, a a person of faith, respond to its presence and actions? ... What is actually happening when I pray for someone? Am I changing God's mind, or perhaps getting God's attention? Does it matter if there are lots of people praying for the same thing? What about the poor friendless soul who has no one to pray for him or her? ... How much is God directly responsible for? Accidents? Illness? Death? Good fortune? Wealth? If God is responsible for all of these (or any of them), how does God decide who wins and who losses?

And then there's Jesus. If Jesus was truly conceived by the Virgin Mary from the Holy Spirit, what did (or does) he have to do with me? My father was decidedly human, and, while I don't remember it, I have a pretty good hunch how I was conceived, and it was pretty earthy and earthly. I don't feel much in common with someone of divine parentage (even if it's only one parent). And what was all this about the cross - Jesus dying for my sins? Just how did that work? If God sent his only son to die for my sins, then it seems to me that God should be extradited from heaven, arrested, tried, and locked up for extreme child abuse and probably murder to boot. Do I want to worship a God like that?

Not surprisingly, the questions kept coming. Each one answered seemed to spawn at least three more. I became convinced that, if faith were to be really meaningful in today's world, it had to be a faith that would not only survive but welcome active, inquiring, searching questions. Every question had to be fair game. Anything less would be, for me, no more than a cardboard cut-out, without real strength or meaning. Buckminster Fuller once said that Faith is better than belief. Belief is when someone else does the thinking. Over the years I have come to that kind of faith, though it is still evolving for me, and hopefully will continue to evolve as long as I am alive to evolve with it. This, then, is the current shape of my faith.

One of the few aspects of the divine about which many people agree is that, whatever and however the divine is, it (or he, or she) is beyond the understanding of humanity. That is, it is not possible for us to fully understand or know the divine. For thousands of years, we have used the language of metaphor to try to express our sense of the divine. God is our father does not mean that God (or whatever term we choose for the divine) is our biological male parent, but rather that the relationship between God and us shares some characteristics of the relationship between father and daughter or son. It is the language of metaphor, which is, as Greta Vosper rightly points out, is our way of describing things that we have difficulty describing.(2) Sallie MacFague, in her book Metaphorical Theology(3), explores the effect and power of metaphor on our language, thought, and worldview in great and fascinating depth. She makes it clear that we get ourselves into trouble when we begin to literalize these metaphors, to make them into definitions. Thus the metaphor God is our father may be helpful in understanding an aspect of the divine. When taken as a literal statement, it loses its power to elicit thought and reflection (as metaphors are intended to do), and becomes definitive and exclusive of other notions and ideas. The result of such literalization is, invariably, impoverishment of thought and the creation of artificial and destructive boundaries. The metaphor created to draw closer to the divine winds up limiting that relationship when we take it as a definition. This literalization of metaphors has been a central problem with Christian orthodoxy.

We use metaphors to talk about the divine because we do not and cannot know the divine with any precision or completeness. This need not make us throw up our hands in despair and turn away from all that smacks of the divine. Instead, we can continue to explore, reflect, and discuss the divine, knowing always that such discussions are inevitably metaphorical in nature, and that full and complete knowledge and assurance will never be the end of such a discussion, and thus cannot be its goal. This flies in the face of the profoundly modern notion that everything can be understood if we just work on it hard enough and reduce it to sufficiently small component parts that we can understand them one at a time. For me, the knowledge that complete knowing is not possible is an invitation to an openness of depth and exploration, with the goal being the journey itself, rather than its conclusion.

For several years now, I have thought of the divine as pervasive desire for the good of all creation. Though none of these words is particularly complicated, there is a wealth of meaning in their combination. There is, for instance, no article in front of pervasive. It feels presumptuous to me to declare that God is the one and only such desire, as the word the would suggest. I have no idea what other such desires might be, or where they would come from, but it is beyond me to deny them any possibility of existence. Similarly, it is beyond me to assert or even suggest that they do exist, as the word a would do. Thus the divine is pervasive desire...., with neither definite nor indefinite article attached.

Pervasive says much about the location of the divine. In a word, it is everywhere, all the time. The Oxford Dictionary defines pervasive as spreading widely through something.... This takes away the comforting distance which traditional senses of a theistic(4) God offer. While it may be humbling to think of God as sitting on a great throne beyond the sky, it is also a source of some comfort to know that God is safely far away. It is this sense of God as somewhere other than here that gives meaning to the phrase prayer of approach, with which so many worship services open each Sunday morning. A prayer of approach to a truly pervasive divinity makes no sense at all. We cannot approach - come near to in distance, time, or standard, according to the OED - a divinity which is spread completely throughout the universe. The divine of which I speak cannot be distanced from us, however much we may choose not to make it a part of ourselves. It is, simply and always, right here.

