John Bennison Words and Ways | 2017 Archives

Adios, “Dios” – Part I

Saying Goodbye to “God” in Sacred Text

 

A pdf copy to read or print is here.

Prologue: What Good is “God”?

 

In a single week recently, a born-and-raised Mancunian (that is, a citizen of Manchester, England) who’d become “radicalized” by a religiously inspired ideology about God, infidels and heavenly rewards blew himself up at a pop concert; killing and maiming dozens in what a terrorist organization called a response to the “crusaders” in the West. Almost simultaneously in Cairo, a bus filled with Coptic Christians on pilgrimage is sprayed with machine gun fire by ISIS-inspired terrorists, killing 28. Headlines in subsequent weeks have brought with it a familiar, repetitious and numbing effect to the point of ambivalent fatigue.

One can argue how much of the carnage is due to geo-political-economic conflict and age-old ethnic/tribal warfare. Or how much of it is a perverse and distorted religious crusade. But in the lethal mix of these human thoughts and actions, there is undeniably a humanly concocted notion of “God.”

In my last commentary, I suggested we might do well at this point in the journey to consider leaving behind the theistic notion of “god.” But before doing so, one might ask how did all the different ideas and conceptualizations of however you define that term arise? Was it humanly generated, or was it something that was planted in our consciousness by some supernatural force?

If one is able to even entertain the unlikeliness of that second option and consider the first, it raises a larger question by its implications. If “god” is, in fact, an idea, a notion, an invention, or even a figment of human imagination, what does that mean for all those attributes once accorded such a deity — or deities — of one sort or another?

OMG! If we were to delete both our traditional Western word and notion of “god” – not just as a supernatural being, but all the substitutionary replacement ideas we’ve concocted so far — from both our speech and thinking, what are the implications for such things we ourselves know and experience to be true in our own human experience? I’m talking about conceiving of such things as love, compassion, mercy, grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, even absolution, redemption, and salvation.

Just try experimenting with this intriguing idea: If one deletes that one word that — I would suggest — has become so laden and problematic from the best ideas we’ve come up with to try to express and describe that very term, can those aforementioned attributes stand on their own without it?

For our first experiment, let’s begin by turning to a well-known and well-loved gospel text; revered as sacred in the Christian faith tradition. In subsequent experiments we’ll explore the implications for other cornerstones of Christian faith like prayer, sacramental rites and ritual, even worship.

This is not easy. It makes me wonder if we’re shaking the foundations. If we remove what has been envisioned to be the central pillar, will the walls come tumbling down, leaving only rubble and dust?

But then again, we are the dust of the earth, and we return to dust. So consider if is a heaven on earth isn’t sufficient to fill the void, both now and for this time of simply being?

Have we reached a place in this journey, where we can look back on the littered path of human history we have trod, and sincerely ask what good is “God?” Might it not be better to simply leave an empty space, if we can tolerate such an idea?

 

Saying Goodbye to “God” in Sacred Text

 

In our Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the word “god” is biblically understood in theistic terms. Mono-theistic to be exact. That is, there’s only one “god,” Yahweh; who is the supernatural creator of everything, oversees everything, and will redeem everything in the end for those who keep covenant and believe. Along the way, there are certain ways we are to behave in order for the Almighty to make good on His end of the deal. A risen Lord, Jesus Christ / Messiah, is not only the example set for us, to emulate as best we can in word and deed; but the living proof, as well. How exactly he is still “living” is a matter of unending theological debate. But the “Spirit” of Yahweh presumably blows where it wills to sustain us in the meanwhile. And if we fall short (which we will, and do), the unmerited gift of grace will pick us up again, thank God; despite all our worthlessness.

There you have it. In a single paragraph I’ve summarized mainline, orthodox (i.e. “right-believing”) Christianity in a nutshell!

However, the premise is also the problem, which I’ve already laid out previously; so I won’t reiterate here. Instead, I’ll rephrase the question again, asking how we might take all the best attributes accorded our deity in all our wildest imaginings – e.g., love, compassion, mercy, grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, even absolution, redemption, and even salvation / “resurrection” – and see just how well they might stand on their own in nothing more than the deepest and fullest human experience possible.

