Category Archives: Theology

Death Trilogy

Given the centrality of the Good Friday/ Easter event in the church, the movement from life to death to life brings with it a renewed consciousness of an old companion; one which has been with us from the moment of our births: our deaths. Consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, for good or for ill, the fact that we will die one day affects much of what we do with our lives.  We choose how we deal with the recognition of our finitude (finiteness); here are three.

Avoiding Death

Weary Traveler: “Why in the name of heaven did they build the railway station three miles away from the village?”

Helpful Porter:  “They must have thought it would be a good idea to have it near the trains, sir.”

A few years ago I attended a conference on renewing churches.  It was quite clear, as the leader described the different stages of a church’s life – incline, recline and decline – that all of the churches I have had the privilege to serve were in their declining years.  Is Leopold Uniting Church one of them? I leave that to others to answer. But unlike our individual lives, which grow old and die no matter what we do, the death of a church is optional.

Although most churches that go into decline follow the downward slope into nothingness, death is not inevitable if the people are willing to make the necessary changes.   Of course, being human, people usually prefer to condemn the church to death rather than change, simply because dying is more comfortable than changing.

In this year of transition, Leopold has the opportunity to choose life. 2018 is not a leap year, but we can make it one.  We can choose to leap out of the comfortable rut that will lead to the ultimate death of this congregation, to leap into job of building true community in this place, and to leap ahead in the areas of evangelism, social action, outreach and spiritual growth.

Facing Death

To a disciple who was obsessed with the thought of life after death, the Master said, “Why waste a single moment thinking of the hereafter?”

“But is it possible not to?” asked the disciple. “Yes,” was the reply.

“How?”

“By living in heaven here and now.”

“And where is this heaven?”

“It is the here and now.”

When one studies the gospels, seriously and critically, one is often surprised to discover that Jesus seemed to have little or no interest in life after death.  In fact, he said, in effect, that to be concerned about it was a sure way to miss out on what he called eternal life or life in the Kingdom.  Yet many in the church seem to place a great deal of weight on the promise of heaven after they die.

The concept of heaven does not come from Jesus.  It evolved in the few hundred years after Jesus and became a fixture in the mythology that pervades popular religion.

Such religious ideas are human creations that take the place of real faith.  Human religion says. “I believe in ________, be it life after death, judgment, salvation, et al.

There may be a heaven.  I certainly am not in a position to say yes or no.  I do not know and, indeed, the answer is not knowable.  I do know that life in its fullness is a product of faith.  Real faith does not say, “I believe in…”; rather, it says simply, “I believe!”  When one lives by faith there is no reason to ever ask the question about heaven.

Challenging Death

The lament of a bishop:

 “Wherever Jesus went there was a revolution; wherever I go people serve tea!”

Prophecy is not, as many believe, the prediction of some event in the distant future. The Biblical prophets did not foretell so much as forthtell.  That is, they analysed the present in light of God’s will and, from their analysis, drew conclusions about tomorrow and the consequences it would bring from today’s choices.  In other words, they identified sin and named it for what it was.

Elijah was forced to flee for his life into the desert because his proclamations upset Queen Jezebel; Hosea denounced the political intrigue in Israel and proclaimed the fall of the royal house of Jehu; Amos decried the grievous disregard of the elementary principles of social justice and predicted the destruction of the nation because of it; Micah called attention to the corruption of the government of his day. If there were no limitations of space or reader attention span, I could write many pages describing the role of the prophets with regard to the government of the day.

The vocation of an ordained minister is often defined by three essential roles: pastor, priest and prophet.  When people tell me, as has sometimes happened, that I shouldn’t mix religion and politics, they are saying that I should ignore a third of my vocation (prophet), thereby forsaking the responsibility that was put upon me when I was ordained.

However, the prophetic role does not belong only to the ordained, but to anyone who would be a disciple of Jesus, the one who challenged death in order to proclaim God’s will…..and won!

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The stories that begin each of the parts of the trilogy are from the writings of Anthony de Mello, S.J.

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 symbolic stories, which 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 depreciated 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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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:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MYsx6WArKY&t=61s

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