TREASURE IN EARTHEN VESSELS: Reflections of a Reformer.

The story I would share with you today is a story of loneliness and guilt, of fear and uncertainty, it's a story of questing and questioning, of grief and betrayal, of anger and conflict, it is a part of the story of my own life over the last 25 years or so, but it would also find echoes (parallels, resonances) in the experiences of others.

It's a story that some may listen to gladly, they will be able to share in it, with relief they may sense common ground and a shared suffering. However others will hear this story with a growing sense of alienation, with bewilderment, anger and pain. I am sensitive to that and to them in this regard. Do I then perceive a risk in telling this story, and if so, why take that risk? I will try to answer those two questions later on in this paper. Ideally I would hope that both the story and the story-teller might be received with both understanding and compassion, whatever other thoughts, emotions and reactions may arise.

At the heart of this story is the matter of believing and thinking, but the story is more complex than that. When I was a theological student and ordinand I was asked to read about and explore the central doctrines of Christianity. It was a perplexing task, sometimes exilarating, sometimes tedious, sometimes surprising. My study continued on after ordination, and perhaps two years or so after being ordained I emerged, clearly and painfully aware, that I had been stripped of many of my previous beliefs. IN A NUT-SHELL I FOUND I WAS STILL BELIEVING IN GOD, BUT NO LONGER BELIEVING IN JESUS.None of the atonement doctrines appeared credible to me, arguments for Jesus' divinity or for his resurrection held no weight for me; and that God had come into our environment to live as a human being no longer seemed plausible to me.

All of this was a great shock to me, I felt betrayed by my religion and let down, I was torn by guilt as I wondered what right had I, if any, to remain either as a priest or as a member of the church. Much of my devotional life had centred on Jesus, it seemed to me that he could no longer be a focus or channel for my worship, it would be idolatry. I grieved that I could no longer sing "Jesu, thou joy of loving hearts" or "Jesu, thou joy of man's desiring" or "O Jesus I have promised". The church's worship, with much of it focused on and through Jesus; whether in prayers, hymns, canticles, or sacraments, became a world in which there was for me loneliness and alienation, disappointment and anger, and the constant tension between what I could believe to be true and the church's official position to much of which I could not subscribe. Could I stay the course without succumbing to the madness of the situation? And so for twenty-five years or so, I have teetered on the edge of membership wondering whether to stay or go.

Jesus was for me a Jewish believer. I like, for example, the parables of the Good Samaritan and of the Prodigal Son ascribed to him. When I am in an uncharitable mood (and I don't mean to be offensive to others) I think of him as a "crackpot", a term I would feel inclined to apply to anyone who came to my front-door to tell me that it was their religious belief that the world was about to end. Rightly or wrongly I take a passage such as St. Matthew 10.23 to, at least, reflect the outlook of Jesus at some stage of his life: "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of Man comes".

There does not appear to be evidence suggesting that every Jew living at this time was caught up in eschatalogical or apocalytic fervour. But there were the Jews living in the Essene community, John the Baptist and his disciples, as well as Jesus and his disciples; the disciples also being part of the first generation of Christians who also believed themselves to be living in the end-time. We usually look on sects like these as made up of a pretty queer or strange bunch of people, out of touch with reality.

It is said that beliefs in a general judgement and in resurrection were imported into Jewish thinking and believing at a comparatively late stage from Iranian philosophy and religion. The whole basket of ideas which include a Son of man, a messiah, end-time suffering and tribulation, an end-time collective judgement of the living and the dead, Christ as the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep - is a whole complex of ideas I find implausible and mistaken.

I do believe in an after-life for the following reasons which don't prove, of course, that there is one, there might not be. I believe that at death God receives people into the after-life. The New Testament position that Christ is the first -fruits from the dead, and by implication that noone had entered the after-life before, I do not agree with. My reasons for believing in an after-life would include that, if there is a God, then she/he has made at least some people to have a deep yearning and longing for another life beyond this present one. Secondly, it could be argued on the grounds of justice and fairness that some people's lives are so short, or so full of suffering, that they deserve a better life after this one. Thirdly, I believe that such is the love of any God, who might credibly exist, that each person would be so precious to her/him that she/he would want to enjoy their friendship not just for the years given to them here on earth, but also for eternity.

