Thursday, 29 September 2011

More than one way to skin a rabbit

Following on from yesterday's blog, I stumbled upon the following in my reading this morning - an old couplet, illustrating for the sake of the "simple", how to read Scripture. It loudly echoes the fourfold medieval way to which I briefly alluded.

"The Letter teaches events, 
Allegory what you should believe, 
Morality teaches you what you should do, 
Anagogy [mystical reading] what mark you should be aiming for"

Attributed to Augustine of Dacia (d. 1282), OP

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Battle for the Bible?

Just the other weekend I traveled with others to gather in Invercargill, at the southernmost point of (mainland) New Zealand for my first Dunedin Diocesan Synod. Having received various 'nods and winks' which suggested to me that Synods were met with approximately the same degree of enthusiasm here as they were in England, the experience further reminded me that often only a broader perspective can teach us truly to appreciate what we have :) Synod's here are only once a year (in England we had three Diocesan and three Deanery Synods annually) - the food was excellent in its own regard  (comparing Most favourably with the good food I used to enjoy at my Diocesan Retreat House, let alone Synod . . .) And - perhaps due to the small size of the Synod in numerical terms - relationships and discussion even on the thorniest of topics displayed  little rancour and much grace.

Of course this is the Anglican church and so the subjects for debate were wearily all too familar, including one on the ordination of those in same sex relationships. For some this whole issue has been portrayed as something akin to the battle of Rorke's drift, or perhaps even the Alamo - a final (?) stand to try and defend the place and authority of Scripture in the church - but what I heard from the debate only served to further reinforce my view that the church has been unable to Hear the Word for a very long time now. As I listened it became plain that those on both sides of this argument were in a sense reading the Scriptures in the same way, yet coming to radically different conclusions.
             Both perspectives (if I might grossly oversimplify) reduced the Scriptures to a dead letter rather than a living word - put otherwise it had become an Object, some Thing to be Used in disputation (proof texting we might say) - to tell others that they were wrong -  or some Thing to be examined and found wanting on Critical grounds. Nowhere was there any sense of how God might speak to us Through the Scriptures - it felt to me as if we were wandering into a place where either we could do without God, 'because the Bible is sufficient', or our understanding of God needed to come from elsewhere 'because the Bible is insufficient'. [I leave aside for now the rather vexed and unaddressed question of ecclesiology  - do we believe in an 'Us' to whom God speaks??]
           Both 'perspectives' are obsessed with the literal and / or historic meaning of the text and are but children of the enlightenment and the radical Objectification of everything. Thus all is dust - no longer it seems is Earth or indeed the Scripture -  'crammed with heaven . . . every common bush afire with God'. Much preaching either meticulously and 'biblically' nails Life down, or Nails the Bible and instead looks to the world for life.
            The One who is irreducibly Subject disappears from view when The Bible speaks for Him or when The Bible gets in the way of our apprehending Him. Both of these approaches so Objectify the Scriptures as to make them opaque. The One who seeks to speak to us Through the word cannot be heard and the Scriptures less understood in practice if not in doctrine, as a place of encounter with the Living God.
            [It is I suggest interesting to ponder whether the over emphasis on materiality found in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation - an early herald of the philosophical shifts that were in time to lead to the enlightenment-  does not find a Protestant mirror image in the Objectification of the Scriptures?]

Just yesterday I was reading a young and promising theologian, (I declare an interest which will be clear if you link to the blog :) ), who commented on her desire to hear God in her Bible reading. She quoted something of Karl Barth which I'd love to say I'd forgotten, but fear I must admit I'd never read, who sought to "hear the Word within the words". These  resonated with my sense that we must try once more to hear God Through  the Scriptures. Surely it was such an Objectification of the Scriptures which Jesus pointed to when he accused the Pharisees of diligently searching the Scriptures - 'because you think that by them you possess eternal life' - yet failing to recognise the one to whom they referred. The One who is in the words of St Paul, 'the image (ikon in the Greek) of the invisible God'.

