This is the basis of a talk given by Michael Morwood at the Corpus Conference in Dallas, 2009.
The Hubble telescope was launched less than 20 years ago. Since 1990 we have seen thousands of galaxies in one photo and have shaken our heads in amazement as we try to comprehend the reality of billions of galaxies each with billions of stars.
We now say, “God is everywhere” with a new reverence, and with a profound understanding that earth is not the center of the universe (indeed we are yet to travel beyond the light of a solitary star in one galaxy that has billions of stars), and that there is no up or down with regard to where God is.
The language of Christian Tradition speaks of God as “immanent” and “transcendent”. We have little problem with “immanent”: the presence of God permeates everything that exists, holding everything in existence, in connection and relationship. Our problem has been with “transcendent” as too often this has been thought of, at least in popular thinking, as spatial, as if the word implied that God is “over and above” in a spatial way. This is not what the word means theologically. It means over and above and beyond all human concepts and images and understanding.
God is everywhere. And if God is everywhere, then God is here.
It is with this profound reverence for the mystery we call “God” that we look back to Jesus – and what we see in his teaching resonates so well with what we know about God today because what Jesus focused on was:
God HERE. God known in human experience.
Jesus challenged people to “convert” in order to see and understand God-with-them. And, once converted, once believing “good news” about themselves in relationship with God, to set about establishing the “kingdom” of God here, now.
Jesus lived this Presence.
People came to recognize the Presence in him. But it took months and years of reflection on his life, his teaching and his readiness to die for what he believed, for the light of the Spirit-always-with-them to come to the surface and personal conviction.
People gathered around the story of Jesus, not to proclaim he was radically different from them. They gathered firstly to reflect on and then to marvel at God coming to human expression in him. And secondly, they gathered to reflect, in new understanding, on Jesus’ preaching about “conversion” and establishing “God’s Kingdom”: they came to understand that the same Presence to which Jesus gave such courageous expression was in them and now it was their turn to give it courageous expression. In other words, reflection on Jesus revealed to them God-in-their-lives and the responsibilities that inevitably go with such recognition.
The theology and the spirituality that go with this insight and understanding stand the test of time. They are totally compatible with what we know about our universe today:
God remains God, source and sustainer of all that exists, still mysterious as ever and totally and utterly beyond human images and concepts.
God is everywhere and everything remains connected IN God.
Jesus remains, and always will remain for Christians, REVEALER of God in human form. Attending to him and his teaching will set people free from a sense of fear or distance from God or any need to buy or win God’s “friendship” or presence. It will empower them to better BE expressions of God in human form.
All human people remain bonded IN God.
What remains also is the true identity of the institution we call “Church”: a community called to preach and to give outstanding witness to this message of Jesus.
All of this remains in place and will stand all the tests of time and science and worldview if we respect God HERE.
Yet by the end of the first century, the focus was shifted to
Jesus as THE WAY TO God.
The biggest influence was the break of the followers of Jesus from their mother religion, Judaism, after the fall of Jerusalem in 70. The bitter and forced break meant the new group had to give itself unique identity. It did so through the claim that Jesus had gained access for people to God’s dwelling place in heaven – and only his followers would be able to get there as well.
Theological thinking then shifted overdrive into dualism with up, down language, notions of disconnection from God and ideas of a God “sending” his Son down to earth and the Son going back up and sending the Spirit down on his followers.
An important factor to keep in mind here is that if we think of God as an everywhere/here reality, then no group can claim exclusive access to God. You can only claim a different or better awareness of the presence. But if the focus is shifted to an elsewhere/there God, a group can claim to have exclusive access. It is obvious who gains by such a significant shift in thinking – a shift away from the preaching of Jesus.
When Christianity in its Scriptures (John’s Gospel is classic) and its teaching shifted its focus from Jesus preaching about the “kingdom” here on earth to Jesus as the unique way to an elsewhere deity, it then created an enormous theological problem - solving who Jesus had to be if he and he alone could win access to “heaven”.
