Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: A New Spiritual Tapestry

Woven from the frayed threads of traditional Christianity

by Glennis Johnston

A great read by a very capable and experienced practitioner of progressive ministry. It deserves to be included in the pantheon of great progressive texts.

God is experienced within our mortal, messy lives, which is the heart of spiritual living. The new spiritual tapestry that we are weaving affirms this truth, while calling into question the basic doctrines of traditional Christianity….

Christianity is losing credibility because observers notice that it is built on a foundation of guilt and fear, both promoted by religious doctrines. It is time we recognised that these doctrines can be traced all the way back to a misleading interpretation of myths, such as the Garden of Eden. We need to develop a spirituality on a different view of humanity and on gratitude that, within our imperfect lives, the divine impulse is always, faithfully present.

In dismantling many of the myths and shibboleths of church taught traditional doctrine and biblical interpretation, the author manages to demonstrate the inconsistency of the teaching and the way in which ‘God’ is portrayed. Is God wrathful and encouraging violence (apparent in both Testaments) at the same time as offering unconditional love? How does this inconsistent teaching work for contemporary society and a humanity challenged to address violence, racial hatred and inequalities?

Students of the biblical text searching for the real Jesus can be forgiven for any confusion. As Glennis Johnston points out they need to separate out the material that can be attributed to writers who paint a picture of Jesus as the son of a vengeful God and those who portray him as unconditionally loving. It is not possible to accept these two opposing images as co-existing.

So which stream of thought in the New Testament should inform our spirituality? The “one focussed on sacrifice, judgement, religious identity and supportive of organisation and hierarchy; the other committed to non-violence, social justice and supportive of non-hierarchical community”? Both exist in tension in current Christian thought and practice.

The ‘new spiritual tapestry’ that Glennis Johnston seeks to weave is an intelligently crafted non-coercive, morally persuasive ethic that is always looking for opportunities to improve ‘global social justice’. All of this draws together ‘threads of wisdom’ from the best of the Christian tradition and a God of ‘goodness, hope and beauty’.

All the time that the author takes us through a discussion about the inevitability of our need for a new spiritual narrative, she is holding fast to key principles of honesty, equity and mercy. There is no need for any one to miss out with fair distributive justice as a guiding principle. Life values and parameters can still be sourced from a careful reading of Hebrew teaching as well as the teachings of Jesus which, unfortunately, have often become distorted, obsessively negative elements rather than followed with a spirit of a loving and forgiving God.

It is made clear that if the Church is to have a role in the evolving new spiritual paradigm, it will have to heed the groundswell of theologians, biblical scholars, economists, historians, scientists, educators, philosophers and cultural critics who are in consensus that an alternative story about our collective social responsibilities is imperative.

This is a book that has multiple uses. It informs as well as teaches. Groups committed to church reform will find it invaluable for ideas, values and mission focus when shaping a progressive profile. For students of theology and ministry education it provides an essential instrument for helping them to recognise the reality of many of the mistakes that have been made in the past and opens up possibilities for making Jesus relevant and without boundaries or barriers. For those who no longer can tolerate the Church, it offers ways to bridge from the secular to the sacred without artificial barriers that have for so long made this appear impossible.

 A strong thread running through the stories that are used to explain the vision of a transforming spirituality is the emphasis on how the new spirituality will be a liberating experience. The sense of entitlement and power of some over others disappears. Inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus as reported in the gospels our everyday lives in community will come ever closer to the kingdom of God.

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The author: Glennis Johnston BSocWk BTh BA(Hons) is an ordained Uniting Church minister with a research degree in New Testament Studies. She has worked in counselling and parish ministry for 22 years as well as voluntary work in Australia, India and Europe for 5 years. Glennis now operates Fernbrook Lodge, a Retreat Centre and B&B in Dorrigo, NSW where she facilitates individual and group retreats.

To order a copy ($30) email to Firelight Publishers

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Now published – The Ending of Mark’s Gospel: the Key

By Peter Lewis

The Key to Understanding the Gospels and Christianity

Zeus have just published Peter’s new book and it is available from Amazon Australia

In an earlier posting, we gave details of this work when it was in draft format.

Scholarship and determined exploration of ancient sources for the canonical gospel of Mark has brought great rewards for the writer and readers of The Ending of Mark’s Gospel. Peter Lewis’s work has indeed provided new ‘understanding of the gospels’. The reasons for and impact of variations in the form of the ending of Mark has been speculated on for a long time. Dr Lewis puts a credible case for a reconstructed original ending while providing multiple peripheral insights. His work challenges some long held assumptions and makes worthy corrections to previous scholarship. This is a theological adventure in forensic classical philology and reads like an unfolding mystery novel with the evidence building for his ‘case’. An enjoyable read that takes theology and contemporary Jesus studies into a new era of thinking.

