My seventh area of questioning

  1. The reverence and authority given to the Bible, the Christian sacred book. 

 

The Bible is recognised as a sacred book.   I’m not quite sure what this phrase means but it certainly puts the Bible into small select group of books regarded by many humans as being very special.    These books are often accorded a reverence and authority given to no other books.   They are regarded by millions of people as being a guide for human behaviour and a way to view God and reality which should not be doubted or questioned.   They are even thought of by numerous devout religious people, as being without error.   The words in these sacred books are sometimes thought to have come directly from God, that transcendent, perfect, all-knowing supernatural Being/Person.   I do not share any of this approach.  In fact, how ordinary religious people have been instructed how to treat sacred books, I believe constitutes one of the main issues I have with some world religions, including Christianity.

 

Do I need to ‘Start all over again’ regarding my attitude to the Bible?   No, but I have to do quite a bit more ‘clearing out’, on top of what I have already done in the past   As I have for years, I need to continue to ‘faithfully question’ what I have been taught about it and what I read in it.   I have been ‘faithfully questioning’ the content of the Bible for many, many years and have revised my attitudes to it many times.   I have little doubt that my willingness to allow the Bible to have influence or authority over my theological thinking will continue to change.  Every new book I read, every new insight I gain from wherever, encourages me and sometimes forces me to reconsider or reprioritise my thinking and so it is with the Bible.  Modern biblical scholarship has been very influential in this part of my journey with Jesus.

 

I am pleased that in church services I attend these days I am not subjected, as I was in the past, to the introduction to Bible readings with, “Hear the word of God as it is contained in…..” and at the end of the readings, “This is the word of God” and then the congregation was expected to reply, “Thanks be to God.”  For me this announced that the Bible had complete authority and should not be questioned.   For regular church-goers I believe it was far more than a mark of respect for what was read.   These liturgical comments by the leader prompted a reverence which, I believe, no book deserves.   The congregation in some churches, stand when services commence with a procession in of the Bible and the officiating leader.  In some church services, congregations are requested to stand when sections from the gospels are read.  For me, this borders on idolising the Bible – bibliolatry.

 

This sacred book is so big and varied, it is difficult to know where to start.   With 66 individual books, the Bible really is a library.   Read through modern western-culture eyes, it has inspiring books of love and loyalty as well as books that would not pass an ‘MA’ rating if made into a film.   Many of the individual books have content which ranges from exciting and engrossing to totally boring. The images of the Bible’s theistic God range from the extremely ultra-violent to unconditionally loving, and everything in between.  It argues with itself and has books in it that contradict each other, presenting different attitudes on many issues. It often points in different directions on matters of morality and human behaviour.  The characters within its stories vary widely, from disgracefully in-human to profoundly divine.    From its rousing wondrous heights to very disappointing, disgraceful lows, the Bible has it all.   Despite all this, it has Jesus and his story.

 

Because of its content, the Bible should never be given to children.  Some content is OK for them but certainly not the majority of its stories.   The fact that it has been openly available to adults in different cultures through the centuries, has led to significantly different results, many very desirable but some mammothly disastrous. When I look back over my life, I think I may have unfortunately contributed to some of these disasters.   Am I one for censorship?  Well.  No, but!  Every crazy, misinformed interpretation has flourished without restriction and this has brought about calamitous results for religion generally, the peace of the world and for the well-being of countless individuals.   Maybe one of the big problems we have is not the Bible itself, but how much reverence and authority has been given to it by human beings over the ages.   But it has Jesus and his story.

 

The Bible has been used and abused so much over the ages and this continues.  It has been the basis for unscrupulous people to take unto themselves uncurbed power, instil fear into millions, condone and encourage slavery, rip millions of dollars off the public by corrupt, self-serving individuals and to finance spurious church purposes, demonise those of various sexual orientation, subjugate women and condone, even encourage, all sorts of violence.    It has been used as the foundational ground for justifying burning some people at the stake and terrorising the masses.     One could go on.  It also has been the basis of much positive social change.  It has been the inspiration for numerous peace initiatives.  It has been used to fight racism.   It has given a core message of love to millions of ordinary people in innumerable, ordinary ways and expressed our common humanity, inspiring many to work for equality.  One could go on.    And it has Jesus and his story.

 

The size and complexity of the Bible has inevitably given rise to experts.    I believe this is extremely helpful and necessary.  Biblical scholars and historians have shared much wisdom and given to me an enormous amount of information that, I believe, has helped my spiritual growth and understanding.  Unfortunately however, this need for experts has also given rise to an attitude in many church-goers’ minds, that if someone knows a lot about the Bible, this sacred book, they must be right.   Not so.

 

For me, a tremendous amount of biblical teaching takes me back into the past, and if it is not interpreted appropriately, leaves me there.    I wonder where other disciplines of human knowledge would be if such authority and reverence was given to their 2000 – 3000 years old texts and writings?   I venture to say that we might still be back in the Dark Ages.

 

I wish to state that the Bible has been the most important book in my life.   It still is.   It has taught me about love and forgiveness, respect and equality, mercy and justice.   It has helped me understand these human values and has challenged me to live by them.   However that is not the end of the matter.   Because of its total content, the Bible has provoked in me numerous serious theological and moral questions.  The feelings I have now while writing, are feelings of considerable ambivalence.   Even though there are some comments about its positive instruction, the process I use now is to do the ‘clearing out’ of that which I find unhelpful now.   Continuing this way causes significant turmoil within me.

 

The Bible has been fundamentally influential in my Christian upbringing.  There has been an emphasis on the New Testament, particularly the story of Jesus in the gospels, but the Old Testament has not been ignored by any stretch of the imagination.

I have been encouraged to think about Jesus and his ministry as being built on and expanding the religious ideas of the Old Testament.  The Suffering Servant concept in the prophet Isaiah is one example.  The whole Judaist sacrificial system is another.   With other Old Testament themes, both these have prompted much ‘faithful questioning’, so I continue.

 

My continuing ‘faithful questioning’ about the Bible revolves round these matters.

 

  1.   Biblical theism and dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divine/Human.   
  2.   The major biblical themes of the ‘chosen-ness of God’s people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.
  3.   Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.
  4.   The public use of the Bible in church services.    
  5.  The Bible’s internal conflict.
  6.   Can we create our own Canon of Scripture?
  7.   The different age and culture, to our own, in which the Bible was written.

 

  1.   Biblical Theism and dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divine/Human.   

 

Acknowledging that I am now a post-theism student, I question the talk by God I encounter all through the Bible because it nearly always assumes God to be a separate distinct Being/Person, conversing and having dealings with humans and inhabiting a place other than our Earth home.  Because of this, if the Bible is to have any real meaning for me, I need to re-word, or at least re-think nearly all the talk by God in it.  At times, that can be very difficult, sometimes impossible.

 

If the Bible had been written without the basis of its theism and the dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Human/Divine, it would have come to us as a completely different book, probably unrecognisable when compared with what we now have.   I do acknowledge that the authors of all the Bible books were honest, thinking, devout people who, in their time and environment were making their sincere response to the Mystery and in that, did their best at the time.  However, that does not make the content something that I need to take as correct or even helpful. I have to exercise my critical faculty but always keep in mind that they were writing 2000 and more years ago.

 

How we approach the Bible obviously affects its meaning for us.  Among many ways of trying to understand it, two significantly different frameworks can become apparent.  They have to do with whether the Bible is regarded as a God-book revealed by God to inspired authors or whether it is a human-book written by inspired authors searching for appropriate responses to the unknowable God, the Sacred, and ever present Mystery.   The first sits comfortably with supernatural biblical theism and dualisms and the second, I believe, makes room for panentheism.   I firmly subscribe to the second.

 

If we accept the first of these approaches, the Bible is the account of God’s activity revealed by God.  God is understood to be a distinct and separate Being/Person.  This God is the initiator, the One who does things, who speaks and fulfils God’s own will.   From creation to the sending of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, everything occurs because of God’s activity to execute God’s own plan.  If the Bible is approached this way, God continually enters our world, having relationships with humans from the outside. I believe this is the basis of biblical, supernatural theism.

 

I go to a well-known story in the Old Testament.    It is found in Genesis chapter 22, a story about Abraham, Isaac and human sacrifice.  This story is an example of there being an ‘outside’ influence right through it and this influence is God.

 

I quote from the Revised Standard Version.

 

After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”   And he said, “Here I am.”   He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”   So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled an ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

 

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off.  Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you”  And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.  So they went both of them together. 

 

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father.” And he said, “Here am I, my son.”  He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering my son.”  So they went both of them together.

 

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood.

  

Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.  But the angel of the Lord called to him from Heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me,”   And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  

 

So Abraham called the name of that place, The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’  (Genesis 22:1-14.)

 

Abraham does things, following instructions given by God.  God calls Abraham, tells him where to go and what to do.  An angel of God from Heaven directs Abraham to stop when he is about to kill Isaac, his son.  Abraham is told that he has passed the test initiated by God.

 

This reading of the story with its biblical theism relates that which is totally outside my experience of life and of God.  The custom of human sacrifice obviously makes the story impossible for me to enter it.   Told this way, with God being a separate but all-important character, the story is not only strange but irrelevant to me.  Abraham seems to be responding only to outside influences and the final outcome is controlled by the same.

 

So what for me now?

 

If I accept the second framework suggested previously by which to approach the Bible – that it is a record of responses of inspired human beings to the Mystery – it contains the story of human struggling, trying to make a godly response to perceived important religious customs and to life in general.  Telling the story within this framework prompts me towards panentheism.  God is active within the story, not from the outside but from inside Abraham.  God is active from within, deep inside Abraham and is the ever-present divine dimension in his questioning, in his struggle, in his agony and in his deciding.  Some might say this is the way of a struggling conscience, the way of listening to the good inner voice, the way of human ‘faithful questioning’ life as it affects us.   I have called it God Within throughout this venture.

 

With this framework operating when looking at the Bible, we usually have a movement of three steps forward and two steps back, as humanity tries to come to grips with its experience of the unknown Mystery, as humans try to live life within the customs of society, as humans struggle towards truth and express it in action.

 

With this second approach, God Within is involved in this inner human experience of Abraham.   I believe I can use this non-theistic, non-dualistic way of approaching this story but it needs re-wording.  When the story is understood within this framework, there is an ‘inside’ influence right through the story and this influence is God; God Within.

 

The Bible reading from Genesis 22:1-14 with a presumptuous re-write.

Abraham was a man of honour.  He was highly regarded as a great leader.  But he was also a person who questioned the status quo.  He took risks.   Abraham took very seriously the cultural custom of human sacrifice. He had to face this issue personally.  He knew all the surrounding religions practised human sacrifice and the practice was believed to be obeying their gods’ command. The first born had to be sacrificed to the gods.  People of his day knew it, feared it, hated it but obeyed it.

 

Abraham had avoided the issue far too long.  However, he knew he had to face it.   So he rose early one morning, saddled his donkey, took two of his young men and his young son, Isaac, whom he loved, with him.  He cut some wood for a burnt offering and set out for a very distant place.  He wanted time to contemplate the matter thoroughly conscience-wise, and check it against his own internal moral judgements.  He seemed to draw strength from the country-side he loved so much.

 

But the time for the decision arrived all too soon.  So he said to the two young men, “Stay here with the donkey.  My son and I will go a little further and we will make our sacrifice together.  Then we will come back to you.”

 

So Abraham took the wood for the offering and gave it to his son to carry. Abraham carried the fire and the knife.   So the two walked on together.   Isaac called out to his father, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.”  Isaac said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering.” Abraham replied, “God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  So the two walked on together.

 

When they came to a place that Abraham thought worthy, he and Isaac built an altar and put the wood in place.  Abraham then bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the wood, on top of the altar.  Isaac struggled and screamed, shouting, “Father! Don’t!  Don’t!  Why do you have to kill me?”

 

Abraham, crying uncontrollably, and embracing his only son, yelled, “I don’t know!  I don’t know!  I don’t know!”   He reached out, took the knife and raised his hand to strike his son dead.  “No!  No!  No!  No!” he roared.  “This is wrong!  This cannot be right!  God does not want this!  The law is wrong!  I can’t do this!  I love my son and that love is right.  God loves my son and God wants me to love and care for my son.  Love is the way!  Not killing!”

 

“Nooooo!”

 

Breaking down completely, he cried, “Oh, Isaac, Isaac my son, my only son, what have I done to you.  How could I consider doing such a terrible thing?  Forgive me!  Forgive me!  Please forgive me!”

 

Abraham unbound Isaac, fell to his knees and begged his son’s forgiveness.   They both embraced.  They sobbed together until there were no more tears.  They laughed and wept together as Abraham tried to tell Isaac about the custom of human sacrifice.   But in the telling, it just didn’t make any sense whatsoever.  In his bewilderment, Abraham cried, “Why do we think such a commandment should be obeyed?  Why do we have such a horrendous custom?  Why do we have to kill, kill, kill and think we are doing something for God?”

 

Looking at his father who was crushed with guilt and confusion, Isaac stood up and said, “I love you, my father.  I do.  I really do.  But father, what are we going to do about the offering?”   Abraham, still not able to stand, muttered, “What offering?  I want to worship God with love not death!”   Isaac replied, “What about the altar then, Father.  Should we break it down?”

 

After contemplating the whole scene for some time and struggling to compose himself, Abraham, in his agony, stood up and looked around.   He saw a ram, caught by its horns in a thicket.  He said, “Come here you unfortunate animal.  You have to pay the price for being caught up in this terrible crisis.  I have made enough mistakes for one day. We will make an offering but IT WILL NOT BE MY SON!”

 

So Abraham took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  And so it was that Abraham called that place, ‘Human sacrifice is wrong.’, because on that day Abraham said that human sacrifice had to cease.  The name of that place has remained to this day.

 

With this re-wording, the story is more relevant to my personal human experiences and strivings.  I too have struggles with the moral decisions I have to make.   Certainly nowhere near as traumatic as in the story, but I believe that God Within me is involved in my struggles and in my decisions, just as with Abraham, just as with all of us.   I often use more common phrases like ‘my conscience’ or ‘the inner voice I hear’, when talking of these experiences.

 

There are numerous other Bible passages which for me, need this sort of re-wording.  When I do this, I find the passages inspirational and very instructive but without a basis of biblical theism.   Bible passages can regain their powerful message for me.

 

The well-known Psalm 23, without the outside God influence, speaks to me when re-worded.  Another presumptuous re-wording, but for me, necessary.

 

I experience the Lord as my shepherd.   I shall not want.  When I lie down in green pastures and when I walk beside still waters, my soul is restored.  God in me, prompts me to walk the paths of righteousness. They are godly paths for me.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  I am at peace for I am united to God.  My rod and my staff are ever present symbols of my experience of God within me, supporting me.  A table is prepared before me in the presence of my enemies; my head is anointed with oil and my cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy is my portion all my life for God is in me and I am in God forever.

 

The familiar beautiful poetry is absent but, for me, the meaning is still very powerful.

 

In the books of the Old Testament prophets there are numerous profound religious teachings.

 

Behold the days are coming says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,.. But this is the covenant I will make…I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord.”, for each shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.  (Jeremiah 31:31 and 33-34.)

 

This passage points towards God Within, for me.   However, I understand this passage in a far more universal way than is presented biblically.   I think most church-goers, most of the time, take this approach.  A possible re-thinking of this passage might be,

 

Behold, I live in the days when I am heedful of the Lord within me.  The Lord’s covenant is such that God’s will is within me, written on my heart; we are all in God and God is in all of us. So no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the Lord”, for each shall know that God is in us all, from the least of them to the greatest; for we know our iniquity is forgiven, and our sin is not remembered.

 

With re-wording, I always try to move as close as I can to a unity; God united with humanity.   So, for this passage it is not God’s law or covenant that is in me, as in the original Bible teaching.  It is God in me.   If God is in me then God’s law or covenant, I understand, is part of that experience.

 

For me, the book of Isaiah reflects the way society very often reacts to rebellious servants/heroes.  Whistle blowers come to my mind.   They often suffer.

 

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…  By oppression and judgement he was taken away…    ..although he had done no violence… (From Isaiah 53:1-12.)

 

And as history often regards them,

 

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great…    (Isaiah 53:12.)

 

and hopefully

 

… he shall see the fruit of his travail of his soul and be satisfied.  (Isaiah 53:11.)

 

Amen for people like Martin Luther King Jnr. and Mahatma Ghandi and numerous others about whom I know nothing.  Heroes!  All of them.   For me, they certainly have their portion with the great and hopefully they have had a deep conviction to the end that they have done well.

 

Even though this Isaiah passage has been used in the church as a prediction of Jesus and a foundation for Fall/Redemption theology, I believe it conveys different wisdom than that, and can be interpreted in a far more universal and relevant sense.   For me, it conveys profound and sensible theological wisdom about the way some contemporaries and society in general, often treat innocent, but godly rebellious protesters.   For me it need not be cluttered up with biblical theism and the Fall/Redemption theology connected to Jesus.

 

The violent initiatives taken by God can be deleted from this passage of Isaiah 53.   For me, they add nothing to the wisdom of the passage.   They detract from it.   Suffering certainly happened to Jesus and has happened to many others down through history, but I do not believe this happens because of God’s initiative or God’s plan.  It is the result of the abuse of power by humans within human society.

 

Reader-Response interpretation I know, but if these deletions are made, it makes the passage relevant for me and enables me to listen to it.  Otherwise it hinders my growth in Jesus.

 

The prophet Micah is often quoted about true worship.

 

He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.   (Micah 6:8.)

 

So what for me now?

 

Simple and profound.  I can quite easily re-think, re-word this passage as being,

 

You have been shown, George, what is good; and what is required of you in life to be a true disciple of Jesus but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly at all times.

 

When I say “You have been shown…”, I mean that my parents, my immediate and extended family have shown me, other good people have shown me, all the good in my environment has shown me.   Jesus has shown me by his life and teachings.  In so far as God is in everything and everything is in God, God has shown me, but not as an outside separate Being/Person.

 

I believe nothing is lost when hearing this passage the second way but without its biblical theism, and I think this way is probably how many regular church-goers approach it.

 

These few examples illustrate how I need to work on stories and teachings in the Bible to regain, in a non-biblically-theistic, non-dualistic, non-supernaturalistic way, that which is noble and inspiring.  The more I do this re-interpreting, re-thinking, the easier it often becomes, however, sometimes it takes quite a bit of work.

 

Looking to the New Testament, it has an untold number of passages which are challenging and inspiring.   Some which immediately come to mind are the parables of Jesus, the Prodigal Son, the Great Feast, the Importunate Widow and the Good Samaritan.  I could go on and on.  For me, biblical theism doesn’t get in the way too much with many of these.

 

Consider Matthew’s collection of sayings from Jesus in the so-called Sermon on the Mount, see particularly Matthew 5:3-11.  What could be more radical, challenging and inspiring?   Because biblical theism and the supernatural do not get in the way all that much for me, I can overlook these and listen to their spiritual wisdom.

 

However, some other gospel passages that come to mind are so steeped in biblical theism and accompanying dualisms that this framework makes it difficult for me to hear the spiritual wisdom they might express.  Jesus’ conversations with the disciples in John’s gospel chapters 13-17 are a case in point.  For me, they have less to do with God and more to do with Jesus and my relationship with him.  Even though supposedly spoken to the disciples, I can hear them spoken to me.  This, I believe, is the way most church-goers approach the instruction within them.

 

From these ‘conversations’ come the quotes listed below.  They are not overly steeped in biblical theism and dualisms, thank goodness.   From John’s Gospel,

 

If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (13:14.)

