The UC Forum website continues to draw subscribers from far and wide and it is refreshing to see that some of them recently are of a younger generation.
One would expect to find doctrinal progressivism being the choice of young people having, as they do, lives of several decades ahead of them. The sad observation, though, is that it is the more mature folk who are drawn to this more open way of fitting religious faith to the 21st century environment. Indeed, to the extent that they are drawn to Christian faith, fundamentalism seems to win in the appeal to the young. An explanation of this contrast may be that thinking, older people, after a lifetime of seeking and expressing a Christian faith, are finding that the suppositions behind orthodoxy do not fit their experience and realities of the current intellectual age.
But where do young seekers go to find and share experiences of their faith in something beyond orthodoxy?
In Australia there are actually very few Uniting Churches (or other mainline denominations) which avowedly declare themselves as doctrinally wholly “progressive”. There may be only several in each Australian state or territory. Last week we featured one of them, the Woden Valley Uniting Church in the Australian Capital Territory. There are of course now many congregations that would describe themselves as liberal/inclusive/open and welcoming people who think critically about all they are told. These congregations have many progressive thinkers in them.
What we do find, however, is that most congregations, perhaps the majority, have one or two individuals with a progressive orientation. Likewise, with the ministers of many congregations, Paul I and I have been surprised, when having a quiet private chat with many church leaders, at how many of them, in confidence, are receptive to progressive interpretations of Christian traditions and of, for instance, the UCA Basis of Union.
On the right-hand panel of this website, you will find a long list of congregations being attended by our subscribers and these are only the ones we know about. Those congregations and their ministers would value your moral support. They do need to be wary of the guardians of orthodoxy in being too public but in many cases I expect you will find they will be helpful in finding you a niche.
Perhaps if more young people come along and show their interest in promoting and following the Jesus way in a non-supernaturalist, non-theistic view of the world, they will come to find warm companionship in many more of our churches.
Because the topic of creeds generates so much conversation among progressives I have included here my own notes on the development of the Nicene Creed. Other contributions and critical comments are welcome.
Notes on the Nicene Creed – Paul Inglis 2/02/2021
The Creed of Nicaea was crafted by Eusebius of Caesarea (AD260-340 ). When Bishop of Caesarea he wrote the first history of the (Christian) Church and is consequently recognised as a church historian. His credal document was presented to the Council of Nicaea which had been called by the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD325. Eusebius described Constantine as ‘God’s chosen instrument’ attributing the safe future of the Church to Constantine’s conversion. One can assume the emperor’s influence over the shape and doctrine of the church to have been dominant at that council. Was there a quid pro quo arrangement for church and empire? Both needed each other. Today we can witness the influence of the empire on the structure and culture of the church – designations, organisation, and costume.
Constantine may or may not have been a genuine convert to Christianity, but he certainly had no biblical basis for officiating a theological debate among Church elders. Nevertheless, Constantine brought such theological debate to the most prestigious stage known to mankind – the emperor’s court. Christianity would be marked indefinitely by the political shift and, more importantly, the theological convictions of those men who gathered at the Council of Nicaea.
The Council of Nicaea was called because Arius, a presbyter from Libya, was gaining followers around the empire, teaching, “There was a time when the Son was not.” Egyptian bishop Alexander and his chief deacon, Athanasius, fumed at the teaching. The argument spread throughout the empire, promising to rip the church in two. This council was to close the doctrinal fissure.
Eusebius was enthralled with the teachings of Origen, who, incidentally, has been criticized for 1,800 years for his belief that the Trinity was a hierarchy, not an equality. So, Eusebius was less concerned with Arius’s heresy than the threat of disunity in the church.
When the council was over, Eusebius was reluctant to agree with its decision even though he had been the architect of the approved creed. He eventually signed the document the council produced, saying, “Peace is the object which we set before us.” But a few years later, when the tables flipped and Arianism became popular, Eusebius criticized Athanasius, hero of the council. He even sat on the council that deposed him. Eusebius was not himself an Arian—he rejected the idea that “there was a time when the Son was not” and that Christ was created out of nothing. He simply opposed anti-Arianism. Perhaps he was upholding free speech and thinking?