Dr Paul Inglis, CEO UCFORUM www.ucforum.unitingchurch.org.au

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Book Review: Seasons and Self – Rex Hunt

Seasons and Self: Discourses on Being ‘at home’ in Nature

                                                                                        Bayswater. Coventry Press, 2018. P/back. $34.95 + post and packaging – 264 Pages
Author: Rex A E Hunt

Available from the author at a discount price of $30 + $8.95 p and p. Email Rex

Reviewed by Rev John Churcher, Former Chair, Progressive Christianity Network Britain,
Author, Retired Methodist Church Minister.

For those of us who have thrived in our preaching and worship leading on the back of Rex Hunt’s on line sermons and liturgies, this is another splendid resource looking closely at ecological theology and religious naturalism. The problem of the on-line material has been, at least for me, a resource overload that often has taken many hours of seeking among the huge range of material to find just the right phrase or the liturgical insight that will take the congregation into a deeper understanding and experience of that which Hunt refers to as ‘G-o-d’. And for those seeking to explore the links between progressive Christianity or progressive spirituality and such as science, ecology, cosmology and environmental justice here is the resource at our finger tips. No longer needing to explore the on line resources, it is here in a book of sermons, insights, poetry and good clear references to some 200 publication in his combined bibliography – an amazing resource in itself.

This book will doubtless be criticised by those of the old killing paradigm of conventional institutional theology for yet again going beyond the creeds and established doctrines of the Church. Others will probably be equally as critical on the grounds that Hunt is not jettisoning the primitive spiritual quest and going whole heartedly into rational scientific developments. However, in line with many other passionate progressive writers [e.g. Matthew Fox, Lloyd Geering, Bruce Sanguin, Gretta Vosper, et al] Hunt is clear that progressives need to explore and to extend the work beyond conventional theology into an exploration of natural theology that is relevant for our time.

The sub-title of the Prologue signposts the way in which his argument is going to develop: “To Walk on Green Earth! Religious Naturalism and Ritual in Progressive Spirituality.” The book has 23 addresses / sermons all usefully arranged in Themes: Seasons; Earth / Early Spring; Humour; Environment Day / Climate Change; Learning to Be More Genuinely Human; Autumn: the Season of Leaves and Harvest; G-o-d / Jesus; Blessing of Animals; Evolution / Darwin; Desert / Wilderness; Advent / Ordinary; Apocalyptic / End Times; Ocean; After Christmas / Year’s End; Cosmos; Family; Land / Power; Creation / Universe; Children / Education; Meaning; Celebration / Life; Evolution; Food / Eating.

A number of the themes are accompanied by John Cranmer’s thought provoking poetry.

Throughout the book there are gems of quotes and insights. Among those that stood out for me are the following:
• “The miracle of each moment awaits our sensual wonder. Hosannah! Not in the highest, but right here. Right now. This Horizontal transcendence. Nature embedded in humanity. Humanity embedded in nature. Of, in and as nature.” [page 32];
• “Each of us is a collection of unfinished stories. We are fully linked with our surroundings in time, space, matter/energy, and causality. We do not live in straight lines.” [page 55];
• “…religious naturalism says religion is human. It is about us. … As a religious naturalist I, along with others, claim that the sacred is fully present., hidden in the ordinary details of a life, any life. Expressed in ‘creativity’, and ‘mystery’, ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’.” [page 79];
• “… people who have the courage to be different, and more especially those who carry a hint of danger, are always the source of excitement and interest.” [page 119];
• “If we are only against something, we are doomed to negativity. So too if our actions are only attempts at domesticating dissident voices, making religion and politics safe for one another.” [page 153];
• Writing about the opening verses of the Gospel attributed to John, “… the Hebrew for ‘word’ is ‘dabhar’ which means divine creative energy. The word that gave birth. Event. Those of you who are right brain thinkers will probably have already resonated with this and made a connection. For the Hebrew ‘dabhar’ is about the creative, the imaginative, the heart, the feeling. And this divine energy is more than just a concept.” [page 167];
• “Nature and naturalism are for us today ‘the main game’ for any progressive spirituality. … Whether or not we believe that there is something more, nature is so significant that all our beliefs must be reformulated so as to take nature into account.” [page 207];
• “We are made of the rarest material in the universe: stardust.” [page 247]

The book concludes with a comment on the bread and wine of communion, “… may our celebration be a ritual reminder that, as we share the bread and share the wine, civilisation depends on sharing resources in a just and humane fashion.”

The only additional note is that the seasons are those of the southern hemisphere so those in the northern hemisphere will need to make some adjustments to the preaching cycle.

“Seasons and Self” is a wonderful resource, and not just for the preachers and worship leaders. It is a challenging, thought provoking book for all spiritually progressive thinkers. It could be excellent group study material. Above all it is an exciting, warmly reassuring exploration of a spirituality that is not new but one that is becoming better known among the open, progressive thinkers within and beyond the Church. It is highly recommended.

