Believing: a tangled skein


I heard of a priest who was asked recently, ‘Do you ever have moments of doubt about your Christian faith?’ The priest replied, ‘On some days I have moments of faith.’

I am intrigued by atheists who seem to think that if they can knock one argument out from under a Christian, they will have of necessity knocked the person off their Christian stool. Comedian Ed Byrne, for example, talking to agnostics, ‘If you haven’t heard God speak to you in a sunset or a beautiful landscape by the time you’re 40, you’re an atheist.’ His assumption appeared to be that just one thing could make the difference between being a Christian or not.

I experience being a Christian not as a series of skittles to be knocked over, but as a tightly tangled skein of meaning-making, experiences and fellowship. Included among my persuasions are doctrines, ethics and aesthetics, the ever-fascinating engagement with the Bible, my identity and my incorporation into particular parts of Christ’s Church.

So atheists sometimes try to win the argument by asking what I would believe it were proved that some bones were definitively identified as the remains of Jesus. The empty tomb is only one little part of my believing, so, depending on the day, my answer is either a confident argument from logic, ‘It will never happen’, or an answer from conviction, ‘It would make no difference to my foundational belief.’

Some Christians trip over philosophical wires by trying to solve the puzzles of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. What does it mean to call God a Trinity? The Prophet Mohammed was one person for whom the doctrine of the Trinity disproved Christian faith. He founded a new religion with monotheism front and centre. Five times a day, his followers now proclaim the Shahada, ‘There is no God but Allah.

trinityflyer‘One God in three persons’ makes less sense for our times because of the philosophical assumptions at the time the Creeds were written. Faith that God is one in three is always faith, however, and Christians can choose simply to believe it, or like Catherine La Cugna or Karl Rahner in the 20th Century devise completely new philosophical pre-suppositions for the doctrines of Trinity.

Other Christians recite the Creed each Sunday, ‘We believe in One God’ – the Trinity – as a statement of the historical faith of the Church. This is the Church and its beliefs in which I choose to belong, even while holding lightly to the details of these dogmas.

I have many moments of not believing or understanding how Jesus Christ can be completely human and completely divine: there are just too many paradoxes in the doctrine to contemplate at once. However an atheist who shows me how irrational this belief is will not therefore persuade me out of being a Christian.

Bedrock to my faith is the person of Jesus, yet many atheists join me at the core of acclaiming Jesus as a provocative teacher of good living, although some atheists try to make Jesus interchangeable with other gurus and guides.  I do stick to the uniqueness of Jesus. This comes partly from my ongoing fascination with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Many atheists find they can reject Christian faith without reading the Bible. I find its books more and more intriguing as I read them, whether it’s unravelling the insights of Wisdom literature or attempting to interpret the Book of Revelation.

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Saint Jerome – courtesy brittanica.com

As I read the Gospels, I find more and more to surprise me. In the ‘Good Samaritan’, Jesus tips the world of loving upside down. Unlike his peers, Jesus calls us loving outsiders as equal a duty as loving our families. Another surprise: Being a neighbour is not so much about those whom I can help, but about who I allow to be neighbourly to me.

Much of my experience of being a Christian comes from the Church which has shaped me, paid for my theological education, and which continues to give me support. Just this fortnight with my wife away, I am experiencing the practical help of the local congregation bringing me meals. Of course, such do-gooding is not limited to Church people, but the fact that it is Church people living out charity as part of their faith reinforces my Christian identity too.

I cannot undo my experiences. I have discovered God in the music of Olivier Messaien. I can try to explain it away in psychological terms, but nothing can change what Messaien has revealed to me.

There are days when I try to persuade myself out of faith, but it can’t be done, I don’t think, because my faith is too vigorous a garden and grows by weeding and digging out old growth. One-punch atheists don’t get the complexity of religious faith as they believe it is a single flower.

I offer this short piece as one flower of my thinking as a Christian.

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Sit back and receive from God


And we think we are being called to greater efforts in hospitality, but we are not listening to Luke, we are not listening to Jesus in the gospel sections. Jesus is calling us to the opposite.

Hospitality was one of the key virtues in Jesus’ society. I would like to think it is one of the key virtues in ours. Last week the gospel began with an example of a Samaritan village refusing to give hospitality to the disciples en route to Jerusalem. Then Jesus tells the Scripture scholar the story of a Samaritan who did treat his neighbour with hospitality. Or at least that’s how the story is usually interpreted. ‘Go and do thou likewise.’

But as so often with Jesus, there’s a twist. The neighbour has become not the one receiving hospitality, but the one giving hospitality. How are we to treat our neighbour? Our neighbour in this case is the Samaritan, the stranger giving us hospitality. How do we receive the gift of kindness from strangers? Especially strangers who we are pre-programmed to distrust, even hate?