I am the way the truth and the life.  (14:6.)

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?  (14:10.)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  (14:27.)

I am the vine, you are the branches.  (15:5.)

This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.  (15:12.)

In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.  (16:33.)

 

I have made much more comment about Jesus’ inspirational and challenging teachings in the previous chapter on Jesus himself.

 

Numerous teachings in the latter part of the New Testament have also been, and continue to be crucial in my journey with Jesus, many of which are free from biblical theism.

 

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hope all things, endures all things.     (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7.)

 

I personally find ‘the fruits of the spirit’ very challenging.  They can be found in Galatians 5:22-23.  Have a read.   Together these passages alone give me voice to praise this book as ‘my sacred book’.  I might be in a bad place without it.

 

Some of these comments highlight the need for me not to allow the theism and dualisms of Bible passages to block off wisdom and guidance which might be encapsulated in them.  The message is more important than the framework in which it is housed, even though both are important.  For me, I just have the extra exercise of interpreting the words outside the box of biblical theism and its dualisms.   Sometimes, as I have said, it is not easy.

 

In this rejection of biblical theism, I suppose I am exercising the ‘Reader-Response’ way of biblical interpretation, maybe to an extreme.   Dangerous?  Some might say, “Very!”   Some might even say that I am being totally arrogant in changing Holy Writ to such an extent; not just with interpretation, but with re-wording!  It could be claimed that I am destroying the message of the whole Bible.

 

If I embrace panentheism and no longer believe in an outside separate Being/Person called God, then this desire, even necessity, to re-word/re-think biblical content is the consequence.  I realise this is a fundamental shift and some make claim it robs Christianity of its Christian-ness.    I don’t accept this criticism because I believe Jesus is what makes Christianity Christian, and I still retain Jesus as central to my beliefs.

 

Having stated my rejection of biblical theism and its dualisms, I believe I have the responsibility to do this extra work of re-thinking, re-wording numerous biblical passages and also some central biblical concepts.

2.  The major themes of the ‘chosen-ness of God’s people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.

 

God’s ‘Chosen People’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’, in context here, are all concepts built on supernatural, biblical theism and the dualisms of Heaven/Earth and divine/human.  For me, without that basis they make no sense to me.

 

The Old Testament makes it abundantly clear that the Hebrew people are God’s Chosen People.   This chosen-ness leads inevitably to Promise and Fulfilment.  Many passages declare this.

 

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.  It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it was the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.    (Deuteronomy 7:6-8.)

I have been told that God ‘chose’ in order to give responsibility, not privilege.  This could be confirmed by the call of Abraham.

 

…and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.   (Genesis 12:2.)

 

‘So that you will be a blessing’, is being chosen for responsibility and not to be given privilege.

 

However, so many of the early stories of the Hebrew people, not the least of which are the stories about the Exodus and the conquest of the Promised Land, point to a favouritism/privilege of the Israelites over other nations.   God even punishes nations that did not help the Hebrews when they were escaping from Egypt.

 

I can accept the concept of ‘a call’ being directly linked to a responsibility but I find using the word ‘chosen’ difficult.  In biblical theistic terms, ‘choice’ points to the possibility that God will do things for God’s ‘chosen’ people that God will not do for other nations.  God will protect them; God will win wars for them; God will sustain them and give them a second chance.   This God will also punish them at times.

 

I believe this term, God’s ‘Chosen People’, is nearly universally understood by regular church-goers as one which points to favouritism.  For me, the term is unhelpful.  I do not use it.

 

When taken as pointing to responsibility and not privilege, the concept can be helpful, but when there seems so much evidence in the Old Testament that the Israelites are God’s favourites, I find linking the idea of being ‘chosen with responsibility’ difficult to retain.

 

In the text quoted above we have

 

and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers… (Deuteronomy 7:8.)

 

This obviously speaks of ‘Promise and Fulfilment’.

 

Marcus Borg states,

 

The theme of promise and fulfilment is central not only to the Pentateuch as a whole, but to many of its individual stories.  These stories often dramatize and intensify the theme of promise and fulfilment by adding a third element; a threat to the promise and a formidable obstacle to its fulfilment. …. Will God be able to fulfil the promise despite what looks like hopeless circumstances? [1]

 

That is a very good question for the biblical theist.

 

Sometimes promises lead people who make them, into very difficult situations.  It would seem that some of the promises that God made to Abraham and God’s chosen people, led God into such situations.   In many Bible stories, it seems that the fulfilment of God’s promises justifies the means whereby their fulfilment was accomplished.  God promised Abraham that he and his descendants would be a great nation but there they were, slaves in Egypt.   God had to make good God’s promise even if it meant taking violent actions against Egypt and all its people.  That seems to be OK because God has to be faithful to God’s promises. This imperative is contained in the biblical text quoted previously.

 

Worse was to come with the invasion of the ‘Promised’ Land.   All this seems necessary to preserve the faithfulness of God who would not break God’s word.   This again, I think is how biblical theism works.

 

God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’, in my understanding of the phrase, presupposes a separation between God and humanity.  In my church experience, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ has to do with God’s work of reconciling humanity to Godself, bridging a gulf.  All I can do, I have been taught, is plead for God’s mercy and rely on God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.

 

The church teaching I have received about God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is encapsulated in Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost.

 

… this Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men…  (Acts 2:23.)

 

The New English Bible has it,

 

When he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God…

 

I believe this points to a dominant theme of the New Testament.  Biblically, God’s initiative in God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is definite and deliberate.   It is about God’s activity in the Old Testament to save his chosen people announced in Exodus 3:7-10 & 17 etc., and then in the New Testament, this is expanded into the saving of all humanity, or at least to those who believe in Jesus.

 

In my church experience, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’ is deeply involved with the Cross of Jesus, paying the price for sin, reconciling us humans to God, finally and completely bridging the gulf; all God’s activity.

 

I no longer use the term, God’s ‘Plan of Salvation’.  For me, it is built on an image of a blood-thirsty God, inseparably bound to a human invented sacrificial system. I do not see any of this in the teachings of Jesus.  It also presumes God’s intervention and that makes no sense to me at all.

 

All talk of God’s ‘Chosen people’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’, and ‘Plan of Salvation’ is also brought about by the continual anthropomorphic images of God, acting as a human being, and a very strange one at that. It is also entirely built on God and humans in relationship but being distinct and separate.

 

So what for me now?

 

I cannot believe any of this theistic theological thinking and, at the same time hold to panentheism.     My understanding of panentheism turns all of it on its head.

 

This does not mean that I ignore the brokenness of the world and brokenness of human relationships, mine included.  No.  This is all too obvious and ever present, all-pervading.   Nor does it mean that I have no hope for the world and humanity as a whole.    My theological response to these three biblical concepts are replaced by my belief that there is no separation between God and humans in the first place.   ‘God is in everyone’ and ‘Everyone is in God’ are the drivers of all my theology, so the anthropomorphic activities of God’s ‘Chosen People’, ‘Promise and Fulfilment’ and ‘Plan of Salvation’ are no longer relevant for me.

 

From my lyrics  No. 19.

 

God is Love, Unfailing Grace

Tune    Grafton

 

God is love and ever present

In each time, at every place;

God is love and dwells within us;

Is discerned in every face;

This is scared; this is myst’ry;

God is love, unfailing grace.

 

When love blossoms, when love beckons

Let us taste its sweet delight;

When love welcomes, when love listens

Then our darkness turns to light;

This is myst’ry; this is sacred;

This is sunrise after night.

 

3.   Violence and the biblical God who uses it and commands its use.

 

I come to the vexed question of violence.  I have dealt with this previously, very briefly.  I do so now in more detail.  This area of my ‘faithful questioning’ brings about a major crisis in my questioning.  For years I have been ‘faithfully questioning’ many parts of the Bible as to whether they really teach me about the God of love that I perceive Jesus taught about and reflected in his life.  My conclusion is that many parts actually hinder my spiritual growth significantly because of the violent image of God they present.

 

Some myths/stories of the Bible leave me with big problems because of their underlying messages.   Violence is particularly evident in the Old Testament but by no means absent from the New Testament.

 

I probably have little right to expect the stories of the Old Testament to teach me about the God I learn about from Jesus.  However, being a follower of Jesus and a member of the church, I have the Old Testament and its stories in front of me, so I have to determine whether or not particular stories help my spiritual growth or hinder it.  I believe this dilemma is shared by many regular church-goers.  I believe that many who may think about the issue of God’s violence, put it out of sight because it is just too difficult.

 

The other day I was sharing with a friend in the congregation, my concern about violence in the Old Testament.  She was one whom I regard as a faithful follower of Jesus.  She is a regular church-goer like myself.   She said to me, “Well, George, just don’t read it.”   Sound advice but my questions remain and the whole content of the Bible is still available for all to read and we are encouraged to do so.

 

As I have previously stated, it takes the Bible only about 100 verses (not counting verses that just list names in genealogies) for God to impose and carry out the death penalty on all humanity except one family and a few animals; Noah, plus.  This God burns to death all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah except Lot and his family, and this God systematically inflicts death and destruction on the whole land of Egypt, picking out innocent children for special attention.   One could go on and on.

 

I take none of these stories literally but the image of God presented in them is gross, wicked and ultra-violent.  I do not believe that my reaction to this image should be ‘awkward and embarrassing’, as some commentators might suggest.  I think it is good that even regular church-goers probably do not think too deeply about these stories but again, they are there to be read and studied by us all.  This violent image of God continues throughout the early books of the Old Testament and then there are numerous references to this God of wrath punishing wrong-doers and idolaters in many of the later books of the prophets, including Amos, Hosea and Micah.   Hosea, Micah and Amos are awash with God’s violent punishments even though these books are often quoted about God demanding justice and mercy from human beings.  An important example of this is in the book of Micah in which is an often quoted text of significant moral challenge.

 

He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8.)

 

Yet only 9 verses before this injunction, the violence of God is active.

 

I will root out your Asherim from among you and destroy your cities.  And in anger and wrath I will execute vengeance upon the nations that did not obey.   (Micah 5:14-15.)

 

We don’t often hear these verses quoted.  Is this a case of ‘Do what I say but not what I do.’?

 

This violent image of God is not absent in the New Testament, as the Book of Revelation clearly demonstrates.

 

I must remind myself that this violent image is by no means, the only image of God presented in the Bible but it is there on a vast number of its pages and, being in the process of ‘clearing out’, I highlight it.   Sometimes I wonder why the Christian Church has retained all of the Hebrew Scriptures in our sacred book.

 

Along with most regular church-goers, I do not believe in a violent or punitive God.  This image of God plays no part in the message of Jesus, as I understand it.  I find it significant that Jesus never refers to the Exodus story in his preaching and teaching.

 

Like many other stories in the Old Testament, the Exodus story presents God as a separate, supernatural, very powerful Being/person who is ultra-violent.  Commenting on this story in detail, highlights the extent of God’s violence.  In my analysis, I am using the text as presented to me in the Bible.  I pick on the Exodus story because it is the central story of the Old Testament.   In many ways it could be considered determinative for the whole story of the Old Testament.   This particular story is a pivotal story for the Children of Israel, told as biblical history of their great national liberation.

 

The Hebrews were bitterly oppressed slaves in Egypt and their cries of servitude were heard by God, so God came down to Earth and sent Moses to announce God’s work of liberation.   Never in my church education has the Exodus story been identified as probably the most violent story in the whole of the Bible.  It certainly has the strong theme of oppression and liberation.  Many liberation theologians treat this story as nearly definitive in the way God is primarily interested in liberation and freedom.  With this Exodus story, however, it is my experience that they seldom comment on how God delivers it.   The fact that the story tells of God achieving deliverance is what is totally significant for the Hebrew slaves.  In my reasonably recent past, I had this story described to me by a member of the clergy, as one of the most wonderful stories of liberation.  When I heard this comment of praise, I had to voice my disquiet.

 

Liberation and freedom are certainly major themes of the story, however it portrays the Lord as not only murderously violent, but also seeming to enjoy it.   This is pointed to by both the New English Bible and the Revised Standard Version.

 

 .. how I (the Lord) made sport of the Egyptians.   (Exodus 10:2.)

 

This is the same attitude of the Lord that underpinned the continuing teaching of the priests, quite a bit later in Israelite history; see 1 Samuel 6:6.    For me, this is a very disturbing extra feature of the story I just cannot accept.   What does this story in my sacred book teach me about God?

 

The Lord is depicted as gaining glory through violence, see Exodus 14:4, and gaining that glory by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, see Exodus 10:1-2.  Even before any serious negotiations begin, we are told in the text that the Lord is active.

 

I (the Lord) will harden Pharaoh’s heart…    (Exodus 4:21.)

 

This idea of the Lord hardening hearts occurs seven times throughout the story, see Exodus 7:3, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:8.  The last time is with the Egyptians having their hearts hardened by the Lord so that they pursued the Hebrews into the sea.

 

And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians, so that they shall go in after them…  (Exodus 14:17.)

 

This message is consistent throughout the story.   It appears that Pharaoh and the Egyptians have no choice in the matter.  They have their hearts hardened by the Lord.  Biblical theism again.   The Lord makes everything happen.

 

There are ten plagues in the story; water in the Nile and all over Egypt was turned to blood; frogs; lice and gnats; flies; cattle death; boils; thunder and hail and fire; locusts; darkness for three days and lastly human death.    These ten plagues are climaxed with the death of countless humans.

 

..the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt… (Exodus 13:15.)

 

The whole story is told in Exodus 7:14 – 11:6.    I come away from the story feeling utterly repulsed by the Lord who inflicts all the terror and suffering.  How could anyone worship this sort of Lord?     Particularly Exodus 12:29-30 is horrific.

 

At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.  And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not one house where one was not dead.”   (Exodus 12:29-30.)

 

Would Jesus be happy?   Of course not.

 

I realise I am making my 21st century response but in this story, the Lord deliberately targets innocent men, women and mainly children for death.  Even cattle are not exempt.  All the killing is deliberate, in order, it seems, to make Pharaoh change his mind to let the Hebrew slaves go, even though it had been continuously ‘hardened by the Lord’.   I suppose this could point to the human experience of not being able to negotiate with someone who is just not willing to negotiate, trying to reason with a person who is totally unreasonable.   But that is not what the text states.   Everything happens because the Lord makes it happen.

 

I believe that one does not need to be a Bible fundamentalist to perceive the underlying message of the story that, ‘Violence wins’.  When all else fails, violence becomes necessary. Liberation in this story apparently required excessive violence.   And the Lord does it all!  That’s how the Lord’s power is demonstrated – through violence.  I find this unacceptable; anti-Jesus, anti-gospel, anti-Christian.  Maybe I am looking too much for things in the story that I wish to reject.  I deny I am deliberately doing this, even though I am emphasising the nasty parts.  I just keep looking at the text itself.   I am not inventing the negatives within it.   They are there for all of us to read.  I find it a disgraceful story and should not be in a sacred book, presenting such a picture of God.

 

I have been told that God is a magnet for human pain, when voiced.   However for this story, I must retort, “What about the cries of the Egyptians?  Does the Lord have selective hearing?”

 

There was a great cry in Egypt for there was not one house where one was not dead.  (Exodus 12:30b.)

 

In a ‘Living the Questions’ DVD, Walter Brueggemann is featured in a series of lectures on this story.  He states twice that

 

The story ends well. [2]

 

I beg your pardon!    I find that conclusion totally unacceptable.   How can a story, which has as part of its end result

 

There was a great cry in Egypt for there was not one house where one was not dead.  (Exodus 12:30b.)

 

the killing of every first born, all done by the Lord – how can it be understood that such a story ‘ends well’?

 

I find it significant that Jesus himself, and the writers of the gospels preaching about him, do not mention the Exodus story.  In the Cross-reference Bible I have, there is no cross reference in any of the gospels to the Exodus story.  There are well over 500 cross-references in the four gospels to the Old Testament, but not one to the Exodus story.   It seems to me more than strange that this is the case.  The larger story of Moses is alluded to many times in the early chapters of Matthew; in the Jesus’ birth stories, his baptism and temptations, and the Sermon on the Mount.  Some commentators have said that Matthew portrays Jesus as the second and greater Moses.  It has been commented that the Passover has been re-interpreted by Jesus and New Testament writers, presenting it as the basis for the Last Supper and the church’s sacrament of Holy Communion.   However, I believe that Jesus turns the Passover meal from being one which celebrates being saved from death at the hands of God, into being a remembrance of one who was willing to die with strength, integrity and love for what he believed.    The Passover is the most solemn of all Jewish festivals.  They celebrate it every year and by it, they remember their defining story.

 

Marcus Borg states,

 

For the people of ancient Israel, the story of the exodus from Egypt was their ‘primal narrative’.  It was the most important story they knew. [3] 

 

I repeat that Jesus does not refer to the actual story of the Exodus in any of his teachings even though he certainly would have known it well.   I ask, “Why does Jesus never mention this story in his ministry?”  It was not just another story!   He teaches his message about bondage/oppression and liberation without it.   Of course Jesus didn’t use every story in the Old Testament.  It would be absurd to think he could have.  There are too many.   But the Exodus story was not just another story.  It was so important to the Jews that I believe Jesus and New Testament writers didn’t forget about it or pass over it without thought.  For me, it is not unreasonable to think that it was a deliberate omission by Jesus and/or the gospel writers.

 

When considering another passage where Jesus does use the Old Testament, he stopped short when, in the synagogue, reading from the book of Isaiah.  The text in Luke 4:16-17 states that Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth and was given the scroll with Isaiah in it.  It states that he opened it and found the passage he wanted.

 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.   (Luke 4:18-19. Quoting from Isaiah 61: 1-2a.)

 

Jesus stops short.  He omits a section of the last part of the last verse of that Isaiah reading.

 

…and the day of vengeance of our God.   (Isaiah 61:2b.)

 

After he had finished reading, he closed the book and gave it back to the attendant.

 

Whether this is actually Jesus speaking, reading in the synagogue, or the gospel writer telling the story about him, I believe this omission from Isaiah is not a slip nor inconsequential.  The part of the verse dealing with the vengeance of God was not read.   Jesus did not read it.  I do not believe this was a mere oversight either by Jesus or the gospel writers.

 

Back to Exodus.  If Jesus’ omission of the Exodus story from his teaching and preaching was deliberate, his non-use might have come down to two significant reasons.   Firstly it may have been because the Lord in the story is pictured as so partisan, so discriminatory against one race, one nation and in favour of another.  This is certainly opposite to a major thrust of Jesus’ teachings.  The second reason could have been that the image of the Lord is so violent that Jesus, of necessity, had to avoid using it in his message and preaching of non-violence.  It is my contention that these are both good reasons why Jesus could have omitted using the story, however I believe it was more likely the second.  The Lord – God portrayed in this Exodus story is just too violent.

 

This Exodus story is not the only story in the Old Testament presenting this violent image of God.   Biblical theism is a problem for me but the image of a violent theistic God is totally unacceptable.    The Exodus story belongs to the age in which it was written.  Even though we should not ridicule the authors and even though we might lose a few positive insights from the story, I can do without it and I believe we all can.   Although not given total vindication for my stance, I believe I have a very significant precedent in Jesus of the gospels.