The original Nicene Creed of A.D. 325 was much shorter than the one used in churches today. The creed needed to be expanded as time went by and new challenges and theological questions arose from both outside and within the Church.
The original creed read, I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of things visible and invisible, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made, who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and on the third day He rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost.
The original A.D. 325 version was greatly expanded at the Second Ecumenical Council, also called the First Council of Constantinople, in A.D. 381. This second version is nearly identical to the one still used today.
First Council of Constantinople, (381), the second ecumenical of the Christian church, was summoned by the emperor Theodosius I and met in Constantinople. Doctrinally, it adopted what became known to the church as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, effectively affirmed and developed the creed earlier promulgated at the Council of Nicaea in 325 (Creed of Nicaea). The Nicene Creed was, however, probably not an intentional enlargement of the Creed of Nicaea but rather an independent document based on a baptismal creed already in existence. The Council of Constantinople also declared finally the Trinitarian doctrine of the equality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son. Among the council’s canons was one giving the bishop of Constantinople precedence of honour over all other bishops except the bishop of Rome, “because Constantinople is the New Rome.”
Nicaea did not put an end to the controversies but only gave the parties a new rallying point. Doctrinal debate was complicated by the rivalry among bishops and theologians as well as by the intrusion of imperial politics that had begun at Nicaea. Out of the post-Nicene controversies came that fuller statement of the doctrine of the Trinity which was needed to protect the Nicene formula against the charge of failing to distinguish adequately between the Father and the Son. Ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381 but since lost, that statement apparently made official the terminology developed by the supporters of Nicene orthodoxy in the middle of the 4th century: one divine substance, three divine persons (mia ousia, treis hypostaseis). The three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—were distinct from one another but were equal in their eternity and power. Now it was possible to teach, as Nicaea had, that Christ was “of the same substance as the Father”. Although the doctrine seemed to make problematical the unity of God, it did provide an answer to the first of the two issues confronted by the church in its doctrine of the person of Christ—the issue of Christ’s relation to the Father. It then became necessary to clarify the second issue—the relation of the divine and the human within Christ.
The debate about the nature of Christ ensued at the 5th Century councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. The Council of Chalcedon in AD451 under Pope Leo 1 of Rome produced a settling agreement:
We all unanimously teach…one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, perfect in deity and perfect in humanity…in two natures, without being mixed, transmuted, divided, or separated. The distinction between the natures is by no means done away with through the union, but rather the identity of each nature is preserved and concurs into one person and being.
Your thought-provoking ‘Reply’ posting of January 2021 is timely. It is relevant to some discussion I have been in with my colleagues In (SOFiA) about the faith we live by.
Your resolution presumably comes from a life time of experience and it is interesting that it contrasts so differently with mine over perhaps a comparable lifetime. What each of us ends up with depends on our world views and the way from this that we develop the faith which drives us to do what we do – or don’t do.
One of the major divisions of people in this world, I find, is between the optimists and pessimists. To soften the edge of negativity from any grouping into “pessimismistic” people with that inclination have been described to me as “realists”. Your statement, it appears to me would see you putting yourself squarely in the pessimist/realist camp.
Do these orientations come from our inherent nature or do they build up over a lifetime? A favourite aphorism of mine is that “good judgement comes from experience and we gain experience from bad judgement”.
Anyway, I am an optimist. That leads to my strong focus on being a peacemaker. This is expressed as a philosophy of loving my enemies. For many people this stance is highly impracticable. From what you are saying, it doesn’t get the desired result.
This then raises the question, “What is the desired result?” For you, reconciliation is one desired result. The weakness of this for me is that it takes two to reconcile and those two may or may not agree on what needs to be reconciled. It may also require an underlying assumption of reciprocation and compromise.
To be loving, however, requires only one party, ourselves. It, of course, incorporates forgiveness. One has a different attitude to one’s adversary if one sees that person as a friend and not an enemy. It means seeking to understand what the other party needs. To identify and meet those needs can very satisfying.