In the story, we are called primarily not to be good Samaritans, as worthy as that vocation is, but to  learn to be recipients.

Luke provides a similar twist in today’s gospel concerning Mary and Martha. All the usual interpretations about our hospitality to Jesus – are the tea and scones perfectly cooked and well-supplied? Are we ready to focus on spiritual teaching? Are women important in the church? are secondary issues. The primary issue, it seems to me, is how are we to receive the hospitality of Jesus to us?

In a sense, Mary in the story gives the clue. She is prepared to be a guest in her own home. She is prepared to allow Jesus to host her in Mary and Martha’s family home.

We are always too anxious, like Martha, to get things right. But these two stories are saying that God already has got things right. He is inviting us into the heart of his universe. He is the host. He is the one offering hospitality. And it is not always easy to receive, but what gifts are ours if we are open to God’s hospitality to us. What healing at the roadside; what feeding, what divine spiritual teaching, all are ours. The first action is to let God be God, let God be host, and to prepare to be not in control, not in charge, but to allow God to lead and provide.

 

[Luke 10:38-42 and Luke 10:25-37]

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Image courtesy: https://thevirtualabbey.wordpress.com/category/ora-et-labora/

Isaiah 42 for Western Australia


Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

6  “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,

7  to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8  I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.

9  Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.”

10  Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from one side of Australia to the other,
you who go down to the Indian Ocean, and its leviathan surf,
you who explore the wave-carved gaps and blow-holes of Torndirrup National Park.

11  Let the Sandy Desert and places up north raise their voice,
the towns of the Great Western Woodlands cry out to God;
let the wild-flowers of the  south-west sing for joy,
let the climbers shout from the top of the Stirling Ranges.

12  Let us give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in Geographe Bay.

– Isaiah 42:5-12 based on ESV

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The Great Western Woodlands

 

Why the Resurrection is not a Metaphor


The kiss

Two pairs of lips approach and make contact. A dry sensakissingtion soon melts into a warm moist pressure which sets off a reaction throughout the bodies of the owners of each pair of lips. There are changes in core temperature, heart-rate, perspiration. There may be increased blood-flow to genitals and our bodies remind us that we are priority-programmed to reproduce. Hormone levels change: cortisol goes down, reducing stress, oxytocin levels rise, increasing feelings of closeness and intimacy.

Then, at a level that scientists can’t measure, for some of those people, the kiss will affirm the quality of their relationship, will inspire their love, and they will remember the sacramental love at the heart of their life together, and God as its source.

Much more happens, physiologically, emotionally and globally, every time we kiss, far too much to compress into two paragraphs.

Rae and I make a point of kissing every morning and night, and every time we part and meet. For us, this ritual is essential to keeping our marriage alive; not the only essential, but one which we value highly.  I know of many couples for whom kissing is likewise a serious business.

When we say kissing is important, the statement is literally true. But an alien seeing two people kiss might wonder how the pressing together of pairs of lips is valued by earthlings! If you only see the obvious and visible event, you may distort the wider truth.

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I read recently the phrase: ‘of course preaching the resurrection as metaphor’. This drew me up short.

Some years ago I was asked to preach and address the question: ‘Did Jesus rise in body or spirit?’ I disappointed by answering in the affirmative. Yes, I said, Jesus rose in body and in spirit.[My notoriously liberal host was hoping I would reject the notion of Jesus’ bodily resurrection!]

The shorthand for the central article of our faith might be ‘Jesus rose from the dead’. ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ is true. Some require acquiescence to that statement as proof of orthodoxy. But that is like the alien looking at the kiss. It is true. But by itself it distorts the truth and can become a lie. It is true only in a larger context.

We ‘progressive’ Christians are often rather smug about how intelligently we avoid the narrow focus of the fundamentalist. But however we describe the resurrection of Jesus Christ, metaphor is inaccurate, belittling and close to heresy.

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, in the deepest structures of creation there were deep changes that we now only just glimpse (Romans 8:21, Colossians 1:10-16). The invisible powers that poison human society were neutralised (Ephesians 6:12). The life of Jesus of Nazareth was revealed as a far-reaching liberating plan that transcends his place and time. The heart-beat and love of God are uncovered and our true identity as his children is seen.

Much more, much more has happened and is happening, that will take eternity to explore.

These may be mysteries, but they are not metaphors. The kiss could be a metaphor for the resurrection. The resurrection is God’s kiss of life.

 

 

The benefits of English, history and so on…


7117626-3x2-220x147I am very happy for scientists to promote science education. I have been a fan of the ABC’s Science Show since Robyn Williams started broadcasting 41 years ago. I am excited by modern technology, and am happy to use its latest tools and gadgets.