There can be a very real human experience of distance from the divine. Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish mystic, explored this extensively in his writings on the dark night of the soul, and others have also described the experience and its differing levels of intensity. But in all cases, these are experiences of our perception of distance from the divine. God - pervasive desire - is always right here, right now. When we experience a distance from the divine, it is a sign that we need to look within, to discern what is feeding that experience. God has not left the building.

Perhaps more challenging to get my head around has been the notion that it is not a case of a divinity desiring the good of all creation. Rather, the divine is that desire. This means that the divine is neither being, nor creature, nor even entity in any of the usual senses of that word. It is pure desire. This undercuts fatally the theism so deeply entrenched in Christian tradition and orthodoxy, and reflected in so much liturgical language and hymnody. If we are to relate to this sense of the divine, we will have to find new ways of doing so.

One way of relating to this sense of the divine is to simply open ourselves to it. We are, after all, creatures who desire all sorts of things. Often, when that desire is very strong, we substitute the word need. Whichever word we choose, the underlying truth is that we want a great deal, both material - a newer house, a bigger (or, in today's world, smaller) car, food, shelter, and so on down an endless list - and immaterial - peace, contentment, satisfaction, happiness, love, power, control, and so on down another equally endless list. We are no strangers to the reality of desiring. What if we began to actually desire, deep down within us, the good of all creation? Such an internal desire would make the divine an integral part of us and, inevitably, vice versa. We would be, to use very traditional language, in the image of God. More directly, and more accurately, we would engage our own process of divinization, of becoming ourselves truly divine. As desire for the good of all creation becomes ever more deeply a part of us, we become more and more motivated to fulfill that desire, to bring about that good in real and tangible ways. It shapes our day to day decisions, from what kind of bread to buy, to how to spend the time we have at our discretion, to how we view our fellow human beings and all others with whom we share this planet. This pervasive desire flows through and fills every aspect of our being. Divine desire and our desire merge, and we are transformed. My understanding is that, the more completely that merging of desire takes place, the more fully we become human and simultaneously the more fully we become divine. The true fullness of humanity is divinity. Jesus is one, though far from the only, model of that fullness and unity.

God, for me, is this sense of pervasive desire. Yet that, in and of itself, is not enough to be truly helpful. The question arises immediately: Desire for what? The answer that I have arrived at is that this divine desire is for the good of all creation. Good, in this context, suggests that which encourages and supports life, in all of its myriad on-going forms. This good is measured by its effect on all creation. And it is here that definitions, inevitably, become less clear than we might wish.

Creation, as used here, is a broad and sweeping term. It includes all we know of creation on earth - the planet itself and all creatures who inhabit it, as well as what we term the inanimate parts of the planet - the rocks, the mountains, etc. (When one looks at the continental drift caused by shifts in the tectonic plates which make up the outer surface of the earth, the term inanimate becomes a little shaky even for the mountains and land masses.) We as humans are certainly included as part of this creation, though definitely not as its pinnacle. Like every other part, we are uniquely gifted and enabled - evolution has seen to that - and also uniquely dependent on other parts of this spaceship earth. We are part of a vast interdependent web of relationships, neither greater nor lesser than other parts. This corner of creation, this planet island, is what we know best, and what we most influence by our actions (or inactions). Acting for its overall good is the living out of divine desire. Our awareness that creation is in fact far larger than just this planet is helpful in keeping our perspective and our sense of place and humility, but it is our planet itself which forms the focus of our actions and thinking.

It is rarely clear just what action in a given situation will produce the highest level of good for all creation, or even for this planet. The effects of an action may be very helpful on an immediate, micro scale - spraying to kill plant-eating bugs may improve crop yields, for instance - but decidedly harmful on a larger scale - that same spray may kill other bugs (eg honeybees) which are essential to other crops, or which are essential for the smooth working of the food chain. Clearly, to act out of this divine desire requires all of our abilities to think, reason, research, and so on. It need not reduce us to immobility while we wait for crystal clear understanding of the implications of our actions. In the complexities of the world (ie the part of creation which we know best and most intimately), we will never know all we would like to know before making decisions. We will always act on the basis of partial information and understanding. Yet act we must, if anything is to happen at all. Our true worship of this divine desire is to act with it as our first priority. Choosing an action because it will make my life better (measured on whatever scale you choose) pales beside choosing on the basis of what is likely to generate the most good for the largest segment of creation as a whole. Discerning, in a given situation, which action best responds to that desire involves all we can bring to the process - thinking, reflection, meditation, research, prayer, and whatever other processes of discernment we have developed. The crucial step is to make that desire for the good of all creation our primary one, from which all others must flow. Current understandings of original creation - the big bang theory, for example, or the Universe Story as developed by Brian Swimme - are examples of this desire realized. Evolution is this desire enacting itself in the world.