You have linked your conclusion to what Jesus would have done. Of course, we can all quote from the Bible record to support our own view. I am as guilty of that as anybody. If we read the New Testament one way, we see Jesus coming across as a rather cranky fellow. On the other hand, he is also recorded as proclaiming “love your enemies” and also as forgiving his murderers. What we do is take our pick.
One way to examine the validity and relevance of the ethics of Jesus. Is to make a list of virtues which we see as making up a good person. Do they fit what we know of Jesus? If he seems to have possessed those characteristics which we see as making a good life and society, then we may find him worth following. If not, we can either go and follow someone else or just depend on our individual experiences and personalities to live day to day.
It would be good to have you outline some of the experiences which have led you to have a somewhat disheartened view of peacemaking. You could spell out the “great cost” of attempts at peacemaking.
I trust you will agree that being a peace-maker is not the soft option. Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Count Bernadotte provide some evidence of what a dangerous business it can be. At the personal level I have found that loving my enemies can result in the risk of losing my friends.
I wrote a little article many years ago of how I spent a couple of years pondering the virtues of love and forgiveness as against reciprocation. – give and take. That is “I’ll only do good things for you if you do good things for me”.
With the current kerfuffle over our relationship with China one might ask as a friend, “What Does China want?” Someone spoke with people from China recently. The answer given was that what China wanted from the West was “respect”.
I had a little experience this week just after I had written the above notes. The anecdote may illustrate the point I am making.
I have a friend who over the past year or so has kept asking me for money – pretty much on a weekly basis. I give him the money with no expectation that it will be paid back in full. But there is a moral issue in this for me. The money does not matter too much. I can afford to make the gifts. He is adequately catered for financially by his Government benefits. The trouble is that by these gestures of mine he is not learning how to manage his money effectively. I won’t be around for ever to help him out. So last week, despite his pleading I said, “No! No more money until you have paid me back what you owe me.”
Then, a day or two later we were to meet at the church for a routine morning tea. I was a bit anxious, that he would want more money from me or be upset with me for refusing him. I was strongly tempted to avoid him so as not to have the discomfort of his badgering.
But, “No,” I concluded. “This was not the sort of person I wanted to be; nor the way I wanted to operate.” I approached the veranda, noticed him sitting there and “forced” myself to wave a warm welcome. We greeted each other (no handshake with Covid 19 being around) moved into the kitchen and organised a cup of tea. There followed a pleasant full hour of conversation with him as satisfying as it has ever been. There was not one mention of money. I felt buoyed up by this experience of choosing to nurture a friendship and not run away from a potentially difficult situation.
To me this typifies a moral of approaching “enemies” as “friends” which can apply to all relationships right up to international dealings of the major world powers.
Dear Brigid, Lesley, Margaret and Wayne, and others who have responded to or thought about my recent post.
Thank you for going to the trouble with your detailed and well thought out response to my reflections on the impact of Corona virus and its relation to our decision making in times of national and individual stress. That you have bothered to make a comment I count as a blessing.
I have the impression that some of my commentary may not have been clear, particularly as to where I stand personally. Perhaps I was being a bit too subtle and seeking to be balanced as to how other people might react. One reader – not a UC Forum viewer – took the article as implying my support of the anti-vaxxers approach. That, I hope you will have recognised, is far from being the case.
So, in further explanation and at the risk of seeming defensive, let me expand a little on some of the content of the article.
Brigid: Certainly, if we are caring people as I assume all people subscribing to this website would be, concern for others matches, perhaps sometimes exceeds our concern for ourselves. One of the points I was making is that unless we care for ourselves in choosing how much risk of infection, we allow we are not going to be of any use to others if we go down with the disease. One is reminded of the safety measures broadcast on any aeroplane flight. “If there is an emergency and you have children you are responsible for, make sure you supply yourself with oxygen before you attempt to meet the child’s needs.” Similarly as we are finding with the catastrophic corona virus situation overseas, if the doctors and nurses are not kept alive with their PPE gear, they are not going to be available to their patients.
Lesley: Good points there about different courses of action for different situations. One has a greater obligation perhaps to take less risks if one is a middle-aged person with elderly parents in a nursing home as against a man or woman in their early twenties with young children who can drive them barmy when constraints are applied severely to what they may or may not do. And then to your final sentence, how much can we trust the particular authorities we come to be saddled with – more on that below.
