All posts by bobuc

The Religious Role of the Imagination

Most of us in the Ocean Grove/ Barwon Heads Uniting Church were born into a ‘modern’ world. That is to say, we entered  a culture that functioned according to a modernist paradigm; i.e. where people were confident that knowledge about reality came through the scientific method and, with this knowledge, it was possible to describe, define and predict how the world worked. We had the faith that technology would eventually be able to make life better and fix all our problems.

Yet, even as we were being born, the seeds of a new post-modern paradigm were emerging and, over the last few decades, it has supplanted the modernist viewpoint. People are increasingly dubious about the ability of the technological society in which we live to solve our problems. Logic and reason are no longer recognised as sufficient to provide the path to a fuller quality of life.

In rebellion against the technocratic society, some people have been turning, or rather returning, to nature. In rebellion against reason, they are turning to fantasy, as evidenced by the fad-like popularity of the works of J.R.R. Tolkein in the 1960’s, Star Wars in the 70’s, and Harry Potter into the 21st century. In rebellion against the reality of object consciousness (what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch), there has been a turn toward religion, but not to the mainstream institutional churches. The growth has been in the charismatic movement, the fundamentalist pseudo-Christian churches, small sects and eastern style cults and New Age movements.

In a nutshell, people are becoming dissatisfied with reality as it has generally been delineated, and they are looking for a new reality beyond the borders of science and objective reason, to find it in fantasy, mythology, mysticism and experiential highs, whether this be found in nature, religion or drugs. A need is being expressed, which should find satisfaction in Christianity. What more powerful symbol can there be to represent a new reality than the Realm of God? Yet the mainstream denominations have lost much of their ability to convey this image to people in such a way that it is internalised and manifested in behaviour, so the new post-modernist culture follows dubious versions of ecstasy in the absence of more authentic ones. A religion that cannot provide hope for new possibilities has no real basis for existence. In the case of Christianity, if the images of the coming Realm of God and the New Being in Christ are no longer dominant, then the Church has lost the very foundation upon which it was formed.

I think the missing ingredient, both in the church’s proclamation and its ability to be heard, is imagination. If human imagination is not developed and engaged, it lessens the ability of people to understand the deeper significance of religious symbols, and hinders the internal recreation of the experiences that lay behind the symbols and the mythology in which they are couched. The end result is a trivialisation of religion, which most people then find hard to relate to the world in which they live.

Modernism failed religion because it is impossible to totally objectify faith. Attempts to do so in creeds and doctrines must inevitably fall short of full understanding, and our emphasis on them has demeaned the importance of experience in religious knowledge.

Religion is a set of symbols that defines the nature of reality for the believer. A symbol makes present that which it signifies, and is a means by which an experience can be stimulated; that is, something to which people personally can respond by living themselves into it. Symbols communicate at both an intellectual level and an emotional level, and thus allow us to get below the mere objective facts about faith in order to understand the nature of faith. For example, Jesus used symbols such as the Realm of God and the symbolic stories that we call parables.

Though the majority of adults are aware of the possible depth of meaning in religious symbols, they tend to narrow the meanings so as to reduce the impact of symbols to the nature of mere signs; for example, the elements of communion are reduced to mere metaphors for the body and blood of Jesus, rather than effectively creating the body and blood of Jesus within us, or the Realm of God is understood as just another term for heaven, rather than the new being, the new creation, the new possibilities into which we are transformed.

Part of the problem has been the emphasis in our culture and our educational system on the development of powers of observation, reason and logic at the expense of development of the imagination, creativity and fantasy. A young child has both sets of capacities, and if the child is to develop, it is necessary to teach him/her to distinguish fact from fantasy. However, in the pursuit of this objective, fantasy is often presented in such a way that the child perceives it to be unwanted and inferior to factual reality, and so the nurture of the creative imagination is neglected. The child develops the notion that the only worthwhile reality is based on factual, scientifically verifiable experience, and a line is then drawn between reality and fantasy. It reminds me of some Asians who distinguish between Catholic and Christian, not realising that Catholicism is a valid expression of Christianity. In the same way, fantasy is a valid expression of reality.

When adults cannot use their imaginations, they cannot live the God-story in which they exist, because they cannot create images beyond those of their past objective experiences, i.e. they still do not understand the symbols that communicate this God-story.