For our first experiment, we’ll reconsider a portion of text considered sacred; a parable likely told by the historical Jesus, before being passed along and eventually recorded in Luke’s gospel (Luke 24).

There was a father who had two sons. The firstborn was more conscientious, even industrious. The other was more adventurous, and probably a lot more fun to be around. But he didn’t want to stick around, and took off. When some of his life choices caught up with him, he returned to face the music, tail tucked between his legs.

Little did he know that from the day he’d left, his father had been waiting at the gate with an aching heart, keeping a hopeful vigil. He’d spent his days glancing unceasingly over his shoulder, until he might one day see a familiar silhouette come over the far hill. And then all customary expectations would be tossed aside.

The injured party would rush to the would-be penitent as fast as his old legs would carry him with the sweetest possible homecoming gifts being compassion and mercy. No judgment or quibbling over what’s fair could be heard, let alone any recrimination. Deaf to any contrition on the part of the one as good as dead, the father’s only capacity was unbridled joy and elation. Where the best the penitent could have hoped for was forgiveness and reconciliation, there wasn’t time for anything but celebration. Why?

Because, sometimes there’s something more important than justifiable resentment, or fairness, or even faithfulness. In which case, consider just how untypically irreligious this story really is.

But further, the backstory to this tale is a universal story. It’s about journey and homecoming. And I’ve never known a better description of “home” than that place you can return, and – no matter what — they won’t kick you out. You’ll never be disowned or forsaken, despite your undeserving.

It’s about being lost and found. It’s about estrangement and being as good as dead; then being raised up again to rejoin life among those living most abundantly. So it’s about resurrection. And grace. Grace as mediated by the love one human being is capable of mustering for another.

And noticeably absent in this very human story of redemption and making something and someone whole again, is the handiwork of any divine figure or deity.

It’s about a kind of resurrection and grace as mediated by the love one human being for another. And noticeably absent in this very human story of redemption and making someone whole again, is the handiwork of any divine figure or deity.

 

Now, I realize and readily acknowledge I’ve arbitrarily selected a portion of the Bible that’s probably easiest to make my point. But we also know the early Christian church’s tendency to have moved such parables through its predisposed inclination and interpretation to a familiar type of adaptation; making an allegory out of such tales.

It all quickly became code language, where “God” played the part of the father, and the younger son represented the gentiles in the early Christian movement; while the role of the recalcitrant and resentful older son was played by the Judeans or the Pharisees that were at odds with those early believers at the time the gospel was written, after the fact.

As a result of such an allegorical application, some biblical scholars have conjectured the original tale may not even have originated with Jesus; while others view more of the layered approach, where theological motivations have modulated what was once pure parable for their own purposes.

While my little experiment to see how well the parable of the prodigal can stand on its own without divine assistance or even religious “contamination,” other parables attributed to Jesus clearly include a religious tone, if not presence. Allegorical interpretation is almost unavoidable in the parable of the Sower. At the same time, it’s worth remembering the religious figures in the Good Samaritan parable are cast only in a negative light. However, consider how the Parable of the Lost Sheep, can function just as well without any divine intrusion as does the prodigal son story.

 

What of the “Reign of God”?

 

But how can the “kingdom” parables – the majority considered original to the Galilean sage – possibly be reconsidered without including “God?” “The kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is like a lost coin, a mustard seed, buried treasure, a pearl of great value, etc.”

Consider the fact that such a “kingdom” (now more often translated “reign”) is, of course, a vision of the human imagination; as conceived by the sage who sketched it for us, and the evangelists who recorded it. Further, the kingdom parables are always a juxtaposition of the way things are, and ought to be.

These parables are similitudes; meaning, they describe what it would be like if only those things to which we aspire came to pass, and with the human capacity we possess to achieve them. Consider this is what Jesus implied when he spoke of such a kingdom as this being imminent, or at hand; if only we were to use the eyes we already had to see, and ears to hear.

Clearly the Bible is a compilation of different kinds of recorded stories, covenant histories, theological treatises, gospel proclamations, letters, poems and sagas, and even hallucinogenic dreams, that are all intended to reflect two great mono-theistic faith traditions.

