I don’t know if you read the “religion column” of your newspaper. If you do, in the last few weeks you will probably have read about Cardinal Ratzinger’s latest pronouncement from the Vatican on the other denominations. Once again, the Roman Catholic Church has the truest version of truth and the other denominations are no longer to be known as “sister churches.” It stinks.
But is the grass any greener on the other side of the fence? Some say that Karl Barth is the greatest Protestant theologian of our century. He was invited to Chicago to receive an honorary doctorate for his life’s work in theology. There is an apocryphal story that he was interviewed for a local TV station. “Professor Barth,” the reporter is said to have asked, “What you have learned from all your studies of theology?” After a pause, he is supposed to have replied: “Jesus loves me. This I know, ’cause the Bible tells me so.”
I know Barth wouldn’t have been so simple-minded but it is funny. It’s also chilling. It’s chilling because it this kind of thinking that encourages Christians to ignore the world or look down on it. The only thing that matters is my relationship to God. And that relationship is narrowly conceived in terms of a particular brand of piety. Christians live under the warm rocks of a personal religion that has no real connection to anything beyond and no goal beyond life in another world. This world is basically evil and outside the grace of God. Other people are destined for hell unless they see it our way. The Church is the domain of the Holy Spirit, the world is the domain of the devil. Our role as Christians is to criticize, not to affirm. Our job is to teach, not to learn. We know the truth. What have we to gain from a bunch of pagan barbarians? Our view of God is no more imaginative than Cardinal Ratzinger’s and every bit as divisive.
The punch line of the “Barth” story speaks of a church that is shut of from the world. It is anti-culture and anti-intellectual. The church is more concerned with saving its own soul than giving itself for the life of the world. Augustine described original sin as “homo curvatus in se” – “humankind turned in upon itself.” A lot of what passes for Christianity may have more to do with original sin than it does with the Holy Spirit.
Let’s for a few minutes crawl out from under our religious rocks and find out what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world. For a moment Let’s try for size a broader theology; a more open and positive assessment of the world. Let’s envision a deeper sense of how God works – a more radical view of the Church and her place in the world. Let’s start behaving more like members of the Episcopal Church and less like upper-class disciples of Jimmy Swaggart.
“OK, Lindon, so what’s up? Why are you being so touchy? What’s bugging you? Things OK at home?”
“Things are fine thanks. I’ve just got back from Amsterdam.”
“Ah! That explains it! You spent too much time in those Dutch coffee shops. You’ve been nibbling too many of those marijuana-seed cupcakes. Sounds like you spent too long touring the red light district. You need to come home and get back under your rock.”
Not so. It’s true that there are some parts of town where you can’t walk by the canal without getting a strong whiff of hash on the sidewalk. But it would be more than my life is worth as an immigrant showing up in the States smelling of pot. It’s also true that, just once, Sue did have to tell me to walk straight ahead and stop peeking at the women in the window. But that was only because we were a bit lost.
The Amsterdam experience was deeper than that. It was much more complicated. It’s far more mysterious than my linear mind could grasp. It’s as if I saw so much that was outside the Church and yet was so much of the Holy Spirit. It’s like God is out there doing real stuff in people who can’t hear our version of the gospel and we just write it off.
Let’s just look at a few scenes from this trip and ask a few questions. What about the delight of the little Muslim Indonesian restaurant owner as he served us rijstafel? Where is God in him?
What about Anne Frank, the young Jewish woman, as she wrote her diary in the secret annex on Prinsengracht? Where was God in her? What about the prostitutes a few streets away who sell themselves each night in the red glow of neon in their apartment windows? Where is God for them?
The Malaysian lady we were privileged to meet who was thrown into jail for giving medical care to refugees? The doctor who spoke passionately of his work with children dying from genetic disorders? The Romanian refugee mathematician who dreams about the possibility of other universes? Where Is God in them?
Where was God for Vincent Van Gogh as he painted the trees outside the window of his lunatic asylum? Where was God for the Roman Catholics who huddled for Mass in a secret attic of Calvinist Holland after what was euphemistically called the “alteration”? Did God speak to me through the paleontologist who explores the catastrophic extinction of the dinosaurs tens of millions of years ago? What about the Oxford Professor of Divinity, who explores the reality of God in world religions? Is he undermining the gospel?
Who inspired Stravinsky, to write the music for the Rake’s Progress? Who drove the tenor who sang the leading role? Where is God as the neuroscientist strives to understand the connection between brain and behavior? What drives the colleagues searching in mice for the genes that cause depression in humans? Who is behind The New Testament scholar who researches anti-semitism in the gospels? Who drives the angry cosmologist who complains that religion stops people thinking?
The list goes on. In each of my Amsterdam experiences, I believe I encountered something of the reality and mystery of God. It’s a very dangerous God who doesn’t fit well into the pigeon-holes of my 19th century religion. We see things in black and white. And we pervert the truth in the process.
The Anglican view is broader. On the plane I read John Dominic Crossan’s autobiography: It’s a long way from Tipperary. He’s an eminent New-Testament scholar who, though a Roman Catholic himself, captures a vision that is very close to our Episcopal heritage. He writes: “…the holy appears through the profane if you can but see it…the sacred through the secular if you can but hear it…the spiritual is only present to us in material clothing.”
It is a far cry from the black and white world we often try to construct. For Episcopalians, the Eucharist enacts in drama an understanding of God and the world that goes far beyond. The old Greek word for the central act of the Eucharist is “anaphora” – “carrying up”. To “carry up” the world is not the same as to “beat up” the world.
Bread and wine are taken and literally lifted up towards heaven with the prayer “through him, with him and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.”
All of life is in that bread and wine: Anne Frank, the prostitute, the doctor, the angry cosmologist, the evolutionary biologist, the hidden Masses in the attic, Van Gogh, Stravinsky, the Romanian mathematician, the Indonesian restaurant owner, the New-Testament scholar, you and even me. All life is swirling with the life of the Spirit and being drawn into the oneness of God.
It is a different model from the one that always divides the righteous from the ungodly. It’s a different model from the one that sees the world as a bad place except when it’s full of Christians. It’s a different model from the one that confines God to the Christian Church. It leads to a different model of mission. There is an ancient Chinese poem that reads: “Go to the people. Live among them. Learn from them. Love them. Start from what they know. Build on what they have.”
I wonder if the Holy Spirit wrote that poem for us.