Furthermore I find myself convinced that the goodness of a Creator God is greater than any evil that may have arisen in her/his Creation; and ultimately I find myself drawn to believe that God in her/his patience, compassion, goodness and suffering love will find a way, with our help, to absorb and remove all evil from all that exists, so that eventually all people will be drawn gladly and gratefully into the joy of her/his friendship and love. In other words, the after-life I envisage, with all its mystery and hiddeness to us now, is a place where there will need to be much personal change and growth; the healing of many relationships; much deep penitence and forgiveness both between God and her/his people, as well as between peoples themselves. It, inevitably, will be costly, so I think.

There will be no final joy till all have freely entered into friendship with God and all human relationships have been healed and restored. The relationship between Creator and creation, between what happens in time and eternity defy our attempts at full or complete understanding. Human believing for me is shaped by a moral vision and a spiritual aspiration expressed in worship and awe. Theology, as Karl Barth said, is rational wrestling with mystery.

If you believe in God and you do not believe in Jesus, how do you get through the Christian year? And if, in addition, you are an ordained person with responsibilities for preaching and teaching, how do you fulfil them, or can you fulfil them? Speaking for myself, I find the two most stressful periods of the year to be Christmas and Holy Week/Easter. As the Christmas carols are sung at Carol services, on Christmas Day, and on other ocasions, and in other places in addition to churches, words or others like them such as : "O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord" appear idolatrous and painful. There is an awful sense of loneliness and alienation, a sense of belonging to a minority outlook within the church as a whole that is swamped by the majority's singing and convictions.

"God so loved the world that He gave His only Son": at the very least, I can focus on my idea or vision of the love of God and of how much we and the whole world mean to her/him. I will speak of a world with all its sin and trouble cradled in the love of God, but not of God coming into the world as a little baby to be cradled in a stall in Bethlehem. You matter infinitely and eternally to God will be my message, and if you could but see the hidden Creator at her/his unseen work you would find her/him in the midst of all the muck and mess of the world as well as in its beauty, for such is the commitment and faithfulness of the Creator to the immensity of her/his task.

“God so loved the world that He sent His only Son”: the Christ figure is a symbol of the relationship of God to her/his world, a relationship of love. (God the Father symbolises the God who is before us , beyond us and in front of us. God the Holy Spirit symbolises the ever-present unseen reality in which we live, the love that will never let us go).

Holy Week and Easter focus enormously on Jesus as Saviour and Lord, crucified and risen. As with Christmas, no matter what the preacher says or fails to say, the whole Liturgy speaks powerfully of the convictions of the majority in the church. Hymns, prayers and readings, drama or film, whatever is included in the Liturgy tells the story. Once again inevitably there is silent suffering, alienation, loneliness, as the days for Holy Week and the Easter season go by, for anyone unable to subscribe to the centrals beliefs about Jesus.

I would not find myself able to say "Jesus died for you" or "Jesus died for your sins". I would speak about the costliness of God's suffering love and forgiveness; of the challenge to repentence and to offer forgiveness and to receive it; of the call to look with compassion on a broken world and to act to help to mend and restore it; of the human hoping which is centred in God, both for our own future and the world's, both here and in eternity.

With the Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist I continously look for ways in which I can connect with them, what can I affirm that they speak about? In Baptism, I find I cannot subscribe to the theology of being baptized into Christ's death, or being born again in Christ, or becoming a member of the body of Christ, or of turning to Christ, or of obeying and serving Christ. But I can affirm the theology of a Creator God, the child to be baptized is the child of the same heavenly Mother/Father; I can affirm that the child's destiny spans time and eternity, and that to be brought up by Christian parents includes being shaped by a religious outlook on life which includes both a moral vision of life and a spiritual aspiration to worship and awe.