John Churcher January 2019

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Book Review: Honest to GOoD

Honest to GOoD: Discerning the Sacred in the Secular

Author: John W H Smith                First Published 2016,  Morning Star Publishing  $26.95

We have not given sufficient attention to the action of a spiritual energy present in the world being exhibited by many people, some of whom would not confess a religious faith in much the same way that Jesus didn’t… There is a need to change the way we interpret the events of life in the light of the wisdom of Jesus of Nazareth. (John Smith)

John Smith has been on a life-long search for what he calls a sense of ‘wholeness’ or ‘completeness’…an attempt to make sense of his world and his life. Many people will find common ground with this search and relate to his experiences. This book is the result of this search and how Jesus has influenced and stimulated his journey.

Each chapter examines a major influence and together point the way to various understandings of the sacred spirit he calls God.

  • the influence of family and in particular his relationship with an encouraging mother who saw good in the world
  • how reading and later formal education shaped his life and helped him to understand practical Christianity. A study of the classics was the major force in his refining of knowledge about the sacred
  • the part played by the church, in particular the youth club where he learnt to manage adolescent anger and see the narratives of Jesus as lessons for life
  • through a painful period, the guidance of several Methodist ministers
  • Wesleyan theology and John Wesley’s Quadrilateral motivate him to search for personal authenticity and accept an inner suburban ministry
  • developing philosophically and practically through secular social work
  • discovery of a need to re-interpret the orthodox Christian explanation of the gospels as they impact on people with disabilities
  • making sense of the New Testament by close examination of Jesus and his words where he grew as a progressive or evolving Christian greatly affected by scholars in the Westar Institute and Jesus seminar school
  • his thinking about the atonement, concluding that there is no biblical evidence to suggest that Jesus’ death is in any way ‘substitutionary’ sacrifice for human misdemeanours
  • what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God
  • learning how the historical Jesus and the way in which the organisation church falls short of appropriate modelling of this Jesus
  • doubt about an ‘interventionist’ God
  • the growing movement of groups leaving the church to form spiritual groups that are relevant to their 21st century needs
  • realisation that Progressive Christianity offers the world a faith that makes sense and encourages each of us to seek evidence of the spirit of love we call God, at work in the lives of ordinary human beings.
  • and ultimately the impact of new scholarship (something the Basis of Union of the UCA encourages) on himself and many others.

Although he claims this is not an academic text, it is well referenced and a great way to get an overview of the field of progressive thinking.

This book is written in the fervent hope that it will encourage others to continue to explore their own unique spiritual journey. (John Smith)

Paul Inglis, January 2019

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“Philomena” – A film with many powerful messages.

A review of the 2013 film. Also now a book.

[Review by Rev John Smith]

Introduction:
Recently Robyn and I had the emotionally evocative experience of watching this film superbly acted by Judy Dench and ably supported by Steve Coogan. The film is enhanced greatly by a magnificent classical music score. Overall it is a film with a number of very powerful messages about the practice of the Catholic Church regarding young unmarried mothers and the adoption of their offspring. The self righteous attitude of the church authorities in their disregard for the rights of young unmarried mothers and their chiIdren is placed under the microscope as is the reactionary and equally self righteous attitudes of their critics. As a beautiful counter balance we have the reaction of Philomena who has experienced the indignity of being treated as a “sinner” who gave into ‘her carnal desires’ coupled with the forced removal of her three year old child by being coerced into signing away her parental rights. The intriguing response from Philomena is not the seeking of revenge. She does not want the perpetuators punished; she is simply seeking to find out what happened to Anthony her son fifty years after his birth. Regardless of the indignity inflicted on Philomena by the Catholic authorities she still continues to practice her faith in a devout and committed manner.

Philomena reveals her circumstances to her daughter from a subsequent marriage and declares her secret desire to find her son. Her daughter in turn through a chance meeting recruits an ex BBC journalist and Labour government advisor Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan. He is in need of work and an editor urges him to assist Philomena and to write a ‘human interest’ story rather than some dry Russian history research that he is planning to do.
Martin is not fully convinced that he wants to have any part of this until while drinking in a pub in the locality of the convent in which Philomena gave birth he is provided with information by a young bartender. It appears that the reason the convent has no records of the adoption activity is that the nuns deliberately destroyed all the records by burning them. The bartender further suggests that the convent received a thousand pounds for each child sold to American couples. If that was not enough Martin was also aware that the young unmarried mothers had been put to work in a laundry for virtually no pay while being treated like slaves.

Martin through his work at the BBC has many contacts in the United States and through these contacts he searches the passport records to discover that Anthony had been adopted by Dr and Marge Hess who renamed him Michael. Michael had studied law and had become a senior official in the Reagan administration and served the Republican Party with distinction. Martin also realises that he actually met Michael when he was a journalist with the BBC while covering the news in the US. Martin also discovers that Michael was a closet homosexual and his long-term partner is Peter Olson. Michael had unfortunately died of AIDS nine years previously.
Armed with this information Martin informs Philomena of his findings and her initial reaction to this news is one of sadness that Michael was not able to be open about his lifestyle, because of his position in a political party, which at that time condemned homosexuality. Philomena although upset at not being able to meet her son as an adult wishes to meet the people who did know him.

