LETTERS TO IRISH TIMES


www.ireland.com

29TH DECEMBER 2001

DEAN AND THE INCARNATION

Sir, - Reading your Editorial "The meaning of Christmas" (December 24th) left me with a sense that I had been diminished as a human being. However, first let me applaud you for focusing on ethics.

A religion, to my mind, should be 70 per cent the working out in practice of its ethical and theological vision, 10 per cent liturgy, 10 per cent escapism (can anyone consistently face the hard challenges of her/his faith?), and 10 per cent speculation, insight, debate, doubt and belief.

There is a Shona greeting (which I used every day for 11 years in Zimbabwe): "Are you well?" "I am well if you are well," comes the answer. It highlights that corporate awareness that we are all caught up in the one bundle of life, which is far from well. We are all disabled, wounded and sick; a mixture of health and disease. The ethical vision and challenge of life calls on us to mend, restore and heal where we can.

Now, to my main point: my reaction was due to both what was said and what was not said, but needs to be said in a Christmas message. The sound of the drums of Christmas beats in the depths of the wounded psyches of the Jewish and Islamic communities. If the life of that remarkable and unforgettable person, Jesus of Nazareth, has inspired many within the evolving tradition of Christianity to aspire to the heights of their humanity, have we not also seen that many, too, in his name, have reached the depths of their depravity?

I write as one who lives currently, still, in Trim, "inward with all the tensions of our age" (R.S. Thomas). I belong to the post-Holocaust era and to the post-September world. We cannot ignore the demonic suffering and the innumerable human deaths which the followers of Jesus of Nazareth have inflicted over the centuries on their brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, especially Judaism and Islam.

Every Christmas message should include an apology and re-commitment to reconciliation. This year it was not made in an Editorial which purported to be giving the Christian viewpoint, and I feel diminished.

The message of the Incarnation has always sounded painfully in Jewish and Islamic ears (because they could not conceive of their God becoming human) and has reverberated with the drumbeat of a triumphalist and superior religion which considered itself unable to enter into inter-faith dialogue with them on a level platform.

I question this position, as is now clear; and believe that the Christian tradition is in fact on a level platform. Over the past 250 years human knowledge has progressed in every subject, including theology. I want to honour theological research into the significance of Jesus and affirm the diverse interpretations (both orthodox and alternative) that have resulted from this study. Like it or not, the orthodox interpretation of Jesus has been challenged. I am not the first to do so; many others have.

It may seem, to quote from your Editorial, that "the central stories of Christmas are best told in poetry and drama. To reduce them to debates about historicity, literalism and modernity is to lose their poetic truth and dramatic impact, and to deprive them of their relevance". However, I believe it is of incalculable importance that every follower of Jesus studies the claims made about him, becomes properly informed, and makes their own mind up for themselves.

At the very least, we owe it to all those who have suffered and died within Islam and Judaism to revisit the question of Jesus's significance for ourselves (see, e.g., The Shape of Living, by David Ford and Reason to Believe, by Maurice Wiles). I do not fully subscribe to this saying of Voltaire, but in this case it has its point: "To the living we owe respect, to the dead only truth."

I think in the future, whether the Christian tradition survives or not, we can find a way to put across a strong ethical and theological challenge to each generation without invoking, as per your Editorial, the story of the Incarnation. I share two things with the (to my mind) real Jesus: a belief in his God and a disbelief in the Incarnation of his God (he would not even have considered it a possibility as a member of the ancient community of Israel). - Yours, etc.,

ANDREW FURLONG, Very Rev
Dean of Clonmacnoise,
Trim, Co Meath


4TH JANUARY 2002

DEAN AND THE INCARNATION

Sir,- The traditional message of the Christian gospel can be succinctly expressed as per the letter on January 2nd from Rev David Frazer. However it needs expressing in contemporary thought forms, if its truth claims as a matter of belief are to be properly examined. This is because the beliefs about the post-Easter Christ (be he a real or a fantasy figure) come out of a world with radically different thought-forms to ours in 21st century.