(The assembly was then asked to brainstorm in small groups on the task: List the theological beliefs, the sacramental thinking and practices, the devotions, and prayer forms that are grounded in GOD – THERE thinking.)
The following topics were briefly treated.
Jesus – God
The Christian Church must find a way to deal with this issue divorced from dualism and from reliance on a “fall” at the beginning of human history. Reliance on concepts of separation from God and talk about accessing “heaven” as if God is somewhere else, are no longer believable for many Christians.
If Jesus is not someone who won access to an elsewhere God, what are the implications for traditional Christian Trinitarian language and thought?
Incarnation/birth of Jesus
Did God “send” “his son” from somewhere else to a planet devoid of God’s presence?
Will we continue to think of the birth of Jesus in terms of THERE – to HERE. What are the implications of thinking of the birth of Jesus in terms of God-always-here?
Revelation/God’s “plan”/Personal God
This is new territory for Catholics, especially, since not even Vatican II addressed the underlying issue here: the notion of God. Traditional Christian thinking as expounded and defended by the present Pope portrays God as an external agent choosing one particular group, intervening, revealing “himself” to just one group, having a “plan”, and all the while thinking, reacting, punishing and rewarding much like a human person does.
By all means let us personify “God”, since that helps us relate with the Mystery that God is, But let us be wary of literalizing our personification so that we imagine God as a localized Being who watches, observes, has definite opinions on a host of cultural matters, and has everything under control (which leaves people wondering why “he” controls the way “he” does). It also leaves Church authority able to claim it can tell us what this God thinks on important issues.
Cf the present Pope and the Catechism of the Catholic Church having Jesus knowing “fully” the plans of an elsewhere God – “plans” based on the premise that this deity denied access to himself because of the supposed sin of Adam.
Interpreting the death of Jesus
“A sacrificial offering to the Father for our sins’? - present Pope, last Pope, Catechism, Congregation for Faith and Doctrine, most bishops…
Like other issues listed here, this is a topic that Catholic theologians are not allowed to question publicly. Truth and open enquiry come second to protecting thinking about an elsewhere God that gives institutional identity and power and authority.
Last Supper / Eucharist/ priesthood
Intellectual honesty and integrity require public acknowledgment that Jesus was a Jew;
he died a Jew. He had no intention of founding a new religion. He ordained no one the night before he died.
The early followers of Jesus were part of a Jewish movement, not a new religion.
Instead of this acknowledgment, we have the God-figure-Jesus so established in our minds that we are conditioned (that is a good word for it) to read this must-be-believed interpretation of Jesus back into his last meal, the god-figure who supposedly started a new religion with its own cultic priesthood uniquely capable of accessing and bringing God’s presence to people through a sacramental system.
Discussion on priesthood would be better and more honest if it focused on Jesus’ public ministry and what that reveals about the role of “priesthood” in Jesus’ mind and actions than on interpreting the “Last Supper” through a theological mind-set that developed well after he died and that Jesus, the Jew, would disown.
Again, where is the honesty, the openness to and the acknowledgement of truth? We know, the Pope surely knows, that the Christian Church as an entity separate from Judaism did not come into existence until at least 40 years after Jesus died. So why are we proclaiming and celebrating every year in our churches that Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection, is the “birthday” of our Church?
Pentecost was a Jewish phenomenon. It was an experience of Jews (no matter how a later writer in the Acts of the Apostles described it). The Spirit did not “come down” on anyone. It was there in them already. Only theology thoroughly encased in dualistic thinking could take seriously the notion that the Spirit of God dwelt in heaven and only “descended” on a group of people when the resurrected Jesus went “up” to heaven.
It was reflection on Jesus that allowed the Spirit to come to better expression in his followers – and we know that for the first 20 years (until Paul started preaching) that this happened primarily within the Jewish religion.
