Fireground, Adelaide Hills

A Thought Experiment

One of my philosophy tutors, Rodney Allen, suddenly launched into a little exhortation one night. He encouraged us not just to read other people, but to think for ourselves, to try and make our own sense of the world from what we were reading. This is for Rodney.

At 50 life seems good. I have grown up children who amaze and inspire me. I am working with my son, who is growing and learning so much. We have our own house (with the bank), and good health.

A great deal of this, given the incredibly precarious nature of life, and the arbitrary arrival of tragedy, is just chance. Just chance that it was Neil that was killed one weekend, and not me... and Ian on another. Shane is dead of cancer, Phuong was drowned. Rosemary fell off a cliff. I survived my car crash, Peter caught me as I fell off the windmill, the bull missed the vital artery.

Some of the blessings come from the path I've have tried to follow. A path based on Christian ethics; love one another; do not return evil for evil; look for justice; don't look for happiness in material goods. Certain paths and choices in life increase the probability of good outcomes just as surely as does looking to the left and right as we cross a street. This might be a reason to follow a Christian path; it is a good ethical guide to life, and directs us toward some good outcomes. But it's not an ethical imperative; you can find similar good guides to life in other religions, which also show the test of time and have transformed practitioners.

For all the goodness it can lead to, the Christian story is a problem for we 21st century people. If we are lucky, some theological education may alert us to problems with the literal truths we were taught in Sunday School, and still hear in far too many ignorant sermons. (So too, should a little common sense!) We may learn a little about the embellishment of stories and different understandings of history. We may read Spong, or someone similar. Those of us who fear him usually underestimate his scholarship. Those for whom he is a breath of fresh air often do not realise how conservative he is! Even at theological college we are steered by all sorts of pressures away from the reality of our faith's history.

The traditional story is of a Jesus come down from heaven, was born as a human being, was crucified and bodily risen again. The probable reality is that this is all story, true or not. Even the version of the story in The Gospel of Mark, where the man Jesus is "adopted" by God, (without the obviously un-historical, and difference, birth narratives of Matthew and Luke) and becomes a remarkable channel for the Divine is doubtful when it comes to actually happening. We know so little about the man, it's fair to question if he even existed as an historical person.

If we are able to separate the message of life and acceptance- grace... if you like- from the literalising veneer laid over the gospel narratives, then we are free to see that most of the Gospel is grand-myth. It has, depending on our point of view, disturbing, or fascinating, similarities to the stories of Dionysus and Osiris, and the other dying and rising Gods.

This similarity is quite exciting. So much that is puzzling or problematic makes sense. So much that is improbable when we insist on a literal man Jesus is no longer an issue. However, neither the gnostic idea that we are some divine spark separated from the Divine, nor the more "orthodox" christian variation of the myth, which localises much more of the Divine in just one man Jesus, works for me. The dying and rising God no longer seizes my imagination. I don't believe it; as a myth it no longer seems to have power to hold me, or empower me. Any story about God must be a symbol at best, (including anything I can say,) but some symbols "work", and some don't.

I think maybe many of us have stayed in the church, turning a blind eye to the unlikely cosmology, concentrating on the social justice or the care of others, and tried to do the gospel. Then we pause to reflect one day and discover we are claimed by a faith we don't believe in! We find we have moved farther than we thought, into territory where Christians would once never have gone. The words of our priest have nonsense; the priest cannot understand us, or is even afraid of us.

The word "God" is a symbol for something we barely understand- something we sense but cannot articulate. As the symbol of the dying and rising God (at least as we first learned it) loses its power to grip us, it loses power to explain reality for us; there is less we can say.

If a person wants to use current popular theology to understand their world, and it somehow works for them, I can live with that. However, as a minister, I cannot teach another person a cosmology, or a world view, that has no reality for me. I can hold you, encourage you, sit with you to the end, but I cannot honestly pray for you. When I breathe the words of a prayer in the cool clean of the morning, or cry a few words in my despair, I do not really know what I am doing; I cannot play the priest for you by doing that. The best I can do is share my sense that life is ultimately worth it, even in the face of death. Saying more is adding a dishonest froth which tries to hide the very little I can do, and trivialises your suffering.

"My God!," cries the good Christian, "You've lost your faith! What do you believe in? Why do you keep going- how can you? How will you know what is true?"

First of all, I have not lost my faith- I've just grown up some more.

How and why do I keep going? I have debts, and I have responsibility to my family. I want to be physically comfortable. I like being with my wife, and growing my veggies. So I work. It means I can eat and pay the bills. Is that enough reason for a life? Hardly-- well, not much of a life, if that's all it is-- but it's what keeps us going much of the time! The day to day, ordinary and banal, tasks and responsibilities get us up in the mornings and often provide a structure for life. They can also be the source of our greatest insights, and much of our ultimate confidence in reality. They are a source of grace.

Sometimes we are blessed to have a job which is interesting, or perhaps, even significant! Along with the structure there comes entertainment and diversion, even the sense of doing something worthwhile.