Amos Wilder contends that “imagination is a necessary component of all profound knowing, all remembering, realising and anticipation, all faith, hope and love where engagement with life has taken place.”

Psychologist George Kelly understands the human being to be alive and kicking from the beginning, always moving in the direction of increased meaning; a creature who begins a quest at birth to answer the questions: Who am I? Where am I going? How will I fit in? A person’s instinctual personal processes are channeled by the way in which events are anticipated; i.e. the very essence of life is the use of the present to bridge the past with the future. The function of the human mind is to use its understanding of the past in order to reach into the future, so as to create visions that are otherwise obscured by the fog of time. This is the process by which people shape their future, and whence all premeditated actions spring. It is the gift that envisages that which cannot yet be seen. Without the capacity to imagine a future, we would all die of hopelessness.

Religion provides the symbols on which the imagination can feed, and create answers to the questions about meaning. Without imagination religion has little value.

There is danger in trying to restrict reality to the modernist framework. Religious thinking is based on symbols because symbols keep the borders of reality fluid and open. They give scope to the imagination to evoke the vision that must precede the message. Old words don’t reach across new gulfs; imagination must go half-way to meet new dreams. Thus imagination must be enlisted to enlarge our consciousness, create the new view of reality that lays at the depth of our symbols, push us into a new sense of the possible and valuable, and bring back our capacity to experience the sacredness that is in us.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the forward-looking element of the imagination. It is manifested in basic forms: fantasy and hope. The difference between them is as unclear as the border between reality and unreality. Nevertheless, a distinction must be made, as fantasy does not usually lead to action, and when it does, it is often the wrong action, because it is not grounded in an external reality. Hope, on the other hand, is founded upon trust in some aspect of the external reality, and usually leads to action in anticipation of the hoped-for possibilities.

This does not mean that fantasy is unimportant. Fantasy may be defined as something which denies, in its premise, some feature of the real world. It is often deprecated in our culture, but if one cannot fantasise, it is also unlikely that hope is possible. Theologian Harvey Cox believes that fantasy is illustrative of the image of God in the human being. It is that creativity that allows us to create from nothing, and thus must be cherished and nurtured. The inner life of fantasies are filled with manifestations of divine grace in faith, hope and love.

Tolkein said that fantasy, “gives us freedom from the domination of observed facts,” and thus it may be understood as escape from a reality that is oppressive and dehumanising. It is more than mere escapism, however, for it serves to attest to a sacred order of goodness.

For the followers of a religion, fantasy is a very useful tool, allowing one to obtain a deeper degree of understanding of the symbols that the followers of Jesus used to create the mythology in which the Christian message is hidden. Fantasy is to the individual as myth is to culture. The enchantment, mystery, timelessness and wonder that fantasy conveys are the same qualities that are required to express today’s sacred myths. These myths were formed as a result of the experience, not just the contemplation, of a mysterious reality. Our capacity for fantasy also can put us into that mysterious experience through our creative imagination.

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Dealing with Youth Crime

The following is not my creation, but it parallels my thoughts on the matter, and comes from the Synod. It was published in The Age on March 8th.

The Victorian government needs to follow through on the lessons from other countries in reducing youth crime (‘‘Damning report on youth justice’’, The Age, 7/3). The parts of the US that have adopted the ‘‘lock ‘em up and treat ‘em mean’’ approach towards teenagers who break the law have seen disastrous results. A report released by the Harvard Kennedy School in October 2016 concluded the hard evidence showed this approach reduced community safety, destroyed the future of young people and wasted large amounts of government revenue that could be better spent addressing the causes of crime.

By contrast, the New Zealand government has adopted an approach of seeking to rehabilitate teenagers who break the law, get their lives back on track and heal the community. In the past six years youth crime in New Zealand has dropped by 40 per cent and the number of children appearing in court has dropped to its lowest number in 20 years. The approach has been to foster greater collaboration between schools, government agencies, community organisations and the police to better support families to address their children’s behaviour that causes them to break the law.

Mark Zirnsak, senior social justice advocate, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Uniting Church in Australia

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Palms or Passion

The Sunday before Easter is usually called Palm Sunday, recalling Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but it is also called Passion Sunday, complete with a different set of Bible readings from the lectionary, as the beginning of the Holy Week journey to the cross.  Not surprisingly, churches prefer to make a big thing of the palm side of the occasion. It is less somber, the children get to wave palm branches and, let’s face it, everyone loves a winner.