 

There has been some historical and geological research into the possible origins of parts of this story.  One suggestion made is that a volcano, maybe on Crete, erupted, sending clouds of ash drifting towards Egypt, causing the darkened sky.   Volcanic ash may have precipitated a sudden plague of lice.    The Nile has been known to turn red, maybe because of its banks of red sand.   The water when polluted could have caused various other calamities like sickness and boils or even a plague of frogs, trying to escape the filthy water; etc.   The number of Hebrew slaves with their families could reach 2½ million if certain texts are taken together.   This of course is crazy in terms of crossing the Red Sea and the striking of a rock to give the thirsty millions a drink.  Crazy!  There are other texts which, when taken together, paint a far more realistic number of Hebrews.   For the actual crossing of the Red Sea, it has been suggested that this could have taken place at the Reed Sea, a marshy stretch of land near the mouth of the Nile.   If this was the case, the walking multitudes could have progressed but the wheeled chariots of the Egyptians would have become bogged and thus inoperable.  They and the soldiers in them would then present no danger to the escaping Hebrews.

 

This maybe fascinating for those interested but I find it all quite irrelevant to the theological issues raised by the authors regarding the picture of their theistic God and how this God violently intervenes in human history.  I think this historical distraction goes in the wrong direction, looking at the story literally and/or historically, thus trying to answer what are irrelevant questions for me.

The Exodus story carries within it the picture of an ultra-violent God and it is there for all to read. This meaning comes to me without any literal understanding of the text.  Even if the total story is fiction/mythical and I think it is, the underlying message is clear.  Can I keep this story without its image of the ultra-violent, theistic intervening God?  I think not.  It just doesn’t work for me that way so I have to ‘faithfully reject’ it all.  This is very serious! If this story determines or is foundational for a biblical faith then I do not have a biblical faith.  I feel somewhat betrayed by my past church teachings in this matter, but in rejecting the story I also feel I am cutting myself off from an important part of that church heritage.

 

On this matter of ‘faithful rejection’, I quote again from Derek Flood’s book where he deals with Jesus’ own use of the Bible.  Flood, refers, in particular, to the story of Elijah in combat with Moab.  Half way through the biblical story, Elijah calls down fire from Heaven on his enemies.

 

..And Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from Heaven and consume you and your company.”  Fire fell from Heaven and consumed the officer and his fifty men.   (2 Kings 1:10.)

 

Flood states,

 

Hoping to follow Elijah’s example, James and John in response to opposition they were experiencing, “Lord do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to destroy them.” (Luke 9:54-55.)…..  Luke tells us the response of Jesus was not to affirm this narrative, but to sternly rebuke his disciples.  In that rebuke of Jesus is an implicit yet clear rejection of the way of Elijah as well.  Later manuscripts include the response of Jesus, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:55-56).*   In other words, Jesus is essentially saying that the way of Elijah is not of God, but instead belongs to the spirit of the one who seeks to destroy, that is, of the devil.

 

While Elijah claimed that his actions proved he was a ‘man of God’, this passage in Luke’s Gospel makes the opposite claim; The true ‘man of God’ incarnate had not come to obliterate life, but to save, heal, and restore it (Luke 19:10 & John 3:17).  Jesus not only recognises this himself as the Son of God, but rebukes James and John for not having come to this conclusion on their own

In other words, Jesus expects his disciples – you and me – to be making these same calls of knowing what to embrace in the Bible and what to reject.

 

Flood has a footnote which states,

 

*Even if this verse is a latter edition representing a sort of biblical commentary by the early church, it certainly reflects the ethos of Jesus as well, who constantly rejected violent force as a vehicle of the Kingdom. [4]

I have deliberately underlined what I believe is a very valid way to approach the Bible, certainly not encouraged by the church in my past or present experience.   I believe Flood has a point when suggesting that Jesus ‘faithfully rejects’ the underlying teaching of the Elijah story.   Of course that story is about Elijah.  It deals with what Elijah says and does.

 

For me there is a significant implication that God’s activity is announced.   Elijah says, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from Heaven….” and fire fell.   Was this not a vindication of Elijah being a man of God and also of God’s willingness in the story, to use violence?  Flood states, ‘that the way of Elijah is not of God’, but who made the fire fall from Heaven?  It is not suggested in the text that Elijah had such power.   For me, God is clearly implicated. Is Flood trying to ’protect’ the God of the Bible?

 

I wonder what Jesus might have done with the story of the Exodus if the disciples had used it as a foundation for some of their bad, maybe violent or racist behaviours or attitudes? I think my rejection of the story of the Exodus is far more significant than rejecting the story about Elijah, but I think it is a logical extension of Jesus’ reaction to James and John, commented on previously.

 

‘What to embrace in the Bible and what to reject’, from Flood, is the closest to any permission I have been given to deal with the Exodus story the way I have.

 

The use of violence by God is consistent with numerous stories in the Old Testament.  There is a notorious story in 1 Samuel 15.   It tells of the first command the Lord gave to King Saul after he had been anointed king.

 

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3.)

 

Saul did not kill Agag, the Amalek king, but took him a live captive.   He also did not kill all the animals.   He kept the best to sacrifice them to the Lord.  The Lord was angry with Saul for not obeying his command to the letter, and even though Saul repented and asked for his ‘sin’ to be pardoned, the Lord was still angry.

 

I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments. (1 Samuel 15:11.)

 

Not a story to be read in a church service, especially if it is said at the end, “In this is the Word of God.  Thanks be to God.”   Also, not a story for Sunday School children.

 

This particular story is one of the final episodes in the saga of the conquest for the Promised Land. Violence is either sanctioned or carried out by God.

 

And violence continues in the passages within the prophets. Isaiah 37:36 tells of the angel of the Lord killing 185,000 Assyrians.  Violence is found in many Psalms and prophets.

 

Shamefully, the story of the violent conquest for the Promised Land has been used as validation for other, more recent conquests.   I quote from George Tinker, Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Ministries.

 

The socio-political context of imperial Europe generated a colonial interpretation of the Exodus account.…and the 17th Century Puritan conquerors of New England, who consistently saw themselves as the New Israel settling in the new promised land. [5]

 

Even more recently again, there is the 1997 publication of ‘Rainbow Spirit Theology’ written by The Rainbow Spirit Elders, Aboriginal Australians.

 

When the missionaries spoke about the land, they often spoke of the Promised Land of Canaan where God led the chosen people of Israel.  They said that Israel had a right to possess the land because God had promised it to the people.   And Joshua was hailed as the great hero who conquered the land and so fulfilled God’s promise. But little was said about the indigenous people of the land whom the Israelites conquered.  No questions were asked about whether Joshua’s scorched earth policy was what God really wanted for the indigenous people.  Today Joshua’s mode of operation sounds to us very much like that of the British colonial conquerors.  Was there another way, a better way? Did the British have to follow Joshua’s way? [6]

 

We believe that the Abraham story, rather than the Joshua story ought to be the model for how indigenous and immigrant peoples are to live in this land. [7]

 

I believe there have been, and still are shameful ways to use the contents of the Bible, but the content is there for all to read and ‘unquestioning obedience’ is given to it by so many church-goers.  Is it their fault or is it a lack of responsible teaching by church teachers and leaders and maybe even the theological education presented today in church seminaries and theological colleges?

In the Old Testament there are so many other stories of violence and commands of God to war violently against God’s enemies, there is not room to recount them all here. However, the God portrayed there would certainly be convicted today of crimes against humanity and be deemed a terrorist. And it’s all there in the sacred book. I sometimes do not wish to call the book ‘sacred’. I believe this problem of the violence of God has its roots in biblical theism. It just would not fit with panentheism because with panentheism, as I understand it, humans are responsible for what happens, from wars to loving deeds. There is no outside God to blame or thank.

 

In his book, Walter Brueggemann uses more than 1000 quotes from the Old Testament and about 50 from the New Testament in giving a detailed explanation of what the text of the Bible says and the theological emphases it is making.   He makes numerous comments on many contemporary implications of the teachings in the text.   I found his book very instructive and helpful.  On the overall situation of violence, he makes some comments.

 

There is no doubt that the imagery of divine warrior is problematic for biblical faith, as we have become increasingly aware that the Bible is permeated with violence in which YHWH (God) is deeply enmeshed. …

… we are of course much more aware of the ways in which such imagery is a huge liability for it serves willy-nilly to authorise and legitimate all sorts of military adventurism in the name of God….

There are, of course, interpretative strategies that can lessen the toxin of these traditions.  Biblical theologians, however, must take care not to ‘explain away’ what is so definitional for the textual tradition.  The imaginary is something we must live with, albeit with awkwardness and embarrassment.  We might wish for another, better theological tradition.  This, however, is the one we have.  The  presentation of this God is not marginal to the Bible nor can it be justified simply as human projection among the disinherited, nor can it be easily resolved by a ‘developmental hypothesis’ the preferred strategy of Old Testament scholarship.  It is there; self-critical reflection requires of course critique of the very God the Jews and Christians confess.  While we make our awkward self-aware confession, we cannot fail to notice, even among us, the ways in which this theological tradition continues to fund that which we rightly abhor. [8]

 

For me, Brueggemann has righty named the problem.

 

The imagery is something we must live with… We might wish for another, better theological tradition.  This, however, is the one we have. [9]

 

I think he is correct.  I cannot alter this ‘imagery’ even though I wish to.   However, if it ‘funds that which we rightly abhor’ then my reaction to it is that I must ‘faithfully reject’ it.   I don’t have to live with it because it is there.  I can reject it and never refer to it, or I can refute it every time I do encounter it, wherever and whenever.   If I give it authority or influence or even take any notice of it in my beliefs in or about God, then I believe I am leaving myself open to spiritual abuse.  Is it similar to saying to a woman whose partner is violent, “We know he is violent but he is the only one you have, so you have to live with him and make the best of it.”?  We know what this often leads to.  Has the church being saying the same sort of thing about the biblical violence of God, to church-goers for centuries?   Shame!

 

I realise the authors of many of these biblical stories were writing within their own theological framework but that does not make their teachings authoritative or even helpful for me today.   Just as I may have things wrong regarding my opinions and theological stance, I believe the biblically violent image of God is wrong, horribly wrong.   My journey with Jesus is seriously jeopardised if I give any credence to this image of God.   I ‘faithfully reject’ some Bible passages vehemently and I speak out against them.  I reject them and say so.

 

What does this rejection do to the rest of the Bible and its possible guidance for me?   If I ‘faithfully reject’, ‘clear out’ this violent image of God, I am rejecting a major theme in the Old Testament.    Brueggemann says,

 

that the Bible is permeated with violence in which YHWH (God) is deeply enmeshed,[10]

 

so I am rejecting a major emphasis of the Bible.  I cannot do this lightly.   Regarding the way we approach the Bible, I think Flood is helpful but challenging, with his suggestion, mentioned previously, to ‘faithfully embrace’ or ‘faithfully reject’ what we read.   That takes a lot of very serious thinking and study.

 

From my lyrics  No. 20.

Violence in the Bible

Tune   Cross of Jesus

 

In our sacred book there’s violence

Often done at God’s behest;

Why would God demand mass killings,

Act in ways that we detest?

 

Can we see the hands of Jesus

Cutting off Goliath’s head?

Can we think of Jesus wanting

All of Egypt’s first-born dead?

 

Jesus is for us the standard;

His non-violence is our stand;

When we look at God through Jesus

We begin to understand.

 

I doubt whether these lyrics will ever be sung in a church service but they are out there anyway.

 

This matter of violence in the Bible is a gigantic problem for me.  However, I do not wish to sit in judgement on modern disciples of Jesus who may decide that violence is the last and only option to them, in the pursuit of liberation from oppression.   I believe that godly human reactions to a situation need to be made in the context of the particular situation and no ‘silver bullet’ is available to solve every moral dilemma.  It is relatively easy for someone to make grand moral pronouncements to answer incredibly complex issues, when one is sitting in an armchair away from such situations, or when writing comments about them.   Even one’s interpretation of how Jesus might respond, might be seen as rather trite and unrealistic to the people who are actually enduring terrible suffering.   I cannot imagine what internal turmoil Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident and a strong advocate of non-violence, must have gone through in deciding to become involved in an assassination plot to kill Adolf Hitler.  Maybe situations arise in our human predicament that we find violence is ultimately necessary and all we can do is ask for forgiveness after having been violent.   It could be said that it is pointless loving someone if they repeatedly refuse to accept that love.   Yet Jesus says to forgive seventy times seven.  We are called to exercise perfect love yet that may not bring about liberation from oppression.  Where do we go from there?  It seems sometimes that I/we are left with questions that have no satisfactory answers, even on the horizon.

 

However, what I find significantly unacceptable is that the Bible commences with a judgmental, unforgiving, violent God in the stories of the Garden of Eden and Noah, exacerbated by the excesses in the Exodus story, and then ends with one of the most violent of books in all the world religious sacred books, the Book of Revelation. This last book paints God as the one presiding over the end of the world with destruction, punishment and annihilation.  The anger and wrath of God is ever present.   I think it was Richard Rohr who once said,

 

We have to create a violent God so that we could be violent. 

 

I have looked at violence and the ultra-violent image of God mainly in the Old Testament and in the Exodus story in particular, but it still bewilders me that the New Testament ends with the Book of Revelation.  Even though there was serious debate by early church leaders about its inclusion in the New Testament, what bewilders me most, is that it was actually regarded as being appropriate to be incorporated in the Canon of scripture at all.   Maybe having been written about the same time as the other Johannine material, it could be dated about the mid to late 90’s.   That would place it about only two generations after the preaching and life of Jesus.   It amazes me that such a book, with the accompanying image of God in most of its pages, presiding over or at least sanctioning such a catastrophic violent end to the world, could have been thought suitable to include in the Cannon, so soon after the preaching of non-violence from Jesus.  Is humanity so hooked into, obsessed and dominated by violence that so soon after the intrusion into human history of one of the world’s greatest preachers of non-violence, the sacred book about him mostly ignores his message about God in its final book?   Whether the Book of Revelation is taken literally or figuratively my comment is the same.   It seems that we go back to the Exodus story with a vengeance.  Do we create God in our own image?

 

So what for me now?

 

With no biblical theism, the two dualisms of Heaven/Earth and Divinity/Humanity and no Fall/Redemption, the problem of violence, to an extent, dissolves for me but that of course necessitates the rejection of much in the Bible, the story and teachings of Jesus being the all-important exceptions.  His story and how I understand it, determines how I treat the Bible, ‘faithfully affirming’ and ‘faithfully rejecting’ various passages.

 

Having discussed the problem of violence, I must add that this violent image is not the only image of God in the Old Testament.  Thank goodness there are numerous stories of love, mercy, justice and forgiveness, both of God’s own activity and God’s commands for humanity to behave in such a way.    Thankfully they present some sort of a counter to the negatives I have emphasised.  For me, unfortunately they do not balance or force into minor significance, the image of the violent God.    I have to do that very difficult job but that job, I feel, must be done!   That job can be done by comparing everything with the teachings of Jesus. For me, this brings about many condemnations and ‘faithful rejections’.

 

What more for me?

 

Having done this exercise, I also need to reiterate that there are numerous fabulous passages and wonderful ethical teachings in the Old Testament.  I want to share just a few examples of what I have find important.

 

For starters, Jesus could have extracted an emphasis from Old Testament laws in order to add a third commandment to his main two, namely, ‘Love the stranger.’

 

The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself…. (Leviticus 19:34.)

 

In Deuteronomy it states that God loves the stranger,

 

He (God) loves the sojourner… (Deuteronomy 10:18.)

 

The stranger is singled out for God’s love.   I find it significant that Jesus identifies himself with the stranger in Matthew 25:35.   I suppose Jesus could have included in his second commandment, in his meaning of the word ‘neighbour’, all strangers and aliens.  However, over 100 times the word ‘stranger’ is specifically mentioned in the Pentateuch and a great majority of these have to do with caring for them and not discriminating against them.   The Hebrews were to deal justly and fairly with aliens/strangers as they would deal with their own fellow Hebrews.  They were to care for them as a brother or sister.

 

A few times, the Hebrew farmer and vineyard owner are commanded to deliberately leave some of the harvest or grapes for the poor and the stranger to gather.

 

You shall not deprive aliens/strangers and orphans of justice nor take a widow’s cloak for a pledge. ………  When you beat your olive trees, do not strip them afterwards; what is left shall be for the alien/stranger, the orphan, and the widow.  ……  When you gather the grapes from your vineyard, do not glean afterwards; what is left shall be for the alien/stranger, the orphan, and the widow.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I command you to do this.   (Deuteronomy 24:17‑22.)

 

When you reap your harvest in your land, you shall not reap right into the edges of your field, neither shall you glean the fallen ears.   You shall leave them for the poor and for the alien/stranger.  I am the Lord your God.    (Leviticus 23:22.)

I am not a student of anthropology and know very little about the customs and laws of ancient civilizations, but it would not surprise me if these injunctions were unique to the Hebrews, or at least not common in other ancient cultures.   They would certainly not go well with a Productivity Commission investigation today.

 

Also in the Old Testament there is the Year of Jubilee, an amazing concept.  Have a look at it in Leviticus chapter 25.   I wonder how capitalism as we know it, would accommodate such a concept.  No doubt it would be dismissed as a stupid and unworkable system by modern economists. Surprise!  Surprise!   The four big Australian banks would not be able to make their obscene $20 billion profit each year.   That’s for sure!   I think this concept of the Year of Jubilee was probably a genuine effort of the part of the Old Testament Hebrew theologian/economist to aim at equity and fairness; to give the opportunity to make a new start.

 

Both the Old and New Testaments are full of new starts, new beginnings, new opportunities.

 

This brings me to further questions about how we use the Bible in public church services.

4.  The public use of the Bible in church services.  

 

Because the Bible was written 2000 years ago and more and because its authors came from a different culture and historical context, if there is no competent explanation of its content, certain texts/passages could either be misunderstood or their intent be completely missed.

 

A classic case for me, is the story of the Good Samaritan.  In each of my Bible versions, which gives a top-of-the-page title for the content of the page below, this parable is named ‘The Good Samaritan’. For the people to whom Jesus was telling this story, there was no such person.   None of them, by definition, could be good.  The Samaritans were hated by the Jews. Yet Jesus, in this story, is praising the despised foreigner and castigating Jewish religious leaders!  No wonder these religious leaders wanted to silence him.  This could be missed if the historical context was not explained to those who may not know.

The Bible is often read in public church services without any explanation at all.  I believe this is not good.   It seems to be considered by some church service leaders that the Bible is always able to stand alone.  This, I believe, is a serious mistake.   I can remember at one particular church service recently when the New Testament reading read, was from Matthew.

 

In the passage that was read was,

 

A man who divorces his wife must give her a note of dismissal.  But what I tell you is this, “If a man divorces his wife for any other cause than unchastity, he involves her in adultery; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery”.   (Matthew 5:31-32.)

 

This reading was left with no comment on its historical and cultural context and no explanation about it was given in the whole service.   There were at least six divorced and re-married people in attendance at that service.  They were left with this teaching as it stood, supposedly from the lips of Jesus.    If they were listening and took this passage seriously as it stood, how would they react?  I suggest, guilt upon guilt, and they might have said to themselves, “I should not be here in church.  Jesus has condemned me.”

 

This ill-considered use of the Bible should not occur.    If such readings are used in public church services, their historical, cultural context must be explained.  If no explanation is intended, I believe such readings should not be used.

 

Another reasonably recent church experience I had was when another passage from Matthew, as nominated by the lectionary, was read.

 

(Jesus said) Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a son against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.  (Matthew 10:34-36.)

 

The service as a whole, I remember was helpful to me but that part of the Matthew passage had no comment made on it at all.  No teaching of the cultural setting was offered by the lay-leader of the church service.   This passage is often considered as one of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus but I contend that if no comment or teaching on it is planned, the passage should not be read.

 

This sort of misuse of the Bible doesn’t happen all that often, but it happens occasionally and it shouldn’t.

