A New Year and a New Vision
I am writing on this Advent Sunday, 2022, the first day of the new church year. It is the beginning of the season which leads up to the celebrations of Christmas in a month’s time. That makes it a perfect time for reflection on the Christian experience as it touches the lives of people.
I am reminded in this month of November 2022 that it is now exactly 60 years since what has become by far the largest selling theological book of all time was published in London. Honest to God, the ponderings of an English Anglican bishop, one John A.T. Robinson, on what were then seen as the outpourings of the “modern theologians” became a best seller and the subject of almost endless vilification in the worlds both of the church and of the press. Such was the criticism of the work that in an age when church-going was a much more normal part of the daily life of the citizen, as was retiring with a book, that it was read widely. I recall with some interest that in September 1963 I came to buy a copy of the work (a paperback) and that I was finding my nights when I should have been pursuing my studies for the then forthcoming examinations in torts and crimes (I still passed) were being spent in the joys of theological discussion. That much of it went over my head I do not deny (I found much of the language impenetrable) but I was aware that in this work I was meeting the boldness of mind that I had already found lacking in church circles.
As a mere boy of 16 in the Australian winter of 1958 I had started to find in what was being presented to me in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney on a Sunday night at Evensong in the local church much that was open to a range of questions. Good sense required that I remain silent about such matters though I was blessed by an apparently willing companion for discussion of the issues in the fox terrier bitch who was sharing my bed. Her silence did nothing to diminish the comfort of being free to articulate what had concerned me. As the lad who went on to legal studies in January 1960 and kept finding questions of the Christianity that was being offered to him, I found matters being discussed by Bishop Robinson when they were not over my head a blast of fresh air.
As I have written elsewhere those questions have been with me for a lifetime and, as one now of 80, I look back on the journey of an expanding awareness and a deepening of understanding with a mixture of amusement and satisfaction. That journey has taken me around the world to many institutions and places and has found me in the halls of what I gather is called “universalism.” I have had no trouble finding in the seeking of broader wisdom from other traditions and experiences ever-widening personal enrichment and a greater capacity for pursuing a fulfilled life. That pursuit has taken me on a journey to the Eastern spiritualities and to a sense of the active participation of “The Greater” that has a strong mystical flavour much as I am aware of the alarms that will follow the reading of that word. I have learnt the virtues and they are substantial of daily times of meditation and contemplation which I have pursued rigorously since October 1984 to what I see as my richer comfort and blessing. That I have found a sense of presence and guidance to which it is hard to put words means only that I have found answers to questions in so many ways the same as those found by others. I am happy to report an experience of something larger at work in my fulfilled daily rounds though I am, for all the adequacy of my linguistic development, unable to put words comfortably to it and for that I do not apologise.
That sense of presence and guidance however has been something that has kept me faithful to the Christian experience which so long ago touched me with its gentleness and sweetness for all my doubts about the formal structure being put to me. And it is to that tradition I find myself returning this Advent season to offer to its adherents the benefits of more comprehensive enquiries. And I must make clear that I do so not in a spirit of criticism but in the hope that those in the pews may find as I have a deeper sense of their beliefs and the experiences however indefinable to which those beliefs and experiences may lead.
I should wish to offer those in the pews for all their diminishing numbers a vision of a participating “Greater” which will add colour and vigour to their lives and to their willingness by the quality of their lives to be the living proof (a word I use with some caution) of the validity of the words that spring so easily from their mouths on Sunday morning. Christianity makes much of the obligation upon its adherents to be the best evidence of their faith and to be those who can most easily bring to those outside their group an occasion for seeking its benefits.
In the journey of life, I have come more and more fully (and legal practice amongst those far from the top of the social order greatly aided my grasp) to understand that the whole offering of Christianity of the substitutionary death of Jesus on that first Good Friday has been significantly overdeveloped. I find that I share the perception that what is called “atonement theology” is an error and likely to convert the message of Jesus, and I do not deny its universal wisdom, from something of personal enrichment to an exercise in the application of authority with all the horrors associated with it. I am always saddened when I meet the unwillingness to accept that my experience of the Greater is the natural consequence of spiritual exercise over a very extended time and to be something worthy of instant rejection. Men and women are not “sinners.” They are individuals constantly enlarging and expanding to their last breath. The word “evolving” comes easily to mind. That the journeys of life will take us to error and behaviour unworthy of the wellspring of God goes without saying and that human conduct can be appalling is equally apparent. But the travelling to those experiences of discovery will always mean that we are going to be in error and regularly so. For all that, acknowledging the fact is no basis of seeking the involvement in our experience of the Ultimate and Greater. What matters is not that we have failed but that we have sought improvement and growth and have continued to pursue them with all energy.
In short, what I am discussing is a vision of the Greater deeply committed to our lives and for us as the beneficiaries of that vision to be constantly expanding at whatever age we may be and in whatever situation. And as the one guided by the wisdom of the East, I shall constantly be seeking to present to all who are willing to try the enrichment of a gently deepening experience of that presence of which I have already spoken in their own daily journey in all its manifestations. But the starting point is not the declaration of one’s inadequacy but that one has dared to pursue spiritual development within one’s consciousness in the wonders of quietness. I am sure that in the rigorously pursued (yes, the need of commitment is paramount) daily (and, if possible, and especially in the early stages, more than once a day) deeper consciousness lies an experience of such extraordinary enrichment that the seeker will never want to depart from it. That is not merely my experience. I find that it is the considered commentary of all those who have dared (and daring may be a good word for the measure of the courage required to start and keep going) so to continue with the interior journey that it is the sine qua non of their day. And yet it is so simple and straightforward that it seems almost to defy logic. This is the very point where I find the desire of the religious to find some form of forensically correct practice of mind so unhelpful to the travelling. Finally it is the time of contemplation and meditation and the quietening of being to accompany that wonderful practice that will heal all wounds and confer the riches of deeper serenity. And with that tranquillity will come an empowerment and invigoration of surprising qualities. But it is of the individual and not of groups. It is the man or the woman whose day involves the serious pursuit of an inner discovery of their nature as part of the Greater to whom will come the blessings of life in all their scope and variety.
The corollary to the journey within is the willing acceptance of the other. To the writers of the New Testament all of whom wrote in Greek the word which defined that other side of the coin, so to speak, was the word agape, a word that has no easy translation into English. The words we would use of “love,” “charity” or “ goodness” are inadequate just as the words used in the traditions of Buddhism and Confucianism of “compassion” and “benevolence” respectively do not do justice to the quality of “otherness.” The German theologian whose name I met in Honest to God, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke of “the nearest Du at hand.” In German the use of the second person singular (in English the word thou now long lost to us) connoted the measure of its directness. It was the simple recognition of that other, whoever he or she may be or whenever or wherever or however met. We find our fulfilment in that other and in our recognition of the equality and significance of that other.
That of which I am speaking whose simplicity I would wish to bring to the man or woman in the pews is just this – spiritual exercise of meditation and contemplation daily and a commitment to the principle of the other as an equal. We can experience in the fulfilment of the action to which that course of logic will take us something so rich so powerful and yet so difficult formally to express that is clearly the very “God” Whose name I have been so careful not to use. All the rest is commentary and surplus to requirements.
On this first day of a new church year, let us rejoice in the simplicities of the Greater and the dazzling blessings that come to us as we meet that Greater and the other openly, trustingly and, in terms of our neighbour, without any form of expectation.
Happy new year.
Woollahra, New South Wales, 2025, Australia
Sunday 27 November 2022