Yet, I have always had trouble with this. If the story of Jesus’ entry on a donkey is historical it casts a shadow over Jesus.  In the book of Zaccheus 9:9 we hear  this messianic reference:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!

Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Lo, your king comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

In the story of Jesus being tempted in the Wilderness by Satan, the temptations were all attempts to lure Jesus into one of the roles expected of the Messiah.  He refused them all, but if he really did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, he would have been evoking Jewish expectations of the messiah.  For Jesus to do this would be to give into the temptation he had previously refused.

More likely, Jesus’ entry on a donkey is a story made up within a later Christian tradition in order to proclaim the belief that Jesus was the expected Messiah.  This being the case, I think the passion emphasis is the best way to start Holy Week.

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What if Jesus Didn’t Rise from the Grave?

We are getting to that time of year when media articles will begin to spring up raising questions about Easter. A while back at this time, when The Bulletin magazine still existed, the cover story of was, “Did Jesus Exist?”  You may recall an ABC television special several years ago on the Dead Sea scrolls, in which theologian, Barbara Thierring, put forward some ideas that had arisen from her study of these important documents. Included among them was the theory that Jesus did not die on the cross and, of course, wasn’t raised from the dead either.

Though believers may not give much credence to such ideas, what if future discoveries were to prove the sceptics right?  What if some bones were found with Jesus’ DNA, proving Jesus did not die and rise in the way that the Bible tells us?  Could we say, “So what!” or would our faith fall in a heap?

Does Christianity depend on the death & resurrection of Jesus?

Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest, tells the story of the Master who gave his teaching in parables, to which his disciples listened with pleasure, but also with occasional frustration, for they longed for something deeper.  The Master was unmoved.  To all their objections he would say, “You have yet to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a human being and the Truth is a story.”

Like this Master, and like Jesus, the Gospel writers used stories to bring us closer to the Truth.  I wonder if we’re missing the point of the Easter story if its truth for us hinges on its historicity.  Perhaps we can legitimately say to those who put forward alternate theories to explain the events of Holy Week, “So what!”

Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but a new creation” (6:15).  In 1st Corinthians 15:12-17, Paul proclaims resurrection as the essential element of our faith; in Galations he says it is the ‘New Creation.’  Perhaps then, for Paul, the two terms, resurrection and New Creation, are synonymous.  Paul, a transformed Saul, experienced the ‘New Creation’ of which he wrote.  He experienced the death of his Old Being (Saul) and was resurrected as a New Being (Paul).

Theologian, Paul Tillich wrote, “If I were to sum up the Christian message in two words, I would say with Paul: it is the message of a New Creation.”  Paul wrote in the second letter to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in union with Christ, he is a new being; the old state of things has passed away; there is a new state of things.” (5:17)

Tillich went on to say, “Christianity is the message of the New Creation, the New Being, the New Reality, which has appeared with the appearance of Jesus who, for this reason and just for this reason, is called the Christ…”

As one studies human religious history from the very earliest times, it seems people of all times and all cultures have been aware of a reality that transcends the physical reality.  Our experience of this invisible reality comes with the sense that it is at the very foundation of the seen reality.

Humans have referred to this reality in many ways, including the use of the idea of G-O-D, but it is so invisible that it eludes description.  G-O-D is but a word symbol – an idea – but the reality of which we speak is beyond words, beyond ideas, beyond every category of though. As one ancient Hindu writing puts it, “No word from a human tongue has ever soiled it with a name.”  The best that we can do is to evoke an awareness, even an experience, of this invisible realm through our worship, our symbols and, importantly, through our stories.

The goal of our human spiritual journey is to bridge the gap between our physical reality of time and space and finite life, in order to see and participate in the invisible reality beyond time and space and finitude.  Participation in this invisible reality, the foundation of life, is that of which Paul spoke when he talked of the New Creation or the New Being.

We all live in the old state of things, but the promise of Christianity is the participation in the new state of things.  We have known ourselves in our old being.  Have we also experienced something of a New Being in ourselves?