There is more than this which keeps me going. Life is good. "Good" is hard to define, but life is good. This is my basic statement of faith. Despite all the unfairness and injustice, despite all the suffering, despite so much of what happens being seemingly dependent only upon chance, life is good and worth it. Overall, all that is happening is better than if it did not happen. My sense is that there is some meaning to it all... even if we are creating that meaning as we go. That's why I can "keep going."

How then do I "know" what is true? The good which I have experienced depends on people. It is people who have taught me to enjoy, to be enthralled, to long, and to love. These are individual people whom I know, but also the culture in which I live. In the end, culture is just "people accumulated."

The good of people and culture comes, finally, from justice. The less just a culture, the less of the good there is in it. Justice grows out of empathy. As self interested as it may be in its crudest forms- "you be good to me, and I'll be good to you"- justice finally depends on the recognition that another can feel what I feel. This recognition grows to understand that another's feelings have value, too. This understanding and valuing- this sym-pathy is what distinguishes us from animals. Consideration and valuing of others leads to good.

I trace the good I have experienced in my life to these origins. The primacy of empathy is a profoundly christian understanding of the value of people, and it is a key measure of the value and rightness of theological thinking beyond current traditions. It is the basis of agape (love). Theology that lessens the value of people is not, to use a traditional phrase, of God.

As I struggle then, to hold onto the truths, or even to discover if any worthwhile truth remains, in a religious tradition whose traditional formulations no longer seize my spirit, the empathy-laden-ness of my new speaking about God- my theologising- will be a key measure of its "truth". How much I let that empathy develop toward justice will be the next measure.

Believing, keeping going, and knowing what is true depend on seeking truth. I mean that my theologising needs to be honestly exposed to the reality in which I live. I can't submit to some discipline, or claim truth for some religious assertion if it avoids the normal tests and scrutiny I would apply to any other event. Esoteric knowledge, by its very nature, is hidden from critical scrutiny. It is only ever subject to "friendly review," by people who have a vested interest in it remaining true. How critical will you be of your secret knowledge if it means you lose power over those who do not know? (Even if the reality of that power is simply that you feel superior.)

I was struck by this during the hymns this morning. Hymn 367 spoke of a joy unknown to "sensual minds." I was reminded of Elaine Pagels' study of Irenaeus and his hostility to the gnostics in Beyond Belief. I had an overwhelming sense of the arrogance of gnostics in their "knowing" compared to the ordinary christians. This seems un-Christian to me. I am tempted to say "There is no empathy." Whilst life and spirituality cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator, (do not throw your pearls before swine), their is something wrong with a proud spiritual hierarchy. Greater knowledge should lead to greater humility and greater love. Whilst we may value what we have learned, or be grieved by crassness or shallowness, something in us should also shrink from calling a person "swine."

My experience of those claiming spiritual enlightenment has been sometimes, of pride, often of immaturity, but especially of naivety and credulity. I observe that much celebration of new found knowledge seems to consist of the group reminding itself of its superiority, somehow blind to the insecurity and, perhaps, the lack of knowledge this implies. Wholesale adoption, not of a counter-cultural, but of an anti-cultural (and therefore anti-human), stance by such groups further demonstrates this immaturity and credulity. Biblical literalism, wholesale opposition to any aspect of evolutionary theory, and rampant gender bias are just three examples. The visible indicators suggest a lack of knowledge, and un-spiritual attitudes, not greater knowledge.

The shallow nature of so much that passes for "spiritual knowledge" among those "baptised in the spirit" in quasi-gnostic pentecostalism and charismatic groups cries out a warning. Like every other human endeavour, the spiritual search is full of opportunity for self deception.

We need (and let me be clear, I need) reality checks with industrial strength bullshit detectors, when we find the traditional telling of the faith story is no longer gripping us. I think many of those whom I have criticised above live in this same situation. It might seem a more traditional telling of the story is gripping them. I suggest from my own life experience that, in fact, the traditional story did not grip them. As for me, it did not help them come to grips with the world in which we lived. I too tried to find a better grip by moving in the direction first of conservatism, and then enthusiasm. Neither biblical literalism or the charis-matic movement helped. They moved me further away from a faith that came to grips with world we have to live in.

Constant seeking of more understanding, and constant reality checking are essential for faith that is based in reality rather than wishful thinking. Constant seeking of greater understanding is a refusal of "second best." It is one layer of protection against deception because it will not make do with a lie.

So that is my messy theology- today. I like it. It reminds me of being out in the desert in the night, alone, on foot, with only a fire and water bottle. One can whistle in the dark as the wild cattle roam, and pretend to be safe, and God will look after one and there is no danger. Or one can be at a kind of ease, accepting what is, and still enjoying what can be enjoyed; feeling that elusive and yet constant sense of something more.


To read on some of the authors informing this article try:
John Spong. Why Christianity must change or die
Tim Freke and Peter Gandy The Jesus Mysteries
Pagan Origins of the Christian Myth

Posted April 2005
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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