ADDRESS AT UNITARIAN CHURCH IN CORK, IRELAND
25TH JANUARY 2004
Thank you for the honour of your invitation to come and speak here today and to have the privilege as I hope of sharing in some discussion with you as well as receiving your comments, corrections and questions. Those of you who know something of what I think and believe will be aware that I empathise with the Unitarian spirit and its distinctive values. I believe they are much needed in today's world with its intolerance and many prejudices.
MY OWN FAITH JOURNEY
Rev Stephen Johnson has asked me to say something to you about my own faith journey and about my book. Let me say where I understand myself to be today, in so far as anyone can understand such things. I am a human being who searches for meaning and purpose in his life and who tries all too inadequately to live out an ethical lifestyle reflective of the values I regard as important. I believe in a transcendent god who to my mind is not, strictly speaking, knowable to me during this earthly stage of my human journey. To my mind, the existence of such a god is neither certain nor provable, god is hidden and mysterious. However assuming the existence of this god, I believe it is this one transcendent god that people of all religious faiths reach out towards. However I think it is important to distinguish between what might be called ultimate reality in itself and the symbols, signs, metaphors and myths by which we try to say something about it. To my way of thinking the ultimate or the real transcends human thought and is shrouded in mystery. The religious traditions have evolved as people over many centuries and from within many differing cultures and political systems have pondered and responded in faith to this mystery. This means that I see theology as a form of human speculation, what the theologian Karl Barth called 'rational wrestling with mystery'. My religious tradition has been the Christian one. I find myself more and more conscious today of my sense of 'not knowing', of my agnosticism if you like. But I am also aware of my believing and trusting. "If God is characterized by a love that is all-embracing and inclusive, is there not some sense in which the active loving of God makes a difference to that dynamic reality to which God and Creation, time and eternity, and the visible and the invisible belong? I believe there must be." P.136 Although I do not claim to know what that difference is.
I do not claim to have had any religious experiences as many people do. I mean by that that I do not feel that I have had any direct experience of this ultimate reality that lies beyond our symbols, metaphors and myths. In the context of worship, I might find it comforting to sing a hymn such as 'The Lord's my shepherd I'll not want'. However I do not think of these feelings of comfort as being aroused within me by god directly. The metaphor 'shepherd' is associated by me with feelings of being cared for and of being protected. To my mind, these are feelings which I have projected onto this metaphor. So this means for me, that if I say that in singing this hymn I experience a sense of the care of god for me, strictly speaking what I should be saying is that by focusing on the metaphor of 'shepherd' I awaken feelings of being cared for which have been projected onto this metaphor and which I believe characterise the caring nature of ultimate reality. In other words, I am claiming that I think that I neither know god nor do I really experience god in the sense of really experiencing feeling loved or cared for by god. There is an unbridgeable gulf between me as a believer and the ultimate reality I call 'god'. As far as scriptures of the religious traditions are concerned I find that it is liberating to have an understanding of the scriptures of the major world faith traditions which allows me to say: "that is what people claimed thousands of years ago to be right or to be the will of their god, but what they believed then does not constrain how I think today ".
Have I always thought this way? Well not as a child or a teenager, but since adulthood I have done so and that means now for something over thirty years. I did my theological training for the ordained ministry of the Anglican church in the early seventies in Cambridge. My boyhood faith was challenged and questioned, largely dismantled and slowly reconstructed in a rather different way.
One of the contexts in which I was doing my theology was the growing awareness of how important other religious traditions were to many millions of people. Post-war immigration into Britain was bringing into what had been a predominately Christian culture the faiths and cultures of Asia especially Islam and Hinduism. Both Judaism and Christianity had largely understood themselves to be faith traditions which spoke about a god who had entered human history to choose a nation through which he would work out his purposes for humankind. Christians claimed that through Jesus of Nazareth, a member of that Jewish nation, god had acted in a new and decisive way for the salvation of the world. Members of Islam and of Hinduism living in Christian Britain did not seem to take much notice of Christian claims, they could do without its brand of salvation. This posed a challenge to Christian self-understanding. Gradually a shift in understanding was taking place to see all religious traditions as the human response to the Ultimate and as a search to understand the nature and significance of the transcendent dimension of our lives and as a means to enable people to transform themselves and grow both ethically more responsible and spiritually more wise and loving and more god-centred.
