DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Inclusiveness
Fierce conflicts are on the go in the Church about its membership. The Roman Catholic Church continues its centuries-old hunt for heretics. Other churches sniff out gay clergy engaged in sexual activity. Yet others chase away liberals who are not "biblical". Rick and Mick here debate how inclusive the Church should be.
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Mick: Some years ago I was fortunate enough to holiday in Zimbabwe. Memories of my boyhood came flooding back - the sounds and smells of the African bush, the wide open spaces, the grass and trees and a host of other familiar tones and shades almost beyond awareness.

The month was October, when daytime temperatures in the Zambesi valley can rise to 45 degrees or more. The land was parched and the roads dusty. Brown, scorched grass lay thin on the poor soil. To a casual observer it seemed that everything was in suspended animation, waiting for the rains to come.

And yet life was everywhere in abundance, particularly around the water holes and farm dams. Animals and insects can do with little food for a long while. But without water they quickly die.

All this was in stark contrast to the lush, fertile green fields of England, where I live. Here water is abundant and food plentiful - yet wild life is scarce. Insects are few. One must go to the wilds of Scotland to be properly bitten. Wild life is tolerated only within prescribed bounds.

The world outside the Church is like the Zambesi bush. It's beautiful yet dangerous. Life is prescribed by death - that is the nature of things. Yet it seethes with abundant energy, boiling and roiling with multiple life forms, constantly alert, constantly changing, always creating.

In contrast, the Church is like the neat, manicured, engineered fields of England where wild life is fenced in, carefully controlled. People are largely out of touch with the life-forces upon which they depend. Anyone who doesn't match strict entry criteria is turned away at its borders. Anything too strange is quickly terminated.

And I ask if this is what Jesus of Nazareth began. Was he not supremely open to life in all its untidiness, inconvenience and stubborn vitality? Can the genuine Jesus be found in a Church which is fenced in, groomed and trimmed, its beautiful stained glass screened against itchy-bites, its wide-open doors policed against outcasts by grim vergers and against heretics by theologically-educated clerics?

Rick: After reading your beautiful and palpable description of life in the African bush, I was inspired to tell a story of my own.

During World War II, I spent much of my summers on the farm of an aunt and uncle. It is situated near a tiny village, Vasa, Minnesota, just twelve miles from my home town, Red Wing. Surrounding Vasa are the properties of numerous farmers who were either born in Sweden or were first generation Swedish-Americans. My uncle was born in Sweden as were his siblings. My aunt was born in the US to Swedish immigrants.

Among my most precious memories are those associated with the harvest. Virtually all the farmers in the community worked in concert going from farm to farm to bring in the bounty of the summer. As a young boy I enthusiastically joined the men in the field helping to load shocks of grain on horse-drawn wagons to bring them to the gnashing noisy thresh machine that separated straw from the grain. I witnessed the hard working sweaty, swearing Swedes who toiled with seeming glee over the rewards from the earth. For the most part, they spoke Swedish to one another although all spoke perfect English. I think Jesus would have enjoyed working with this hearty earthy crew.

In the village, the Lutheran Church stands on a promontory, its steeple visible for miles around. It was built by the hands of the early settlers from indigenous materials. In the cemetery that embraces the Church one finds a field of Swedish names on markers, many indicating birth in Sweden in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Although prosperity was found it was gained by hard work, sacrifice and endurance. There is no question in my mind that the Church was a fundamental inspiration and consolation to that immigrant community sustaining them in the often hostile foreign environment. I doubt any of those crusty Swedes sought or accepted gratuitous spiritual advice. When one farmer was chided by the pastor for not attending services, he reportedly said, "It is better to be in the field thinking about God than to be in church thinking about my crops." Yet, most were found in the pews on Sunday morning worshiping with utter reverence. I recall no evidence of prejudice or exclusionary behaviour amongst them. In short, this remains an enduring example of a highly successful church-community relationship.

Thus, when I read your lament of the Church, citing its exclusiveness, prissiness and pettiness it was depressing to think anyone encounters such a situation. It is foreign to me. That church of the sweaty, swearing Swedes I experienced was celebratory, life-affirming and wholly supportive of the earthy community it served. Obviously, our life situations have much to do in shaping our perceptions of the Church.

Mick: Experiences differ. I hail from a country despoiled by the British, you from one long free of colonialism. You have grown up as it were in the bosom of the Church. I came to it as a young man. You have spent your life in a close, familiar congregation. I spent twenty years in a completely secular life after divorce excluded me from the Eucharist.

I question whether our experience is the main point here. Yes, it may lead us to differing conclusions about the Church, each of us having had different experiences of it at a local level. But the Church at large is the focus at this point.

I imagine it's rather like living in a small, peaceful town in South Africa fifty years ago. Whites kept to themselves and Blacks stayed in their allotted place. Peace reigned, and a degree of mutual respect was the order of the day, surprising though that may seem to some.