The idea of an ikon, is I suggest a  fruitful way of  exploring how  we might begin to visually imagine how we attend to God in Scripture, and perhaps a more fruitful one than the dead ends of objectification prevalent in Modern thought. Ikons in Orthodox practise are understood as windows on the eternal - it was a failure to apprehend their transparency that so readily led to iconoclasm - and Christ is The Ikon of the invisible God so Through Him we apprehend the Father, and to see Him is to See the Father.(John 14)

Objectified, the Scriptures have I suggest become shutters rather than a window, an end in themselves. All we need is the Bible, we do not need a relationship with God - or we can apprehend God without the Scriptures as all we find are shutters
            I suggest it might be more Life giving to  understand the Scriptures also as an Ikon, a window? We must have the window for without the window we have no light, BUT we may also create the illusion of light. As I sit at my desk typing I can see out of the window. I can see a view. I could put up shutters and project a bright picture onto those shutters which would perfectly represent what I am now looking at - But, if I move from my seat and walk across the room the view changes in a way that I cannot replicate using a projector and cannot predetermine. What is more the wind in the trees outside the window means that that which I apprehend is patently Living and Active. My whole being is affected as I participate in that which I see beyond my window.
I suggest that at best much of our reading of the Scriptures has become as it were on shutters, be they ever so artfully illuminated. 'What the Bible Says' is concretised either by some as patently obvious, that there is nothing there which will surprise alarm or dismay us, for 'we know the Scriptures, or patently ridiculous for any number of critical reasons. Which of us as protagonists in the arguments at Dunedin Synod and indeed any other Synod, actually came to that meeting suspecting that possibly God might speak to us in many ways through the Scriptures and in ways that we did not think possible, so used had we become to the painting on the shutters, 'The Answer'?
           Without the Window there is no light but also if we shutter the window, similarly there is no light - and it seems to me that many of our debates in the contemporary church generate much more heat than light.

As God seeks to bring to birth the fruit of the Spirit in us, that constant exposure to his Light and Life Through the medium of the word seems to me to be essential.

Of course there are many who continue to grow in the fruit of the Spirit as the transforming word comes to them through the window of the Scriptures, but I suggest that for many that is not the case. Perhaps we need to recapture something of the richness of reading of earlier times when allegory, typology, spiritual reading , mystical meaning (anagogy) - all were part of our understanding of the word along with the concrete Literal and Historic that seem to now be the sole means of approach to the word. And along with Older ways of understanding Scriptures, perhaps also the devotional reading of Scripture as in Lectio Divina - an approach which always comes to the word seeking above all to be in Relationship with the Author - to know the warmth of Divine Light or indeed to sense the sharp cut of the Loving Gardener.

My young friend in her desire to come to Scripture and be faced with God Himself expresses for me something of that sense that the Scriptures might be for more of us again a Window. After all if Scripture Is to be believed then He is the One whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, the One whom encounters us leaving us prostrate, unable to speak for days on end, the one who speaks Words of Life that raise the dead.

Thus my final reflection on Synod is that there were no moments when we were reduced to speechlessness at the presence of Living God. That which was Right was not suggested to us by the cloud of his Presence. This suggests to me that the Bible had become for us shutters rather than a window.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

First things First

One of the Jarring differences I've noticed between England and New Zealand in the few weeks I've been here, has been the far greater advance of Secularism as a universal understanding of the ordering of Society over here.

'God' it seems, has been all but wiped from the Horizon of public life. 

Folk I talked to ahead of flying out will know I was already alert to this. [But then Encounter is always different from 'knowing the facts' as theologically alert people should know.]
        This difference has Encountered Me firstly, in the context of schools. Whilst in England I was part of a very helpful programme for teaching Bible stories called 'Open the Book'. The demand from local schools for this was overwhelming at times and those I worked with, neither of them church schools, had nothing but praise for the scheme and the church members who freely gave of their time to participate - indeed one school came to church each term  for an 'OtB Special'. Contrast that with the situation here where I am told that the few remaining doors to school are being progressively and rapidly closed to any form of explicit Christian faith.

This was brought home in the starkest terms when I heard of the proposed appointment of a school 'chaplain', who is not allowed to take assemblies, teach RE or speak of God. Whilst I see that the appointment of a school chaplain in such a secular context is not to be sniffed at, it is still an example of the eradication of 'God'.

I do not for a moment think that this will not happen back in the UK,  there have been lots of signs of this for a long while, but it has happened far more rapidly here. Not least because Christendom really Happened in Britain rather than being imported on its last legs. Like a flower inadvertently carried across the tropics in a shipping container, it was never going to take root in the soil of Aotearoa and so as Modernism's grip has closed vice-like on our souls - Christendom is compost - or 'Custard' as I believe we say over here.