Over the different centuries of its compilation, the biblical narrative is a story of mere mortals arguing with “God,” wrestling with “God,” straying from “God,” returning to “God,” invoking “God,” pleading to “God,” swearing allegiance to “God,” giving thanks to “God,” loving “God,” cursing “God,” fearing “God,” fleeing from “God,” and — on more than one occasion — just being utterly confounded by “God,” and exasperated with “God.”

If one then considers the possibility that the notion of “god” described in the whole biblical story is the creation of a human document borne out of human experiences, it seems plausible to perhaps take another look at all those stories, and recognize how familiar they are when we recount all the ways in which we have dealt and interacted with one another!

In place of the word “God” in the foregoing paragraph, try the word “you” or “me.” Delete a supernatural deity, and see what’s left, or whatever might be really missing.

Then, if we come to the realization that “god” is really imagined and meant to be the representation of the best of ourselves — in relationship with one another — how might saying adios “Dios” in the journey we’ve undertaken not only un-encumber us a bit and quell some of the violence we inflict on one another in such a name and notion; but hasten, as well, the coming of that kingdom once, and so long, envisioned?

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 

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Resurrection as Change, Part III: Deleting “God”

You can read or print a copy of this commentary here.

Prefatory Note:

 

“God is a direction.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a German poet whose works contain many “God” references. Often when Rilke wrote about “God,” however, he was not referring to a deity in the traditional sense. Rather, he used the term in metaphorical ways. “God” is a forest in which we wander, or the “cathedral” we are building. “God” is not a thing, but an action, a creative process of an emerging reality of which we are capable of having conscious awareness. And, “Religion,” he once said, “is the art of those who are uncreative.”

So with this in mind, I ask myself, what of “God,” and religion?

 

The Problem with “God”

 

“God” has admittedly been for me a direction; but neither a destination, nor even a companion along the way any longer. As the poet suggests, if the notion of “god” is directional movement from a former past to the present now, then now is the time for me to at least leave the “G” word behind.

To do so, I admit, means passing up a veritable smorgasbord of choices: theism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, monotheism, etc.; while idolatry seems to lie in the eye of the perceiver. The usual alternative fare offered up usually runs the gamut from atheism to agnosticism. Instead I prefer avoiding the circular argument altogether, simply dubbing myself a non-theist.

I also readily acknowledge this is the place to which I have only tentatively arrived; and, for the time being, along the way. This is what I now understand. Though, looking back, it is the direction I have been travelling for a long time.

Some folks try to redefine the word, ”god;” so that they can still employ it with sufficient clarification that they mean this, and not that. But for me, it’s a little like equating resurrection with resuscitation; or trying to revive and reuse something that’s been recycled just too many times. Better to start from scratch and opt for a change in thinking that’s entirely new and next.

So what exactly is that term – and who are the gods of one sort or another – that have been left behind? Here’s what is self-evident to me:

We live in – and are a part of – a non-metaphysical world. As such, there is no supernatural deity, no separate divine being that exists apart from our own human imagination, consciousness and capacity to conceptualize one. What does that mean?

For one thing, it means there subsequently exists no grounds for any distinction between the sacred and profane, between a spiritual life and the ordinariness of this life; or the hope and promise of a next world and some kind of “life after death,” and escape from the temporal singularity of our own mortality.

It might take a second reading to unpack that previous sentence, and chew on it for a bit. In actuality, it has probably been decades in its formulation. But it arises out of many years in the study of this particular subject (it’s called theology), and those human-created forms of expression about such things (that’s called religion). Here’s a little backtracking to fill in the background:

Where belief in a pantheon of gods once existed to try to describe and make sense out of the chaos and incomprehensibility of what we pejoratively refer to sometimes as a primitive worldview, humankind has achieved enough understanding of the natural world, and logged enough millennia of recorded history, to know enough to have more than a hint of acknowledging the one-ness (or, non-duality, if you like) of all things.

What was previously a theological premise – constructed in numerous different ways, and inventing “gods” for everything under the sun, and even the sun itself for that matter – has subsequently become a scientific assertion. In this sense, it is why science has often now been dubbed the new and only post-modern religion.

As evidence, consider how such true believers recently took to the streets in a world-wide “March for Science,” to clearly reassert its primacy; and in the face of a dwindling number of doubters and detractors. The basic (scientific) assertion is that empirical knowledge and unimpeded inquiry will always and ultimately win out over reactionary, ignorant naysayers and holdouts. Where theories about how the world came to be and how it operates are sometimes a good bet, so-called “alternative facts” just don’t ultimately hold up very well when eventually faced with the plain, bald truth.