Margaret: Following on from my final comment to Lesley, “How much can we trust our governments?” We could have had a Boris Johnson who branded it (initially) I think as a bad case of the ‘flu. Or Donald Trump, “Corona virus goes away with the heat”. It is noteworthy that our relative success in Australia has been because we trusted the technical experts who gained their knowledge through empirical research; not the politicians or the social media postings. The Government medical officers have become such a familiar sight on our screens over the past year that we can recall many of their names, Jeanette Young, Paul Kelly, Brett Murphy, Sutton, Cheng, Chant and so on. This still leaves us as individuals to “do our own research” and be choosy about the persons or sources we use for our information.
Wayne: To some degree I agree with you. Although this is a matter of opinion (in line with my representation of Maslow) that ultimately (despite the example of risking life in wartime, for instance) survival remains the base need for people in normal circumstances. We have had examples of this in Australia this year when a number of commentators have claimed that the unexpected electoral success of people like Anastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan – perhaps even Joe Biden – occurred because a significant part of the electorate cared more about their physical health than about the health of the economy. From the news reports over the past 24 hours, it seems that this fear has been evidenced in Queensland. Observations of the streets of Brisbane, including my own at Sunnybank Hills, have shown a remarkably willing uptake of mask-wearing in Greater Brisbane.
General: I hope I have made myself a bit clearer above. I had originally intended to extend the theme of what I was writing but the posting seemed long enough so I left it at that.
So, I’ll go back to the initial conversations which prompted this reflection. That is, with the attendance at a crowd gathering or the decision whether or not to hold a church service, I observed a contrast in attitude. One was that “the Government has been constraining us but now that they have made it legal to take more risks then we might as well take those risks.” The opposite, as touched on by correspondents above is, that “there is still a risk and dependent on circumstances such as age of close relatives, perhaps worry about mental stress of confinement, the need for employment etc, etc. we still have some choice in the matter, whether it is legal or not”.
Then to make the more general point, this applies to other areas of life. Some people wait for the government to say what is right or wrong. Others of us make our own decisions in terms of our own values and may be “ahead” of the government. Acknowledgement of climate change and environmental pollution are two very live current examples. Many of us in Australia may consider that our governments are too slow to act on alleviating these. We, especially in a liberal democracy such as Australia, still have the opportunity to make up our own minds and do something about it rather than waiting for Governments to give us the green light.
Another application , in the matter, very relevant to this UC Forum is in regard to religion. Orthodoxy (right opinion) lays down the “correct” answer. Liberal/progressive religion leaves it more open and seeks to live with the questions and fit answers to changing circumstances.
Again, thank you for your correspondence. I value it highly.
A PS (Sunday 17th) Having just returned from a holiday on the Sunshine Coast (no mask required) to our suburban Hot spot, Sunnybank Hills, (mask required) and experienced the contrasting environments I would firmly acknowledge with gratitude the strong steps our Australian governments have taken to protect their constituents. To face the daily risk of infection and death that our fellows in other countries have to do must be very demoralizing indeed.
As the hours and minutes drew near to 6 p.m. on Friday 8th January 2021, for Brisbane’s short sharp lockdown in response to the corona virus I found myself strangely at odds with some of my family and associates. Given the advertised restrictions, some intended to carry on with a family meal with attendance to the limit imposed by the Government. In discussions with fellow officers of my local church congregation and pondering whether to go ahead with a church service normally attended by people in their 80s and 90s, the question put was not as to whether it was healthy or not but whether the Government would allow it!
Just as we have the contrast between the optimists and pessimists (some would say “realists”) in our society, I am finding a binary in our reactions to the virus.
One group wants clear limitations. You can’t do this or you can’t do that (perhaps grammatically better expressed as “you may do or may not do that”) seems to be the major hinging point.
From my perspective, with some surprise, I found myself wondering “Hey, what is this all about?” I am not too concerned about what the Government thinks. I am more concerned about the impact of the virus on me. This being the case it is up to me to decide how I respond in countering its potentially deadly effects.