In those days of theological training, I still needed to understand how the doctrines distinctive of Christian faith had come to be formulated, doctrines such as those of incarnation, trinity, and atonement. What did I find? First of all I found controversy, there were many differing and conflicting viewpoints on all these matters. To cut a long story short, it seemed to me that Jesus and his predecessor, John the Baptist, and their disciples were all living as if they expected Jewish apocalyptic myth to be about to be enacted. Theirs was a troubled and weak nation ruled by a vast and powerful Roman empire. They longed for independence and peace. Some Jews of this period thought independence and peace could come about through persistent unrest and armed rebellion, others such, to my mind, as Jesus and John the Baptist, expected a divine intervention by their god and they looked to the speculation known as Jewish apocalyptic myth found in such books as Daniel for how this might all take place. We know now that it didn't. No divine new kingdom got established for the Jews, the Romans were not defeated and driven away.
However after Jesus' death his disciples began to preach that this end-time had begun, and that Jesus was alive again and would soon be returning to them from heaven to judge the world, he had overcome death and defeated sin. They drew on the Jewish apocalyptic myth and gradually built up Jesus' significance until he became both a human and divine figure. I disagreed with these faith claims they were making about him. Like other theologians I came to distinguish, in so far as one could, between what are called the 'Jesus of history' and the 'Christ of faith', the former being the historical member of the ancient community of Israel and the latter a faith figure into which the historical figure had been subsumed. I did not find myself convinced by theologians who still wanted to claim that in some historical sense it was still an essential Christian belief that god had entered our environment and lived out a human life in the person of Jesus, nor did I find it credible to believe that he had died for our sins in some literal sense, nor did I find belief in a Trinitarian god helpful.
In the early years of my ordained ministry I was often troubled by these issues of conscience and theology and would ask myself had I the right to stay on in the church as an ordained minister. Those I consulted assured me there were others of a similar outlook and that I might help in some small way to bring about reform within the Anglican church. So I carried on and my ministry has taken me to work in Belfast, Dublin, Zimbabwe, UK and Trim, Co Meath. I was reticent to speak openly about my views from the pulpit, but where I found individuals questioning traditional doctrines and looking for alternative ways of expressing their convictions, then I was more open about what I really thought myself in conversations with them.
When I returned to Ireland in 1997, having been away for 14 years, I found in my sermons in my parish in Trim that I was asking more questions and presenting my listeners with more alternatives. For example, saying to them this is how some people see this moral issue, this is how others see it, or this is how some understand the authority of scripture, this is how others see it. It was when I started to put up some articles in 2001 expressing my convictions on a church website that objections began which led to my having my authority to work as a priest withdrawn by my bishop for three months from December 2001. This eventually led to a call from this bishop to me to resign my post and when I refused he charged with me with heresy and brought me to the highest court within the church of Ireland. As you may know that heresy trial never finally took place, because for a number of reasons I decided after all that very reluctantly I would resign. During the period from December 2001 and my resignation in May 2002 I received many communications, some supportive and some not. Others expressed their views in the media. I have included a selection of such responses in my book, one of them reads as follows, "The sad situation in which the dean of Clonmacnoise finds himself demonstrates, yet again, that the peculiarly Christian desire for doctrinal uniformity can only make for division and enmity." That is probably a response which strikes a chord within many sympathetic to the Unitarian perspective.
MY BOOK: Tried for Heresy A 21st Century Journey of Faith
My book has a number of appendices at the back, one appendix contains a six part series of dialogues which I wrote in 1978 for the weekly Church of Ireland Gazette. In those dialogues I was presenting the differing understandings of Jesus' significance as they were being expressed at that time. I still stand by some sentences I wrote then in which I said this, "I think that all the religious traditions, Christianity included, contain in their long development and history many misconceptions and mistaken outlooks. I am sure you would agree with me that each generation, each person, must decide for themselves what they believe the truth about God to be; and they ought to search fearlessly for the truth and be prepared to go wherever that search may take them. I feel it is essential to uphold certain approaches to religion: I mean there must be a place for freedom of thought, a place for reason, a tolerant outlook, and space to change and grow." P.248
My book tells the story of my faith development, my sense of identity as a reformer within the Anglican communion, though for most of the time hardly a very active one. I write about my ministry and some other aspects of my life. I describe the story of how I was brought to a heresy trial and look at the question whether there were alternative ways to handle the situation. I mention how after I resigned I started a Peace Studies postgraduate degree in Dublin and speak of the stimulus of having fourteen nationalities represented by the twenty eight people on the course as well as a wealth of human experience that they brought with them. My book also has chapters setting out the theological opinions that I have found most convincing, some of which I have referred to already. I question how far the liturgy as it is presently constructed within the Anglican church is adequate for a 21st century understanding and spirituality and ask whether room might be made for those, admittedly a minority, who might like to experiment with a non-Trinitarian form of worship. I draw attention to the fact that many of the prayers and hymns used in Anglicanism present a picture of an interventionist protector god, and ask whether this reflects the vision of god that many people have today. Do we not sense that the freedom we have been given means that we could destroy ourselves and every member of the human race and the animal kingdom too in nuclear warfare? The rest of the universe would go on its way, there were be nobody to mourn our passing.