The child, like us too, has been entrusted with the sacred precious gift of a human life; and, like us too, the child is a sacred person. If I were to vote on whether to continue the practice of baptism or not,and if not whether to replace it by some other rite; I would be inclined towards another rite. In the case of children it would acknowledge their birth and arrival in the world; their membership of an immediate family circle; as well as their membership of the whole family of God; and their welcoming into the fellowship of a believing community. Such a community is part of an inter-dependent world; which is seen in faith as a part of the mystery of creation which spans time and eternity; everything and everyone is held together within the one love of God. In the Eucharist, I find myself detaching the bread and the wine, in my mind, from a link with Jesus. The bread becomes a symbol for dependence on God the Creator and Sustainer of all life, and a symbol of our inter-dependent corporate life; the wine becomes a symbol both of suffering and of joy. Anyone who commits himself/herself to a moral vision of life will come inevitably to suffer for what they believe in. The wine symbolises the costliness of such a commitment and its continuing challenge; but it also symbolises the joy we will one day have of celebrating the fulfilment of the created order. The moment of receiving communion, and the way I would speak to God at the time, will often be significant and deep; but where is my integrity, as I have stood and said beforehand the words of the eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving ?

As we approach a new millenium those who hold to the central doctrines which relate to Jesus will celebrate 2000 years since his birth and much else too. What about that minority within the church as a whole, of which I would count myself a part, who do not hold to those central doctrines ? As I look into the next millenium I would hope, from my point of view, that as theological education expands, more people might find themselves questioning the traditional presentation of the faith, and that they would have the courage to continue on an inevitably painful quest and journey, but it may not be so.

As I look back, and I belong to a post-Holocaust generation, I can ponder on how history might have been, if the central doctrines relating to Jesus had not been formulated. Probably there would have been no church, some of the atrocities caused directly or indirectly because of Christian belief might not have taken place; but on the other hand how much good might never have been done, which its agents did, because they drew their inspiration and courage from the life of Jesus and from their religious experience (as experience interpreted through Christian lenses)?

How you are reacting as you read this story and what it is meaning for you to so read it, I may hear from you if you respond to this paper, perhaps by e-mailing me. There are a number of other matters I would share with you, however, before I end, if I can still count on your patience, tolerance and attention ?

First there is the question of Biblical authority. Do the Scriptures have any authority for me or for others of a similar outlook ? In so far as the Scriptures present a vision of God as holy and just, loving and merciful, compassionate and understanding; then, if such a God exists, (and that is a matter of faith and trust) how does that connect with notions of authority? One could say that the scriptures in themselves do not contain authority, but in so far as they point to a Creator God, they point to her/his authority over all life because she/he is the Creator and the most powerful component in the relationship between Creator and creation.

On the other hand one could ask how authoritative are the scriptures over issues of life, faith, morals, God or Jesus. My conscience, my thinking, and reasoning faculities are my authority; in so far as I find truth in the Scriptures, whether truths of fact or truths of faith, or moral truth, then in that respect I affirm those parts of the Scriptures (to my mind) to be speaking authoritatively, which is another way of saying I think what they say is true or correct (when interpreted in a specific way).

The different people whose thoughts, words, actions, lives or writings find expression in the scriptures have presented us with a very mixed bag. My authority is my conscience, my reasoning and thinking faculities. I decide for myself, as best I can, whether I think something to be true or false, or I withold a decision on its truth or falsity, if I am not sure. Yes, the Scriptures contain much that helps my thinking and feeds my inner life and spirit; the words I read and reflect upon come from fellow human beings over several millenia who have sought and strived and struggled to make sense of life, and to find a credible vision of the unseen power they believed to be life's Creator

I am not an "organizations-man", I think less in terms of organizations, institutions, hierarchies of leadership, levels of management, groups or corporate life; and more in terms of individual people in themselves. I am interested in individuals, their stories and inner lives and worlds, relationships and lives. I accept that any movement, such as a religious movement, will need organization and various forms of leadership. But I sit lightly to that side of life. It does not seem very important to me whether there are bishops, priests, deacons, deans, canons or whatever or whether there is some other form of leadership. It does not matter to me whether you can trace historical successions or not. People in themselves interest me more than their status or office, and our equality before God means more to me, I hope, than our human differences in church or society.

Let me if you will come back to the point I made about teetering on the edge of membership. Should I stay or should I go ? I am conscious that many other people have had and continue to have all sorts of difficulties in relationship to their membership of the church; and many of you, I imagine, have your own areas of difficulty and suffering in this regard; and also ask yourselves will I stay or will I go? You may have felt for one reason or another you have had enough, and you may have wanted to throw in the towel. Should I stay or should I go?