So, if what was once a theological task has been usurped or replaced by the worship of scientific inquiry, what’s then to be done with that term that is so generic that it begs definition as much as it lacks it: “God?”

 

Deleting “God”

 

I have previously suggested that this particular pronoun with a capital “G” has been so bandied about with so many different meanings and applications as to be essentially rendered meaningless. Instead of trying to resuscitate it – only to risk its misuse all over again – we might be just as well be done with it altogether.

In fact, I’ve asked a few scholars far more learned than I why they still capitalize this particular word, as if referring to a proper name, instead of the ideas they like to substitute for what usually ends up being some quasi-anthropomorphic throw away line. But in my estimation, they always seem to come up short. So here’s my take:

First, the idea of “god” is exactly that. “God” is an idea, a notion, a human invention or contrivance, if you will. But more so, it is a descriptive idea of whatever we empirically experience, and then subsequently seemed to have attributed to an entity of some sort. We’ve historically done so, in order to try to explain the whys and wherefores of our lives.

But furthermore, it is not an idea that was planted in our consciousness by some mysterious outside force. I strongly suspect there is enough unknown mystery to the universe, in and of itself, so that any infinity of space, and eternity of time, should keep us busy for quite awhile. It seems to me we don’t need to invent and domesticate such unknowns and make humanly devised deities out of them.

Instead, and for example: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, when we hear the story of Moses encountering a burning bush that speaks without being consumed, or the voice that booms out like rolling thunder with approval over Jesus’ baptism in the chilly waters below, it is not a supernatural occurrence, but wonderfully descriptive mythic language striving to express the deepest possible meaning of a fully human experience.

Did I always understand this, and believe this to be true? Well, since in our “oneness” it’s all one big ball of wax, I can say the answer to my own question is both yes, and no! But the one, fundamental and essential truth I have found is this: We live our lives by myths and metaphors. And the search for meaning compels and challenges us to discern which myths are true, and which are false. Human history is littered with the enactments of false myths that have proved lethal. If there is any lasting value to any religious tradition, it is in the colloquial retelling of those myths that express alternate and enduring truths.

We live our lives by myths and metaphors. And the search for meaning compels and challenges us to discern which myths are true, and which are false.

Deleting “God” in “Christ”

 

Raised and reared in one of the great monotheistic faith traditions, I was immersed in a sort of religious inheritance bequeathed to me by my culture, my ethnicity, and centuries of Western history.

This included learning and living out the great mythic stories handed down through what were regarded as sacred scripture; along with the rites and rituals that were employed to symbolically express our part of that heritage, with a doctrinal belief system mediated by an authoritative, hierarchical human institution called the Church. So revered and meaningful were these words and ways, that they have sustained flocks of people from crib to grave.

In a search for meaning out of mystery and chaos – which is essentially the true function of all religion and its mythic tales –seekers far and wide found what was understood and believed to them to be an encounter with a sense of meaning and purpose, a defined direction and final destination. In the Christian faith tradition, it became fidelity to “oneness with Christ,” redemption and salvation. Subsequently, of course, the results were a plethora of interpretations as to what that all might possibly mean.

So along with leaving behind the vestiges of a supernatural “god,” there has been the so-called “quest” over a century of scholarly debate for the historical Jesus; as distinct from an eternal savior “god” and “Christ” of faith. The life and teachings of a 1st century Galilean sage in the wisdom tradition of his own religious heritage was subsequently accorded the messianic title by the religious tradition that emerged following his death and burial (facts) and “resurrection” (a theological assertion).

It was somewhat amusing when a cable news network recently broadcast a series entitled, “Finding Jesus – Faith, Fact, and Forgery.” Really? I found it incredulous that the promo’s for the series featured the iconic character quoting “I am” verses from John’s gospel; enjoining the listener to “believe.” Most scholars I know concur that the vast majority of sayings attributed to Jesus in the 4th Gospel are the invention of the early emerging faith community. The series merely reiterated legendary accounts from the gospels, and perpetuated more forgery than facts.