The first person they meet is a woman known as Mary who had been adopted with Anthony/Michael from the same convent in Roscrea Ireland. Mary is able to tell Philomena the whereabouts of Michael’s long-term partner, but cannot tell Philomena what she most wants to know which is, ‘did he ever seek to find his birth mother’?

The initial approach to Michael’s partner Peter by Martin Sixsmith, is met with resistance, but he finally he agrees to meet Philomena after she makes a personal plea for his help. Peter is able to tell her that Michael has always wondered about his birth mother and that he had actually visited the convent in Ireland in an attempt to make contact with her. Unfortunately the nuns had lied to him saying that they had no record of Philomena’s whereabouts and had no contact with her. Michael’s life is dreadfully cut short by his AIDS condition but his dying wish is to be buried at the convent with a headstone stating who he is in the hope that Philomena will find it.
Martin and Philomena return to the convent where the nuns continue to deny Philomena the information she seeks regarding Michael’s grave and his last days. In a final scene Michael confronts a senior nun, Sister Hildegarde and in a dramatic and poignant scene demands she explain why she had denied Philomena access to her son and further lied to her son regarding knowledge of his birthmother’s whereabouts. In this scene the aggrieved person is not Philomena as one would expect, but Martin the journalist who rounds on this elderly nun and demands she make an explanation of her behaviour. The nun testily answers that Martin is not her judge only Jesus will judge her and Philomena had relinquished her right to justice through her sin of fornication. The nun is clearly unrepentant and it is this that triggers an outburst from Martin when he tells the nun that if Jesus had been present he would have tipped her “out of her F—-g chair”. The dialogue and acting in this scene is transfixing, but it is Philomena who comes to the nun’s rescue when she tells Martin that his anger is really a waste of energy and she tells him to examine himself, because the anger is all consuming. Philomena doesn’t want to end up hating anyone and at this point she turns to Hildegarde and exclaims, “I forgive you”. The nun shows no recognition that she needs to be forgiven but it is important for Philomena to utter these words.

An analysis of the message
Throughout the film Martin and Philomena present two quite contrasting views on the value of religious adherence. Even though Philomena has suffered rejection and condemnation from the Order of Catholic Nuns it does not deter her from her belief in the sacred presence of God found in the ordnances of the Catholic faith. Whereas Martin is angry at the self-righteous deceit that he has discovered in the brutal and guilt-laden treatment of young unmarried mothers, one who had died in childbirth aged fourteen years. Early in the film Martin declares that he is a lapsed Catholic who no longer believes in a God. The respective positions of Philomena and Martin add significantly to the message of the film.

Each of the major characters continues to question their particular religious viewpoints and these become vital scenes in the film. I was particularly taken by the scene when Philomena goes to make confession whilst in the United States. The painfulness of this scene is palpable, because she cannot say confession. The reason being she has nothing to confess. Earlier she has told Martin that having sex as a teenager had been a wonderful experience, quite unlike what she had been told and that she never regretted it. She explained it as a sense of ‘floating free.’

During the confessional scene the priest offers her forgiveness in response to her silence, but the telling moment is that as she is leaving the church she does not use the holy water just inside the door to bless herself. Martin who is witnessing her leave the church stands watching the bowl of water well after she has left the church as if to say, “Is she questioning her faith?”
The film raises for me the question, ‘how then should we approach our events of life?’ Should we be like Martin who wants to right a wrong and sees the injustice of the church going almost unchallenged? Or should we respond like Philomena who doesn’t want to end up consumed by anger as is Martin and in her offer of forgiveness is saying to the church through Sister Hildegarde you have not won there is a faith that is life enhancing and not a guilt ridden life–destroying existence.

However watching Hidergarde’s expression when Philomena offers forgiveness I did not see any recognition that she was feeling guilty and filled with remorse for her attitude and actions regarding Philomena and her son. It also reminded me that here in Australia we have witnessed the Catholic Church hierarchy showing self-righteous indignation when being called to account for it’s deliberate cover up of the many instances of Child Sexual Abuse. Will it take the anger of someone like Martin Sixsmith to confront the church with it’s errant behaviour before there is any admission of guilt for what has occurred? How many times have the authorities of the Church claimed that they are responsible only to God or Jesus for their behaviour, and not to the community in which they live. As if they have been ordained with some special wisdom that prevents them from being accountable to the wider community.