Though we cannot describe this new state fully, Paul helps us by saying what it is not: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but a New Creation.”  In other words, it matters not whether one is Jew or gentile; only whether or not one participates in the New Reality.  No religion, as such, produces the New Being.  Hence, religious rites, such as circumcision for the Jews, or baptism or communion for the Christians, do not matter; only the New Creation.  At the bottom line, no religion, no religious belief, including belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, matters one whit.

But Paul is saying that there is something that does matter; something that judges our religions and us.  There is a New Creation, and we are asked to participate in it.

The Easter faith we proclaim did not arise because Jesus died and was raised.  It arose because Jesus led people into an experience of the New Creation.  In his life he bridged the gulf and experienced the invisible reality that supports all life.  He brought his disciples, through his teaching and his example, to the border of the New Creation.  For some of them, his death broke down the final barrier; they experienced new life, and the way they lived was radically changed.

The experience of something new and wonderful, springing to life from their fear and sorrow, was an experience of what came to be called ‘resurrection.’ As Tillich said, resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future, but it is the power of the New Being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow; eternity is created out of every moment of time.

So we can say to Barbara Theirring and all of those who would challenge the Easter story, “So what!”   Jesus’ resurrection may not be historical fact, but to question it is to ask the wrong question.  The fact is that people have experienced, and still experience, the New Creation.  Jesus’ death and resurrection is a story that contains and proclaims this experience.  It is a story that evokes in us the Truth, and makes us aware that our lives are not ultimately grounded in the physical realm, but in the invisible, infinite reality that we call the Realm of God.

The message of Christianity is not the Christian religion with all of its trappings and beliefs, but a message of the New Reality.  A new state of being has appeared.  Accept it, enter into it, let is grab you, and shout Halleluiah.

The link below will take you to a short talk by Jonathan Haidt, an expert in social psychology and religion, who explains this phenomenon perhaps a bit more clearly than I can:

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What Purpose Lent?

After the pancakes are eaten on Shrove Tuesday, comes Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent. I am guessing that, not having brought up in Catholic homes, most of our members, your minister included, do not have a strong tradition of observance.  Even among those who take Lent very seriously, there is a range of understanding about what this 40-day period before Easter means, and what one should do about it.

This  article from Baylor University will bring greater understanding about Lent’s origin; however, it doesn’t help us decide what should be done about it.

Over the years, I have used Lent as an excuse to involve people in a Bible study, playing on the notion that it should be viewed as a period of preparation for Easter.  Of course, Bible study should be a year-long endeavour, so for what else might Lent be special?  As I ponder this question,  I have a hard time finding anything that one should do in Lent that should not be done every day of the year.  Perhaps this idea of doing something for Lent, such as giving up chocolate or whatever, is misplaced. Is it any more special than any other time in the church calendar?

Ah, the church calendar!  You will be familiar with the changing of liturgical colours of the lectern and communion table drapes and the minister’s stoles.  As they change they remind us we have just crossed a border from one season to another.  The colours themselves are guides to the attitude to be taken: click here for a bit more information.

I find it helpful to view the liturgical year as a guide to my inner journey. The purpose of Lent can’t be described in isolation from its part in the  whole  inner journey that begins in Advent, with its emphasis on God’s coming into the world. It is a time to reflect on one’s needs, i.e. where help from God is required. Advent is a time for hope to be born, but hope must be paired with the patience necessary for perseverance in one’s hoping. Advent recognises the fact that, before any growth can occur, it is necessary to acknowledge that something is lacking, and then imagine something better.

Christmas marks the incarnation of God.  In the outer world, this incarnation has its locus in Jesus, but the nativity story is also a story of God’s birth in you and me. The twelve days of Christmas are about recognising, nurturing and protecting the emerging God in me.

Epiphany, the season of light, tells the story of seeing the emerging God and bringing knowledge about how God is working in my life.  As in Jesus’ life, it is not all plain sailing. God is revealed, goodness is revealed, but enemies emerge.

Lent is a battleground. The human condition exerts its power, and we are faced with the choice between taking the narrow road or the broad way, sacrificing self or protecting self. In practice, Lent is a time of self-examination that exposes where my choices have gone the wrong way, and recommiting to ‘the road less travelled’.