I believe that a component of this desire that is God is the presence of healing energies throughout the universe. There have been healers throughout all of recorded human history. This is most often understood - and explained - as divine intervention in human affairs, to the benefit of some but not others. My understanding is rather that some people are gifted in ways that allow them to connect with the healing energy which surrounds us all, and through that connection are able to facilitate the healing of others. The actual healing is the real experience; the language surrounding it - In the name of Jesus, be healed! for example - is merely our explanation of what is happening. I believe that Jesus was such a healer, and that there have been many others throughout history. (There are more healing stories in the Bible than all the other miracle stories combined, and there are more healing stories told of Jesus than all of his other miracles combined.) These healings are not a matter of a God (a theistic God, to use Spong's term) deciding that one person will be healed, another will die, a third will suffer for another few years, and so on. Such a capricious God is, to say the least, highly offensive to me, and not a God I might worship. Rather they are instances of people connecting with the healing energies which fill the universe, a reflection of God: pervasive desire for the good of all creation.

Was Jesus divine? Not in the sense that question is traditionally understood. Any decent DNA test would have cleared the Holy Spirit of paternity in Jesus' case.(5) He was fully 100% human in his conception, birth, life, and death. He did have the gift of healing, as others have throughout time. I cannot say, at this remove of time and space from him, just what went through his mind during his ministry. I do believe, from the New Testament accounts, that people around him experienced the presence of God in ways they could not readily understand, but which they also could not mistake. There was, clearly, something very different and compelling about this man. I have found that the image of God as pervasive desire for the good of all creation fits into the NT accounts very well, and offers a comprehensive way of understanding and interpreting his life as we know it. Thus when I speak of Jesus and his relationship to this divine desire, I am speaking metaphorically, rather than literally. I know of no one who can say with any authority or assurance what Jesus was thinking. But I do believe that using metaphors such as this one provides deep insight into his story, and its meaning for us today.(6)

I believe Jesus was, or became, acutely aware of divine desire for the good of all creation, and, in looking at the world around him, saw ways in which this desire was being frustrated by human action, and also saw ways in which this desire could be lived into fruition. He understood this desire to be the highest desire of which he was capable, and he took it into himself more and more throughout his life. Sometimes it forced him to make major changes. He once tried to exclude a Gentile woman from his ministry simply because she was not Jewish, and she brought him up short with her response, using humour, word play, and a very sharp wit (and sharp tongue!). Jesus realized that she was as much a part of creation as anyone else, and changed his practise to include the Gentiles in his ministry. (Mark 7:24-31, retold in Matthew 15:21-28) He was not born perfect; he was born human, and spent his life living into the fullness of being human. As he lived more and more into that desire for the good of all creation, he became more and more fully human, more and more fully filled and guided by that desire, and thus more and more divine. The fullness of humanity, for me, is to live fully into that desire for the good of all creation. The fullness of humanity is thus, in and of itself, divine. Divinity is not a distant state of a distant deity; it is, rather, integral to being human, something which each person is capable of attaining, or at least of moving closer to. Jesus is my primary image of what that looks like. It would be insufferably presumptuous of me to assert that it is only humans who can live into divinity. It seems only reasonable that other parts of creation can also, each in their own way, live into divinity. Because I am human, I cannot see that path for others, but I certainly cannot assert that it does not exist.

Do I want to be like Jesus? Not in the usual sense. I certainly don't want to imitate him; that would be absurd. He was Jesus and I am me; we are half a planet and two millennia apart. To try to be the same would be crazy. But I would like very much to become who I am with the same integrity that he became who he was, and, like him, to make the desire for the good of all creation my overwhelming passion. In that sense, I name myself as a Christian, a follower of Jesus.

One further note. Did Jesus die for my sins? No, in a word. (It is at this point that, in the past, I have been told that I am most definitely not a Christian.) Jesus died in a particularly horrible, though not very unusual, way - he was crucified as a public example, executed as a common criminal, because he refused to yield primacy of place in his life to anything but the desire for the good of all creation. He understood that what he was doing might win him no friends in high places. Then as now, the good of all creation is rarely good for the powerful elites of creation. But to avoid alienating those elites, he would have had to mute his voice and muffle his actions. This he would not do, with inevitable consequences. His integrity is, for me, both powerful example and compelling challenge, which I try to answer in my living. For me, that is vastly more meaningful than any notion of Jesus dying for my sins.