 

It has been my experience, there is not much teaching done in church services.   Preaching from such a book needs teaching to accompany it.  Modern commentaries abound so there is no excuse for a lack of teaching.

 

In the Uniting Church of Australia, the Revised Common Lectionary is nearly universally used by leaders of church services.  I believe it is not mandatory in this church, however, in Australia, I believe it is encouraged to be used in most Christian churches.   This lectionary has a three year cycle and nominates a prescribed set of Bible readings, 4 readings for each Sunday.   There is a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel reading and a second New Testament reading, recommended for each week.    The use of this lectionary, I believe, brings a mixed blessing.   I have been told by clergy friends that if the lectionary is followed, it prevents preachers getting on their ‘pet hobby horse’ every Sunday.  While this seems valid, I would have thought there are other effective strategies that can be used to combat this tendency.   I have also been told that if the lectionary is followed, the main themes of the Bible will be covered in the three years.  However, I suggest that the theme of the violence of God is certainly not covered.   Is it not a major theme?

 

In pursuing my ‘faithful questioning’, I have looked reasonably closely at this 3 year cycle lectionary because it determines to a significant extent, what passages of the Bible are read in most public church services.   Obviously not all of the Bible content can be used in such a lectionary.  Choices have to be made.

 

Of the 150 Psalms available, over 50 are not listed for use; 29 are suggested for one year; 26 are suggested for each of 2 years and 32 are suggested for use in each of the 3 years.  A few are recommended to be used many times; 9 times for Psalm 8, 8 times for Psalm 23, etc.   Most of the 50 or more not listed for use, have content about enemies and a request for God to deal with them.  Some have the wrath and anger of God highlighted.    These are obviously not really suitable for church services and, I think, are rightly omitted from the lectionary.

 

Listed suggestions from both the Old and New Testaments show a strong bias for certain books and exclusion of others.  Some passages are listed for use in each of the 3 years of the cycle.  From the Old Testament, Isaiah is by far the most listed, over 70 times, many of the passages being suggested to be used more than once.   Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, Job and Jeremiah are suggested often, while Leviticus, Nahum, Haggai and a few others hardly get mentioned.   For the New Testament, there is a gospel reading for each Sunday.  All but 3 of the New Testament letters are listed for the second New Testament reading.   Romans, 1 Corinthians and Hebrews are the most commonly listed, followed by 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and then 1 Peter and Revelation.

 

I personally think that those entrusted with the responsibility of determining what readings were to be included, were given an onerous job.  Sometimes it would have been very difficult to decide what passages to list and which to leave out.  As I found, when trying to write new lyrics to be sung with each gospel reading in the three-year cycle, some passages I believe are just not suitable for singing about in church services.   I have stated quite openly in my publications that I found some gospel stories/passages were not suitable to work with. There are great biblical passages but there are very nasty ones as well.

 

A rather blatant example of the exclusion of the nasty biblical bits is that of the listing of Psalm 104, the verses to be used being 24-34 & 35b.   I wondered what the content of verse 35a is.    Answer?

 

May the sinners be destroyed from the Earth; may the wicked be no more. (Psalm 104:35a.)

 

Is this protecting church-goers from the whole content of the Bible or protecting the Bible from a possible bad reaction from church-goers, or both?    Tricky!

 

When the lectionary lists passages from the book of Revelation, I have questions.   Together by themselves, the lectionary passages chosen, give the impression that the book presents a wonderful image of God.  Revelation is listed eleven times for use, four of which are the verses 21:1-6.   These verses give a vision of a new Heaven and a new earth with God dwelling with man.

 

Now at last God has his dwelling among men!  He will dwell among them and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes; there shall be an end to death, and to mourning and crying and pain; for the old order has passed away.  (Revelation 21:3-4)

 

This passage concludes in verse 6 with,

 

And he said it is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give water without price from the fountain of the water of life.  (Revelation 21:6.)

 

This whole passage gives a beautiful image of God and life in Heaven.  However, immediately prior, the message is very different.

 

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he will be thrown into the lake of fire.    (Revelation 20:14-15.)

 

Immediately following the lectionary choice, this nasty picture continues.

 

He who conquers shall have his heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son.  But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for the murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.   (Revelation 21:7-8.)

 

These other verses announce the darker side and, I believe, the main theme of Revelation.  This book has been stated by some biblical scholars as the most violent book in all religious sacred writings.

 

Also the last listed lectionary reading from this book of Revelation in the 3 year cycle, 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, gives me problems.   I was curious about the content of the missing verses.

 

Outside are dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters and every one who loves and practices falsehood.    (Revelation 22:15.)

 

This tone is continued.

 

I warn every one who hears the words of the prophecy of this book; if any one adds to them, God will add the plagues described in this book, and if any one takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.   (Revelation 22:18-19.)

 

The other passages listed for use from Revelation speak of God being Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, of worshipping the Lamb that was slain and of all tribes and peoples clothed in white, worshipping God.  This is mostly positive but I believe, they alone, present an image of God which is not consistent with the main image in the whole Book of Revelation as we have it in the Bible.  My question arises, “Is this censorship or responsible choice?”   I have a sneaking suspicion that it is censorship.

 

I do realise that using the Book of Revelation in church services can be somewhat problematic.   It does have sections in it which may be considered worthy of use in church services, however, I have to question whether the lectionary creators are protecting church-goers from the violence of the book or are they protecting the book from being berated by church-goers?   Maybe both, as I have suggested previously.    Exposing the bad parts has to be weighed up against emphasising the good parts.   I would certainly find it rather difficult to strike this balance and be honest in the presentation of the story of the whole Bible.

 

The story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5:1-11, dropping dead after withholding from the disciples some of the proceeds of property they sold, is not listed for use, I suggest for obvious reasons.    The same goes for numerous passages of the Old Testament.   I don’t think the book of Joshua is a good book from which to read in church services.  It gets listed once.   The last few chapters of Ezra are, I think, unbecoming for a sacred book.

 

As I have said previously, I believe we have a mixed blessing with the lectionary.  On the one hand we have suitable passages for church services for praise and thanksgiving and for teaching the positive aspects of our religion but I believe we have a somewhat skewed presentation of what the story of the whole Bible actually tells.   I realise that a church service is not the time or place to come into disagreement with the Bible, its stories and teachings, however, it is the only book consistently read in church services and brings with it an authority that many regular church-goers do not question and are not encouraged to do so.  Teaching about the whole of this book’s contents is essential.  I believe the Bible is presented to a large extent as a book to be unquestioningly obeyed.  To do otherwise can be unsettling.

 

So what for me now?

 

In my experience in church services, the Bible message is often equated with the message of Jesus. In church services I have attended over the years, preachers and leaders of church services have concentrated on love as the basic Christian message and there are plenty of Bible passages, particularly from the gospels, which confirm this.

 

To hear in church services, the challenge of Jesus to love and accept love, is great.   Most times that is the message I hear.   This is one of the main reasons why I keep attending church services.

 

I do not conduct church services now so I do not have the responsibility of choosing Bible readings but when possible, I encourage leaders of services not to feel bound to use the set lectionary readings.   I encourage choices which blend in with the theme of the service and which help the congregation understand the great teachings of Jesus.

 

5.  The Bible’s internal conflict.  

 

The internal conflict within the Bible is often ignored or even avoided.   However, some commentators speak of the dominant and the minority voices of the Bible.  I find this distinction helpful.    There is a great deal of internal conflict in the Bible.   As I have mentioned near the beginning of this chapter,

 

The image of the Bible’s theistic God ranges from the extremely ultra-violent to unconditionally loving and everything in between.  It argues with itself and has books in it that contradict each other, presenting different attitudes on many issues. It often points in different directions on matters of morality and human behaviour.

 

The book of Ruth is a case in point.  I think most regular church-goers would think of this story as a love story about a loyal daughter-in-law who stood by her mother-in-law when things got really tough.   And so it is.   It has a happy ending, which is a bonus.

 

Most regular church-goers look at Ruth as one of the heroines of the Old Testament and that’s about it.  I submit that many may look no further.   However, when a bit of detailed study is given to this tale, we can find a depth of meaning far beyond the obvious.   Let us remember this book is in the sacred book of the Hebrews.

 

Ruth is a foreigner, a Moabitess, see Ruth 1:3-4.   The Moabites were historically regarded as a hated enemy of the Israelites, God’s Chosen People.  The Lord looked on them with genuine hostility.

 

No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the Lord for ever.  (Deuteronomy 23:3.)

 

This was because they had not helped the Hebrews when they were escaping from Egypt.   This hostility was to continue indefinitely because the Lord decreed it.

 

You shall not seek their peace or prosperity all your days for ever.  (Deuteronomy 23:6.)

 

After the Babylonian Exile, Moabites are listed as being one of the nations causing the Israelites to have sinned, regarded as faithlessness, by taking their daughters as wives.

 

After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons; so that the holy race has mixed itself with peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness … (Ezra 9:1-2.)

 

And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel.  Now then make confession to the Lord and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”  (Ezra 10:10-11.)

 

The book of Ezra concludes with a long list of the ‘sinners’ and then makes a statement of what was considered one of high moral rectitude, following the command of the Lord through Moses.  To maintain the purity of their race and their religion, the Israelites had to abandon their foreign wives and children.  Not only were they to abandon their wives and families but they had to confess their sin for marrying these foreign women in the first place.

 

All these had married foreign women, and they put them away with their children.   (Ezra 10:44.)

 

I believe a conflict exists in that, not one, but two Israelites had married Ruth. Yet this Moabite woman is the heroine of the story!?!

 

Some commentators suggest this story of Ruth originated as a counter teaching to the ethnic cleansing done under the supervision of Ezra the priest.  If this is correct, there is serious disharmony within the Bible.

 

Ruth gives birth to a son, Obed, who is the grandfather of King David; see Ruth 4:21-22.   This means that King David has a foreigner as one of his immediate ancestors.  That causes David to have ‘outsider’ blood in his veins; not much but enough to label him as not a true-blood.   If this was correct, he probably should not have been king.  According to the story, for some very strict Jews, he has impure blood flowing in his veins.   So Ruth is not only a member of a corrupting nation because of her marriage but she is also the cause of King David having foreign, corrupting blood in his veins.

 

Amazingly, she gets a mention in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus; see Matthew 1:5.  There just might be a hidden message here.

 

Regarding the story of Ezra’s ethnic cleansing and the Lord’s earlier commands about it, it could be asked if any ‘faithful questioning’ has been done with this God-directed activity.   I think that probably most regular church-goers know nothing of it.  I have never heard it mentioned or explained in any teaching within a church service.

 

So what for me now?

 

Without this more detailed analysis, the story of Ruth would remain just a lovely story with a happy ending.    I think there are deeper meanings which speak of racism.   The general church teaching I have received on this story has been inadequate.   I had to do my own research.  I’m not complaining but I maintain that the teaching of the Bible, born of critical analysis, is necessary. Congratulations to those who included the book of Ruth in the Old Testament Canon.   This extra meaning of the story is, for me, close to Jesus’ message but sadly most regular church-goers know nothing of this.   They have not been taught.

 

For me, this is an example of the Bible disagreeing with itself.    According to Ezra it would not be possible for a Moabitess to be a heroine.   Do I discern parallels with Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan?  The book of Ruth is not about one religious leader (Jesus) arguing with other religious leaders.  It is the Bible arguing with itself; the book of Ruth versus Ezra who was obeying God’s commands.

 

The book of Jonah is another book like Ruth which also could be regarded as a tract, teaching the errors of the way Ezra, who follows the commands of the Lord.    Jonah is the story of God being concerned about gentiles who live in Nineveh, a great city in Assyria.  God is concerned about Gentiles; concerned enough to send Jonah to them, in the hope of staving off impending punishment for their wrong-doing.  This does not sit well with the racist, ethnic cleansing activities of Ezra.

 

That’s what the story is about and has nothing to do with a whale, or to be precise, a big fish.  Unfortunately the whale and Jonah being its belly for three days and nights, is the only part of this story that is remembered by many who have heard it.

 

A bit of fun from my lyrics  No. 21.

 

Jonah

Tune   Morning Light

 

He ran away so quickly; he found a speedy yacht;

He did not want to rumble with such a motley lot!

For Jonah was the preacher whom God had asked to go

To foreigners to tell them, “Stop misbehaving so.”

 

When Jonah tried to practice a disappearing trick,

His boat sailed into trouble, the storm came up so quick.

The captain threw him over; he had a ‘sort of’ hunch;

The fury stopped, and Jonah became a tasty lunch.

 

The whale got indigestion and Jonah, he popped out;

He knew he was a loser; he did a turnabout.

He preached to all that city; “You must be good and true,

Then God might reconsider what had been planned to do.”

 

God did not chuck a wobbly, but Jonah wished them dead;

For they were not like he was – not Jewish born and bred.

So God taught him a lesson; not sure if he agreed;

God’s love is for all people, for every race and creed.

 

Both the books of Ruth and Jonah can be regarded as examples of real internal conflict within the Bible, presenting teachings, opposite to those presented in other parts of the Bible – the books of Ruth and Jonah versus the book of Ezra.

 

Also it has been said by many commentators that there is a significant difference of emphasis in the teachings of the priests and the prophets of the Old Testament.   Often the priestly requirements for worship are questioned and even ridiculed by the prophets, who insist on other priorities.  Passages from Amos and Micah make this explicit.

 

I (the Lord) hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, even though you offer me burnt offerings and cereal offerings I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon.   Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen.  But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.  (Amos 5:21-24.)

 

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?   Shall I come before him with burnt offerings with calves a year old? …  He has shown you O man what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.   (Micah 6:6 & 8.)

 

In this internal biblical ‘faithful questioning’, there is Jesus.  Jesus does his own ‘faithful questioning’ and ‘faithful expansion’ in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew has Jesus saying, not once, not twice, but six times,

 

You have learned that our forefathers were told …… But what I tell you is this….(Matthew 5:21-22, 5:27-28, 5:31-32, 5:33-34, 5:38-99, 5:43-44.)

 

In five of the examples, what was taught previously ‘to our forefathers’ comes directly or indirectly from the Torah, sometimes with multiple references to Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.   Jesus here is giving a deeper interpretation to these ancient scriptures.   I think this is evidence of further internal conflict which is not censored out.   This conflict is not as serious as in other parts of the Bible, but I believe it is there.

 

It is not unreasonable to say that Jesus and his emphasis on loving ones enemy and praying for one’s persecutors in Matthew 5:44, is in serious conflict with limited revenge permitted in the Old Testament.

 

Whenever hurt is done, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.   (Exodus 21:23-25.)

 

In its historical context this law in Exodus, with its injunction of one-for-one retribution, was a step forward because the practice of revenge then, was nearly unlimited in some circumstances.  Nonetheless, Jesus disassociates himself from this part of Exodus and replaces it with his own teaching.

 

So what for me now?

 

A redeeming feature of the Bible for me, is the internal conflict that exists in much of its content.   This honesty of the Bible in telling its story with this internal conflict, gives it a validity because it suggests a lack of strict censorship, to speak in modern terms.   The New Testament sometimes tells stories which paint the disciples as either stupid or disloyal to Jesus.  Mark’s gospel has many such stories and so do the other gospels.   Some very early followers of Jesus are painted in less than glowing terms.   This indicates to me an honesty, an authenticity in the telling of the story.   I sometimes wonder what Peter and others would have thought about some of the stories in the gospels that were told about them.   When the gospels were written, I suppose most of the disciples were dead and not able to defend themselves.

 

I think this internal conflict is healthy.  I don’t look for it but when it is there, I accept it thankfully.

 

6.  Can we create our own Canon of Scripture?

 

If I did a survey, I think most regular church-goers would be able to recite off favourite Bible verses.   I have asked some people and various answers have been the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, John 3:16 etc., etc.    Also many people have in their memories such verses as,

 

God said, “Let there be light and there was light”’, or Jesus said,I am the way the truth and the life.”, or Faith hope and love; these three last for ever; but the greatest of them all is love.  

 

You probably have others.    One of my favourites is

 

God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him. (1 John 4:16b.)

 

It fits very well with my present theological emphases of panentheism.

 

Maybe regular church-goers build their theologies on their favourite verses and vice-versa.  Thankfully I don’t think any church-goer would quote from Isaiah and state it as their favourite, the verse below.

 

 And the angel of the Lord … slew 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians… (Isaiah 37:36.)

 

Maybe because of our early Christian education, our family life, and/or our life’s experiences, we tend to remember only some sayings and forget others.   Maybe a reason we have remembered certain things is because they have supported us when we needed it, or they have resonated with what we think, believe and feel.   Also, maybe it’s just because we have heard them repeatedly, so often.

 

As with most church-goers, I think my own ‘faithful affirmations’ and ‘faithful rejections’ expose my own likes and dislikes, my own prejudices and attitudes, my own theologies.  On reading some passages, I have made a mental note to be sure to use them again when appropriate, in personal mediation, in conversation or in church group life.   I encourage others to do the same.  I think many may already do so.  Having read other certain passages, I have exercised a ‘faithful rejection’ so I never use them again.  If other church-goers, on reading certain passages/stories of the Bible and after ‘faithfully questioning’ them, feel they need to reject them, I encourage them to do so.   There’s plenty of other good biblical material available to remember.

 

All of this recognises that our views, attitudes and reactions are individual.  Different people reading the same passage of the Bible can often get quite different messages and meanings from it.  This can be Reader-Response interpretation again.    But this is natural and I think, can be encouraged, at least to some extent.   If a reading makes an impact, we may remember it and even go back to it from time to time.  After doing our ‘faithful questioning’, we may find even more/new support or challenge in the reading.  Such, I think, is often the way of spiritual growth.

 

So what for me now?

 

I have said that one of my favourite texts is,

 

God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God and God in him.  (1 John 4:16b.)

 

and I use it quite often when discussing religious or theological matters.  However, I have also refused for years to read at funerals, a verse which has Jesus saying,

 

No man cometh to the Father but by me. (John 14:6b.)

 

Even the so-called words of Jesus should not escape the scrutiny of a ‘faithful questioning’, ‘faithful review’ and maybe even a ‘faithful rejection’.

 

I believe we all have the responsibility and privilege, maybe not to construct our own Canon of Scripture, but at least to create our own little reservoir of Bible sayings, other stories and sayings which are helpful to us.   I think most of us do this anyway.   The way some of us do this is with our refrigerator door.   Our frig door has many such sayings on it.   Some are funny but that’s OK.   Along with family photos, there is –

 

Boring housewives have immaculate homes. (My wife, Wendy, put that one on.  She likes it and so do I.)

If coffee can’t fix it… then it is a serious problem.

 

Then there are others that are more serious.

What you think, you create; What you feel, you attract; What you imagine, you become.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.   Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. [11]

No culture can survive if it attempts to be exclusive.

 

I often read these.  Good for the soul.   The sayings on our frig door do get changed but infrequently.

 

The Bible as we have it now, the Canon of Scripture, is there whether we like it or not and I don’t think we can change that, at least not in the foreseeable future.  However, I think such a change is what some confronting biblical scholars are moving towards when they have called for the Canon to be opened and revised.  I think they are calling for some very serious ‘faithful questioning’ and ‘faithful re-appraisal’ to be done with the Bible and its content as we have it now.

 

Some church leaders think that parts of the Bible as it exists now, need to be removed.   Some other church leaders have suggested seriously, that other ancient documents, not included in our present New Testament, could be included.   One such group is called the New Orleans Council, initiated by Dr Hal Taussig, recently retired as Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  He, with 19 other church leaders and scholars, both women and men, have, over an extended period of time, researched a large number of ancient documents which were available to be included in the original New Testament, but were not.