The argument given by Hildegarde that she is responsible only to Jesus for what she has done again raises the issue that the church has seen itself above the law and responsible only to some sacred presence. A number of my friends in the Catholic Church will tell me that they can experience a special relationship with the sacred in the Mass and that I as a ‘Progressive Christian’ cannot experience this relationship; because my rational thinking denies me an understanding of the awesomeness of God. In the words of Paul Keating many Catholics give the impression that they have a ‘divine guidance’ that is unavailable to those who are not of the Roman faith. I wonder if this is the very attitude that has allowed such abuses to occur, particularly when people place themselves above common law. Surely the compassionate God that has been revealed in the person of Jesus would claim that we have a responsibility to our fellow human beings, because when we cease to care for our fellow human beings we cease to care for the sacredness of a divine presence.

In the final scene Martin and Philomena find the headstone that Anthony/Michael was hopeful his mother would discover. While standing at the graveside Martin out of respect for Philomena and perhaps as a result of being chastened for his anger tells her he will not publish the story. Her response is a surprise when she tells him that she has changed her mind and that the story really does need to be told.

I am sure I am not the only person who is grateful to Philomena for changing her mind.

John W H Smith

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Book Review: Outspoken

Fr. Rod Bower, 2018,

Outspoken: The Life and Work of the Man behind the Signs.

Penguin Books

Born to a young unmarried mother through to his adoption, Rod Bower shares his struggles to establish his identity in the midst of bullying and his step-father’s early death. He finds acceptance within Anglo-Catholicism, eventually going to seminary, ordination and appointment to the Gosford Parish with a deep passion for social justice. Promoted to Archdeacon, he resigns when prohibited from providing pastoral care to a parishioner because of their being on a criminal charge. He steps down from the high calling of celibacy, to marry a divorcee. Now a step-father to two teenagers, he loves into adulthood. His marriage energises his public ministry of billboard signs and social media posts from which they endure a conservative backlash.

His theology of billboard signs reveals a deep empathy for Jesus’ mission to the marginalised which in the modern context involves challenging attitudes towards “illegal” asylum seekers, Islam, LGBTQ and climate change. Fr Rod Bower demonstrates how billboards gives the Church a platform for sharing the Gospel in the public square, exposing the ethical failings of Parliament.

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Fr Rod Bower’s “Stages of Spirituality” gives valuable insight into institutional Christianity, from Stage One “ego driven” Pentecostalism, to Stage Two “ego within safe boundaries” of Church rules and regulations, to Stage Three where Church people move out engaging in secular projects for the “Common Good”. The fourth and final stage is that of the Mystics who move seamlessly between all stages. Fr Rod Bower positions his ministry at Stage Three with a future goal of being an Independent Senator who maintains separation between Church and State, by resigning his priesthood if so elected.

A prophetic book by a deeply spiritual person engaged with the suffering of the world.
Richard Smith  22 December 2018

Richard C.G. Smith, PhD – From Farm Economist to Earth Systems Scientist measuring human impacts from satellite to help manage a global warming future. Lay Preacher and Chairperson of WA Progressive Christian Network. Chair of Creative Living Centre, Floreat Uniting Church, walking along side Indigenous peoples of Mowanjum in the West Kimberley and West Papua, Eastern Indonesia.

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Pre-publication extract: Starting all over again. Yes or No?

George Stuart (Singing a New Song) has kindly given us open access to his yet to be published book.

Starting all over again? Yes or No?

A faithful questioning of all I have been taught
about God, Jesus, Creation, Humanity,
Prayer, Sacrifice, Life after Death, Heaven
and the Bible.

From the Conclusion and after a far ranging practical and interesting discussion questioning eight decades of traditional church teaching:

What comes next for me?
I have taken up the challenge presented by Dr Val Webb in her recent book ‘Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology’ where she states that her aim …’is to help lay people in particular to see that there has never been only one way to think about God and that traditional arguments have often been held in place by power and authority against other more refreshing theologies. My aim is to keep people ‘doing their own theology’- finding something that works for them and is transforming in our contemporary world.’

I hope I have not betrayed her trust in regular church-goers. Unlike most regular church-goers, I have had a formal theological training and I have probably done more theological reading and solid Bible study than most others so I suppose I am not really representative of the great bulk of people who still attend church services. Even so, not being an academic theologian, a biblical scholar nor historian, I still have this urge to make a response of my continual questioning. Some of this has been very difficult for me, but Val Webb has challenged me to find my faltering, and partially-informed voice.

So how do I respond to all this ‘faithful questioning’, concerning the exercise of my discipleship? Am I virtually saying that the Bible has got it wrong about a theistic God? Am I saying the early church fathers got it wrong about Jesus? Am I saying that the church, for hundreds of years has been preaching the wrong message about the Cross and God’s Plan for Salvation? To an extent I suppose I am. Some might say that is very arrogant. I’m not sure how to respond to that accusation. All I can say is, that this is where my study, my searching and all my ‘faithful questioning’ has led me.

