Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Heart of the Gospel

This morning I read this provocatively-titled article Why Evangelicals Hate Jesus. The author admits the title is a bit provocative, but he still makes some really good points. (I would only add that it's written from a US-perspective and that even in that context it does not describe all Evangelicals, though it does describe a significant segment of conservative Evangelicals. For a fruitful dialogue between a Unitarian and an Evangelical see this video.)

But you do have to wonder how people who are so vocal about being Christian can have values so different from the actual teaching of Jesus.

But this does fit into some of the thoughts I'm having at the moment. What is the heart of the Gospel? What is the the most vital part of Christianity?

For a great proportion of the Christian population the heart of Christianity is the person of Jesus, devotion to him, and belief in his divine sonship. Now some Unitarians claim that this kind of thing was only made up in the fourth century. That simply isn't true, and Unitarians should stop saying it. Devotion to the person of Jesus clearly developed very early on in Christian history, and is present in the New Testament.

Now I don't, and never have, shared this spirituality of devotion to Jesus. But at the same time, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with it, as such. But the question is: is it the heart of the Gospel? Is it the most vital thing?

The problem with putting devotion to Jesus at the heart of Christianity as that, as the article points out, you can commit to this devotion, while rejecting all of Jesus' teaching. You can be pro-wealth, pro-violence, pro-revenge while praying to Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour. Of course many Christians are devoted to Jesus while also living out his teaching, but many, in fact I would say most, do not.

What I have been struggling to work out, really for all of my life, is what the heart of the Gospel really is. I think we desperately need a way of talking about the central thrust of Jesus' teaching as the heart of the Gospel. We could say "love" and I'd agree witht that, but it doesn't really go far enough, and we're in danger of going into a liberal dead-end that doesn't say much more than "it's nice to be nice."

I think the heart of the Gospel can be described as a number of central virtures. I'm still working this out, but I think the list goes something like this: prayer, immediacy, humility, simplicity, compassion, hospitality, reconciliation, justice for the poor and non-violence.

That list, I think, is the heart of the Gospel. Jesus' teaching points us in the direction of a lifestyle that is rooted in those virtues. And I would maintain that personal devotion to Jesus, and belief in his divine sonship is optional.

So as a Unitarian I approach ecumenism with a commitment, not so much "that you believe X and I disagree with you" but more like "you believe X, and I don't think it matters very much whether you believe in X or not, I think what's more important is that we do Y."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Can you have sex?"

This does fit into my current musings on theology of ministry, honest.

Have we forgotten how to pray?

Have you read Art Lester’s 2008 Anniversary Sermon? If not you should do, go on, do it, I’ll wait for you. Even if you’ve read it before, or heard it at the time, go read it again. It’s really important stuff. Go on.

Art’s words are on my mind at the moment. You see what I find most disheartening about some Unitarian gatherings is not someone saying “there’s not enough of us” or “we don’t have enough money” – it’s my sense that we’ve forgotten how to pray.

When we try to pray, or have something like prayer, I often think to myself that we don’t get it. They might be really worthy words, clever or thought-provoking words, but I don’t think it’s prayer.

Maybe I’m being really intolerant and judgmental and not recognising that other people have different sorts of spirituality. Maybe. Forgive me if I am. But Unitarian prayer often seems to me to be not deep enough.

Prayer’s not just “here’s some cool words.” Prayer should be saying “OK, what we’re doing here is connecting ourselves to the very depths of existence, to Being Itself, to, like, you know, the most important thing in the world. This is a pretty awesome thing to do, maybe even a strange thing, but we belong to the fellowship of faith that says that human beings can actually connect with Being through our own hearts, by looking within ourselves we can actually directly experience the Sacred. That’s pretty cool, right?”

In other words we should approach prayer with just a smidge of awe, and even fear and trembling. Sure, often prayer is just a nod in the direction of depth, but if it truly is prayer we should be open to the possibility that something awesome and dangerous might happen. The Angel Gabriel might just turn up and grab us in a hug that will knock the breath out of us. A bush might burn and talk to us, a dove might fall out of the sky and give us such a fright that we go into the desert and hang out with demons and angels for forty days. Sure, these sorts of things happen very rarely, but prayer is opening our hearts to the possibility of this kind of stuff.