 

Many ancient documents, some fragmented and others more complete in their preservation, have been discovered in the last 60 to 100 years in various parts of Egypt and the Middle East, including the more famous Dead Sea Scrolls.  Much research and scholarly discussion has taken place about many of these documents but that has not filtered down to regular church-goers and I’m not sure that it ever will.  I would be surprised if many regular church-goers even know that many other gospels, other than the four in our present New Testament, were written in the first few hundred years immediately after Jesus.

 

This New Orleans Council, organized by Dr Taussig, asked the question as to which of these newly discovered ancient documents, if any, could be considered worthy enough to be included in a new Canon, to create A New New Testament.  Taussig has actually written a book entitled, A New New Testament.  He could have been burnt at the stake in some previous periods of church history for presuming to undertake such an enterprise.    After their deliberations, the New Orleans Council voted that 10 more documents were worthy to be included in A New New Testament.   These extra books are the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Truth, The Thunder: Perfect Mind, The Odes of Solomon 1, 11, 111, and 1V, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, The Letter of Peter to Philip and The Secret Revelation of John.   These are all included in Taussig’s book, inserted in what was considered the appropriate places.

 

On Taussig’s book A New New Testament, Marcus Borg comments,

 

(This book is) important both historically and theologically. Readers will not be able to see the New Testament in the same way again. [12]

 

There are twenty-seven books in the traditional New Testament, but the earliest Christian communities were far more vibrant than that small number might lead you to think. In fact, many more scriptures were written and were just as important as the New Testament in shaping early-Christian communities and beliefs. Over the past century, many of those texts that were lost have been found and translated, yet are still not known too much of the public; they are discussed mainly by scholars or within a context of the now outdated notion of gnostic gospels. In A New New Testament Hal Taussig is changing that. With the help of nineteen important spiritual leaders, he has added ten of the recently discovered texts to the traditional New Testament, leading many churches and spiritual seekers to use this new New Testament for their spiritual and intellectual growth. [13]

 

Having read these other 10 books listed above, my experience is that Marcus Borg is correct.  I found the 10 books refreshing but also couched in 1st century biblical theism, dualisms and mythology and this contributed to some of their content being rather mystifying to me.  The Odes of Solomon, presented examples of joyful liturgies and songs of praise, apparently practised by the early followers of Jesus, some of which I found more helpful than some of the liturgies used in church services I attend these days.  I found the gospels of Mary and of Truth very helpful.   This reaction was my predisposition at work, I suppose; at least to some extent.

 

These 10 books did present to me a better balance between the male/female imagery of God and female church leadership than that which is presented in our current New Testament.  In the Gospel of Mary, there is dissention between the male disciples and Mary, when Andrew and Peter argue that Mary, a woman, should not be listened to as a teacher of the message of Jesus.  Levi comes to her defence and suggests that the males should desist their opposition to Mary and repent of their antagonism.   This sort of conversation happens nowhere in our present New Testament and, I think it presents a new dimension to the subject, giving women significant recognition, which obviously is their right.  The fact that this argument is recorded is significant for me.

 

I quote from the Gospel of Mary.

 

But Andrew responded and said to the brothers and sisters, “Say what you will about what she has said.  I do not believe that the Saviour said this, for certainly these teachings are strange ideas.”  Peter responded and spoke concerning the same things.  He questioned them about the Saviour, “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowing about it?  Are we all to turn around and listen to her?  Did he choose her over us?”  Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother, Peter, what are you thinking?  Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am telling lies about the Saviour?”  Levi responded and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been an angry person.  Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries.  But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you, then, to reject her?  Surely the Saviour’s knowledge of her is trustworthy.  That is why he loved her more than us.  Rather let us be ashamed.  We should clothe ourselves with the Perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves, and proclaim the good news, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Saviour said.” [14]

 

An introduction to the Gospel of Mary written by Taussig states,

 

The importance of the Gospel of Mary for today’s worldwide negotiation of rights and roles of women cannot be underestimated.  That an early Christian writing presents a major female figure whose leadership is actively disputed by the apostles introduces a dramatic new dimension to Christian understanding of women’s authority.  ….this document still turns the tables on claims like that of the Vatican that women cannot be priests because there were no women disciples. [15]

 

This particular gospel also presents a far more positive attitude to humanity and to the human relationship with God.    I quote again from Taussig’s introduction to this Gospel.

 

In many ways this gospel makes the promise of becoming real human beings in the most excited and clearest way of any early Christian gospel. … For many twenty-first-century readers this emphasis on the goodness of humanity, comes as a surprise.  So often Christianity has been understood as praising God and judging humanity.  …  TV evangelists and popes alike portray humans as so thoroughly deserving of God’s condemnation that only the bloody sacrifice of Jesus can make things right.  This is simply not the portrait of humanity in the Gospel of Mary.  Here Jesus and his followers are united in perfect humanity.  The good news is not escaping one’s human identity but in embracing it.

Nor does this gospel treat Jesus’ death as a key of salvation.  His death is not an act of atonement, but rather an event to overcome through the teachings Jesus told to Mary. [16]

 

Regarding another book of the 10, The Secret Revelation of John, I found it particularly interesting and for me, if compared, it is better than the one we have at present.   A short comment by Taussig about this book is,

 

In the Secret revelation of John, injustice and cruel domination are overcome by the power of the Spirit, by knowledge and by goodness without violence and destruction, offering a tradition from within the Christian movement that is both an alternative to stories of divine wrath and judgement and an affirmation of hope and trust. [17]

 

Having read The Secret Revelation of John, it was full of mythical characters who supposedly have power over certain aspects of humanity in the world and the different heavenly layers above the Earth, that were thought to exist.  Without having the necessary academic or historical background, I found much of the book somewhat mystifying.  However, when compared with what is in the Book of Revelation in the present New Testament, this Secret Revelation has far less violence in it and when violence does occur, it is only used by the false gods.   The True God, in it, works through the illuminating light of truth, compassion and moral goodness.   In this Secret Revelation, God is sometimes referred to as Father-Mother; different from the New Testament we have at present.

 

Another of these 10 ancient documents is the Gospel of Truth.   Of this gospel, Taussig’s commentary states,

 

The Gospel of Truth takes seriously human pain and error but concentrates on affirming the ways the goodness and beauty of life continue to overflow everywhere.  The Son revealed to people who God is, which ‘became the way for those who strayed and knowledge for those who were ignorant, discovery for those searching and strength for those who were shaken, purity for those who were defiled’ (16:10) ..  The results are that ‘the Father is within them and they are in the Father.  They are full and undivided from the one who is truly good.  They need nothing at all, but they are at rest, fresh in spirit, and will listen to their root.’ (27:6-8).  For the Gospel of Truth, this is not a beatific vision of Heaven, but one of humans fully alive in the present moment. [18]

 

Without ignoring the issues of conflict and difficulty, the Gospel of Truth is perhaps the most joyous and ecstatic book of early Christianity.  It provides a stunning contrast to the kinds of 21st Century Christianity that feature condemnation and dark prophesies. [19]

 

It would appear that maybe a sort of panentheism is as ancient as early Christian times, with ‘in-ness’ a major theme.

 

I personally found much of the content of these 10 ancient documents stimulating, however, I would need to do a great deal more study and research, particularly of the then current cosmology, if I am to understand more of these books and their messages.   However, from my brief introduction to these 10 books, it makes me wonder what Christianity would look like today if the Canon of the New Testament was different from the one originally decided upon, that which we actually have now.

 

The fact that these biblical scholars have done this work, is very significant to me.

 

I wonder how long it will take for all this questioning approach to the content of the Bible, to filter down to church-goers, if ever.  I feel privileged to have been exposed to these writings.

 

There may be other groups of biblical scholars and church leaders who are doing much the same thing regarding a critical investigation of our sacred book.   I mention only those I know about.  So, if we make personal efforts to create a different but more helpful Canon of our own, or at least put together our own little reservoir of guiding teachings and sayings, let us not think we are the only people looking seriously at what we have in the Bible at present.   Let us not think that such a venture should be frowned upon.

 

If we do create our own special collection of teachings of Scripture and other material, I think it is essential that we have solid criteria for our choices, inclusions and rejections.   For me, these criteria are spelt out in detail in the previous chapter on Jesus.    Jesus, his life, his death, his living presence and most importantly his teachings, are for me, the norm and standard for my choices.  For me, he teaches by word and example, the greatest of human virtues – love.  This is my gauge.   I have to live with the limitations of my knowledge and understanding of Jesus and that’s why there may be changes as I continue my journey with him, hopefully forward.

 

At this stage of my journey with Jesus, I have sayings and teachings in my little reservoir, which are not in the Bible, but which I think are very helpful to me in terms of guidance, challenge and support.  I comfortably include new material.  I don’t think we need to limit our little reservoir to only biblical material.   Obviously for me, any new material would have to pass the Jesus test.  Does it point in the same direction of his teachings?   Does it expand what he was on about?  Does it add a modern dimension to what he taught?  Does it lead me away from being hurtful to others?  Does it speak of love?   If it passes these, then I am happy to include it.

 

For starters, I add to my little reservoir, sections of I Have a Dream from Martin Luther King’s speech August 28 1963,

 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’                                                       

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.                                     

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.   I have a dream today. [20]

 

Sure, the above quote is localised in America, but so were the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, chapters 2 &3.  Each has far wider application than being localised. They both have great words worthy of deep reflection.

 

Rabbi Rudolph Brasch states,

 

It doesn’t matter which faith one follows so long as it preaches love, understanding and respect.

 

Then there is Mahatma Gandhi’s comment on being a devotee of the Bhagavad-Gita.

 

Thus the devotion required by the Gita is no soft-hearted effusiveness.  It certainly is not blind faith. The devotion of the Gita has the least to do with the externals.  A devotee may use, if he likes, rosaries, forehead marks, make offerings, but these things are not test of devotion. He is the devotee who is jealous of none, who is a fount of mercy, who is without egotism, who is selfless, who treats alike cold and heat, happiness and misery, who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm, who has dedicated mind and soul to God, who causes no dread, who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear, who is pure, who is versed in action but remains unaffected  by it, who renounces all fruit, good and bad, who treats friend and foe alike, who is untouched by respect and disrespect, who is not puffed up by praise, who does not go under when people speak ill of him, who loves silence and solitude, who has a disciplined reason.  Such devotion is inconsistent with the existence at the same time of strong attachments. [21]

 

From Nelson Mandela:

 

As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison. [22]

 

From John Shelby Spong:

 

God is life, we say, and we worship this God by living fully.  God is love, we say, and we worship this God by loving wastefully.  God is Being, we say, and we worship this God by having the courage to be all that we can be. [23]

 

I have, in my study, a wall hanging given to me years ago by our second eldest daughter, Beverley. I’m not quite sure where the statements come from but I read them about every week. Again, good for my soul.   The six statements are as follows;

 

Happiness   When one’s spiritual needs are met by an untroubled inner life. Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.

Peace    To bring peace to the earth, strive to make your own life peaceful.

Wisdom Knowledge, intuition and experience combine to guide us in thought and deed.

Tranquillity The peace that comes when energies are in harmony, relationships are in balance.

Love   An inspired form of giving, love breathes life into the heart and brings grace to the soul.

Courage   Not the absence of fear or despair, but the strength to conquer them.      

 

All these and more belong to my little reservoir of wisdom.  Could we have such or similar readings in a church service as an alternative reading to a Bible passage?  Even say after them, “These are words of transforming wisdom for us, today”, and ask the congregation to reply, “We give thanks.”  Maybe too drastic a change.

 

Here’s another suggestion for such a reading. Steve Jobs died a billionaire at the age of 56.   This is reported as his final essay.

 

I reached the pinnacle of success in the business world.  In some others’ eyes, my life is the epitome of success.  However, aside from work, I have little joy.  In the end, my wealth is only a fact of life that I am accustomed to.  At the moment, lying on my bed and recalling my life, I realize that all the recognition and wealth that I took so much pride in have paled and become meaningless in the face of my death. 

You can employ someone to drive the car for you, make money for you but you cannot have someone bear your sickness for you. Material things lost can be found or replaced.  But there is one thing that can never be found when it’s lost – Life.  Whichever stage in life you are in right now, with time, you will face the day when the curtain comes down.

Treasure love for your family, love for your spouse, love for your friends.  Treat yourself well and cherish others.   As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, we realize that a $300 or a $30 watch both tell the same time.   You realize that your true inner happiness does not come from the material things of this world.  Whether you fly first class or economy, if the plane goes down – you go down with it.

Therefore, I hope you realize, when you have mates, buddies and old friends, brothers and sisters, who you chat with, laugh with, talk with, have sing songs with, talk about north-south-east-west or Heaven and Earth that is true happiness.  Don’t educate your children to be rich.  Educate them to be happy.   So when they grow up they will know the value of things and not the price.   Eat your food as your medicine, otherwise you have to eat your medicine as your food.

The One who loves you will never leave you for another because, even if there are 100 reasons to give up, he or she will find a reason to hold on.   There is a big difference between a human being and being human.  Only a few understand it.  You are loved when you are born.  You will be loved when you die.  In between, you have to manage.

The six best doctors in the world are sunlight, rest, exercise, diet, self-confidence and friends.   Maintain them in all stages and enjoy a healthy life. [24]

 

I also add to my little reservoir, some of my own sayings like, ‘Little people keep love alive.’   Sometimes when I look at what the so-called big people do, I become disappointed.  I am reminded of the adage, ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.   So too, of course, with the behaviour of myself and other little people, I can become disappointed.  But often when I look at what little people do, I am delighted and inspired.  So I often use my little saying.   I do not think that all humans are ‘totally depraved from the moment of conception’.   To Augustine, Calvin and Luther, I say, “No Thanks!”  I also add my other little saying to my reservoir, ‘The Kingdom of God is alive and well.’ On some occasions I say this to church friends who might understand.   I say this when I observe some godly deed they do and when I say it to them, I refer to the deed they have done.   They sometimes look back at me with bewilderment but I hope they think about it later on.

 

Creating one’s own Canon of Scripture may be going a bit too far but I believe it is important for us all to have one’s own little reservoir of sayings and teachings to remember. And what we remember will probably be different for each of us.   That’s fine.

 

7.   The different age and culture, to our own, in which the Bible was written.

 

This last area giving rise to ‘faithful questioning’ is probably the most important because culture determines the basic attitudes, views of reality and the sum total of ways of living of people.  Culture is a fundamental framework in which most humans determine their perceptions of nearly everything and helps create the presuppositions and prejudices which affect much of the way we humans approach life.  Different cultures give birth to different ways of regarding the human condition, religion, family and community relationships, personality, social status, economics and humour, to name but a few.  They also give rise to different customs, bodily gestures, figures of speech, rituals, morals, etc., etc.

 

An important book for me in this area of questioning is ‘Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels’ by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh.

 

In their book, the authors itemise about 60 different words/attitudes/norms which they considered needed a 1st Century cultural/sociological explanation to help in understanding the text in its original context. I came away from this book thinking that, in the past with my limited knowledge and understanding of 1st Century living and thought, I have probably misunderstood and misinterpreted some stories from both the Old and New Testaments.   I wonder how much of this has happened and still happens in the church today.  I think those who have preached, using the Bible as their prime resource, have indulged a great deal in Reader-Response interpretation, creating their own texts and then teaching them as being what the Bible says.  I have been and still am certainly involved in this sort of interpretation.

 

A couple of examples of 1st Century cultural context when compared with 21st Century understandings may help us accept the differences these make.

 

  1. Shepherds at the birth of Jesus.  

 

I think it is generally accepted as great, to have shepherds and wise men (Kings) together, in the numerous nativity scenes displayed in churches at Christmas.   However, I think very few regular church-goers would realise how confronting these would be for 1st Century Jewish people; those who were contemporaries of Jesus.   Even though we have the 23rd Psalm, speaking of the Lord as the Good Shepherd and David being called the Shepherd King, shepherds, in the time and society of Jesus, were regarded as outcasts.  They did not worship in the synagogues on the Sabbath.   They couldn’t.  They had to tend their sheep.    Shepherds were regarded as thieves because their sheep ate grass growing on other peoples’ properties as they wandered around the countryside.  In those days, if you had a son, the last thing you would want him to become was a shepherd.   Shepherds were despised.  Yet, here they are at the manger and being the first to bring the good tidings to the world.   I think there might be some deep theological wisdom in this.   In 1st Century days it would have been totally unthinkable for shepherds and wise men (kings) to be in each other’s company.   Shepherds would contaminate the whole environment. They were outcasts.  However, I can imagine most church-goers think these various nativity scenes are all rather lovely.   That’s fine for so they are. The opposite would be the case in the times of Jesus.  It would look gross!  Wise men, kings would never be seen anywhere near shepherds! With this contextual explanation of shepherds, a profound insight is available to enlighten us regarding the way love can work in our world. Little people keep love alive.

 

  1. Jesus told the parable of the talents. 

 

This is a much longer conversation with those who state that an understanding of 1st Century culture is essential for correct explanation and preaching.   The writer of Matthew’s gospel in the Revised Standard Version, has Jesus saying,

 

For it will be as when  a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.  Then he went away.  He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more.  So too, he who had two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.   And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, “Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.”  His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”  And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, “Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.”  His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”  He also who had received the one talent came forward saying, “Master, I knew you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.”  But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant!  You knew that I reap where I have not sowed and gather where I have not winnowed.   Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.”   So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will be given more and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (Matthew 25:14-30.)

 

I have been taught this parable had to do with the Kingdom of God, with rewards for those who are diligent, active disciples of Jesus. I have been taught that the master was God and the parable was about the way the Kingdom of God works. The talents were to be thought of as abilities given by the Holy Spirit to people, to further God’s Kingdom.  There were rewards and punishments at the end of things. I thought that the servant who was given the one talent was rightly described by the master as being wicked and slothful.  I added my estimate that he was also lazy.   I have also been taught that the parable has the lesson in it – ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.’

 

However, I have also had problems with this story.  I thought the punishment to the third servant was harsh and I could not understand the one talent being taken from him and given to the one who had ten.   I always thought that was unfair.  It was not suggested to me that I should look at the way the master did not question the third servant’s criticism of him.   Even though the master agreed with the criticism of the third servant, I thought what the master said was his sarcastic response.     Rewards and punishments never sit well with what I believe is the basic message of Jesus is, but these seem to be crucial in this story.   If the Master was likened to God then I thought God was rather harsh.   These were my problems.

 

  1. Eugene Boring gives a commentary.

 

The meaning of ‘good and faithful’ is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and risk…..

The pictures point beyond themselves… speaking of the reality of judgement and the necessity for decision and responsible action. [25]

 

This confirmed for me, my understanding that the parable was about the way the Kingdom of God worked and my involvement in it.  A disciple of Jesus had the responsibility of working for the kingdom, multiplying goodness and virtue, and not sitting idle, waiting for someone else to do the work of discipleship.

 

I now have to put alongside this understanding, the comments from Malina and Rohrbaugh, with their 1st century, middle-eastern cultural context.

 

Essential to understanding poverty is the notion of ‘limited good’.  In modern economics, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply.  If a shortage exists, we produce more.  If one person gets more of something, it does not automatically mean someone else gets less, it may mean the factory worked overtime and more became available.  But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite; all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed.  This included not only material goods, but honour, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well – literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else.

An honourable man would thus be interested only in what rightfully was his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another’s.  Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing.  The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person.  Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud.  The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron. [26]

 

Then, referring specifically to the parable under consideration, the authors give their commentary.