Of course, in some respects this puts me at the level of the anti-vaxxers. They are not going to be told what is good for them. But it can work in the other direction, too. That is that, rather than wait for the authorities to make the decisions as to what is safest for me as an individual, I may have the option of doing my own research and using my own experience in deciding what more promising action I might take.
A specific example of this might be. The Government makes a ruling that it is “all right” to attend a crowded football or cricket match. Do I then say, “Good, it is now my duty to attend the football match even though there remains some potential for becoming infected. Some Governments, indeed, have actually urged, or paid, for people to go to a restaurant or tourist resort during the pandemic.
“It will help the economy and it is the loving thing to do because it will keep people in jobs” they say.
Or do I say, “It may be a loving thing to put myself at risk but I can’t be helpful to anybody if I am dead or permanently disabled from the ravages of the disease.
It all comes down to priorities doesn’t it? What needs come first?
I am a keen follower of the analysis of needs provided by psychologist Abraham Maslow, and I use this in day-to-day decision-making. Maslow sees the base need to be survival. I touched on this in my earlier article, “Better dead than Red?”
When survival is assured we go for security. Beyond survival and security we give attention to the more esoteric longer-term aims such as socialising, success and self-actualisation.
Mind you, we don’t always follow this pattern. Clearly, attending a football match or dancing at an intimate night club may meet needs having priority over survival. Millions die in wartime through putting perceived security and socialising ahead of survival.
So in coping with Covid-19, do we just do what we are told, more or less, or do we use our own informed judgement and experience to favour our individual survival and thus remain available to play our part in making this world a better place?
I was invited to write a story for Christmas for Sea of Faith. Perhaps a liturgy for Christmas religious celebrations with a non-supernatural theme.
I thought about this. No doubt there are many writers who have sought to do this and been relatively successful.
But how redeemable is this supernatural rationale for festivities which remain just as popular and more and more secular as time goes on. There is a lot that is good about Christmas, particularly in its promotion of a spirit of goodwill in our community and indeed world-wide, whether people are nominally Christian or not.
Some might suggest that the tale as told basically in the Bible books of Matthew and Luke could be classed as a fairy story. If that is so, while being aware of its mythological foundations, we can still get a lot of fun and pleasure from the goodwill that it generates. We can enjoy our Christmas festivities.
Christmas is not a fairy story for the real person whose birth we celebrate; whose life made such an impact on his followers, including the gospel writers, that they turned him into a god. Part of that process was to build up around Jesus of Nazareth the supernatural tales of his conception and birth which are so familiar to us.
But what about the human being behind this? He turned out to be far from the “Gentle, Jesus, meek and mild”; rather a person who took on the Roman Empire and of course got killed for his pains.
And yet in a way he overcame that empire. His legacy lives on in the world-wide Christian community.
How did he do this? He proclaimed a new way of dealing with domination and power. Although it has been corrupted by his later followers and the institutional church his proclamation was “Love your enemies”. I have not had the opportunity to check this but I understand that the quotations from the relevant passages in Mathew and Luke are given red-letter status by the Jesus Seminar as being probably close to the actual words of Jesus.
Moving ahead in time, in the Courier-Mail of 15th December 2020 we read this extract, quoting federal Australian politician, Barnaby Joyce.
“Australia needed to figure out what its biggest challenge was. I don’t think it is climate abatement. The biggest issue facing my children’s lifetime and my grandchildren’s lifetime is how they live in a world where China is a superpower and it is not a liberal democracy.”
Now I am not a fan of Barnaby Joyce’s when it comes to attitudes to the environment nor when he has made taken some probably unwise steps in personal relationships, but I am inclined to agree that on this issue he has a point.
All this warlike rhetoric over trade and armed build up makes me nervous as we slide towards a MAD (mutually assured destruction) climax. It is so reminiscent of the events leading up to World War 2. With MAD, climate change won’t be the prime issue when a good proportion of the human population has been wiped out or severely irradiated.
Hopefully the West and the Communist nations will pause before we get to that point. It bothers me, though, that there seems to be very little public comment about a worst case scenario. The exchange continues, “You can’t beat me. Mine is bigger than yours”
For hundreds of years despite the major world war conflicts, the world has basked more or less in the pax Britannica or pax Americana*. For Australia, “They have been on our side”.