In order to do this, let us imagine the following situation. Suppose that the New Testament has not yet been written (and there are no Creeds either). A person called Jesus of Nazareth has been born in 1970 and is a member of the Jewish community. He has his mobile phone, his computer, his passport, his Visa card, his driver's licence, his life insurance and perhaps a qualification in theological studies. He is becoming better known.

What would we make of him today? Would it occur to us that he was anything other than an extraordinary human being? In what sense, would we say that we believe that he gives us an insight into what his hidden and unknowable God may be like? In what ways does he do so: is it by what he says, or as we ponder the meaning of some of his actions, or is it because of his personality or perhaps a combination of these? What comparisons would we make between him and someone like Mother Theresa, for example?

If he were to die later on this year, would it matter how he died (e.g. from cancer or in a road accident?), would his death come about because of his beliefs and/or actions, and would some of us be finding ourselves wanting to ponder the meaning of his death?

If some people, but not others, claimed that they believed he was alive again, what would we make of those claims? And if we did become convinced by these people's testimony, then what would we speculate to be the reasons why a hidden and unknowable God had made him alive again in a very mysterious way?

Of course, what religion you and I would be belonging to (if any), if Jesus had only been born in 1970, is a matter of speculation. The Neolithic community of Ireland no doubt thought that their beliefs and culture would last for ever; perhaps we would be seeing ourselves as being a part of an evolving Neolithic religious tradition.

Incidentally have laity sometimes heard it said by priests speaking to a congregation that over the last 250 years there has been a massive amount of theological research, using the latest and best tools, and that the results of such research have produced various interpretations of the significance of Jesus: some orthodox and some which challenge the orthodox views still held by the majority of Christians? Whatever one may make of these different interpretations, I am sure that in any other field of life, be it industry, science, medicine, agriculture, economics noone is unaware of the progress in knowledge over the last 250 years in their own speciality. Yours etc,

Very Rev Andrew Furlong,
Dean of Clonmacnoise,
Trim, Co. Meath.

18TH JANUARY 2002

DEAN AND THE INCARNATION

Sir,- The changeover by 300 million people to the Euro currency provides me with an illustration to use, to help me continue to try to get my main point across. Every religion, at its beginning, (Christianity included) was expressed in the thought forms of the period concerned: a specific "theological currency" was used. The thought forms of the early centuries of Christianity's development belong to a world in which divinities abounded (Roman emperors called themselves gods and required sacrifices from their citizens, and Greek mythology with all its gods, goddesses, and demi-gods filled the Mediterranean mind).

There were miracle workers galore, the gods were constantly intervening in the affairs of the world, and animal sacrifice in worship was prevalent. It was no wonder that Jesus was presented as a "divinity" and that his death was given a sacrificial interpretation.

What I am trying to say is that if we want to do "business today in religion", then we need to use a "theological currency" expressing the very different thought forms of 21st century. Without such a fresh and relevant "currency" we will not be equipped to explore for authentic spiritualities for our day: a search for who we are and who we are meant to be as human beings; and for some of us a search for metaphors, symbols and images to "describe the indescribable": the mystery of God.

So, to use the illustration: we need a "theological bureau de change" where we could exchange our old Creeds shaped by an out of date "currency" for a supply of 21st century "theological currency". This would enable us, as part of an evolving Christian tradition (both re-expressing the past vision and developing it too), to explore for meaning and purpose, for an ethical code and religious vision which might then be expressed in a modern Credo. There would be many of these, and such diversity and multiplicity could be seen as an enrichment: a deep resource of contemporary expressions of human spirituality as shaped by the innovative and imaginative minds of those who know that today's "currency" will not last for ever either.

For what it is worth here (in 110 words, the same number of words as for the Apostles' Creed) is my modern Credo expressing where I am now on my journey which is part of the risky adventure of Life whose destiny (in my belief) lies far over the horizon in eternity:

A Credo for 2002: "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, tree, person, 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".

I would be interested in other people's Credos (perhaps too in not more that 110 words). Very Rev ANDREW FURLONG Dean of Clonmacnoise, Trim, Co Meath.

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