When will we stop writing and telling young children that “Baptism makes us members of God’s family.”?
Mediator between God and people? Interpreter of the mind of God? Unique dispenser of God’s graces and presence through the sacramental system? Minder and Protector of all Truth about God?
Such power, authority and identity mean institutional leadership is not likely to relinquish the dualistic theological thinking that supports its claims.
This is the aha! issue. This is what this theology of “salvation” is really all about and why it is so strenuously defended by the present Pope and why the previous Pope installed so many “yes” men bishops around the world. This is a theology of power and control. It is being used to silence not only any discussion about the concept of God that underpins the Christian Creed but to silence Catholic scholarship also. The control is obvious in many dioceses where fearful bishops, intellectually inadequate to deal with the theological issues and questions of our times, have recourse to censorship of speakers and demonize scholars who raise troubling issues and disturbing questions. In demonstrating their inability to think outside the parameters of an outdated, dualistic theological schema (that gives them control, power and authority) these men reveal how unfit they are to lead the Church and to hold the Church up to the world as a voice with a relevant message. Their basic role, the reason Rome has appointed them bishops, is to preserve the theology that gives the institution identity, power and control. It is called “defending the faith”, but that simply means “faith” has been reduced to submission of intellect and will to theology firmly grounded in belief that God is more elsewhere than here.
Just how much of our (not just Church) prayer is addressed to an elsewhere, listening deity?
To what extent is worship/liturgy built on the notion that God listens and observes and that it is all somehow for God’s sake?
It is obvious that institutional Church reform is doomed as long as authority figures in the Church can block any discussion on theological issues that underpin their power and authority. Since that is blocking is so evident in these times and is likely to continue for some time, we should focus not on reforming the Church in its institutional structures, its systems of control, and its official liturgy, but rather focus on shaping the “church” we want to experience.
Strategies for a Christian experience of “church” wanting to focus on GOD HERE
1.Focus on human/lived experience – not on theology or the mind. Give time to reflect on and to share where and how do we experience what we call “the divine Presence”. 2.If living in love and living in God are intimately connected, reflect on and share all aspects of life, not just peak experiences. Keep naming all that happens in life as the human expression of the divine presence, the mundane, the challenges, the ups and the downs. 3.Cultivate a sense of awe, wonder, appreciation. Take time to do this. Set it as a task of deliberate intent. Reflect, for example, that this life form that we are gives human expression to the mystery we call “God”. 4.PRAYER: to deepen awareness; to name, to affirm Vs directing prayer “elsewhere”. How often is our prayer addressed to an elsewhere, listening deity, e.g. grace before meals; prayer to start a meeting; prayer with children? We need to shape prayers that correct the imbalance of prayers we have prayed all our lives that are addressed to God as if God is “there” listening in. 5.REFLECTION: to bring to attention so we might “attend”. Study groups are important, groups meeting to read and share insights from religious books are important, but let us make sure that our groups give special place to reflection on ourselves in relationship with God, with all people, with our planet, and with the universe as we know about it today. 6.JESUS: (and other leaders) as revealers of the divine within all. We need more reflection on Jesus as the human-revealer-of-the-divine. It is in his very humanness that we learn how the same Presence is in our humanness. We go to the Gospel stories wanting to discover how like us he was rather than how unlike us. 7.LITURGY: to hear the “story” (but what story?) to affirm, to challenge, to commit. We cannot hope to change the Church’s official liturgy, but let us create ways to ritualize our commitment to the message of Jesus. In particular, let us pay attention to “communion”, not as reception, but rather as a ritual of commitment. 8.Let us not be disturbed by the charge that we are no longer “Christian” or “Catholic” because we call into question or denial beliefs and practices that make us dependent on middle management to access the sacred for us or to tell us what God thinks about particular isssues. The task of the “Church” in any age is to bring the wonderful message of Jesus to that age. This is what we are trying to do. 9.BE the divine presence in human form! This is it!!!