With China becoming the dominant world power that is no longer going to hold. How are we going to respond to the challenges of that power? I fear from the current rhetoric that it is war or nothing.
The trade-off for solving our problems by going to war, from the experience of World War 2 is a cost of 60 million human lives. With nuclear weapons the deaths will exceed more than 100 million in a very short time.
Despite the loss of those lives we all cheer the outcome of the second war. After all, “We won, didn’t we?”
Like so many Australians I cheered the stirring words of Churchill to stick to it and fight on. Despite the deaths of husbands, sons, fathers, daughters it all came out all right in the end! Until I saw the film about Churchill “The Darkest Hour” I had assumed that his way was the only way to go. From that film, though, and later research I discovered that there had, at the time of near invasion of Britain, been rational arguments for negotiating with Hitler. It was very close. Britain nearly lost that war. We can speculate what the outcome might have been – once again remembering that negotiating a compromise might have saved a good proportion of those 60 million lives.
Whenever I have suggested that there might have been alternatives to war people throw their hands up in horror. Emotional nationalism takes over “Oh you could never do that. Look what happened to Neville Chamberlain”.
I write this piece because I would encourage readers to enter into some rational discussion of some these dreadful possibilities. I could say more but this is enough for now. If there is any response, I would be keen to continue the conversation. There are very many more implications coming from this point of view than I have touched on here.
So that you can get a grip on the subject let me put it to you this way.
Xi Ji Ping leader of China, the dominant world power, sends a message to the President of a weakened United States
“We are planning to take over Taiwan. If you try to stop us we shall drop an atom bomb on New York City” in one month’s time”.
My question to you, my reader is, “How would you react and how would you like our Prime Minister and Government to react to such news”.
“What’s this got to do with Christmas?” you may ask.
What I am saying is that perhaps the world has got to the stage when instead of battling enemies we would do better to learn to love them, the heart of the message of the baby born in Bethlehem.
*Despite the hiccups of Vietnam, and the middle east, Afghanistan and so on, America still holds overwhelming naval power.
Descriptions of Jesus as ‘the man’ and/or ‘the Son of God’ are at the core of where many progressives find themselves at odds with sections of institutional Christianity. Indeed views differ significantly around the nature of ‘God’ as well. Where did we get our understandings from? How much of what we think is the product of our experiences from within and without church teaching, our interpretations of scripture, our gut feelings, our education and willingness to think critically, our exposure to science, philosophy, history and theology?
Recently Brian Reep posted a brief statement of his thinking, inviting others to post their thoughts. This conversation starter can be found at Reflection on “God”. Wally Stratford (A Long Time to Wait) responded with God’s Reality. Brian came back with:
Jesus was a man (MATH 19:17 )(The Gnostic Gospels ), a peripatetic Wisdom Teacher ( The Gospel of Thomas p 111 ) in the tradition of His time. He has achieved a stature greater than any other human being in the known history of the world. There are , of course , other contenders and a mention of the Buddha (“work out your own salvation with diligence “) is not inappropriate.
The child Jesus escaped the wrath of Herod when He was taken to Egypt (MATH 2:14 ) and His mission was anticipated by John the Baptist (MATH 3: 1 and 2). From the age of twelve He discussed profound religious issues with the doctors of the temple (LUKE 2:46 ) and they were “ astonished at His understanding and answers”. We do not read much more about Him until He was 30 years old when His ministry began in earnest. By this time He was preaching with “power” (LUKE 4:32) and “ authority” (MATH 7:29) and making the people of the synagogue so angry that they threw Him out of the city (LUKE 4:28 and 29). He became obedient unto God even unto death.
Something utterly amazing had transformed His teaching and actions. He was no longer an Orthodox Jew but a religious revolutionary with a message, initially for the Jews, but ultimately for the world. This transformation is entirely consistent with having a major mystical experience, probably just before His Ministry began.
So what changed?