Instead, I liken myself to a disciple of Jesus on the Emmaus road, as recounted in the tale in Luke 24. I’m one who has striven to recognize the one I now refer to as that Galilean sage, as “hearts burn within us,” in the remembrances of his likeliest words and ways. But like those earlier disciples, I do so when I regularly break bread with some fellow sojourners in a group we simply refer to as Pathways. In doing so, I acknowledge I am only able to imagine there’s a faint resemblance of someone long dead and gone, who is borne out in our reenactment of study and supping each month.

Even so, I accept the inescapable fact that with only the earliest and various memories of who that historical figure really was, we share much of the same fate as those who were only one or two generations removed from him. We all have our own Jesus figure. And whoever he was, the world in which that 1st century CE figure walked and talked with his own god-language and religious context remains only partially transferable and translatable to the time and place I live two millennia later. Things change. So, when it comes to any religious construct, the question is what — if anything — remains?

 

Speaking anew without “God”

 

One of the things that remains is some of the mythic language once used to describe that which is beyond our present capacity to fully express and explain the human experience. We have strong evidence that the most authentic sayings of the historical Jesus were likely the “kingdom” parables, and a sort of godly language used to provide a context for transference; and how to imagine this same world differently. It’s why I refer to them as the “parables of now and next.”

Did Jesus have a “theological premise” different from me, at this point; especially with regard to the use of the word “god?” Probably. If Jesus were alive today, would he view things differently, and express himself differently as a result? Maybe. But it’s probably the only reason it makes me wish I believed in something as fanciful as a Second Coming!

I have for a long time reflected on the richness of the language we have inherited from two millennia of this one particular religious tradition, and asked myself (quoting J.S. Bach’s great hymn), what language shall we borrow? What new language might I employ to better express the place I have arrived? How, for instance, might I use resurrection language for what is new and next; instead of trying to breathe new life into that which is dead and gone?

I’ve actually thought of resurrection this way for awhile, based on personal experience. I used to say I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived long enough to have died enough little deaths along the way, to experience the fact that life itself continued afterward. There was no “god” that raised me up again, but life itself; and those other mere mortals surrounding me, loving me, supporting me.

Ah, some holdouts might still try to postulate the idea of a deity that’s been accorded such an attribute, and say, “God is love!”

To which I might suggest we simply reverse the proposition and consider: No, love is my “god.” Or better yet, love is simply love.

In the next commentary, I’ll reflect further on experimenting with such a proposition, and explore how such notions can stand well enough on their own.

 

 

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 

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Resurrection as Change, Part II

The Emmaus Experience of Transformation

To read or print this commentary in pdf format click here. To read the commentary, “Resurrection as Change, Part I” can be found here.]

 

“Situated by the River Thames and next to Lambeth Palace, London’s Garden Museum,” according to it’s website description, “provides a wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of central London and is an ideal setting for a pre-dinner drink reception or a barbeque.” It all sounds terribly lovely.

When the venue was constructed centuries earlier however, it served as a different kind of refuge, known as St. Mary’s Church, Lambeth.  But in more recent decades, when church attendance waned and interest turned from things religious to gardening, the sanctuary was recently deconsecrated and converted into a horticultural museum.

In the course of renovation, an as-yet undiscovered manhole cover led to a crypt beneath the sanctuary floor. And among the thirty coffins was found a bishop’s mitre and the earthly remains of Richard Bancroft, head of the Anglican Church from 1604 to 1610. It was Bancroft who was selected by James the First to oversee the creation of the first English translation of the Christian scriptures, known as the King James’ Bible.

In the liturgical season some Christian faith communities still observe as Eastertide, it’s somewhat amusing to consider how an ancient building — with its walls still adorned with stained glass depicting some of those biblical stories — has so changed and been recycled and repurposed. And in the undercroft lie the fertile dust and bone of someone dead and gone who once presumably preached a gospel of resurrection.

While certainly not the most scholarly translation, it still seems fitting nonetheless to then read Bancroft’s version of this post-resurrection appearance tale; in which the words attributed to a risen Lord are clearly the fanciful creation of an early believing community.

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days? And he said unto them, What things?

