ADDRESS AT ST JAMES' CHURCH, PICCADILLY, LONDON ON 15TH SEPTEMBER 2002
I feel both honoured and grateful to have been invited to address you. This turbulent
world in which we live is a terribly unjust and unequal place, and I care about that, though
I do not care enough. Most of my life, I have lived with far too many privileges
and with far too much comfort. I have not shared sufficiently in the hardship and
injustice that so many millions of people have to try to endure daily. To my mind,
it is part of the tragedy and failure of our world that far more people in the
West, at least, connected more deeply with the commemoration of the events of
11th September, than they did with the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. I begin in
Dublin, next month, a course on International Peace Studies. As well as studying
issues of injustice and how to continue to address them, I will be learning more
about ethics in a global world in the context of trade, about war and peace, about
development studies and human
rights. I hope that in the remaining years of my life I can make some difference
to the precarious and precious life we share on this endangered planet. My remarks
to you this morning are not however primarily engaged with the social, political
and economic dimensions of our lives, though they have implications for the real
and worrying world in which we live; but rather are concerned with the search for an authentic
spirituality and for more reality in religion. There are two parts to this
address: the first in which I seek to explain why I find it difficult to engage
in the Eucharist, and the second when I speak about two symbols: religion as
wound and as womb.
I find it very difficult to engage in a Eucharist, though I do not mean that it
is without meaning for me. I hope that some day there will be different forms of
liturgy. Let me try to explain myself to you, if I can. Firstly, I will make
some preliminary remarks about religion, as I understand it.
To my mind, religions may be described as having four components: community,
cult, code, and creed. We are both individual and social beings, and we need to
belong. There is a sense of community here at St James', though not belonging
here, I am not sure, in this central city church, exactly what sort of community
life exists and evolves here. Today there is a community at worship. You are
more than just a collection of individuals. You affirm yourselves by sharing in
the life of this distinctive community and by joining together in the cult that
is taking place now, in the form of this Eucharist. This cult is embued with
ethical values, with the code, which is meant to relate to how we seek to shape
and re-shape our world socially, economically, political and spiritually. As you
join in the cult, you are implicitly endorsing its high aspirations and
challenges for human life. In this cult, you are extolling such virtues as
self-sacrificing love and generosity, truthfulness and justice, courage and
compassion, responsibility and self-discipline, and sensitivity and awareness.
You are upholding certain values that you place in a religious context, such as
gratitude and praise, penitence and forgiveness, trust and humility, and divine
worth and human worth. Community, cult, code and next creed.
I would expect that there is considerable diversity in what you believe. If you were each given a few minutes to talk about your beliefs, or if you were to write them down, I imagine that it would quickly be apparent that there is much overlap, but also much difference between your respective convictions. On the map of believing, doubting, searching, and exploring, some of your beliefs would be on one part of the map, some in other places. There are conservative zones on the map, there are zones for radical thoughts and liberal ones too, and zones for confusion and bewilderment, zones for not-knowing. I would be interested in your Credo, it might help me modify and enrich mine.
So why I am uncomfortable in the setting of a Eucharist and its celebration? It relates to creed. Christianity had its origins in a pre-scientific and pre-critical world, the sort of world we no longer inhabit today. In such a world though, I need hardly remind you, people believed in interventionist and protector gods. The gods sent earthquakes and famine, disease and other misfortunes. Some believed that such disasters were an expression of their displeasure and a form of punishment. They could also send good rains, and help defeat one's enemies in battle. Our modern understanding of the universe, to my mind, leaves no room for the protector gods or the interventionist gods. No god stopped the holocaust or protected people in the Twin Towers in New York or feeds the hungry of the world, no god will push us into our next war or prevent us from entering it.
In the Christian story, an interventionist god sends his only son to become a human being, to live and die, to be a saviour, and to return to life and to ascend again to heaven to his father's glory. 'God so loved the world, that he sent his only-begotten Son', to sacrifice himself and to die on the cross for our sins. But wait a moment, perhaps you are thinking to yourself: is Andrew Furlong confusing a metaphorical understanding of religious language with a literal interpretation? The church is still bedevilled, to my mind, by these two conflicting understandings.
What do we mean when we say Christ died for you and me, when we state that he died for the sins of the world? Some will respond by saying that this is metaphorical language, as is the statement of belief that 'God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself'. Both are pointing to a conviction that we believe ourselves to be loveable, forgivable and reconcilable in the sight of God. This is the meaning of such religious language, it speaks to us metaphorically. It addresses some of our deepest hopes and fears. It should not be understood literally. That is to say, that Jesus' death was, in no literal sense, the bearing of the punishment for human sin or the accepting of the penalty for it. Similarly, in no literal sense did a god become a human being; in no literal sense did the father send his divine son to live a human life.