[Indeed Roots and History are topics  well worth reflecting further on in this regard, especially in a society where at times the History Curriculum is dominated, as I learnt today, by the 80's and 90's and goes back only a little over a hundred years in total. (And Yes, I do mean the 1980's and 1990's. . . - more of that another time perhaps)]

So whither the churches in this Saeculum - or should that be wither?
How Have we been responding?

Perhaps the central element of the churches response to these changes in the Old Country has been to try and adapt to the changing circumstances by being Relevant. But rather bluntly, this puts me in mind of the story of the French 'Revolutionary' sat at a sidewalk cafe - who sees the Mob rush by and declares 'there go my people, I am their leader - I must follow them!!' There is much talk about the Revolutionary message we bear as Christians but our action as the church often seems to mimic our deluded ami.

This 'Quest for Relevance' seems to go back to the 1960's, at least in England -   [those who argue there are elements of it before the Reformation are not to be dismissed, but time doesn't allow] - and two images sum it up for me.
       One is the search for a new, more Accessible prayer book [For folk who think Contemporary liturgy and services is The Answer, a look at the timeline for church attendance and the beginning of the moves away from 1662 might perhaps call this into question, along with progressive changes to liturgy which have accompanied the accelerating decline]
        The second a Black and White photo I remember seeing, of an elderly cleric in a cassock and collar 'getting down' at a disco amongst a group of clearly half bemused and half disinterested 'young people'. OUCH - brief pause to recover my composure . . .

This quest for Relevance has had one underlying and oft unexamined guiding theme throughout - that as Christians 'we're all about people - people is what we are about - we're people centered' . So people centered that our Contemporary songs are 'All about Me, Jesus' For a Very Painful reminder of this - Click Here.
        In other words in our search for relevance in an age where God is wiped from wider consciousness our response  has been to do the same, to put the Human at the centre of all things and effectively removing Him from the centre, keeping 'God' out of it.

The great Message of Christianity in This age contrary to those that have gone before is  'You're OK and indeed you can be even Better!' [This came home to me Very sharply listening to someone trying to sum up the Distinctive Ethos of a church school. I've been associated with several over the years and have heard this tune replayed over and over again these past years - 'we as Christians have a unique understanding of the amazing potential of human beings' ]

A Key element of the Christian message is 'Actually we are Not OK!' and this whole bloody Dying on a Cross thing is a sign that God cares enough to do something about it - The Love of God is not a warm acceptance blanket - but a fiery determination not to let our self centredness have the last world in a World he is literally Passionate about.

The horrible irony is this - we as Christians are often accused by our noisy detractors of being deluded, that this whole God business is nonsense, in an age when We have largely given up on this whole God business!
What is more in doing so, we are Truly deluded, for a moment's attention to the news, to our neighbourhoods and indeed to our hearts tell us we are Not OK, that we need Saving from and for the Sake of the World.

In a world where people look around and ask, 'who on Earth can get us out of this?'  We seem to have forgotten who we are, the people of God. We have forgotten the deepest stories of our faith - our roots, that our Life is a Gift of God and Only makes any sense at all when understood in His light. That Human only has any meaning at all Precisely because God says so - our lives only have Dignity because of God, and we Know this because he deigns to come to us and address us and tells us to stand up and face him.

Without God we have no sense of what it is to be human, without the trascendent, the imminent collapses in on itself and All is reduced to Nothing.

At the beginning of most services in the historic denominations we are reminded of this week by week - we hear the words 'Our Lord, Jesus Christ said, the First Commandment is this, the Lord our God is the only Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. . . .' Yes, I know there is a second part, but as in all orders the second follows the first, without the first there is no second. And having reminded ourselves that our focus should be on God we turn to Him in confession - to agree that we are not OK.

In the wonderful words of Hosea (6:4) we acknowledge our love for God is like the morning dew, that goes away early - but as the prophet goes on later, when our love for God Is like the morning mist - it is We who disappear like the morning dew (13:3). God doesn't disappear - we do and that is the story of our age that when the human is centre the human disappears - witness the C20.

Week by week we hear that our Life comes only from God - we acknowledge we have forgotten that. It is Only in this turn to God and Not in the turn to the World that the Church can become a beacon of Light.