 

Two slaves trade up their master’s holdings, doubling the amount.  They are clever slaves, behaving as slaves should.  In the ‘limited good’ world of the first-century Mediterranean, however, seeking ‘more’ was morally wrong.  Because the pie was ‘limited’ and already distributed, an increase in the share of one person automatically meant a loss for someone else.  Honourable people, therefore, did not try to get more, and those who did were automatically considered thieves.  …….   

The third slave buried his master’s money to ensure that it remained intact.  This, of course, was the honourable thing for a freeman to do; was it honourable behaviour for a slave?  ……

When the day of accounting arrives, we find the master rewarding those who were vicious enough, shameless enough, to increase his wealth for him at the expense of so many others.  These slaves, in fact, are just like their master.  For we find out from the third slave (and the master agrees) that, indeed, the master himself is quite rapacious and shameless ‘a hard (NRSV “harsh)’ man, reaping where (he) did not sow and gathering where (he) did not scatter seed. (v. 24).  …….

But the master’s problem is that the third slave is wicked and slothful; he did not even put his money in a bank at usury (v.27).  Because of his sloth, the master decides to entrust the third slave’s property to the one who embezzled the most profit.   The reason for the behaviour is a truism in peasant society (v. 29); ‘Those with more get more and have abundance; those with nearly nothing have even that taken from them’.  And the master’s final decision is to publically shame the ‘worthless’ slave (v. 30)…..

From the peasant point of view, therefore, it was the third slave who acted honourably, especially since he refused to participate in the rapacious schemes of the king.  Moreover, the harsh condemnation he received at the hands of the greedy king, as well as the reward to the servants who cooperated, is just what peasants had learned to expect.  The rich could be counted on to play true to form – they take care of their own. [27]

 

This was all strangely new to me.  With this interpretation, built on the 1st Century Mediterranean economic model, this parable is given a meaning precisely the opposite to what I have been taught in my church past instruction.

 

According to this interpretation, it is not a parable about how the Kingdom of God works but a realistic picture of how the then current unjust society worked.

So what for me now?

 

These two examples demonstrate how important knowing the original context is when trying to understand what was written in a different age and culture.

 

Regarding this parable dealt with, the second interpretation of it seems a lot more sensible to me.   It takes full cognisance of the original environment in which the story was told and it also answers some difficult issues that have arisen for me with the first interpretation.

 

With this second interpretation in my mind, when looking at newspaper picture of the CEO of a company, I often ask the unfair questions, “How much corruption have you been involved in to get to the position you now hold?  How many people have you trodden on to climb the corporate ladder? Are you a thief, taking from others what was rightfully theirs?”

 

I suppose, at the end of the day, it is possible to gain instruction from both interpretations of the parable and that probably depends to some extent on how willing one is to open one’s mind to new information and different ways of thinking, comparing it with what one has already been taught.  If one chooses one interpretation over the other, one needs to be careful not to be dogmatic about the correctness of one’s choice.

 

This, I believe, is the dilemma we find ourselves in with quite a bit of biblical material. With such significant cultural difference between the modern western culture and the 1st Century Mediterranean culture, when confronted with biblical material, I have to ask myself, “How can I understand what the speaker or writer originally meant?   How can I appreciate what the 1st Century middle-eastern peasant audiences or even educated readers understood, regarding what they heard or read?”

 

A significant starting point is to at least ask these questions of ourselves and then try to find some helpful guidance in answering them.   I believe church-goers need a lot of helpful teaching on such matters.

 

 

 

So what more for me now?

 

With these seven areas of ‘faithful questioning’, where does this all leave me regarding the bible?

 

For me, using the traditional words, the ‘Word of God’, it is never static. It is dynamic, on the move.  Some old things I need to retain because, for me, their wisdom endures over time.  Some other things need to be discarded because they are out-of-date and unhelpful.   The ‘Word of God’ can never be tied or limited to one generation, one period of time, to one culture or tradition, or even to one book.

 

I have made many ‘faithful affirmations’ and I need to articulate these loud and often.  However, all the ‘faithful rejections’ and others not mentioned here, worry me greatly, but having done them I feel that what is left, together with the re-constructions and replacements I have made, I have guidance and inspiration far more in tune with Jesus and his teachings as I understand them now.

 

I am thankful that we have written material in the teachings from Jesus, other great religious and secular leaders still preserved.  Yes; used for guidance in making moral decisions – Yes; used for searching the depth meanings of humanity and divinity – Yes; used to challenge people in high places, in positions of power – Yes; used to point in the direction of how to make the world a better place – Yes; used to bring people together in mutual respect – Yes; used for exposing violence for what it is – Yes; used to teach the importance of inclusivity, equality, hospitality, grace, forgiveness and love – Yes. Yes. Yes!   And the Bible has loads and loads of this as I have already stated.

 

Properly used, passages in the Bible can be and have been a source of great wisdom, great guidance, great inspiration, great assurance and help in life.  They have prompted me to live abundantly.  Passages can and have stimulated wonderful, positive change.  They can and have been used to challenge leaders in our community.  Passages can and have given hope to those without hope, confidence to those who think they are worthless, purpose to those who think they have none, encouragement to those who are timid and they can speak and have spoken of acceptance and love to all of us.  After all, the Bible has the life story and teachings of Jesus.    His story and teachings are essential reasons for keeping the Bible.

 

To conclude this section of my ‘faithful questioning’ on the reverence and authority I give to the Bible, is it a case that I have to ‘Start all over again’?   I must keep ‘faithfully rejecting’ as well as ‘faithfully affirming’.  I think I have been doing this subconsciously and even consciously for years but maybe not admitted it.   ‘Start all over again?’   Not sure!  The Bible is still the most important source of guidance and challenge for me but I don’t think I can call it, as for any other book, ‘sacred’.   There are, for me, many sacred sayings in it but, for the whole book, I must find another word than ‘sacred’.

 

 

[1]  Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 89

[2] Brueggemann, ‘Countering Pharaoh’s Production-Consumption Society Today’, Session I, ‘The Way out.’

[3] Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, 122.

[4] Flood, Disarming Scripture, 42- 43

[5] Tinker, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, 175.

[6] Rainbow Spirit Elders, Rainbow Spirit Theology, 82

[7] Ibid, 85

[8] Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, 93-94.

[9] Ibid, 94.

[10] Ibid, 93.

[11] Martin Luther King Jr, August 28 1963 Speech.

[12] Internet website on Taussig’s book, A New New Testament.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Haussig, A New New Testament, 225.

[15] Ibid,219

[16] Ibid, 218.

[17] Ibid, 466.

[18] Ibid, 228.

[19] Ibid, 228

[20] Martin Luther King Jr, August 28 1963 speech.

[21] Gandhi, Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, 11-12.

[22] Internet website, https://www.passiton/…/7395

[23] Spong, A New Christianity For a New World, 73.

[24] Internet Google search, Jobs, The World’s six best doctors.

[25] Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8, 453.

[26] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 48.

[27] Ibid, 49.

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My sixth area of questioning

6.   The emphasis on the church’s teachings ‘about’ Jesus compared with the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.

As a child and a young person I was presented by the church with a Jesus who was essentially different from every other human being.

What have I been taught ‘about’ Jesus?   A short picture.

Jesus may have looked like a Jew, but he was a lot more than human.   He was a visitor from Heaven.    God sent him to Earth and he lived here for about 30 years before he went back to Heaven.  He will come again from there, to judge all human behaviour and separate ‘the sheep from the goats’.   He had supernatural powers; walking on water, controlling the weather, knowing the future, raising people from death.   He was perfect in every way; knowing everything, never sinning, always in control, knowing what to do and how to do it.  He knew God’s will and always obeyed it.  He had a miraculous birth.  He died like a human and he rose again from the dead and a little later ascended back to Heaven.   He died for my sin because that was what was necessary and required by God, enabling God to forgive sin.   His death brought about a cosmic change in the relationship between God and humanity, reconciling us both.    He is now and has been, since he ascended, at the right hand of God interceding before God for me and all humans, for God to forgive our sins and make our lives as good as possible.   He loves me and all humans and wants the best for all of us.  He gave me an example by which to live abundantly; how to be truly human.   He taught me, by word and example how to love others, how to strive for justice and how to practise mercy.    He sits on his throne in Heaven.  Jesus Christ is his name.    He always has been, is and always will be God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

Most of this, not necessarily in those words, is the continuing teaching I receive from the church.  This teaching is what I hear in the two main creeds of the church, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.   These creeds instruct me ‘about’ Jesus.   They give me no information about, nor any challenge contained in the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.    These creeds have the words, ‘I/We believe in Jesus Christ ….’ and they go on to speak ‘about’ Jesus.  I realise the creeds are statements, defining the orthodox Trinitarian faith, and as such are not meant to be guides for, or challenges about human behaviour.   However, they seem to make belief in doctrine, primary.  This is what a Christian is – one who believes these things.   If you don’t believe these things then you are probably not a Christian.   Most of this is what I hear in most liturgies and many sermons in church services.   It is consistent with most of the theology of the hymns I am requested to sing in church services.
All this can be taken metaphorically and not literally.  If this is done the meanings can change considerably.  Over the years it has taken me a long time and a great deal of ‘clearing out’ to arrive at where I am today.   Parts of the church have encouraged me in this journey but the major thrust I have felt is that I should not question and certainly not reject what I have been taught, particularly about Jesus.

So is it a case to ‘Start all over again’, concentrating very much on Jesus’ own teachings and not on the church’s teachings about him?  I think so.

I can remember in my early church instruction, I was required to learn off-by-heart such verses as,
God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.   (John 3:16.)

Most of the verses I had to so learn were all ‘about’ ‘Jesus, who he was and how he fitted into God’s Plan of Salvation; not that they were explained to me in that way.  However, this apparently is what was important; statements of belief about Jesus; not his own teachings.  This is what I remember.  I believe this experience has been similar for many other regular church-goers.

Most of that which I have been taught ‘about’ Jesus makes little sense to me now.  Most teachings are attached to the dualisms I reject and also to the supernatural, which I also reject.  So the church teachings I have received ‘about’ Jesus are by-and-large irrelevant to me whereas the teachings ‘of’ Jesus are so relevant because they have to do with my everyday living.  I deal with these later in some detail.

So what for me now?

My belief now ‘about’ Jesus is very different to what I have ‘cleared out’.

I now believe that Jesus was a Jewish, charismatic teacher/healer.  He is one of those shining human beings in history who has left a legacy of human thoughtfulness which inspires, and of human imagination which challenges those who take notice.    He lived on Earth about 2000 years ago for about 30 years and he was crucified as a middle-aged religious rebel who was perceived as a threat to Rome and the Jewish religious leaders of his day. I believe his birth and death were normally human.  I do not believe he rose physically from the dead.  I do not believe his death was a vicarious sacrifice for my sin but he died as he lived, living with deep human integrity faithfully, right to the end.    I dismiss all mention of Heaven and his Heaven citizenship.   I do not believe he had supernatural powers, knowing everything, controlling the weather and raising people from death.   I do not believe he was perfect in every way, never sinning.    I believe he had his inadequacies and that he made mistakes but I believe he was always in touch with the godly spirit within him and constantly and consistently cooperated, right throughout his life, with what he believed was his godly calling.  His life and teachings tell me about love.   He gave me an example by which to live abundantly; how to be truly human.  He taught me by word and example how to love others, how to strive for justice and how to practise mercy and forgiveness.   His name is Jesus and the teachings ‘of’ this man are paramount for me.   He points me to ‘the Christ’, a human theological expression for God.

A quick comparison between these two statements of my belief, the one from my past and the other from my present situation, highlights the drastic change that has come about by rejecting the two dualisms and supernatural activity.  Without these past basic fundamentals, the different emphases of Jesus’ divinity and his humanity, becomes crucial.

For me, much of the gospels paint Jesus as a normal human being, which I find refreshing.  I know there are stories of his supernatural powers, which, unfortunately are well remembered by regular church-goers and non-church-goers alike, but there are very many stories associated with Jesus that show him behaving very much like an ordinary human being; tired, angry, needing help from others, getting cranky, grieving, etc., etc.
Nevertheless the overall impression given to me by the church ‘about’ Jesus that stays with me is that he is God but becomes a human being for a very short period of time.   Thankfully, scholars associated with the Progressive Christianity movement have revitalised for me, the humanity of Jesus.   All the teachings and my opinions ‘about’ Jesus are not nearly as important to me now, as the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.  However, continuing with my beliefs ‘about’ Jesus, I see him as the picture of continuous cooperation with and exposure of God Within.

I am trying to echo what Robert Funk, a founder of the Jesus Seminar, states.
We must begin by giving Jesus a demotion.  He asked for it; he deserves it; we owe him no less.  As the divine son of God, coeternal with the Father, pending cosmic judge seated at God’s right hand, he is insulted and isolated from his persona as a humble Galilean sage. ….  A demoted Jesus then becomes available as the real founder of the Christian movement.   With his new status, he will no longer be merely its mythical icon, embedded in the myth of the descending/ascending, dying/rising lord of pagan mystery cults, but of one substance with us all.  We might begin by turning the icon back into an iconoclast. [1]
On first reading this, I was shocked, taken-a-back a bit.  A demotion!?   He can’t mean that!   However after more reflection I find this re-picturing of Jesus essential for me.
Funk’s comments led me to make a vital rediscovery of Jesus when recovering his humanity. For me, concentrating on Jesus’ humanity instead of his divinity is, for me, a fundamentally significant positive change of direction.   If Jesus is not God he must be less, so I have been told.  He must have a demotion.  However, not believing in supernatural, biblical theism and the dualisms which prompts this divinity emphasis, I do not find the word ‘demotion’ worrying.    I also now think of Jesus as an iconoclastic icon.    He is still an icon, but an iconoclastic icon.   For me, being a radical, a non-conformist rebel, does not prevent him being an icon.

Without the dualism of the separated Heaven and Earth, I am released from the ‘coming and going’ Jesus.   I am released from all talk of God ‘sending’ God’s son.  If I discard biblical theism, its dualisms and its accompanying supernaturalism, I can then approach Jesus as a human messenger of peace and love on earth, peace and love which can be accomplished by human beings like Jesus, like you and me.   Jesus, for me, is a human person who points to a sort of life that is really worth living, a liver of love that makes a difference, a human teacher who calls it as it is and a person who is made of the same stuff as you and me.  He wept when his friend Lazarus died.  He loved children.   He needed his friends’ help when he faced desperate decisions, as in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He got frustrated and disheartened with his disciples and the general public on many occasions.  He could have well experienced fits of depression.  He didn’t flinch from arguments with his opponents.  He called them for everything!   He drove cattle and the money-changers from the temple with a whip!   Could he have, on some occasions, lost control?   Yes, of course he could.  I’m pleased at the possibility of him having mixed-up emotions as is stated in the Good News Bible.

Jesus was angry as he looked round at them, but at the same time he felt sorry for them, because they were so stubborn and wrong.   (Mark 3:5.)

Jesus was so human.   I too, often have these mixed-up emotions when looking at the behaviour of myself as well as that of others.

I have been told in the past, that Jesus’ violent behaviour, when he drove the money-changers out of the temple, was not a loss of temper but a show of ‘righteous indignation’.  This comment was of course, seeking to downplay the humanness of the action and absolve Jesus of any wrong doing, wanting to uphold the biblical comment,
…because of his likeness to us, has been tested in every way only without sin.  (Hebrews 4:15.)

For orthodox theology, this had to be so, because of biblical theism and the ‘unquestioning obedience’ to the Judaist sacrificial system.   Jesus had to be the perfect, sinless sacrifice.
I believe that we might think Jesus had more respect for the Judaist sacrificial system than he actually had.   Most times in the gospel stories when Jesus forgives sin, he does so without even asking for repentance.  Seldom does he suggest that the person being forgiven make an offering/sacrifice or comply with temple observances/regulations.  This, I believe, forms the basis of a very significant argument Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day.   He was by-passing the Temple and its sacrificial system.  Jesus rarely referred a person he healed, to the religious temple system of his day.  In the story in Mark 1:40-44, I believe this referral had more to do with the public recognition of their cleanliness, rather than Jesus’ own belief in the efficacy of the sacrificial system itself.  The gospel writer states,
…show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people…   (Mark 1:44.)

The story with this last phrase about ‘proof’, is repeated in the Matthew and Luke gospels.
The only other time in the gospel story of Jesus where he refers sick people, whom he healed, to the religious authorities, is recorded in Luke 17:11-19, when ten lepers come to him for help.   I believe this story is told to counter racist attitudes, in that the only one who comes back to thank Jesus is a Samaritan and is identified as such; a hated foreigner.
Was Jesus in fact disassociating himself from the sacrificial system?  In Matthew there is a close link made of the Temple with sacrifice.  When arguing with the Pharisees, Jesus says,
…  Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless?  I tell you something greater than the temple is here.  And if you had known what this means ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’, you would not have condemned the guiltless…  (Matthew 12:5-7.)

Blood sacrifice in the context of forgiveness of sin is anti-gospel for me and points to a punitive God, a God who is prisoner to a sacrificial system invented by humans.  This understanding of the Cross points me away from Jesus.  Even put into the context of biblical theism and its dualisms, the sacrificial system negates the unconditional love of God.  If Jesus could forgive sin on the spot, if you and I can, why can’t God?  Doesn’t God love as much as Jesus or as we do?

Dealing further with the humanity of Jesus, I can imagine that he, in quiet private moments of reflection, may have thought that some of the names he called the Pharisees could have been a bit less damning and maybe he could have dealt a little less violently with the money-changers in the temple.  We are not told of course, but I can imagine that Jesus may have sometimes regretted what he did or said.  Was he a human being or not?
Another citing of Jesus possibly losing control momentarily, could be the saying in Matthew and Luke when Jesus rebukes Peter.  Peter expresses concern about Jesus dying in Jerusalem and urges him not to go to that place and such a horrible death.    But Jesus will have none of it.
Get behind me Satan!  You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.   (Matthew 16:23.)

If Jesus had said this to me and I took it seriously, I may have thought that I should leave Jesus, then and there, and not continue to be a hindrance to him.  This temptation, to change course and avoid confrontation and thus avoid his death, I can imagine, was a continuing struggle Jesus had, during the whole of his ministry.  In the end he sweated blood over it.  This embodied the influence that ‘the Devil – Satan’ tried unsuccessfully, to have over Jesus.  He certainly did not need one of his closest disciples urge him to give in.  Did Jesus suddenly blurt out in frustration, in disbelief, in desperation, maybe even in fury?  Was he a human being or not?  Are we willing to give him that privilege?

Perfection is the enemy of greatness. I learn nothing from perfection but greatness is my inspiration.  Perfection de-humanizes greatness.

I have taken the gospel readings as they are in front of me.   I do not have the skills or the historical and linguistic knowledge of the languages used and I do not have the knowledge of Greek, sufficient to argue this way or that, about the finer points of the text.  I think I am in the same situation of all other regular church-goers who are just trying to make relevant sense of the stories.  I continue on in this vein knowing full well that I may need correction in some instances.

Having shared something of what I believe and do not believe ‘about’ Jesus, I now wish to concentrate on what I have learnt from him; what I believe he teaches me.  I wish to concentrate on the teachings ‘of’ Jesus.

Rejecting what is written ‘about’ Jesus is not the same for me, as rejecting Jesus himself and his teachings.  I quote from a paper by Lorraine Parkinson given to a Common Dreams conference recently.