My book contains the articles on which my bishop placed his charges of heresy. In them I present what has become for me an important religious symbol - the ring - which for me speaks of an ultimate reality which is committed in love, for better and for worse, to the creation. I have a chapter called Credo in which the beliefs of a number of people as well as myself are included. They are meant to be modern day equivalents to the historic creeds of the church expressing what people deep down really believe. I indicate that mine might change and probably will. Here for what it is worth is the one I wrote at the time,
"As individual and social beings, we are challenged to ascend to the heights of our humanity, avoid sinking to the depths of our depravity.
In beliefs expect diversity, mine evolve. Religions are motorways needing widening. All life is gift; human life is of eternal worth, found loveable by God, who is hidden, active, committed to us for better, for worse.
Religious symbols: wedding ring, journey, fire, light, darkness, horizon, sun, cloud, ocean, wave. The destiny of this risky adventure of life lies over the horizon, in eternity; the meaning of life continues to grow.
Let life be developed and used, be open-minded, courageous, and humorous, seek to adore." P.164
In beliefs expect diversity, my book gives a number of reasons why I think it is realistic to expect such diversity. First I see theological thinking as coming out of people's experiences and search for meaning, such people nearly always will be drawing on and reacting to and re-interpreting one religious tradition or another. Second, following Paul Jones, I accept that religion may function differently in different people's lives and mean different things for them. He gives a number of examples: one person may have a strong sense that to use a biblical phrase, "here we have no abiding city" life is transient, good things always come to an end. For these people real life is found in eternity because the transient has been transcended and left behind. Religion is a way to help you get through this unsatisfying unfulfilling world till at last you cross over to the other side. For another person the function of religion is primarily to do with helping you deal with your sense of guilt, helping you to live with your past and your mistakes, and helping you have a sense that no matter what you are found acceptable and forgivable. For another person religion helps because it characterises life as a battle and a conflict, between good and evil, against injustice. Strength can be found as a believer tries to engage in a movement that seeks to change the structures of power and the systems of inequality. For another person religion has much to do with the search for meaning and purpose and that is how it functions for him or her.
If Paul Jones is correct in his analysis then this is another reason for expecting pluralism and diversity in the religions of our world. While I do not expand at any length in my book I allude to other factors which account for diversity, for example some see the major faith traditions as reflecting patriarchal societies and want to see gender mainstreaming taking place not just at a leadership level but in the theological thinking too, with a vision of god that expresses both masculine insights as well as feminine ones. Another reason for diversity will be the differing stages of faith development through which most people pass, religion will be expressed differently according to whichever stage a person is at. For instance, at one stage people tend to identify the symbol by which they point to the ultimate reality with that ultimate reality itself. Thus for some the Christ symbol means for them that Jesus Christ is to be identified with god, the ultimate reality. For others at another stage of development there is always a distinction to be made between our finite limited human symbols, metaphors and myths and the ultimate unknown reality they seek to approximate. Clearly too social and cultural and political realities also influence a religious tradition - Christianity feels very different if you are in an Orthodox church in Moscow or in an African independent congregation in Lagos. Buddhism in Thailand and Buddhism in US will manifest itself differently as well. I hope my book then provides a good deal of food for thought for some people at least.
In a letter to the Irish Times on 27th September last year I wrote "The church of tomorrow, if there is one, needs to be much more open, to my mind, to people 's individual journeys and faith development, able to share advances in theology and debate contentious issues without fear, and accepting of the dignity of difference in a spirit that welcomes pluralism and provisionality as people with varying experiences continue to enable the Christian tradition to evolve in new and unexpected ways."