What, then, of prayer? Is it merely meaningless words uttered to someone who doesn't exist, having no effect at all on anything? Or, to paraphrase slightly Shakespeare's far more eloquent words, is prayer merely words that are but a walking shadow that strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more; a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.(7) Well, not quite. I still pray. Not being particularly disciplined, I don't pray at certain times each day, or in fact with much regularity at all. But I do pray, sometime with words, aloud; sometimes with words, but silently, and sometimes in complete silence of mouth, mind, and heart (or as close as I can get to that silence). Perhaps it is a habit left from earlier expressions of faith, perhaps it is more mystical (especially the prayer of silence and stillness), perhaps it is something else. I am not particularly interested in such distinctions. What does interest and engage me is the fact that the experience of this kind of prayer seems to draw me into deeper intimacy with divine desire, or perhaps more accurately, it seems to draw divine desire more deeply into me - who I am, how I live. I also find that such prayer is one of the ways that my theology continues to develop and expand. There is some small leprechaun of the mind that trips me up when I lapse back into traditional prayer language, and I seek other ways to express whatever it is that is in me trying to find expression. That seeking, though often difficult, is also often helpful.

And prayer does other things as well. I am not fortunate enough to have the gift of healing, of tapping into universal healing energy on another's behalf (or on my own behalf, for that matter). I was, many years ago, briefly part of a small group which did seem to bring about some healing for some people. At that time, I understood what was happening as God (or God's spirit) responding to our fervent prayer. I understand it differently now, but I do not doubt its reality. Praying for someone else is the best I can do to connect that person with healing energy. I don't know how much good I actually do, and I'm not sure how much my knowing matters. Certainly I would like to be able to effect healing with each prayer (though the responsibility of deciding then whom to pray for would be difficult in the extreme). But the best I can do is simply pray for someone's healing, so I do that. In doing it I feel more connected to divine desire as well as to the one for whom I pray, and I simply trust the there is some benefit to the one prayed for. One thing I am sure of is that, if I do not pray, I will exert no change whatsoever.

These various forms of prayer remain important to me. In ways that I do not understand, they help me to open myself more and more to divine desire, and to recognize ways of living that desire in the world. Prayer both challenges and fuels my compassion, my awareness, my sense of justice, and my passion for making the world a better place. I have come to realize (after fighting the realization for quite a while) that I don't have to understand the workings of prayer in my life; I need only accept it. Somehow, it seems to find its rightful place.

These understandings, this faith, has earned me the names of atheist and non-Christian on occasion. I don't accept either name. My understandings are certainly non-traditional, but for me, they are very much in line with the divinity I encounter in the Bible (which has become one of my favourite books, by the way) and in the world around me. I find nothing in the New Testament which tells me that my understanding of Jesus is off the rails. Being a Christian has become, for me, neither a matter of following a set of rules laid down long ago and interpreted by a variety of people in a variety of settings, nor a preoccupation with ensuring that my life after death is as satisfactory (and satisfying) as possible. It is rather a matter of bringing all my resources to bear on understanding who this man Jesus was and who he is for me today, and living that understanding into reality each day.

Faith has definitely not gotten easier, but it certainly has gotten more interesting, and it has become deeply connected with the world in which I live. Any possible world beyond the grave as a distinct and self-aware being of some sort with some connection with the creature I am now is beyond my knowing and thus pointless for me to worry about. I do understand that the components of my body - the atoms, molecules, etc. - will, when I die, return to the larger creation of which they have always been a part, and I am comfortable with that notion. What matters most to me is how I live here and now. It is my faith that guides and enriches that living, both for me and (hopefully) for the world in which I live. I would not have it any other way.

NOTES:

  1. This thought is hardly original with me. Galileo Galili (1564 - 1642) wrote: I do note feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. It is worth noting that Galileo was tried for heresy in 1633, and was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life and had all publications, past and future, banned by the church. The publication ban was not fully removed until 1835; in 1992 Pope John Paul II officially conceded that Galileo's heliocentric theory was correct. Change is often difficult and slow in the church.
  2. Vosper, Greta: With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important than What We Believe." (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2008; p. 113.)
  3. McFague, Sallie: Metaphorical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982)
  4. Theistic and theism as used here are very useful words to describe God who is out there - independent, discreet, autonomous, and able to tinker in human affairs as he/she/it chooses. The notion is developed extensively by John Shelby Spong in Why Christianity Must Change or Die (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), and in several of his other books.
  5. I included this statement in a sermon one year, about two weeks before Christmas. The reaction I got was interesting: two people (both in their 70's) thanked me for saying it, adding I've always suspected that! No one else commented at all.
  6. See Metaphorical Theology, op. cit.
  7. Macbeth, Act V, Sc. 5