And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre; And when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures? And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. [Luke 24:12-34]

“Did not our hearts burn within us?” The Emmaus legend is about both the inevitability of change and the possibility of transformation. The unrecognized stranger — who draws up beside the two despondent disciples on a road that’s going to take them from a former place to someplace else – is portrayed as the only one who is unaware of all the changes that have just taken place.

The biggest change, however, awaits the two other sojourners when the eyes and ears of understanding are opened to see and hear what has presumably already been said and done previously by the Galilean sage, now dead and gone. In all the swift and varied changes of this world, the elusive goal of converting hearts and minds remains optional.

The Emmaus legend is about both the inevitability of change and the possibility of transformation. … In all the swift and varied changes of this world, the elusive goal of converting hearts and minds remains optional.

It’s akin to that other fanciful gospel story of the transfiguration. The human Jesus doesn’t really change in the presence a few of his dumbfounded followers; along with the visages of some ancient prophets who are long gone. What changes is the way he is regarded by those companions. Resurrection is not about any return of that which is already gone, but the transformation of one who is not yet fully present to the now, and next, and for the time being.

Consequently, I liken myself to a disciple of Jesus on the Emmaus road — who has striven to recognize one who I now refer to as the Galilean sage — in the remembrances of what were his likeliest words and ways; and as I periodically break bread with some fellow sojourners at a gathering we intentionally call Pathways. Admittedly, I am only able to imagine a faint resemblance of someone long dead and gone; but whose remembrance is borne out in our reenactment of study, exploratory dialogue and supping each month along the Emmaus road.

Even so, I acknowledge the inescapable fact that with only the earliest and varied memories of who that historical figure really was, we share much of the same fate as those who were only one or two generations removed from him. We all have our own Jesus figure. And whoever he was, the world in which that 1st century CE figure walked and talked with his own god-language and religious tradition remains only partially transferable and translatable to the time and place in which I live two millennia later. Things change. So, when it comes to any religious construct, the question is, what — if anything — remains? And what might be more meaningfully repurposed?

One of the things that hasn’t changed is the way in which common language is still best used to describe that which is beyond our present capacity to fully express and explain the human experience. We have strong evidence that the most authentic sayings of the historical Jesus were likely the “kingdom” parables, combined with a certain god language; and used to provide a context to imagine this same world differently.

Did Jesus have a “theological premise” different from mine, at this point; especially with regard to the use of the word “god?” Probably. If Jesus were alive today, would he view things differently himself, and express himself differently as a result? Maybe. But it’s probably the only reason it makes me wish I believed in something as incredible as a Second Coming!

But at the heart of those parables are the universal stories of ordinary life that can stand on their own, without any religious language whatsoever; and still remain sufficiently transformative to warm hearts. It is the reason I call them transformative “parables of now and next.” And it is in this sense that I ask what new language we might continue to employ to better express the place we have arrived, with so many changes, and for the time being? How, for instance, might I use resurrection language for whatever is new and next?

I’ve considered the meaningfulness and usefulness of the notion of resurrection this way, based on personal experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived long enough in order to have died a sufficient number of little deaths along the way; that I might not only experience restoration, but the deeper reality that life itself continues, with or without me. In those experiences, there was no “god” that raised me up again, but life itself; along with those other mere mortals surrounding me, loving me, and supporting me, both now and for the time being.

In this way, I’ve also thought of my own late father, now dead and gone. Over a half-century ago — and, following along within the apostolic succession of Anglican bishops himself — he had built a magnificent cathedral in the Midwest town in which I grew up. It was a grand testament to the orthodox Christian beliefs of his generation. It was even within that soaring space that he once laid hands upon my head, and ordained me to preach a gospel of death and resurrection.

But following his retirement, things changed. Interest in the mainline denominational packaging (those century-old traditions, rites and rituals) waned and the market for religious things went another direction. The property was sold off to a non-denominational mega-church that built a worship center three times the size of the original structure. And, the former cathedral was repurposed as a wedding chapel.

One thing remained, and was required to be maintained, as part of the sales agreement. It was the Resurrection Garden that had been installed as a columbarium, adjacent to the former cathedral. There the remains of some mortals, including my father’s ashes, have been interred; to simply return to the earth as part of another horticultural museum, of sorts.

And all shall be well.

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.
To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive click on Archives tab on the homepage.