But a person in that place had only to look up and see what it was that kept the "peace", and everything else took on a new look.

Similarly, homogeneity of the Church at a local level preserves an appearance of openness. A local culture of White Christians of Western origin in South Africa gets on as well as can be. So also a local culture of Americans of Swedish origin has a degree of harmony and apparent inclusiveness. But whatever happens at a local level in the Church, a Christian has only to lift up his or her eyes to see that the type of person welcomed by Jesus is excluded from its wider fellowship. And all in the name of order, or right doctrine or some other specious reason.

Rick: If I follow you correctly you seem to say that the positive influences and experiences afforded by the local Church are nullified if there is corruption in the leaders of the "larger" Church. That is to say, the emotional and spiritual values offered by local church groups (no matter how illusory you consider them) are nullified because of bad actors at the top. You say, "�homogeneity of the Church at the local level preserves the appearance (italics mine) of openness." Do you mean that comity between parishioners facilitated by the Church is a sham?

Maintaining peace and mutual respect despite inequities among groups of people is not necessarily a bad thing nor is it hypocritical to create tranquil space for parties to dispassionately discuss their differences. It is better than allowing a sincere and honest outpouring of rage.

I am confident that within every church body there is a "shadow church." The shadow church is made up of those who passionately embrace the idea of a transcendent non-material reality expressed in the rituals and doctrines of their particular affiliation. Yet they cannot subscribe to each and every doctrinal detail but consider that discrepancy tolerable.

Undoubtedly there are rascals in Church hierarchy as there are in all human institutions. I have no cogent recommendations for changing that situation. I do not, however, see why the mission of the Church must be suspended until all is made right.

Mick: Point taken. You accurately describe the Church as it is. I'm part of this hybrid creature. You are quite correct that, like every other human institution, it is not homogenous. And, like the curate's egg, it's good in parts.

We are here discussing inclusiveness. I make my point again briefly. Jesus went before us. He shattered both Jewish and Roman norms of taking in good people and excluding the bad. We are Christians in response to him.

So what justifies exclusion? Not baptised? You can't receive communion at the Lord's Supper. Not sexually straight? You can't be a bishop. Don't believe in the resurrection? You are not Christian. Don't obey the Pope? You're not a proper church. Don't speak in tongues? You're not saved. A Muslim? Go to your mosque.

I could recite instance after instance where we put God's children beyond the pale.

Solutions for next Sunday? Open our church's doors wide to anyone and everyone. Sit next to the smelly, mad bag lady. Watch masculine gay men kiss and then receive the bread and wine. Vote for a lesbian to be bishop because she's the best person for the job. Welcome the scared paedophile with open arms, deep understanding and massive support. Rejoice in racial and cultural difference. Invite our Muslim neighbour to share every aspect of our fellowship. Go to the Buddhist for guidance in meditation and spirituality. Be poor to give to the poor.

But there is a problem: All these people recognise at a deep emotional level that many Christians - and I'm one of them - preach one thing and do another. "Go into the highways and byways - but don't bring anyone in here who doesn't meet our standards." So they're not likely to darken our doorway

Rick: The discussion of inclusiveness inevitably involves a discussion of prejudice. In this context I define prejudice as pre-judging, making quick evaluations with meagre and incomplete information. Prejudice is a primitive, normal human defence mechanism analogous to our biologic immune systems. Prejudice is instinctively aroused by confrontation with new and potentially threatening situations that may cause an alteration of the status quo (homeostasis in biologic systems). If the reaction of the immune system is inappropriate or excessive, great harm may result. Similarly, if prejudice is unenlightened and extreme, we all know what that can do to interpersonal relationships and society at large.

Encountering an unshaven, staggering male in a dark alley will probably cause fear and avoidance. A more critical evaluation may disclose a homeless diabetic who desperately needs medical attention. We should all automatically inspect our prejudices for their authenticity. When more information is gained, our actions precipitated by our prejudice, can be modified or completely overridden.

Members of a church live in two worlds, one of the spiritual, the other of civil society. Each world has its own set of rules that may be congruent or divergent. These rules are established to maintain the stability and integrity of each community. The rules can be changed but it is natural for institutions and people to prefer gradualism and conservatism to avoid chaos and the inconvenient or unnecessary disruption of their missions.

Some rules may not be amenable to change in the eyes of many if not most of the constituents. I doubt many with common sense would deliberately invite a murderer-rapist into the parlour of his home with his daughters and wife. Nor do I think the victims and parents of victims of paedophilia have an obligation to shield the perpetrators from the consequences of civil or ecclesiastical sanctions. Our freedoms are often pre-empted by the rules of society and the church. It cannot be avoided.

We must all be aware of our prejudices and reflexively analyze each one for their authenticity and potential for harm. Where they are pernicious, redress and change may be necessary for the good of society and the church. Such change, however, ought to be sought with patience and civility if it is to be effective and enduring.

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