Sometimes I feel I am betraying the church and Jesus. Sometimes I feel I have been betrayed by the church and its teachings. I never feel betrayed by Jesus.
So what is the outcome? In many areas of my belief I perceive I have had to ‘Start all over again’. However, I believe I am now in a much more belief-satisfying and Jesus-centred situation than before.

I have tried to argue my positions logically. I have included smatterings of cosmology, psychology and natural sciences in my comments. I have spoken of my experiences as nearly determinative for me. I have tried to state issues as I have perceived them to be, from a church-goer’s perspective. I have relied on new for me, and old information. I have tried to be rational in what I have proposed. I have concentrated on what I see as common sense, plausible and reasonable for my day and age.
I also realise that if I had been brought up as a Buddhist or a Muslim or in any other faith, I would probably have a completely different set of beliefs but I hope I would still be ‘faithfully questioning’ everything. There must always be the ‘Yes. But…..’
And in my continuing questioning journey I believe that

• I must allow both logic and dreaming to have a voice.
• I must embrace both the ‘possible’ and the ‘impossible’.
• I must allow science to be heard alongside poetry.
• I must consider new information but not let it silence wisdom.
• I must not allow the past to dictate the present or the future.

All these have a contribution to make to my human response to Mystery.

Having worked through these eleven major areas of my ‘faithful questioning’, I believe that if people shared only one of these concerns, they might find it sufficient reason to turn their back on the church and leave. I believe that altogether, these concerns could form a very solid basis for very serious consideration to do just that. I could expand further on my reasons for ‘clearing out’ so much, but I wish to state that I think my present beliefs are more Jesus-based. I also wish to correct any impression I may have given, that I feel there is nothing in the Christianity I have been taught which excites or inspires me. That is not the case. There is much, and it all has to do with Love; that which is an emphasis I experience in my church affiliation today.

What keeps me in the church and continuing to struggle with it, is the story of Jesus. For me, it would be good for the church, in its doctrine, its teachings and its practised liturgies, to concentrate more on the human Jesus and less on the distinct and often distant God. I believe we would then be on much more relevant and helpful ground. So I hope I have presented alternative ways of understanding and practising the faith of my childhood, youth and following years, even though in some areas of my questioning I have had to ‘Start all over again’.

So, endless questioning. Maybe some rather pointless. Continuing reappraisal. Maybe some rather dodgy. More rejections. Maybe some rather challenging. More affirmations. Maybe some rather bold. More journeying with Jesus. Maybe most of it rather exciting but always challenging.

All together, if it helps to nurture me and you as disciples, to bring love to blossom, to spread justice and mercy, to encourage ourselves and others to live abundantly, then all of this endeavour may have been worthwhile. If not, it has all been a waste of time, both yours and mine!

Let me conclude, remembering a saying of Jesus, “I tell you this; unless you turn around and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” So I appeal to the little child in me and each of us.

Do you know this rhyme?

Scintillate. Scintillate. Globule vivific.
Feign would I fathom thy nature specific.
Loftily poised in the ether capacious;
Strongly resembling a gem; carbonaceous.

You may not. However, I think you may remember this one.

Twinkle. Twinkle little star.
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high;
Like a diamond in the sky.

I believe both rhymes are important. ‘To scintillate’ is significant and ‘to fathom’ can certainly lead to spiritual growth. I also wish to affirm that both ‘to twinkle’ and ‘to wonder’ are profound.

Let us twinkle for ourselves, Jesus and most importantly for others around us. Let us love. You in your small corner and I in mine.

The way we live is more important than what we believe.

My warmest greetings. Grace and Peace. George.

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Book Review: God, Ethics and the Secular Society

Does the Church have a Future? by John Gunson

Just how much are we prepared to be challenged? How far can a critique of the Church as an institution rather than a community be explored? John Gunson takes the reader on a ride that calls for a total rethink of what it means to follow Jesus. This is a no compromise, no apologies, intensely argued case against religion and in favour of a Jesus movement that is centred on ecological ethics and shared responsibility for the future.

Like all great journeys it will stay in the memory and forever affect the subconscious of the reader. For John Gunson the key question is not ‘What is the meaning of life?’ but ‘How should we live?’.

A Jesus ethical ecology will always go further than living for personal meaning – it is to live primarily with ‘the good of all’ being the goal – a pursuit of the greater goal … ‘acting from the point of view of the universe’.

This is a comprehensive coverage of the evolution of religious and theological thinking that has grown around ‘theories of God’ and the parallel growth of scientific thinking that provides alternative answers to developing doctrines. The author is not soft on supernatural theism and also does not see ‘panentheism’ the favourite of many progressives, as the answer. He describes a ‘third way’ – ‘God’ as symbol for the highest and the best that we know or can conceive, a symbol of goodness, truth and love. In doing this he accommodates a scientific world view. He rejects a dualism of the sacred and scientific and sees integrity of personal experiences explained realistically rather than by ‘faith’ and ultimately asks whether Christian theology is worth keeping. What do we lose if we throw out orthodox Christian theology? Is the world any poorer by rejecting scripture as literal?