Science education can achieve what is claimed for it: clarity of thought based on evidence and the ability to evaluate and patiently work through new ideas.

“The benefits of learning about science for young kids are enormous, says Kevin Squires, a teacher at Tamworth Public [School in NSW] who is employed especially to teach science at the school.

“Science involves a lot of talking and listening to others; it develops patience, too – a lot of the time in science things don’t happen overnight,” he says.

Add to the mix are skills for life such as perseverance, problem-solving and researching.” 1

My problem with this advocacy is not that it isn’t true, but that it implies that education in the humanities does not provide students with equally powerful thinking skills.

I spent a total of 10 years in tertiary education in the humanities. The courses (French the_rice_psalter_use_of_sarum_in_latin_illuminated_manuscript_on_vellu_d5460632hStudies, Theology and Religious Education) may seem to have little in common, but the theme running through all my University studies was the close analysis of texts. Whether those texts were the Bible or Madame Bovary they all taught me how to use the evidence of words and ideas to gain insight in human behaviour.

The key to success in the humanities, like science, is drawing conclusions from evidence.

Studying languages and what people have written in them has many benefits for young people. Like science, language and literature develop patience because maturity and life experience will add to the meaning of texts. Like science, studying languages and texts develops puzzle-solving skills. Like science, the humanities develop a focus on the evidence. The humanities help students uncover human motivation and foster empathy. They give information and human context about other human cultures and faiths.

It seems to me that the study of humanities, perhaps even more than the study of military theory, can contribute to the bringing about of world peace. It can certainly equip young people to be better husbands and wives, lovers and parents.

Yes, studying science opens up exciting worlds and our world need scientists. But we need people who can read the human heart as well.

Sonnets for the Wedding at Cana


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Wedding at Cana

Press the infinity loop, the Moebius strip,
Christ’s incarnation, two become one, yes,
alloy of connubial companionship,
Wife and spouse bless each other’s tenderness.

Six large pitchers to purify the night –
How much purity do bride and husband need?
No! Throw out the rules of restricting rite,
let newly-weds on love’s infinity feed.

The love of lovers cannot be pegged or clipped.
It flows like cabernet through crypted cellars,
Flooding, spreading like a tide over-tipped,
Baffling gift of Bible’s story-tellers.

Each gives all, receives all, sets each other free,
Bridegroom, Lover, Bride in Holy Trinity.

  • Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, John 2-1-11
  • Ted Witham

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Cana 2

Mary’s there, Jesus’ mother – and his friends,
(called disciples in pious prophecy.)
There’re some servants whom Jesus sends
With transformed water for the maître-d’.

The maître-d’ drinks deep and calls the host,
The bashful bridegroom takes the praise to heart.
It seems a full cast for the wedding: most
strangely the groom has mislaid his sweetheart.

Good wine, once it’s started, must be consumed,
So starts a party now and for always.
And the Bride herself is forced to be assumed
The attentive Reader prayerfully obeys.

So, dear Reader, put on your wedding gown and ring,
And go to Jesus your spouse, and with him dance and sing!

Ted Witham

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Moral Leadership?


I am glad the Australian Government has finally agreed to take more refugees. But what a missed opportunity for moral leadership! The politicians were dragged to it by a community shouting our willingness to respond compassionately and sensibly to the crisis in the Middle East and Europe.

Country towns like Katanning and Albany offering to re-settle asylum seekers, and householders with spare bedrooms reaching out to integrate new people into the Australian community have put the Government to shame.

Instead of leading with compassion and with sensible plans for bringing people to this continent, the Government have played politics firstly with numbers – can we stretch to 10,000 or 20,000? – and secondly with cherry-picking those considered in greater need than others.

At this point in the crisis, both limiting numbers and having the luxury to choose between desperate people are irrelevant. Sure, we need to be practical: Australia cannot take 800,000 refugees in a year like Germany, but there is no danger of that happening. Any discrimination in favour of one group, whether it is Christians or Yazidi, will inevitably be perceived as discrimination against other groups. This morning Muslims are complaining, and rightly so, that yet again, our Government is treating Muslims as less than human.

As citizens, we should thank the Government for their willingness to consider increasing our humanitarian intake and encourage the Prime Minister to stretch his imagination to be as generous as possible. (https://www.pm.gov.au/contact-your-pm)

We should also encourage those who express generosity and offer practical help to them if we are able to provide it (Katanning Shire President: alan@katfurn.com ; Albany Mayor http://www.albany.wa.gov.au/?receiver=146&page=feedback ).

We should also look around the facilities that are ours with the same generous imagination. Is there anything we can do as individual families, churches or community groups to welcome refugees, and what action do we need to take to initiate that welcome?