This is why I feel privileged to come and serve under a Bishop, Kelvin Wright who recognises that without Prayer we are without Hope - that only in returning  to God does the church have a future and through the future of the Church, the World has Hope.

In this Age - Prayer is a counter cultural activity as much as anything - it speaks of a people whose lives are Other directed, rather than self centered - however self centered our praying may be at times - when we pray we acknowledge that we are not God and our hope is in Him, not ourselves.
         Looking out at the Church and the World, we have a crying need for this Other direction. For it is only when we are Other directed that we can truly begin the hard business of obeying the second command and Loving our Neighbour as ourselves, for the sake of the World and the greater Glory of God..

Friday, 2 September 2011

'Now, here's a tip . . .'

Well the world has turned - or so it seems. The sun moves right to left across the skies, please Don't ask me which way is North and my children are rapidly learning that their trainers were not only left behind in England they were left there a good number of years ago.
Oh yes, I forgot, the AA (Yes the Automobile Association) seems to act as a front for the Tax Office!! What on Earth is that about??

AND they've stolen Middle Earth!! As I seem to recall JRR Tolkein wrote much of LOTR just six miles from where I USED TO LIVE!!! and many a dreary diocesan meeting (surely they can't have followed me too . . .???), had its sting drawn as I gently drove my pony over the hill which guarded my parish and The Shire with its soft rounded grassy hills hove into view, smoke rising here and there and even the odd Hobbit looking suspiciously at the passing Man. (OK I perhaps have romanticised Somewhat, in the summer we didn't have fires - well most of the time anyway, or at least occasionally (Yes, the memory of the English 'Summer' is still fresh!))

Of course many things are the same, cars on the Left and I have to say - contrary to some of the advance publicity (stories from foreign parts being held in both awe and suspicion at once in The Shire) - the food at local hostelries (bars?) is very good.

YET, (hushh!!!) therein hangs a cautionary tale about cultural differences, for a minor diplomatic incident was caused by a good friend who entirely unintentionally threatened the Entire Economic Structure of these fair Islands, not by denouncing the Dairy Industry, which would seem to be the direct approach, but by tipping the waitress - and Rather Handsomely!!!

Money of course Shouts - News of this travesty certainly spread fast. Hoards of teenagers were seen walking up to the bar in question seeking work in the hope this Faux Pas might have been repeated (Legal reasons prevent me from naming it and hundreds of Financial lawyers are crawling all over the neighbourhood night and day to threaten anyone with an injunction who so much breathes a word of it . . .)

Tipping - in the US 'is Federal Law and failing to do so punishable by a lengthy stay in what is somewhat quaintly termed a 'Correctional facility'' - in the UK it is sort of grudgingly accepted and a means by which certain large chains ensure their employees are paid as little as possible and kept on a minimum wage, the tips being used to make up the aforesaid generous dues - here in NZ, it is Not Done!!

[At this point I do hope I've made it Absolutely Clear that I disagree with all three approaches - I have no desire whatsoever to annoy my lovely hosts and the NZ Govt which has So kindly allowed me to reside here in the beautiful country which I already Love Very Much, by picking them out - No, I want to be even handed and say that All three approaches are Wrong]

Tipping - in the UK its what you do with your Rubbish - Trash - what is it in Kiwi??
[Fly tipping - well named, is where unpleasant creatures deposit microscopic amounts of unspeakables on your previously spotless property - particularly prevalent in China]

A much more lovely word is Gratuity, one which has been much ignored and Slurred by being largely used in Adjectival form to describe Violence.

Gratuity speaks of Grace - of a Free response of dare one say it Love - Of recognition of the Other.
It is Response
It is the overflow of the Full Heart.

Thus, it Cannot be legislated for,
Must not be discouraged,
And is Denied by 'grudgery'.

It is a small thing - but it is a sign of something far greater.
Like a wafer of Bread it is a reminder could we see it, that the world is Graced, that our Existence is Gratuitous, that our Lives are Gifts.

As children of Grace our lives are to be such gifts - received from the Father of lights and freely graced to the world

Methinks that if we Knew the Reality, the whole world would be revealed for what it is
A Heavenly Tip (like a small child's bedroom :-)  )

and now I must go, for I heard a knock at the door - the men in dark suits!!