I had written a few months previously in my book the following, "I do not know if the major ancient faith traditions will survive the twenty-first century; perhaps they have had their day and the questing human spirit will find some other ways for us to express and explore our religious life and to live out its challenge. However, in the meantime, all the great world religions have something important to contribute to human society. They can challenge us to strive toward the heights of our humanity and to seek to avoid the depths of our depravity. They provide us with an ethical code that binds us to the rest of humanity. The values of this code, to my mind, challenge us all to reach out in solidarity to those in the greatest need, and to make great sacrifices on behalf of them. Our world needs changing, it is a very unequal and battered place. Life is so very hard, difficult and unfair for hundreds of millions of people." P.13
People belonging to a religious tradition are in the business of change - trying to change and transform themselves as well as trying to bring change for the better to a battered and needy world. How to live wisely, justly and compassionately is never easy either to work out or to put into practice and people will see the way to do so differently.
What then is the future of faith, spirituality and religion? Or can we predict it at all? I imagine it will be much less authoritarian, there will be more emphasis on where people are at in their own personal journeys. But will there be organised religion? Some as I mention in my book have argued that traditionally at least religion may be characterised as having four features: creed, code, cult and community. Creeds are the shared beliefs, with different organisations placing more or less emphasis on uniformity. Code is the ethical values of the religion, the values that parents wish to pass on to their children. Cult is all that has to do with religious practices: forms of worship, special liturgical rites for birth and death, for membership and so on. And community expresses the fact that as human beings we are relational beings, we want to belong and derive support from our belonging with people like us in some ways, perhaps with different views and attitudes in other ways. One could imagine that creed, code, cult and community will have a place in the spiritual and religious movements of tomorrow. But we cannot determine now how the future will be in coming generations. I am reminded of the words of Kahlil Gibran, addressed to parents about their children "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams."
Let me sum up. I would want to say that I think that one sign of an authentic spirituality is that is gives us a good sense of our responsibilities as members of the human race on this unique planet with its fragile eco-system. I do not find it helpful to think of our identity as children, that is children of an ultimate reality pictured as a heavenly father. In the light not least of the horrendous atrocities and genocides of 20th century an authentic theology needs to affirm the depths of evil to which people have sunk and the potential for this to happen again, on the other hand it needs to strengthen the good within us and challenge us to grow into a fuller humanity. I would want to affirm the aspect too from my own stage of development of the mystery of god and the aspect of unknowing, while we do not and cannot see the whole picture it would seem that in an immediate sense given the disasters that happen that god is not a protector god or an interventionist god, but still, perhaps paradoxically, I would want to hold that god is committed to the creation faithfully and lovingly for better and for worse, and ultimately for creation's long term good.
As a member of the evolving Christian tradition, I do not place as much importance on Jesus' significance as others do. Like any other person, he was very much a person of his own time. "Jesus of Nazareth lived in a very different world from ours today. He never drove a car, he never travelled by aeroplane, he did not hold a passport, he did not have a radio or TV or a mobile phone or a computer or a credit card or life insurance." P.51 "We have no photographs or paintings of how Jesus really looked; we know very little about his childhood, his psychological development, his teenage life and interests or his young adult life; we do not know his sexual orientation. We do not know the sound of his voice; we do not know his tastes in food. We do know that his world-view and culture were very different from those of the twenty-first century and we can be fairly certain that, were he able to come and experience ours, he would feel very alien within it.
The real historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, never thought about the many problems that concern us in our day and he simply could not have done so. He never exercised his mind on issues to do with genetic engineering, or United Nations Security Resolutions, it would never have occurred to him to think about over-population, threats to the environment or nuclear war. To my mind, though others will disagree, in an evolving religious tradition, as Christianity is, the significance of Jesus' ideas diminishes." P. 131
"Yet despite all the differences, he shares some fundamental values with those, who in one way or another, sense that they share some common ground with him. His religion was that of ancient Israel, and in Temple or in synagogue, he found vehicles to use to convey his worship to Israel's God. These vehicles may be quite different from those used in Christian worship, but what they transport is much the same: praise and gratitude, penitence and remorse, bewilderment and pain, trust and rage, dependence and responsibility. Many of the ethical and spiritual values of ancient Israel's faith are found in the Christian way of life too: peace, forgiveness, justice, compassion, hope, accountability, freedom, dignity, worth, love, and co-operation." P.51
In the evolving Christian tradition I see both continuity and change, I long for more change, I think we need it, so too does our world need that change.
(quotations from Tried for Heresy A 21st Century Journey of Faith by Andrew Furlong)
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