Good Friday is the celebration of my victories on the Lenten battleground, i.e. where I have given myself to ‘the Way’, and Easter symbolises the life that has emerged in these victories.  The season of Easter that follows is a time of appropriating the victory, culminating in Pentecost, which reminds me I am not alone; I am part of something much bigger. Then the long season of ordinary time is a working out of how I can make God real in practical ways in the things I do and say every day.

The year ends on Christ the King Sunday, as it brings attention to both the ways in which I have ceded my life to God over the past year and the future expectation that God will take over my whole life; thus, I am pointed to Advent to begin the cycle over again.

As I relate the role of the church year, I am struck by the fact it is not an agenda for my month by month spiritual life; rather it is a cycle that plays out, not over the course of a year, but day by day, week by week. The liturgical year describes the cycle, and helps us to celebrate each stage in turn, but it is really telling a story of the process that goes on constantly.  God is always yearning to be incarnated in us and asking us to break down the walls we erect against divine intrusion.

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Is Australia Day an Appropriate Theme for Sunday Worship

Of late, there has been much talk in the media and in political discourse about whether or not January 26th is an appropriate date for celebrating a national day, given that, for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, it marks the day that the invasion of their land was begun by the British.  As a third of Australians do not even know why we celebrate Australia Day on this date, and most don’t really care one way or the other, it would seem there is ‘room to move’ on this issue.

The question I face is this: Should we bring Australia Day into Sunday worship?  On one hand, there are worthy principles associated with this day that are worth celebrating; for example, in the words of the editor of The Age (20 Jan. 2108), “It symbolises how we see ourselves as a nation. It speaks to our pride in what we have achieved, and what we hope to become. Ideally, it should speak to our unity as a nation as well.” I would have no trouble merging Australian ideals with the teachings of Jesus as a theme for a Sunday service.  I can imagine that many of the people in the church would welcome such a theme.

On the other hand, Australia Day is a secular holiday.  Any theological association I could imagine would be forced and artificial.  I have regularly avoided Mothers’ Day themes at church for the same reason.  Whilst most people welcome a sermon on mothers, it is simply not the reason we gather to worship.

Another reason for not making Australia Day the subject of a worship service is that it would be hypocritical.  Uniting Church services are begun with an acknowledgment of the original caretakers of the land as a mark of respect to the aboriginal people.  How could we, then, celebrate an occasion that, for them, is a reminder that their land was stolen, beginning  on the very date we are celebrating?

  • Yet, I will continue to bring Australia Day into worship on Australia Day weekend, even if briefly. What the nation has achieved, and what could be achieved as its ideals are pursued, is worthy, not only to be mentioned, but to be celebrated. I think Jesus would join in the celebration gladly.  More importantly, it is useful to highlight on Australia Day the work that yet needs to be done in pursuit of Australian ideals and Christian principles.
    • We still have refugees wasting away in concentration camps (yes, let’s ‘call a spade a spade’);
    • the spectre of racism continues to cast a shadow over our relationship with those of us who are not of Anglo-Saxon heritage or of Christian upbringing;
    • the gap between rich and poor continues to widen;
    • and the health of the planet continues to suffer, with Australians the worst per capita contributors to climate change.

It is also a good time to remind ourselves, even as we celebrate, that January 26th is not the appropriate day on which to mark our nationhood. It is not the birthday of our nation, as some people are wont to argue, for it celebrates the beginning of the colonisation of Australia. Who  celebrates colonisation (except the colonisers)?  The majority of countries have a national day that marks their independence from a colonial power, e.g. July 4th in the USA, i.e., it usually marks the end of subjugation, not the beginning of it.  All but a handful of countries have a national day that commemorates either their independence or the unification of smaller states to form the nation, as with Italy.

No other country celebrates the beginning of its rule by another country, so why should we?  Quite apart from offending the original occupants who were invaded and conquered, it is just perverse. If it is desirable to celebrate Australia, then Federation Day is the obvious and consistent choice, but given that January 1st is already taken by the New Year festivities, how about Banjo Pattersons’s birthday (Feb. 17th)  Or Eureka Stockade Day (Dec, 3rd)?  Then there is March 3rd, the day in 1986 that Australia finally become completely free of British rule.

Come on, folks, use some imagination, and let’s find a day in which all Australians can revel, and in which we Christians can take pride. And we, the people, are the ones who must force a change, because governments simply aren’t very good with issues of morality. Then Jesus will really celebrate with us.

Bob Thomas

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