The teachings the church forgot – the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about justice, compassion, inclusiveness, non-violence and forgiveness and so on, were not given to the world by Christ!   They are the vision of the God-soaked human being – the disturbing visionary teacher of the Law, called Jesus of Nazareth.  Added together, his teachings illustrate the ultimate ethic for life.  We call it love.   And that’s why many of us want to say that Love is God.   In that lies an unlimited height and depth of spirituality for an evolving Christianity. … We can only be grateful that along with the religion about Jesus Christ, the timeless teaching from Jesus of Nazareth has also been preserved.   We can only be grateful that when it has been remembered, it has shed light and hope and love in the world. …  It’s time to turn fully to the God of love revealed through the teachings of Jesus. [2]

Jesus is a vehicle giving passage to a message of love.  He is a vehicle that transports us to see what difference love can make.  Jesus is a set of wheels carrying us to a vision of love.   Yes – to a vision of God.    I believe my problem is that I have been taught by the church and directed by its liturgies to worship the vehicle.  The message is always more important than the messenger.  Marcus Borg speaks of Jesus being, ‘the lens through which we can see God’, and he goes on to say that we have mistakenly come to worship the lens.   I think I am saying much the same thing.  So what do I learn when looking through the lens?  Funk asks a few questions in his Epilogue in ‘Honest to Jesus’,
What interests me about Jesus is not so much what Peter and Paul thought of him, or even what Jesus thought about himself, but the call to which he was responding.  To what divine manifesto did he succumb?  By what vision was he both captivated and liberated? [3]
I am not primarily interested in affirmations about Jesus but in the truths that inspired and informed Jesus. [4]

These questions arise for me. What are these truths that inspired Jesus?  What are the truths that informed him?  What was his vision?   The answers I believe are not all that self-evident.  Identifying what the teachings ‘of’ Jesus are, and separating them from the teachings of his early followers contained in the biblical gospels and the early traditions of the church, is a matter about which I need the guidance of scholarly historical and literary research.   I cannot take everything, all the sayings, all the injunctions, all the teachings and all the challenges of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, as being equally authentically those ‘of’ or ‘from’ Jesus.   They all need scrutiny.

There is probably no more radical, critical scrutiny given to the sayings/teachings of Jesus in the gospels, than that given by the Jesus Seminar, a group in the 1980s & 1990s of about 200 biblical scholars, including many professors.  This Seminar was set up by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan with the aim of deciding the collective view of the Fellows of the Seminar, regarding the historical connectedness of the deeds and more particularly the sayings/teachings/words of Jesus of Nazareth, to him.  Even though the strategies, processes and membership of the Seminar have come under considerable serious criticism from other biblical scholars and theologians, I believe the Seminar’s work cannot be ignored.   In their published book, ‘The Five Gospels – What did Jesus actually say? – The search for the authentic words of Jesus’, the hundreds of sayings, and thus the teachings of Jesus as stated in the four biblical Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas, have been catalogued.  After deliberation the Fellows, by a system of voting, designated each saying with a colour.

Red designated ‘Jesus undoubtedly said this or something very like it.’ or ‘That’s Jesus.’
Pink designated ‘Jesus probably said something like this.’ or ‘Sure sounds like Jesus.’
Grey designated ‘Jesus did not say this, but the ideas contained in it are close to his own.’ or ‘Well, maybe.’
Black designated ‘Jesus did not say this.  It represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.’ or ‘There’s been some mistake.’ [5]

Of their voting system on each saying, the Seminar states that,
..this…. seemed consonant with the methodological scepticism that was a working principle of the Seminar; when in sufficient doubt, leave it out. [6]

Of the approximately 1100 sayings listed in their book, some have only two or three words in them and form only part of a longer conversation, while other sayings are long monologues by Jesus, particularly from the middle or later chapters of John’s gospel.  Most of Jesus’ sayings in the gospels are given the notation of Black, particularly in John, with a comment such as,
In this form, the saying is the creation of the fourth evangelist. [7]
For the most part, the words in these two sections are a pure reflection of the evangelist’s theology. [8]
The speeches of Jesus in this narrative are all the creative work of the evangelist. [9]
This way of thinking is completely alien to the Jesus of the synoptic aphorisms and parables. [10]
All of this reflects the special interests of the fourth evangelist. [11]
Comments for other gospels given by the Fellows include,
Such statements… were undoubtedly the creation of Matthew or his community. [12]
Most Fellows were persuaded that the saying was a common proverb that the evangelist had adapted to the situation of the early Jesus movement. [13]
….is therefore the creation of the Christian community. [14]
The words ascribed to Jesus are best understood as creative elements provided by the storyteller. [15]

I contend that these reasons, for giving the Black notation, do not necessarily point to a contradiction with Jesus’ teachings, but they are a refutation that Jesus actually said them.   I think there is a difference.  Even though Jesus may not have said the sayings questioned, the content could still have been a reasonable extension or a valid and helpful interpretation of what he did teach.

However, there are some comments, but not a large number, like,
It could not have originated with Jesus. [16]
Matthew, like many in Jesus audience, is misled. [17]
None of this stems, of course, from Jesus of Nazareth. [18]
…together they distort who Jesus was. [19]

So, for me, this all represents a continuum from ‘Yes definitely.  This is what Jesus taught’ to ‘No. This is contrary to what Jesus would have taught.’   I believe this gives a degree of freedom to me to make my own judgements about what sayings of Jesus in the gospels are likely to be authentically from Jesus and what needs to be questioned, maybe very seriously or even rejected.   I believe the Fellows of the Seminar sometimes give me unambiguous and definite directions as to what sayings are consistent with Jesus and what are not, but this is not always the case.   Then I have to make my own assessment.  Somewhat dangerous but I have to do it.   I have my study behind me and the text in front of me and if I am going to make any response to Jesus, I must work with these, knowing full well that my assessments must always be open to change if I gain further and more substantial information.    Can I guard against my own prejudices, etc.?   I try very hard to.
What the Fellows have given to me, I believe, is freedom from my previously held certainties.  The work of the Seminar has released me from the attitude that, ‘It is in the gospel and it says that Jesus said it so it must be true and I must obey it and not question it.’   Instead, I have been given permission to question.

I will be using many of the Jesus Seminar’s conclusions/resolutions because I believe that if this group of scholars, of all people, come to the conclusion that something actually came from the lips of Jesus or at least the saying was consistent with what he taught, I have a solid basis, a firm recommendation for believing just that.

However, in my exercise when I look at what I think motivated Jesus’ teachings, I will go beyond the Seminar’s conclusions and take the risk that such a ‘later or different tradition’ is still connected to Jesus sufficiently and so not discard it.  I use quotes from the gospels which the Seminar thinks are historically suspect, regarding their connection to Jesus himself.   I can live with that.  I exercise a bet-each-way because not all biblical scholars agree with everything the Seminar states anyway.

Available to every Bible reader and in a less academic study of Jesus’ sayings, some passages come quickly to mind.  The Good News Bible is helpful in this regard.  In it, John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, is printed with brackets around it.  (I find it interesting that the story centres on the woman.  She is the sinner.  The man involved seems to be invisible.  I thought it took two to tango!)  This short passage being bracketed and having comments at the bottom of the page in the Good News Bible, could be somewhat confusing to those who do not study the biblical texts deeply and thus be unaware of situations regarding ancient documents.  However, it is stated of this passage at the bottom of the Good News Bible’s page that,
Many manuscripts and early translations do not have this passage; others have it after John 21:24; others have it after Luke 21:28 and one manuscript has it after John 7:36.
Of this story and the sayings of Jesus within it, the Seminar Fellows state,
While the Fellows (of the Seminar) agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done. [20]

I find this a very interesting comment.   It is as though the Fellows are somewhat reluctant to be bound strictly by their historical research model.   What is at play here?  They ‘wish’?    I think the Fellows in this instance, as with others, might be pointing to what they think Funk asks about ‘the truths that inspired and informed Jesus’ and ‘the vision Jesus had.’   If the Fellows of the Seminar ‘wish’ that Jesus had said these sayings, then I am confident that the saying/teaching is not contrary to what Jesus actually taught by his words and actions.  I am personally very pleased this story is included in all the Bible versions I possess.

Another passage that comes to mind, is a saying of Jesus from the Cross in Luke 23:34, “Jesus said, ‘Forgive them Father! They don’t know what they are doing.”  The Good News Bible states in a note at the bottom of the page,
Some manuscripts do not have this saying of Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar states that because,
it is not found in a number of important manuscripts and so probably does not belong in the original text of Luke. [21]
they did not include it in their translation at all and thus make no comment about it.  Pity!  The Fellows of the Seminar could well have said that they “wish Jesus had said….”   Who knows?   I am personally very thankful this saying of Jesus is also included in all the Bible versions I possess.

I will be doing much the same thing when I quote events and/or sayings of Jesus which the Fellows may have resolved to be not directly linked with him, but about which, I ‘wish’ they had been.  In working this way, I realise I am using a different model of operation from that used by the Seminar, in that I believe the Seminar begins its deliberations with the premise that a saying should NOT be included in those directly attributed to Jesus unless evidence is produced to substantiate that it should be included.
…consonant with the methodological scepticism that was a working principle of the Seminar: when in sufficient doubt, leave it out. [22]

Rather, I am working on the basis that if a saying or event is recorded in the gospels, then it is OK unless I think it is contrary to the core and general thrust of Jesus’ message.   I realise that’s taking a big and maybe an uneducated risk; nevertheless I proceed this way.    In this regard I intend to use John’s gospel because it is a book of the New Testament we often use in church services and it is very familiar to regular church-goers.   I am not going to be restricted by the Fellows of the Seminar because of their 98% Black (There’s been some mistake.) designations for the sayings in this gospel.

.in the Gospel of John. The Fellows of the Seminar were unable to find a single saying they could with certainty trace back to the historical Jesus. [23]

So I need to identify what I am being faithful to when making decisions as to what I think belongs in the teachings of/from Jesus.  Being in the Gospels is extremely important to me, as is obvious from the constant references I make to them later, but it is not the only criterion for making such decisions.

The limitation we experience is that if we wish to scrutinise the life and teachings of Jesus then the main source we have is the New Testament itself and particularly the gospels.  Unfortunately there are only passing references to him in the secular literature of his time, and many of the non-canonical gospels are there but are somewhat unknown to me.
Greg Jenks in his book, ‘Jesus Then and Jesus Now’ has commented on many non-biblical sources of information about the ‘Jesus Then’, however the gospels not in the New Testament he refers to, are never mentioned in church services I attend. They are certainly not known or considered by ordinary church-goers.   Generally speaking they know nothing of any gospels other than the four in the New Testament we currently have.
However, the fact that we have four different gospels, each with their own agenda, and that in these gospels there seems to be quite divergent emphases both about Jesus’ mission and his teachings, makes it clear that there was not just one single memory or report about him.  What seems to be contradictory teachings of Jesus are occasionally recorded, and that lends weight to the idea that the text was not censored to such a great extent that only one unified, totally integrated story is presented.

The writers are not writing a factual history of sayings or events in Jesus’ life but are telling their story for a reason and telling it from the resources of the individual and collective memories of followers of Jesus as well as oral and a few written early traditions they had.   The writer of John’s gospel states the reason for writing, quite plainly.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name.   (John 20:30-31.)
This, I believe, announces for each of the gospel writers, their purpose for writing.
So, as Funk asks,
To what divine manifesto did he succumb?  By what vision was he both captivated and liberated? ….. What were the truths that inspired and informed Jesus?  [24]

To begin with, I invest a lot in the Two Great Commandments that are recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke, in difference contexts, but in all three gospels.    We know that both Matthew and Luke used Mark very extensively but the fact that they both chose to use what was in Mark in this instance, says something.  In these cases the Fellows of the Seminar, by a large majority decision, state for Mark 12:29-31,
that the ideas in this exchange represent Jesus’ own views. [25]
And for Matthew 22:37-40,
There is certainly nothing in Jesus’ words that is inimical to what he says and does elsewhere in the tradition.  [26]
The teachings of a famous contemporary teacher of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, came into the Fellows considerations regarding where the saying originated.  For Luke, Jesus does not actually say the words so the Fellows make no comment.  John does not come into the picture at all.

Partly because of this positive but scholarly critical appraisal by the Fellows of the Seminar about these two commandments of Jesus, I am encouraged to give them much weight as being the basis and core to his actual teachings. If this radical group and, as some would say, “This biased group who are against Jesus”, decided that the Mark saying is,
…. the ideas in this exchange represent Jesus’ own views,
that is significant for me.

I do realise that these two commandments are open to a wide variation of interpretation but for me they form a good foundation for deciding what Jesus taught.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him,

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’  The second is this ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31.)

Regarding the many other teachings of Jesus I need to ask, “What else do I rely on as being the truths that inspired and informed Jesus?”

From my lyrics  No. 17.
Jesus – Teacher, Carer, Rebel
Tune    Battle Hymn

The Lord, a wondrous teacher, brought a challenge when he spoke;
His authority was welcomed by the poor and simple folk;
Yet, the truth he taught and lived was calculated to provoke.
His wisdom guides us on.
Glory, glory, Hallelujah
His wisdom guides us on.

The Lord, as teacher, carer, rebel calls to everyone;
There are conflicts to engage and there is work that must be done.
For in him we have assurance that the victory will be won.
His triumph drives us on.
Glory, glory, Hallelujah.
His triumph drives us on.

I begin in a different place to many others, in that I commence with material not tied to the Bible.  I begin with the cross-cultural, cross-religious, nearly universally held human virtues/attitudes that are stated by Gretta Vosper in her book, when she lists
what a group of clergy and laypeople, using non-religious language, considered to be of utmost importance in life, what they would not want to risk losing, what they hoped their great-great-grandchildren would still be living by. [27]
The list includes,
hope, peace, joy, innocence, delight, forgiveness, caring, love, respect, wisdom, honour, creativity, tranquillity, beauty, imagination, humour, awe, truth, purity, justice, courage, fun, compassion, challenge, knowledge, daring, artistry, wonder, strength, and trustworthiness. [28]

From my own perspective I wish to add some;
patience, acceptance, tolerance, freedom, humility, kindness, gentleness, integrity, generosity, non-violence, non-vengeance, equality and hospitality.

These lists are the lists I work with but I have little doubt that you might add others and maybe delete some as being redundant, having been covered by others.   I believe that if these virtues/attitudes were embraced and practised by all humanity, we would be experiencing God’s Domain, the realisation of the vision Jesus had for the world, the truths that inspired and informed him.   As you read through the lists, I would not be surprised if you had an increasing feeling of optimism.

Together, they also help me to understand a little better what the first of Jesus’ two commandments might be about.   To be consistent and honest, I have always been bewildered with this first, loving God commandment.  I have never found a satisfactory answer to my questions, “How do I demonstrate this love for God?  Do I sing praises to God silently all the time?  Do I study the bible at every possible opportunity? Do I put a lot of time into church work?  Do I spend hours in prayer?  Do I concentrate more on my sinfulness and ask God’s forgiveness?  Do I keep telling God how much I love God?”  I just don’t know.   Having rejected the belief in an outside separate and distinct God, none of this makes sense to me anymore.   However, when contemplating the lists of virtues/attitudes, I think that if I concentrate on these in my daily living and try to live by them all the time, then I might be loving God.  But if I do this, most of my demonstration of loving God has to do with loving others, my neighbour.  This makes sense and fits very comfortably with my panentheistic beliefs.  If I am on the right track I think this may be why in Matthew’s 22:39, the words, ‘And a second is like it’ are inserted.   I nearly think that the only way I can demonstrate to myself that I love God, is by loving others.
Regarding the teachings ‘of’ Jesus, I am NOT asserting that something is made good because Jesus taught it.  I AM asserting the teaching is good and it is good that Jesus taught it.   It’s not good ‘because’ Jesus said it.   It’s good ‘that’ Jesus said it.   Jesus did not invent or discover these values/attitudes but, as I remember from my Christian education, these were given top priority in his life and teachings.

Using these lists of virtues/attitudes I seek to make, for each, connections with Jesus in his story as presented in the four canonical gospels and occasionally the Gospel of Thomas.  I try to make a case for thinking that Jesus was motivated by the above lists; that these were the truths that informed, inspired and liberated him.  I make comment on each individual word.

There are quite a few; 43 in all.   Isn’t that interesting?   I did not deliberately organise it so, but I have been told that 42 is the answer to the ultimate question of the universe.  I have gone one better!   Surely that must be a sign that I am on the right track!

I look at each of these virtues/attitudes in turn as listed.  Some quotes from the gospels are used more than once because they are important to more than one of the virtues/attitudes in the above lists.   You may also be able to think of other, more suitable gospel quotes.  Go for it.  For some quotes, I have not given the Bible quotes in full so I hope you have your Bible handy if you wish to follow the full text.

As my mentor and confidant, Rev Alan Stuart, who also happens to be my elder brother, writes on the subject,
Sometimes it is difficult to decide which virtue is illustrated in a story.  One might see strength and courage, while another would see merely bravado.  Some might see compassion, others might label it simply consideration.  …  One person’s interpretation may well be rejected by another.  …  There are some stories depicting much more than one virtue.  The woman taken in adultery John 8 shows courage, discernment, knowledge, compassion, forgiveness etc.

So I proceed somewhat tentatively, with each from the list from Gretta Vosper’s book and then my additions.

1. Jesus and Hope.

In Matthew 5:3-11, we have the Beatitudes.  These speak to me of hope; hope, that the sorts of behaviour mentioned will bring about the stated results.  I do not believe these stated results are necessarily guaranteed, even though some speak of certitude.  I believe Jesus is teaching disciples to act in these ways because they are important and also in the hope that the said outcomes will eventuate.

I would say the same thing about Matthew 7:7-8, when Jesus is speaking about asking, looking and knocking.  These teachings are future oriented.  That is what hope is about; the future.  These teachings are again given with certainty but I believe Jesus is encouraging disciples to act in these particular ways, hopefully.   I don’t think Jesus is saying that receiving automatically always follows asking.  This is what verse 8 seems to say.  But if we don’t ask, it will not be known what is being requested.  I don’t think Jesus means that finding always automatically follows seeking.   However, this is what verse 8 seems to say.  But if we don’t seek there will be no finding.  From the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find.” (Saying 77.)
I think this is more realistic.
I can imagine that if some asylum seekers were confronted with these verses they might respond by saying, “We have being knocking on Australia’s door for years but the door remains shut.  What does Jesus mean?”  While that is a totally understandable position to take, with the continued knocking, the door maybe becoming just a tiny bit opened.  If they and many other sympathisers don’t keep knocking and knocking loudly, the government will not even think of opening the door.  No need to.

When these verses of Matthew in chapter 7 are taken with the next few, continuing to verse 11, then a context of asking, seeking and knocking is created and as such qualify them to an extent.    Even if we ask for good things, verse 11, life as it is, does not confirm that certitude is the case; that after asking, receiving always happens, that after seeking, finding always happens and that after knocking, every door is opened.  Not at all!  I believe these teachings are all future oriented and are speaking about hope.
So for the beatitudes, they speak to me in this way: ‘Be meek so that you might inherit the earth.  Do hunger and thirst after righteousness and hopefully you will be satisfied.  Be a peacemaker and you might be called a child of God.’

I think Jesus teaches the importance of living with hope, not passively but intentionally, helping to realise our hopes.   Hope is important.  Let it flourish.