But John Gunson argues for the retention of much – our urgent and desperate need to overcome self-centredness; our embracing of the Jesus Way as freeing us from self and being for all; the Jesus community as agent for nurturing and sustaining life; a world society where we can live out Jesus’ way of love.

He conducts a splendid survey of contemporary scholarship about Jesus that reveals much that we never had access to in our learning of orthodox theology. He critiques Paul, the dogmas of the Church, the historical perspectives that shaped the Church and makes the case for ‘ethical ecology’ as a basis for constructive living – the core message of Jesus. Ethical ecology asserts that the rational person’s knowledge of the world, and of self, can lead to understanding that the good of each depends on the good of all, and that our capacity for love and good can direct our energies towards successful ecological outcomes. A Christian (or rather a Jesus ecological)ethic will go one step further – lead to living primarily with good of all as our goal, and will need us to sacrifice our own good in the pursuit of that greater good. He presents an Ethical Manifesto to support this argument.

is it time to discard ‘religion’ as a primitive stage of human development – to challenge human maturity and responsibility for all of life and walk softly on the earth rather than have dominion over it? This calls for a new way to be Church. When Paul wrote to various churches that he had founded in Asia Minor, he was addressing the small Christian communities or fellowships in each place – not referring to a building or an institution. The Church should be like these small communities – places for discussion about ethical ecology – the radical ethic of Jesus.

But we are still trapped in Platonic thinking if we think that goodness, truth and love are discreet realities, separate from our thoughts and actions. At the same time Cosmology as a philosophy has outlived its usefulness – so how do we understand the meaning of life? For John Gunson it is through psychology, ethics and above all science.

And lest we fall into the trap of ‘resting’ in our search for understanding – Gunson manages to put under critical focus the major influential writers of this era and none are free from his assertion that they are individually faulty in their claims.

We are a people of new scientific thinking and should give greater credence to our own abilities to interpret the meaning of life.

Highly recommended reading.

Paul Inglis 5th November 2018.

This book is available in print (Morning Star Publishing)  and e-copy (Amazon Australia Kindle)

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Book Review: Two Elephants in the Room by John Bodycomb

Two Elephants in the Room: Evolving Christianity and Leadership, John Bodycomb, 2018, Spectrum Publications Pty Ltd, Richmond, Victoria.

John Bodycomb clearly has a long experience at the workface of the church and its ministry. His sociological, teaching and ministry skills are obvious in this short thesis on the two most significant elements challenging organised religion. He also demonstrates a wonderful sense of humour that ‘thinking’ readers will enjoy. He needs to be heard and responded to.
The two elephants:
• The future of organised religion in western society, and
• The future of professional ministry
are apparent at a time in Australia when the consensus is moving towards ‘no religion’ in their lives. Indifference to organised religion is steadily increasing. At the same time many young people still believe there is more to life than the material and view being ‘spiritual’ with its multiple meanings as a transcendent dimension that takes them to a higher experience of life.

Drawing on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and motivation research, he explains why some people stay with the church and that here is a key element for church leaders to note when looking for answers to how to grow the church. What has intrinsic worth in our lives today is very different from that of previous generations. This includes ‘ethical axioms’ that no longer produce this ‘transcendence’. Nevertheless, Bodycomb is able to identify real benefits to people engaging with organised religion. He offers 12 fascinating ‘benefits’ that effective churches demonstrate, including:
• Developing proficiency in relating socially – getting along with others
• An aid to an effective ‘inner gyroscope’ – enabling one to preserve a placid interior, undisturbed by outside buffeting
• Bringing ‘inklings’ of transcendence through music, philosophy and theology.

But Bodycomb emphasizes that the intangible benefits for ‘living life to the full’, in the sense of Jesus’ teaching, is dependent on the inventiveness of the local church. The church needs to be a thinking institution. He sees the greatest risk to the church is its tendency to discourage thinking. Theology needs to be re-invented, re-defined. ‘God talk’ has been manufactured. Doctrines need to undergo close critical deconstruction and theological colleges need to open up this discourse and encourage it.

Whilst Bodycomb has seen the expiration of the church as we know it, he insists that the great ‘existential’ questions will still exercise minds e.g. Is there anything to describe as ‘transcendence’ beyond what we can physically see? “Is G-O-D a fantasy or …. a reality?” What is G-O-D? Like Spong, Bodycomb sees the imperatives for change – without evolution we will witness extinction of organised religion. Evolution has been going on since the European Renaissance and the Reformation, but change has always been met with counter movements to restore the ‘authority’ of the church. This is no longer working. Consequences of massive socio-cultural changes are no longer able to be stopped. The ‘back to orthodoxy’ movement is alive but now only impacting on a slim minority.