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Resurrection as Change, Part I

A Brief Reflection on the Observance of Good Friday and Easter

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Everything must change,
Nothing stays the same.
Everyone must change
Nothing stays the same.
The young become the old,
Mysteries do unfold.
‘Cause that’s the way of time
Nothing and no one goes unchanged.”
                  Benard Ighner, singer/songwriter

Recently I’ve become aware of some significant changes occurring in the personal lives of some of the folks that gather in our monthly Pathways circle. Some changes are welcome, while some are not. It’s a mixed bag. It all reminds me, once again, of the only constant thing in our lives. It is the progressive changes that continue unabated, with whatever number of days we are each randomly accorded. Me included.

This is no startling new revelation, but rather a reawakening for me. I’ve awoken early to put these few thoughts together on what I was somehow reminded is the annual observance of Good Friday in the Christian faith tradition.

So, someone’s dying. Again. Or rather, something for someone is dying. Or, as part of an old prayer I used to religiously recite — but do no more — put it,  things which were cast down are… being raised up” andthings which had grown old are being made new.”

As lyrical as those lines were, I’ve always thought they were a bit misleading; at least as misleading as the word “resurrection.” In this very real world, it’s never about some clinging, clasping vain hope of changelessness with this mortal package. Resurrection isn’t about some kind of restoration or resuscitation of that which is dead and gone. Instead, it’s about now, and next, and only for the time being.

Resurrection isn’t about some kind of restoration or resuscitation of that which is dead and gone. Instead, it’s about now, and next, and only for the time being.

Going through the process of dying to what is dead and gone is called grief. Sometimes its accompanied by regret. Periodically some commemorate it, and call it Good Friday. It’s about letting go of that which is no more; with nothing more than what that same quaint old prayer book used to refer to as a “sure and certain hope” something will follow; at least for the time being.

It’s the reason all those different gospel accounts are really only about an empty tomb, not resurrection. It’s the absence of what once was, and is no more. And all the so-called post-resurrection stories are really only about how we might look again to see and hear the Galilean sage with open eyes and ears, hearts and hands.

Just recall the way those first mythic tales were retold for us. He is, at first, unrecognizable in the garden or while walking along the Emmaus road; but remains untouchable, or vanishes from sight once hearts are finally warmed by the parables of now and next which — previously uttered — are now recollected. He walks through locked doors, and is carried away on the wind. He is flesh and blood no more, and never will be again. Let him go.

And for now, let’s just consider how everything must change, and nothing stays the same. I can see it in the mirror when I rise. I can see it outside my window on a crisp April morn. Change is in the wind. But it’s only the wind. It’s nothing more, and need be nothing more. And the wind blows where it will.

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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Stranger As Neighbor in a Promised Land

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The Good Samaritan, artist: HeQi

Don’t Fence Me In

Contrary to the old adage, fences do not necessarily make good neighbors. In our election campaign season this last year, the winning candidate promised to build a wall and have our neighbor pay for it. We’ll see. Now by presidential executive order, an indefinite ban on all refugees from certain predominantly Muslim countries entering our country has also been put in place.

Meanwhile, not long ago the daily headlines recently focused on the latest dust-up over the U.S. position with regards to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict; when our country declined to once again veto a UN Security Council resolution, condemning the continued construction of Israeli settlements in walled-off Palestinian occupied territories that some critics are now labeling a virtual apartheid state. Even with a wall, it’s abundantly clear the physical barrier does not seem to have resolved the ongoing feud.

More than just politics, or a turf war between two different groups trying to occupy the same patch of earth in that part of the world, there are also religiously-infused traditions that are as powerfully determinant as are the political ideologies and national identities. But in the face of such an ancient fight, infused with violence, those who claim to follow in the Judeo-Christian tradition might consider again the scriptural injunction that lies at the core of this shared tradition.

The stories of liberation from oppression and deliverance as aliens to a place of promised blessing, or from exile and return, from outcast to inclusion by sheer grace, or from one as good as dead being raised to new life, are all central to the biblical vision of a shared common humanity.

From Jewish scripture is a repeated reminder: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9.] Among numerous other similar citations from Torah: Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Numbers 15:16, Deuteronomy 1: 16, Deuteronomy 10: 18-19, Deuteronomy 24: 20-21, Deuteronomy 27:19.