Let’s not have the empty shell of a prayer. How about we try to actually pray? Really really pray? Pray as if we mean it? Pray as if something might actually happen? Pray as if we are in the presence of the Almighty?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Time and Faith

There may be many reasons why orthodox Christianity doesn't make sense to me, one of them is about a theology of time.
Orthodox Christianity seems to me to be a lot about the future and the past, and for whatever reason that doesn't make any sense to me.
There's a lot of talk about "what God has done" and "what God will do" which just seems sort of irrelevant to me.
Maybe it's because I'm a scientist by inclination and by training, and I sort of look for universal laws. Because the law of gravity is a fundamental law of the universe it was the same 2000 years ago, it will be the same 2000 years from now, it is the same today. It does not change.
Similarly I would expect theological laws to be the same today as they were 2000 years ago, yet orthodox Christianity insists that God was more present in the universe 2000 years ago than God is today. I cannot accept that.
Also I'm convinced that mindfulness of the present is so very important. By putting God in the past, or in the future, in heaven, in the afterlife or at the end of time we are putting God away from here and now. But it makes much more sense to me that God is as here right now as God has ever been. This seems to me the only kind of God who could possibly be relevant.
I just don't buy into the worldview of history that seems to be a prerequistite of some people's Christianity.

I am not a vicar

The previous post on what ministers should wear during a protest led to a conversation about what ministers should wear in any case, which also leads to the question of what a Unitarian minister is in any case.

Sometimes people call me a vicar, usually non-churched friends while we're sitting in a pub. I'm not exactly offended by this, the worst thing to do is judge non-churched folks at using the wrong terms, giving the impression that religious people are hyper-sensitive and easily offended so you need to walk on eggshells around them. But nevertheless I would say, no, I'm not a vicar.

The basic way of explaining this is to say vicar comes from "vicarious" - doing something for someone else, and I don't do anything for anyone else. I don't do your religion for you, you have to do it for yourself.

But I suppose the basic reason why I don't wear a clerical collar is because I'm not a vicar, this is also the reason I do not use the title "reverend." My function may seem similar, but I think if we're consistent with our theology we have to admit that something quite different is going on in Unitarianism.

We have more in common with the Quakers (and even in some senses the Baptists) than the Church of England. We do not have an ordained order of clergy with symbolic function. We may in fact have more in common with certain types of American Quakers who have ministers and with Reform Rabbis (although I don't really have enough knowledge of either movement to back that up).

As much as I may have very friendly relations with my neighbouring Anglican church and clergy (and I do) I do have to affirm that we are not the same, and that I am committed to doing religion in a quite different way. Unitarianism belongs not to Protestantism but to the radical reformation and part of what that means is a strong commitment to equality, to the priesthood of all.

The idea of a "holy person" who does religion on your behalf, who effectively is holy so you don't have to be is a bad idea. The practice of a lot of Christian denominations, and the general approach to religion in this culture around "vicars" encourages this thinking. So "vicars" are praying, not swearing, not drinking, not having sex on our behalf.

Yet this way of thinking is condemned by all the great spiritual teachers: Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad constantly tried to turn attention away from themselves towards their teaching (why do you think there's a taboo in Islam against depicting the prophet Mohammad? Because Mohammad didn't want people to start worshipping him, turning their attention away from their own relationship with God).

This approach disempowers the laity. It cam reduce your membership of a spiritual community to passive pew-sitting.

A Unitarian minister is, theologically, more of a teacher than a priest. A Unitarian minister's job is to provide guidance in helping people go deeper in their faith journey and their own ministry. Because even though we each do have our own direct relationship with the Holy and our own ministry to give, we still need guidance, resources, knowledge to help us, and the minister provides this. A Unitarian minister is different, only in the sense of their education, training and knowledge of spiritual resources, which enables them to empower others.

In short I believe giving the impression that Unitarian ministers are "basically vicars" gives the wrong impression of the type of religion Unitarianism is. Unitarian ministers are not vicars.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

We are but witnesses

I love the Quakers. I find it quite inspiring the way they have come to a decision on same-sex marriage. They have produced a fantastic document, designed to explain their decision to other faith communities, that you can download here.

The most signigicant paragraph of their decision is this one:

…we are being led to treat same sex committed
relationships in the same way as opposite sex marriages,
reaffirming our central insight that marriage is the Lord’s
work and we are but witnesses. The question of legal
recognition by the state is secondary.

It's such a spiritually and theologically articulate decision, and also one that is incredibly simple.

It's worth reading if your community is making a decision about same-sex marriage, as my own is doing soon.