The priests , who were once astonished at His understanding, are accused of making His house a den of thieves (MARK 11:17) and they sought to destroy Him (MARK 11:18). More emphasis is placed on love instead of dictating the way people should behave— two commandments instead of ten (MATH 22:37 to MATH 22:40). The people were told to choose forgiveness not judgement (LUKE 6:37) and not to depend on tradition (MARK 7:13). They also ,and this is crucial , were told to choose Truth (JOHN 8:32 ).
Jesus had become inclusive rather than exclusive, He now emphasized the importance of experience over teaching and the universal rather than the particular. We are encouraged to seek the mystical because through that we can know exactly what we are supposed to do. All that remains is to discover what is the best way for you ,I and other people to do it!!!
In the spirit of all that we do at the UCFORUM, Wally has offered a further response not intended to generate conflict in opinion but to add to the conversation and stimulate thinking:
A difficult problem when reflecting on Jesus, lies in the variety of references to him that appear in the gospels. Some of this difficulty is in choosing which of the references might be genuinely from Jesus, and which can be claimed as reflecting the life of the young church in what we deem to be four contexts. As we are aware, the gospel, in its differing accounts, appears some 40-80 years after his death.
I think they often confuse the matter and become less helpful the more we associate Jesus with the church’s declaration of him as Son of God.
This is particularly difficult at Christmas time with the presentation once again of the birth stories in Luke. and Matthew. There is some considerable agreement that in Luke. and Matthew, the first two chapters are a prologue rather than the main event. When they become the main event, as they seem to do at Christmas time, much is lost.
I think Jesus’ answer to John (Luke 7:18-23), allows us to find the focus in which the character of Jesus emerges, allowing the reader to see the divine nature of his life.
Brueggemann paraphrases this response – “Go tell John new life swirls around me. Go tell John that where I am present, impossible things happen. Go tell John that people are switching over to my narrative because they are worn out by blindness and want to see, they are tired with deadness and want to live. Go tell John a new world is being birthed among those who no longer accept dominant notions of the possible.”
“The underlying storyline in the New testament contains an unstated assertion of Jesus as an enabler of presence – a presence shrouded in mystery that continues. … In his time blindness was widespread but Jesus responds, and the blind man discovers a new way for recognizing life (John 9). The Sabbath was enshrined in rules and regulations, but Jesus cut across these, and in doing so placed himself in opposition as he interacted with the man who was unable to help himself (Mk 3:1-5). He was compassionate towards the harassed and helpless, and was also capable of intense feelings of loss, withdrawing from the crowds when hearing of John’s murder (Mt.13:14)”.
Much of this has been lost or sidelined as believers look heavenward for a glimpse of the Son of God.
Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, in response to a question asking, how can we improve our understanding of Jesus, writes: “Look for what Jesus himself taught instead of being satisfied with what has been taught about him”.
 Brueggemann. Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope. 13-26.
The four descriptions of God listed by Brian Reeps present interesting possibilities for further reflection. I have chosen to reflect on the first – God is Real. Here it is. Like all reflections it is open to further examination. The He and His are acknowledged as needing change.
“God is Real. He can make his presence known to human beings. All other gods are figments of people’s imagination. That is not to say they have no value.” (Brian Reep)
What does it mean to say something is real and something else is not?
To claim something as real is to say I can see, touch, hear that something, and therefore can visualize it – gather it as a mind picture.
But real comes with more than one expression of something’s actuality. To say that something is real even though not physically presentable, gives voice to a feeling or experience that is personal, and abides within one’s understanding of the something.
Claiming God to be real is an expression associated with belief. The next question asks where this belief comes from, and with regards to God it must be said that “his” being comes to mind as a proclamation from the church.
Belief in God – the claim of God’s reality – is a learned belief, in the first place through the church’s retelling of Christmas stories with their emphasis on ‘baby Jesus’. Indirectly, parents reinforce the story, children being reminded to be good, particularly around Christmas time, if they want Santa Clause to come with gifts.
This has a continuing effect on children, and we may claim, on parents also, who reinforce the child stories with references to Jesus’ goodness and attachment to God as father.
Belief is packaged in many ways, but its foundation is in a learned experience of a ‘real’ God.