The majority of members, worldwide, of the Christian churches, disagree with these interpretations of our faith. There is an objectivity to be accepted and taken seriously, they claim. Jesus literally was and is our Saviour and the Saviour of the whole world. His death was necessary for the salvation of human souls. I am not suggesting that the person who finds credible a literal interpretation of the significance of Jesus does not give some place to metaphor, because of course they do. Take, for example, the metaphor of the lamb. Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world - that perfect, unblemished, spotless lamb - who in sacrificing himself, it is alleged and believed, made the one complete, all-sufficient and perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. The image of the 'lamb' is clearly a metaphor here.
The Eucharist, celebrated with music and hymns, is, as I have implied, taken in a very literal sense by the majority of communicants. I abandoned the majority viewpoint, of literal interpretation, during the time I was doing my theological training for ordination thirty years ago. Since then, I have sought to perform considerable acts of mental gymnastics in order to make this vehicle of worship an appropriate one for me, constantly reminding myself that I need to understand it metaphorically: I am seeking to reach out to a God who finds us loveable, forgivable and reconcilable; we are created in love, for love and by a god of love; however mysterious and paradoxical it is to believe like this.
I am uncomfortable in the setting of a Eucharist and find it difficult to connect to and engage in for these reasons: it presumes an interventionist god and a protector god, it is strongly literalistic; it uses metaphors, such as the lamb of God, from a world long since past, drawn from a cult where animal sacrifice was the norm, its readings from the scriptures come from a pre-scientific and pre-critical world, and are often irrelevant to us and our life today. It emphasises the presence of God, 'the Lord is here, his spirit is with us', while I consider that, God, if you like, largely presents himself as an absent god. I connect this with a sense of our aloneness on this precious threatened planet and of our immense responsibilities within it. We have to seek to stand on our own feet, and to make the right decisions and enact the changes that would extend human rights and make life more sustainable for all within our incredibly wonderful, but precariously fragile ecology. I feel a sense of leaving the real world behind me as I enter the world of the Eucharist. It's largely an unreal world that many others and I find extreme difficulty connecting with. I consider that if Jesus of Nazareth were to be able to join us here some Sunday, he would be appalled by the central place given to him and the claims made about him. So the challenge to create new and meaningful liturgies, if religion as creed, code, cult and community is to retain the cult in a meaningful way.
Now part two, if there are some who still have the energy and interest to listen on.
Religions use symbols; many are drawn from nature, such as: fire, light, and water. Symbols have both life-enhancing qualities as well as death-dealing destructive ones. For example, fire can warm, but it can also burn and destroy; light can illuminate, but it can also blind; water can satisfy thirst, but it can also drown. In the second part of this address, I am going to try to consider religion under the heading of two symbols: wound and womb; and look at how they may be life-enhanching or death-dealing.
In his book, 'Doubts and Loves' Richard Holloway quotes from something that Denis Potter said to Melvin Bragg when he was interviewed on television shortly before he died: "For me, religion has always been the wound, never the bandage." I want to develop my own understanding of religion as wound; first, in its life-enhancing sense.
I had the immense privilege of living and working in Zimbabwe for eleven years (1983-94); and am grateful that I received such wonderful encouragement when I was learning the Shona language. In a greeting commonly used the first person asks, and I translate, "Are you well?"; the other person will reply: "I am well, if you are well".
My well-being is dependent on your well-being. If you are seriously ill or have just suffered a tragedy, how can I be other than concerned, distressed and anxious, if I care about you? Here, built into the consciousness of a people, is the sense of sharing in corportate life, living as a caring community. Compare how a greeting in English might be: "How are you?", "I'm fine and how are you?", "O, I'm OK, thanks." In this greeting, our individualism is expressed. I am not implying that we have no awareness of our corporate consciousness, because we do.
Religion as wound is living with a strong awareness that our lives our inter-dependent within the human family. It is a moral and spiritual awareness, but also a social and political one. We share in a wider inter-dependence in an ecological sense as part of the universe that we inhabit, often so irresponsibly.
It is hard to keep the wound open, it is much easier to let it close over, so that we shield ourselves from the world's pain and injustices. How can I be well, when so many in the world are desperately poor, victims of torture and other human rights abuses, living without the opportunity to use their talents in appropriate work, dying of sicknesses, caught up in the world's wars, living in the midst of the most troubled parts of the world, suffering from fear, grief, injury, powerlessness and insecurity? Religion as wound means renewing the depleted resources of compassion, fury, hope, responsibility, resolve, generosity, self-sacrificing love, thirst for knowledge and understanding, penitence, courage and the sense of our mutual inter-dependence. This is not a kill-joy religion, but it is a religion that calls for sacrifice, awareness and sensitivity, vulnerability, inner strength and action.
The wound we carry daily within us speaks of an empathy and a solidarity with others; although none of us can feel all the world's pain and be affected by it.
I am well, if you are well. Religion as wound is an acknowledgement, though, of more than not being well in the sense implied by the Shona greeting. There is another sense of 'wound'. None of us is either psychologically or spiritually fully well. To think of religion as wound is to imply that religion has a particular perception on human life, it sees it as always wounded and in need of further healing; nobody is cured, we all bear afflictions, carry damage within, we have the capacity to spread our diseases and influence others for the worse. Religion as wound reminds us of our need for the 'doctor', we are not so wise that we always know how best to treat ourselves, and most of us find that the best medicine comes to us from others. Each religion has a vast treasury of wisdom about human life. Delve within and something may well be found for your healing.