And from the Jewish prophetic tradition: Micah 6:8, Jeremiah 7:5-6, Zechariah 7:10, and from Ezikiel:

“So shall you divide this land unto you according to the tribes of Israel. And it shall come to pass, that you shall divide it by lot for an inheritance unto you and to the strangers that sojourn among you, who shall beget children among you; and they shall be unto you as the home-born among the children of Israel; they shall have inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel.” [Ezekiel 21-22]

And within more than millennia of recorded history there have been the rise and fall, conquest and defeat of a succession of nation states; including the modern State of Israel in 1948, when nearly two-thirds of the population in Palestine was Muslim. To put it mildly, neighborliness has been an ongoing challenge.

 

Who Is My Neighbor?

In the first century CE, the Christian gospel tradition emerged in the midst of controversy and conflict that, in many ways, don’t seem all that different nowadays. There were domination systems and gross economic disparities between nations and groups; with entrenched religious and political structures crumbling and competing for power and influence amidst rival ethnicities and violent strife.

And then along comes a charismatic wisdom sage from a backwater town in Galilee who cites Torah and tells stories:

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal [or, “abundant”] life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied, 

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.”

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’ [Luke 10:25-37]

The parable dissolves the conventional distinction between “us” and “them;” where proximity is such that they are unavoidably inseparable as neighbors. And with nothing more than an abundance of mercy – the divine imperative to an abundant life — the walls come tumbling down.

 

The Key to the Door

Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,
Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,
Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,
Oh, Rock-a my soul.

 So high you can’t get over it.
So low you can’t get under it
So wide you can’t get around it
You gotta come in through the door.

Traditional African-American spiritual

Michael Cooper is a neighbor of mine. He’s an American, a Jew, a pediatric cardiologist by profession, and a novelist by avocation. Many years ago, when he was a young medical student in Tel Aviv, he fully supported the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the “historic” Land of Israel: “And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien,” he’d recite. “All the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” (Gen. 17:8)

But once, when he cited such a promise as a divine right to some of his Arab classmates, they simply replied – and to Michael’s astonishment — “But, we too are Abraham’s seed!”

For years afterwards now, Michael has made mission trips to Israel twice each year, contributing his medical assistance as best he can to Palestinian children in need through the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund. In a word, he does not “pass by on the other side.”

As a Jew, the State of Israel does not allow him to pass though the gate in the wall, and into the squalor of the Palestinian camps. Yet the key that could ever open that door in the wall remains such an act of mercy.

In a word, he does not pass by on the other side. … And the key that could ever open that door in the wall remains such an act of mercy.

Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,” goes an old African-American spiritual. It refers to the “bosom of Abraham,” as a place of comfort and security. Resting in the arms of the metaphorical “father of all” conveyed the notion of resting in a place where harm could not reach, and where the just rested securely. It makes one ask if a “security wall” isn’t ultimately a contradiction in terms?

Construction of the Great Wall of China began in the 7th century BCE, and continued for 1,400 years; up until the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644 CE.

By contrast, the Berlin Wall only lasted 28 years, from 1961–1989 CE. The remnants of both walls are now major tourist attractions, but their original purposes have both been relegated to the dustbin of history. 

Then there’s that 25’ high concrete wall sometimes referred to by different parties enmeshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as either a “separation barrier” or “anti-terror fence.“ It wends its way in a jagged line across the West Bank territories.

It occurs to me, before someone spends billions to build a “huge” wall on our own southern border, perhaps someone like the TV-talk show shrink, Dr. Phil, should ask the Israeli’s, so how’s that working out for you?

So now a proposal has actually been initiated to build a “great wall” along the 2,000-mile frontier between Mexico and the United States. As one elderly American woman who lives along our own southern border recently told a news reporter, “If you build a 20’ wall, they’ll just get a 22’ ladder.” So instead, this good Samaritan puts plastic jugs of water out at night for any stranger passing by that might otherwise die of thirst.

It has been argued by some that if you don’t have a wall on your borders, then you don’t have a country. On the other hand, if we don’t treat the alien in our midst as one of “us,” then what kind of a country do we have?

And who is our neighbor?

 

What do you think? Join the dialogue here.

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 

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