The church’s claims, systematized in creeds, is the result of discussions, arguments, debates, and claims that God comes to Christians as the original God of the Jews.
He can make his presence known.
The Genesis story speaks of chaos and order. The chaotic sea is quietened as the wind of God blows over it (Gen 1:1). There is however an alternative reading which says, while the spirit of god… The creator God in this first verse is revealed as a mighty wind and also as spirit. The story continues and when finally, all is prepared, humankind begins to emerge.
The first glimpse of presence emerges in these Genesis stories of beginnings. The brief word in the story that introduces the notion of presence is found in the one verse that describes the beginnings of humankind. (Gen 2:7). The story tells us that firstly God formed the man out of the dust of the ground. The dusty shape has no life, only a form, so God leans down and breathes into his nostrils and the man lives. This story, as with all stories, requires imagination to hear God say in the breathing “the life of God for the life of humankind.”
From this story we may glean a number of things. Dust as dust is shapeless. It cannot be formed into any shape. It flows but may also be blown away. But humankind emerges from the dust and is given a form. We might even want to claim that it is the energy of God that holds the dust particles together. People’s connection with land is absolute.
There is one essential element for all life presented in this story and that is in the necessity to breathe. Arising from the story, the first breath for humankind, coming from God creator of all, contains an element of the universe – life itself. It is as if, in the action of breathing, a necessity in living, humankind inhales something of the marvel of the universe.
The key is in imagination and specifically in the words “life of God for the life of humankind”. The language of those ancient biblical times makes room for a link between breath and spirit. Can it be said that breath and spirit are of each other and thus constantly present in the life of humankind?
Neither breath, wind nor spirit are controllable, but together they are life. Perhaps it can be said that life itself is a demonstration of presence.
The gift of life is for all, but it does not come with everything in place. It requires unwrapping as do all gifts, and not all gifts are exactly what people want.
Presence contained in the gift of life becomes real when shared between people. Whether ill or well, among people presence is always a possibility.
Figment – a fantastic notion or fabrication.
It is quite false to claim that people’s responses to the spiritual experiences they have recognized in their life are merely figments of imagination.
It can be claimed that all gods, all considered divine, have an imaginative quality. They all belong in stories and along with every human being the stories that are portrayed of life are all of value.
Spirit, earth, people, belong to each other. The differences are religious ones assembled from among the desires to have a God.
Gods and people have lived together on the earth for aeons. Smart takes us back thousands of years far beyond biblical times. Archeologists have unearthed evidence of ancient links between people and gods. Mythology tells of gods as separate beings – in our day god like responses might be discerned among the many activities that awaken passion in lives.
Among many religions, and for my purposes within the church, Gods are named and set apart; separated from those who would seek to worship them. I think it is reasonable to claim that the God of Christians has a beginning in the desert meeting with Moses, and YHWH’s call to free the Israelites (Ex. 3). YHWH showed no face (Ex.33:20-23) and gave no name (Ex.3:14). The people knew presence in smoke by day and fire by night (Ex.13:22). Throughout the biblical story, God is recognized only as spirit presence.
The Israelite experience of God is not the same as the Christian experience of God. Both experiences are imaginative connections through which believers find life. One cannot claim that the Christian God is real any more than one can claim all others as figments.
WBS. Dec. 2020
 Smart, Ninian. The Religious Experience of Mankind. Collins/Fount Paperbacks. 1969.
Another reflection on the notion of “God” demonstrating the diversity of ideas within this large group. Reminds me of when I surveyed 40 people and asked them to describe God. I received 40 different descriptions:
GOD IS REAL. He can make His Presence known to human beings. All other gods are figments of people’s imagination. That is not to say they have no value.
GOD IS LOVE. He loves all that he has made and we are required to do likewise. Hell is incompatible with a God of love and there will be people of all faiths (and none) in what we call heaven.
GOD IS GOOD. He has provided a way out of all the world’s problems but we have to implement the practical solutions.
GOD IS TRUTH. The Prophets reveal truth but they are not THE TRUTH. They point the way to God.
In short we have to focus on God , with the help of a prophet if necessary, and interpret what the mystical experience reveals wisely.