Bodycomb identifies the key adaptive responses as cerebral and visceral with the former being adopted by ‘progressives’ and the latter by those who are still holding onto unquestioning fundamentalism. He has a long history of asking questions about theological education and has challenged the theological colleges with learning lessons from Tillich and others who knew the value of pastoral ministry over having the ‘right’ theology. His ideas about church today should be heard and acted on. What he says makes so much sense and, if acted on, would re-connect the church with the secular world. His 10 disincentives and 10 incentives to consider when going into ministry today are critical lessons to all church teachers and ministry mentors. His model for moving ministry into a sphere of relating to the world and its pressing needs stands as a credible guide that should be informing training programs.

This thesis could have been titled – Asking the Right Questions about the Church and its Leadership. It has convinced me that the church enterprise needs urgently to move from its ‘maintenance’ model to an urgent energetic response to a world that needs help with massive life-threatening problems.

The author: Rev. Dr John Bodycomb is a Melbourne-based minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He retired in 1996 after forty years as parish minister, Christian educator, University Ecumenical Chaplain and former head of the Uniting Church’s Theological Hall in Melbourne. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his promotion of religious freedom and to fostering ecumenism.

Reviewer: Dr Paul Inglis, 8th October 2018
Retired UCA Community Minister
Retired Academic, QUT Faculty of Education
CEO UC Forum – https://ucforum.unitingchurch.org.au

Where to purchase: Spectrum Publications

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Book review: A World of Difference by Stratford and McWilliam

A World of Difference: Ways of Being-in-the-World

Authors: Walter Stratford & Linda McWilliam

Published by: Morning Star Publishing

Linda is an Anglican priest and the Director for Mission for Anglicare, southern Queensland who holds a Bachelor of Theology (honours) and a Master of Counselling from ACU.

Walter is a retired Uniting Church minister who has a number of degrees and completed a PhD in 2012.

How I wish this book had been available to me twenty years ago!

The authors demonstrate how ‘meaning’ is found when philosophy meets history, culture, ethnography and religion. It is also about a human search for truth and justice that is a both analytical and practical. It is a useful analysis of ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ concepts illustrating how spirit and soul have captured the minds of many over millennia. The authors manage to separate these from long standing claims of the church and its teachings on eternity. They place the many notions of ‘being’ and ‘life’ in the lived experience drawing on Martin Heidegger’s sociological interpretation of ‘being-in-the-world’.

The authors have obviously experienced life at close quarters, both professionally and privately. This shows in the way they mesh spirituality with our complex social values as a counter to all the conflicting values of secular society and in a way that honours all life within creation. This is done against a context of claims on the ‘right’ faith perspective and the destructive path of fundamentalism and the way the latter has dismembered societies and produced a great movement of refugees across the world.

Our woeful history of religion that inevitably attempts to create God in the image of the practitioner is a persistent problem for authentic spirituality. But “making spirituality visible can be considered as contained in compassion, justice, kindness, honesty, and a commitment to peace”.

This is very much a commentary on today’s world of religion, politics and social mores. It is not about a spirituality that hides from the realities of a world in trouble – it is responsible spirituality finding value in self rather than in soul-less and mechanistic structures, and liberated from all restraints.

Meaning is found in covenants in all walks of life – marriage, community capacity building, with the environment and those sourced from Abrahamic traditions. These are all vulnerable and subject to human frailty, greed and power seeking. We are at a time in earth’s history when religious and political claims that assert value over each other are futile. The imperative of the future of humanity obviously depends on a universal covenant with the earth. This is a spiritual exercise.

Central to the human condition and influencing everyone is suffering in the world. This is not simply physical but existential as it challenges our search for meaning in events that affect us daily. For many, it goes beyond physical to impacting psychological and spiritual trauma. Guilt, depression, loss of hope, failure to discern any moral compass, loneliness, disconnection and hardening of hearts call for acknowledgement that all of this needs to be addressed spiritually. Sadly, for many ‘suffering’ is where they know ‘meaning’.

Attachment, Solitude and Community are closely examined as remarkable sources of spiritual energy. Grace and Presence (religious and secular) are viewed as part of human life and interactions, and Prayer is given a lot of attention. The latter is a contentious subject and all its facets and uses are explored and the question raised – What if the faithful lived the prayers rather than say them? What might happen?

Story as an essential part of all cultures helps in the search for meaning from the past and into the future. It is also a vehicle for increasing well-being. Finally, Hospitality, grounded in a sense of Spirit presence provides a framework for putting life meaning into practice. A powerful commentary on how all of this is a gateway to a world of difference I will leave for the reader to discover along with much I have not covered.

Concluding comments:

This discourse needs to continue beyond the book into conversations amongst groups. The impact of these conversations must be felt widely within the religious and secular communities. I look forward to seeing that happen.

Paul Inglis 18th August 2018.

Where to purchase this book: Morning Star Publishing $29.95 plus postage and from  Book Depository $30.95 delivered free from UK.

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