If religion as wound has its life-enhancing qualities, it also has its destructive death-dealing ones. At their worst religions spread and promulgate prejudice, hatred, arrogance, intolerance, elitism, resistance to change, escapism, damaging theologies, narrowness, meanness of spirit, abuse, jealousy, dishonesty, and denial of the rights of people, in particular of women. The religions are sick; and their exponents express this sickness in social and political contexts. Religion as wound can remind us of this festering sore that exists alongside so much that is healthy and good.
Religion as wound may be death-dealing, in the context of the search for truth. If there is an authoritarian attitude taken by the religious tradition's leaders; if a person may be called on to resign from a post when he or she holds a legitimate position within a debate being pursued by the church worldwide; if the church stifles or makes it too dangerous for the search for truth to be pursued within it. I am not the first to have been wounded and to have suffered in this way.
Religion now as womb: the symbol of the womb has its life-enhancing, as well as its death-dealing qualities. The womb is a place of nurture, a place for growth, and a safe place in which to be. It may also be an escape, a regression, a confining place in which to be.
In its life-enhancing sense, religion as womb suggests the need of a community of people who it is safe to be with, a group who will try to accept you as you are. It is a community that provides you with nurture and care, support and appreciation. It is a community that challenges you to grow and to grow up. Through its listening and its love, its understanding and its acceptance, its wisdom and its hilarity, its insights and its illumination, it can provide balm for your wounds and healing for some of your sicknesses of soul, of mind, and of spirit. It might conceivably be a house-group; but is more likely to be made up of a range of different people with whom you relate to on an individual basis, or consist of a group of people within a community with whom you can be yourself with transparency and depth. Though to revert to the symbol of religion as wound, the role of others may, sometimes, be to encourage you to keep your wound open.
In the context of religion as womb, if it is sometimes appropriate to ask oneself the question: 'what healing do I need, before the next stage of my journey?'; it may also be necessary to ask oneself the question: 'what may I be escaping from by doing my theological thinking or religious reflection?' Religion may function as a womb into which we escape from our responsibilities. Religion can lead us away from the world we are called upon to suffer within. Religion as womb may represent a regression towards immaturity, towards the womb we were meant to have left and left behind. Perhaps we engage in and indulge ourselves in misleading beliefs. We begin to allow ourselves to picture God in ways that are no longer appropriate. We pray to God as an interventionist and protector God. We allow ourselves to expect that it is reasonable to believe that God will respond in this way or in that. We diminish ourselves for a while by hiding away from our true responsibilities and placing them onto God's shoulders. We want to escape the fear, the pain, and the uncertainties of life. We want to re-write our past, as if parts of it had never happened. We want to delude ourselves that to be forgiven is somehow to re-write our history and destroy the record books.
I recall the time when I arrived to work in Zimbabwe in 1983. Independence had come three years previously. Both before and after Independence a great many 'white-skinned' people had emigrated. Among those 'whites' who stayed, there were many who were grieving over the loss of their identity as Rhodesians. Emotionally they were finding it very painful to think of themselves now as Zimbabweans. I remember being amazed at the new charismatic and fundamentalist churches populated by these people. Within these churches there was great emphasis put on being citizens of the kingdom or disciples of Jesus; there was an emphasis, too, on the next life: your true citizenship is in heaven. It seemed to me that these churches were offering people an escapist womb from the real world which they were having such difficulty in embracing. The churches were not helping people work through their grief over the past, that had now gone, taking with it their old identity; and enabling them to move on to live and serve in the real world of the new Zimbabwe that they now belonged to.
Religious authorities and leaders will often treat their fellow believers as if they are only fit for a life of the womb. They will feed them with safe, certain and uncontroversial sermons. They will hide from them the results of academic research, and its own internal controversies and conflicts within theological thinking. They will not expose them to the bracing winds of change felt in the continuous interpretation of the faith in each generation. These attitudes partly stem from fear: how will the laity react? They also stem from a false paternalistic concern: they don't want to rock the boat or upset people's cherished understanding of their faith. To treat people as if they may best be served with this sort of religion of the womb is to confine them; it is to prevent them from stretching their minds, it is to restrict their spiritual and moral growth, it may impede the development of their social, political and ecological awareness and commitment. Too much of it is still happening throughout the world. The questioner, the doubter, and the reformer are quietly excluded and made to feel unwelcome. They are presented as people who are failures: they do not have enough faith, they are unable to trust and be grateful for the certainties of belief, they deny that God has truly made his promises to his people and entered into covenant relationships with them. Networks and organisations now exist in many countries and across continents such as the Centre for Progressive Christianity and the Sea of Faith to offer support to people whose experiences of this particular way of interpreting the faith have been alienating, abusive, confining, restrictive, and demeaning. I imagine such support and understanding is to be found here, too, at St James' Church where it has been a pleasure to address you today.
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