Could I survive the tensions between Christian worship and belief, with so much focusing on Jesus, and my own theocentric leanings? And if I could survive, at what cost to my psyche and my soul? More importantly what about those among whom I ministered? Were they not being deprived of essential teaching, my lack of Christocentric spirituality was surely going to make a difference, were there not whole areas of deception, lack of transparency and integrity that were not being addressed? In what sort of way could some of these issues be resolved?

As I have struggled with these matters over the years, I have found a number of thing helpful. First, I looked at the entirety of life, taking a holistic view. Yes, in any human being's life there is the search for truth, the spectrum in which thinking and believing takes place, the searching is never finished, never complete. With further wisdom, experience and thought it is possible that views, ideas, attitudes and positions might well be revised, modified or given up. What seemed true before, might no longer seem true now. But isn't every area of life imperfect and incomplete: work, relationships, commitments to issues of justice and compassion, a relationship with God?

In a holistic view, every area of life, including thinking and believing, has it's incompleteness and imperfection. I might have weaknesses in some areas of ministry, strengths in other areas; nobody offers the complete and perfect ministry, though other's weaknesses and strengths in their work and ministries might well be different to mine. Secondly, there is the need for balance; it was easy I found for issues of thought and believing to get out of perspective; it is tempting for me to become over-concerned and obsessive about them. A good afternoon's pastoral visiting combined with a good deal of self-fogetfulness often proves to have beneficial effects.

When lay-people come out with their own difficulties of belief (some similar to mine, some not), for example, not believing in an after-life or not believing in the divinity of Jesus; then some of the loneliness of feeling different and in a minority is mitigated in this way.

I think, now, I try to ask more questions than I would have done before, in sermons, encouraging people to think for themselves. I present them with some of the conflicts within Christianity where there are different attitudes and interpretations of the Bible, differing views on some of the moral dilemmas of our day, different interpretations of the Easter stories. In the case of my present position in the Athboy and Trim Group of Parishes, I have been trying to become more and more transparent in relation to my beliefs, and a growing number of people in the parish know my thinking. In previous parishes I was much more reticient about sharing my beliefs. Is it the fear of upsetting the faithful, is it the recognition that most laity are not equipped with the same amount of theological learning as clergy, is it the fear of rejection, of people feeling that they could no longer find my ministry acceptable to them?

There is no doubt that in a mutiplicity of areas of life we are all very used to experts or so-called experts coming out with conflicting viewpoints. In the world of politics, divergence of outlook and variety of policy are part of a multi-party state or democracy. Christians, too, for many centuries have been aware of conflicting views over many issues; and the Scriptures themselves record much disagreement. Does this mean then that many Christians today could handle, with tolerance, quite open and real differences and conflicts between their own thinking and believing and that, for instance, of their ministers? I wonder what you would think yourselves. I can think of some people for whom it would be no great problem and others for whom it would be quite intolerable, a very genuine barrier and obstacle.

Is not the thinking and believing of finite minds, when they attempt to concern themselves with the Infinite, always a case of "treasure in earthen vessels "? I do believe I have a positive faith and spirituality, I am drawn towards a treasure beyond my understanding, what I can imagine of it I express in earthen vessels, finite imperfect forms.

If there is a risk in telling others that my earthen vessels appear to some extent to be different to theirs, and the risk is misunderstanding, or rejection, or inability to communicate, is the risk not worth taking in the hope that at least some others might recognize the treasure more clearly through my earthen vessels and find it more credible to believe, to trust, to worship, serve and adore? I apologise to those whose blood-pressure I have made to boil, while they have been reading this article; we may have deep differences in our thinking and believing, I hope we can continue to see ourselves as held together within the all-embracing friendship of God and open to the mystery of her/his leading and guiding.

And a final question to leave you with, as I think how God must have watched countless generations within her/his human family, of all sorts of different faiths, discuss, argue, agree and disagree (Christians are not alone in this by any means). This is the question: they are connected, of course, but to the mind of God would it perhaps be true that being and becoming are more important than believing?

Andrew Furlong

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