2. Jesus and Peace.

This is a difficult one.
In Matthew 5:9 Jesus talks about peacemakers being called sons of God.   What a high commendation.   This is just what children of God are, or at least should be.  They are peacemakers.  In Mark 9:50 Jesus teaches us to “Live in peace with one another. “
However, there are quite a few other passages that could be quoted, offering an opposite view of Jesus’ teachings, as in Matthew 10:34-36, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” and repeated in Luke 12:51-53, “Do you suppose that I have come to bring peace to the world?  No, not peace but division.”  Unfortunately such texts have been used as justification for war.  I personally, do not believe that was what Jesus had in mind.    It doesn’t fit with the main thrust of his message.    Jesus preached ‘enemy love’.      This was not the way of Rome.  It was the way of Jesus.  However, it can be said that when looking at lots of Jesus’ activities, they were anything but peaceful.  Often he did not act as a peaceful man.   He certainly did not have a peaceful death.

Peace and a peaceful approach is not always the most appropriate approach to issues of justice and Jesus was really on about justice.  There surely is a place for protest in an unjust world.     Where there is conflict, it is not necessary to resort to violence because there is a way to non-violently protest.  Many protests today are conducted in such a way.    Sometimes it is most appropriate to stand firmly against wrong.  Sometimes it may even be necessary to initiate conflict.   That need not include violence.  Matters can be resolved peacefully.  This, of course, is not always the case.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an ardent non-violent advocate, was executed for being involved in an assassination attempt on Hitler.    Such can be the way in an unjust world.

Many of Jesus’ teachings were so revolutionary, so confronting, so challenging of the status-quo that they could be said to engender anything but peace.   They kindled, even incited conflict.   At the end of the parable in Matthew 21:33-43, it is stated in verse 45, ‘When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was talking about them.  But when they tried to arrest him….’

Not every human encounter requires a peaceful reaction.     Where peace is appropriate to pursue, I believe Jesus teaches it.  I believe Jesus worked with the dilemma of peace and conflict and got the balance right.   The teaching of Paul is I believe a testimony to Jesus.  Romans 12:18 states, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

I think Jesus teaches us to live in peace.  But not at any price!   Peace is important.  Let it flourish.

3. Jesus and Joy.

I cannot remember any specific teaching of Jesus exhorting us to be joyful, however he makes reference to joy in some of his parables.  The parables of the lost sheep in Luke 15:3-7, the lost coin in Luke 15:8-10 and the Two Sons in Luke 15:11-32 are prime examples.  Joy is not only appropriate but the prized result in these stories.   In Luke 6: 23, joy is often connected with Jesus’ promise of rewards in Heaven.  I’m not sure what to make of this.

I think Jesus teaches that it is important for us to generate joy and also to enjoy joy.   Joy is important.  Let it flourish.

4. Jesus and Innocence.

Again I cannot remember Jesus teaching anything specifically about innocence.  However, I believe it is quite possible to link the idea of innocence to Jesus’ love of children and his comment in Matthew 18:3, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”  I think Jesus could have been referring to the innocence of children, the trusting nature of children.

With another meaning of the word innocence, I think that to be innocent of wrong doing was central to his teachings.  He is even quoted as saying in Matthew 5:48, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Not much room for wrong doing!   Disciples must be innocent.

I think Jesus teaches us to strive after innocence.   Innocence is important.  Let it flourish.

5. Jesus and Delight.

Yet again, I cannot remember when Jesus actually taught something specific about delight.   I cannot find a reference to the word in the gospels.  However, delight can be linked with joy and happiness.  I find it interesting to see that the Good News Bible begins the beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-11 with, “Happy are those….”.  Maybe another translation could have been, ‘Delighted are those who…..’.  If so, there is certainly encouragement from Jesus to experience this emotion as a result of discipleship.

I can imagine that from Luke 15:6b, the one searching was delighted when he found the lost sheep; that in Luke 15:9, the woman was delighted when she found the lost coin; that in Luke 15:32, the father was absolutely delighted when his wayward son returned, and that in Matthew 13:45-46, the man searching for pearls was surprisingly delighted when he found his prize.   I could go on.

I think Jesus teaches us that delight can be an appropriate outcome of discipleship.   Delight is important.  Let if flourish.

6. Jesus and Forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a major sign of discipleship and a major teaching from Jesus.   Matthew 18:21-22 states that disciples are to forgive ‘seventy times seven’, in other words, without limit.  Luke 23:34 tells of Jesus’ example, practising extreme total forgiveness from the Cross.  In Luke 15:20, the parable of the Two Sons has the theme of forgiveness, with the father embracing his wayward younger son when he returned.

I know that love and forgiveness are very closely aligned to one-another and that one can generate the other.   However, I think that love is that which usually takes the initiative and forgiveness is often a result of this initiative.   I’m not sure that forgiveness necessarily gives rise to love but most surely, if accepted, it generates thankfulness and gratitude, particularly if it restores a broken relationship.

However, when Jesus in Luke 7:40-48, was invited by a Pharisee to a meal and was not accorded the required welcoming gestures, water to wash his feet, a kiss of welcome and anointing his head with oil, he told a parable about the creditor who had two debtors, in which one has a small debt while the other has a very large one. They were both forgiven and then Jesus asks who would love the creditor the more.  I personally think a more appropriate question would have been, ‘Who would be the more grateful? Who would be more thankful?’

Jesus’ teaches forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer, in Matthew 6:12. “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”  I note that in this prayer, if Jesus actually taught it, that forgiveness is reciprocal, as in the parable of the wicked servant in Matthew 18:23-35.   It seems on the one hand that forgiveness is dependent on the person receiving the forgiveness, to forgive in the first place.   On the other hand Jesus hardly ever asks the person whom he forgives, whether or not they have forgiven others.   Funk states in his 12th thesis,
Jesus made forgiveness reciprocal.  Jesus tells the paralytic, the blind and, the adulteress that they are forgiven, without exacting penalties or promises from them.  Jesus forgives because his Father forgives and on the same terms: without penalty or promise.  The only requirement is reciprocity: one is forgiven to the extent that one forgives.  Thus, one can become the recipient of forgiveness only if one first becomes the agent of forgiveness.  By acknowledging that forgiveness is in the hands of the humans agents, Jesus precludes the possibility of vesting the matter in the hands of priests of clerics or even God. [29]

In a few of the parables of Jesus, I think Funk is correct but many times, gospel stories about Jesus forgiving, reciprocity doesn’t seem to come into the picture. In many cases he doesn’t say, “You now go and forgive others.”  A bit confusing.  My understanding of forgiveness is that, for it to be genuine, it has to be unconditional; like love.   As Funk says above, it flows without ‘exacting penalties or promises’ from the recipient.  I think reciprocity comes into the picture because if one does not forgive then, I believe, one has not understood forgiveness nor is really able to accept it.

What a privileged place we hold when we can forgive and what a profound responsible privilege to do so.

I think Jesus teaches us that forgiveness is at the centre of discipleship. Forgiveness is important. Let it flourish.

7. Jesus and Caring.

Caring is another central feature of Jesus’ life and teaching.  Caring is one expression of love.   By example Jesus taught disciples that caring was central.   In Matthew 11:28, Jesus spoke of his care to all, giving rest to those who carry heavy loads, and in Matthew 20:29-34, to blind men who called to Jesus and whom the crowd in verse 31a, told to be quiet.   Jesus ‘stopped and called to them’ in verse 32 and asks them “What do you want me to do for you?”  He cared!   I could go on.

Jesus teaches that to be caring is what his disciples do.  In Luke 10:36-37, one of the meanings drawn from the parable of the Good Samaritan, is caring for those who are in need.

I think Jesus teaches us to be caring. It is essential in our discipleship.  Caring is important. Let it flourish.

8. Jesus and Love.

Love really needs no comment from me.   It is obvious that this is what Jesus and his teachings are all about. He certainly felt this human emotion, when in Luke 13:34 he wanted to embrace Jerusalem, in John 11:33 where we are told that Jesus ‘was deeply moved in spirit and troubled’, and later in John11:35, where it is stated that ‘Jesus wept.’ at the news of his friend, Lazarus’s death.   Many times grief is born of love.

Jesus’ two great commandments in Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28, about loving God and neighbour, make abundantly clear that love is the core of his teachings.  John’s gospel gives a well-known statement of Jesus’ teachings about love in John 15:12, “Love one another as I have loved you”.  Jesus shows forgiving love when he washes Judas’s feet because in John 13:2 and 13:11 we are told that Jesus ‘knowing’ that he was going to betray him.   In Matthew 5:43-44, and in Luke 6:27-31, there are teachings of Jesus about enemy love going as far as turning the other cheek when struck.  He teaches about being generous which is born of love; “and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold you coat as well”.  In Luke 6:31, Jesus then finishes with a short version of the Golden Rule.  In Matthew 5:46-47, Jesus askes some piercing questions about love, for example, “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

In John 13:15 Jesus teaches in word and by example.  Jesus teaches us that love is the essential attribute of disciples and love is to motivate our actions and our interactions with others.  Love is important. Let it flourish.

9. Jesus and Respect.

Regarding respect, I don’t find this specially mentioned by Jesus in his teachings.  But Jesus respected most people with whom he came in contact. His relationships with scribes, Pharisees and religious leaders of his day, cause a question mark.  But his deeds showed and taught respect.

Jesus gave respect to many who were not respected by his society.  Jesus gave respect to the unclean woman of Samaria by speaking to her, in John 4:7 saying “Give me a drink.”, and the disciples, being stuck in their culture and tradition, John 4:27, ‘marvelled’; in Matthew 8:1-3 Jesus gave respect to the sick, unclean and even lepers by touching them, which according to the law, made Jesus unclean as well, and in Luke 19:5 he gave respect to Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, by asking to go to his house, thus demonstrating that he was a friend to him.

I think Jesus teaches us by his own behaviour, to respect all others.  Respect is important. Let it flourish.

10. Jesus and Wisdom.

In Matthew 7:29 and Mark 1:22, wisdom was certainly attributed to Jesus, ‘The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority and not as the scribes.’    We are told in Luke 2:40 that Jesus ‘grew and became strong, filled with wisdom…’

The parable, attributed to him in Matthew 25:1-13 is about ten maidens, five who were wise and five foolish, implying that preparedness is crucial and wise when taking hold of opportunities if and when they present themselves.

When Jesus sends out his disciples on mission he tells them in Matthew 10:16 to be, “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” probably pointing to ill-advised acceptance of first impressions.   Be discerning.  In Luke 21:8a, I think Jesus taught us that it is wise to be careful, not to be led astray by people’s claims.   From Thomas, part of saying No. 39, Jesus points in the same direction.  “As for you, be as sly as snakes and as simple as doves.”

I think Jesus taught us to pursue wisdom and to cultivate it.  Wisdom is important. Let it flourish.

11. Jesus and Honour.

Honour is given and received.  I love birthdays.  In our family, they are important.   We all get together, usually about 15 or 16 of us to celebrate them.  Birthdays give us a chance to pay honour, more than respect, to each member of the family just because they are a member of our family.

There are honour boards in schools and sporting clubs to honour high achievers.  In Australia we have the Queen’s honour list every year.  We give honour to the generous donations that philanthropists give to universities for research.  One could go on.
I believe these affirmations are all important.   We might even learn a lot from team sports-people about affirming good achievements by a particular team member, paying them honour.

This is all good but Jesus, to an extent, turned honour on its head by honouring those who may not have deserved it; in Mark 12:44, Luke 21:1-4 where a widow who made an offering of only a mite to the temple, in Luke 19:9 where Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector is called by Jesus a Son of Abraham, and in Luke 13:10-17, particularly verse 16 when the woman, who was ‘bound by Satan’, is called by Jesus, “a descendant of Abraham”.  Being spoken of as a son or descendant of Abraham was the highest honour that could be given by a Jew.
Jesus words were accompanied with actions.

Honour to be real honour needs more than words. Matthew 15:7-8 is when Jesus accuses the Pharisees and scribes, using an Isaiah prophesy, saying, “This people honours me with their lips but their heart is far from me”.

I think Jesus teaches us to give honour.  Honour is important. Let it flourish.

12. Jesus and Creativity.

My eldest daughter, Cathy, created an impressive bridesmaid’s dress, made out of plastic bags. I doubt whether anyone will be courageous enough to wear it at a wedding but that rather outlandish creation has no doubt given rise to many more practical creations.
I don’t think this word ‘creativity’ appears anywhere in the Bible but that does not mean the concept is absent.  I think Jesus was incredibly creative, maybe not as a sculptor or a wood carver or even an artist, but very creative in the way he went about his ministry.   Fancy in Mark 14:22-25, using a normal everyday experience of ordinary people, like eating and drinking together, to create the most significant sacrament for the Christian church for the next 2000 years – the Eucharist.  Fancy, in Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus giving 12 rather uneducated and unsophisticated men, many of them fishermen, the responsibility to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”, helping to start the Christian movement.   In Acts 4:13, we have ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered…..’  The ‘they’ in the text were the priests, the captain of the temple, the Sadducees, the rulers, the elders and members of the high priestly family, and ‘they’ wondered.

In Luke 13:10-17, we are told that in the synagogue Jesus was not afraid to argue with officials of the synagogue about what is permitted on the Sabbath, and at the end of this occasion it is stated in verse 17 that, ‘..all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.’  I believe this shows how clever Jesus was, how creative he was, to take on his opponents in their own territory, the temple, when in Mark11:18 we are told that, ‘For they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.’

Jesus expects us to be creative in how we exercise our discipleship and how we are involved in the church’s mission, to find ways that are not the usual.

I think Jesus teaches us creativity by being creative himself.   Creativity is important. Let it flourish.

13. Jesus and Tranquillity.

I am not surprised this is in the Vosper list.  Given the pace of life today, I can image that many people have nearly lost this concept altogether.   Jesus certainly sought it at times of decision or at times when he needed a rest.  Tranquillity is often associated with solitude and Jesus needed this in times of prayer.  Matthew 14:23, Luke 6:12 are examples.   In Matthew 6:6 Jesus teaches his disciples to pray in private and not make a show of it. He sought peace, even tranquillity in the Garden of Gethsemane but I don’t think he found it.  In Luke 4:42 Jesus wanted solitude but it was denied him.

I think Jesus taught by his behaviour that tranquillity is important when life is demanding.  Tranquillity is important to regain inner strength.  Let it flourish.

14. Jesus and Beauty.

Jesus seemed to be far more interested in inner beauty than outward appearance. In Matthew 23:27, he describes the scribes and Pharisees, “as whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful”, for their hypocrisy.   In Matthew 6:25 he criticised those who paid too much attention to outward appearance.   In Matthew 6:28b-29 he took notice of and appreciated simple beauty, comparing lilies favourably with “Solomon and all his glory”.

I find it a pity that we are not told that Jesus said more about beauty and how we can appreciate it in so many ways.

However I think Jesus teaches that beauty is more than skin deep.  Beauty is important. Let it flourish.

15. Jesus and Imagination.

Have you ever been told, “Use your imagination?”  Sometimes this suggestion can be issued when logic and rational thinking do not produce helpful results.   I think using one’s imagination includes thinking outside the box, thinking that is not bound by factual information.   My wife does cryptic crossword puzzles.    The only way I can help, and it is very seldom, is to use my imagination!

Dr. Walter Brueggemann often uses the term ‘faithful imagination’ when speaking about the Bible, its contents and its authors.   When Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his inspiring homily, ‘I have a Dream’, to America, I believe he was driven partly by his hopeful imagination.

I think the many parallels that Jesus drew between ordinary material things and those of the Kingdom of God were very imaginative.   He made connections that most of us would never think of.   He compared the Kingdom of Heaven with sowing a mustard seed, in Matthew 13:31-32; yeast, in Matthew 13:33; hidden treasure, in Matthew 13:44; fine pearls, in Matthew 13:45-46; fishermen throwing out their nets, in Matthew 13:47-50, and so on.  His numerous parables demonstrate his vivid creative imagination in the way he taught.   Many of his aphorisms were very imaginative.  In Matthew 5:13-16 he used salt, a city set on a hill, a lamp upon a stand as metaphors of discipleship.  Very imaginative.
Metaphorical thinking often requires exercising the imagination.  Jesus has not been reported as ever saying, “Use your imagination.”, however, I think imagination was part of his ‘modus operandi’.  He wanted his disciples to exercise their imagination. They had to, because his message was so far outside the normal traditional religious teaching of his day.  They had to think outside the pharisaic box.

I think that Jesus teaches, by his own example and by how he himself taught, that the use of human imagination is very significant for us as disciples.  Imagination is important. Let it flourish.

16. Jesus and Humour.

Humour is cultural.   A good example of this is the film, ‘The Castle’.   It is an Australian classic and many of us Australians enjoy watching it again and again, each time bursting into laughter many times.   However, I have been told that many Americans see very little that is funny in it.  That is a comment, not about Americans and Australians, but about cultural nature of humour.

Jewish, Hebrew humour is born out of its culture like all other forms of humour.  It has been suggested by some commentators that the mention in Matthew 10:30 that the “hairs of your head are all numbered”, in Mark 10:25 of “a camel to go through the eye of a needle”, in Mark 10:30 of having “hundreds of houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands” as a reward (I have had said to me that having one sister, three brothers, one mother and one father is quite enough thank you very much!), are all examples of what could be regarded as humour in the gospels.

It seems that humour was not important to the authors of the story of Jesus in the gospels but I don’t think means that he had no sense of humour.   I do not see humour as significant in Jesus’ teachings.   But humour is important. Let it flourish.

17.  Jesus and Awe.

The Bible has numerous pointers to awe.   Even though the actual word is used rarely, the Psalms often speak of the feeling of awe.  Close to this feeling maybe in Matthew 6:26-30, when Jesus contemplates lilies of the field and the grass.   Maybe stretching it a bit!   The end phrases of the Lord’s Prayer also might point towards awe.

With the explosion of scientific knowledge about the cosmos, the intricate workings of the micro universe and the complexity of the human species, as well as other research findings, awe is a universal feeling today.

For me, awe is not one of the core emphases of Jesus’ teaching but I think it is there.   Awe is important. Let it flourish.

18. Jesus and Truth.

Some, but very few people refuse to take an oath in court.   They sometimes refer to Matthew 5:33-37 about swearing oaths, saying that, as disciples of Jesus, they need take no oath because they will always tell the truth.  Telling the truth is a ‘given’ for followers of Jesus.

John 1:14 asserts that the Word that became flesh was ‘full of grace and truth’ and in John 1:17 that both ‘grace and truth came

One of the famous ‘I am’ sayings by Jesus in John 14:6a is “I am the way, the truth and the life”.   I think that being truth means that Jesus embodies the truth.  I think it would automatically follow that Jesus requires all his disciples to always tell the truth and live by it.

When Jesus was arguing with the Jews, whom Jesus accused of wanting to kill him, he speaks in John 8:44 of the devil who “has nothing to do with the truth” and also says “He is a liar and the father of lies”.    Jesus embodies the opposite, the truth.

By inference, Jesus teaches that the truth matters.  His is the way of truth.  Truth is important. Let it flourish.

19. Jesus and purity.

Purity in the time of Jesus, was spoken of mostly in terms of the purity laws, like in Matthew 15:1-2 which tells of washing hands before eating, etc.  This is not, I think, what purity in the list above is concerned with.  The purity listed, I presume, has to do with innocence, chastity and freedom from evil and guilt.  Matthew 5:8 Jesus comments that, “the pure in heart for they shall see God.”  Sometimes people narrow the meaning of purity down to matters of lust and sex. In Matthew 5:28 Jesus, being male, does talk about one who “looks at a woman lustfully” but I think he has a broader interest in purity than this.  Purity in relationships has to do with honesty, openness, respect and truth.  Purity of act and thought is the issue and it has to do with being clean, being free from anything that debases, defiles or contaminates.   The application of purity is far wider than sex and lust even though these are included.  In Mark 7:21-23 Jesus speaks about purity of thought when he lists the impurities which, coming from inside the heart of a person, defile the person. He says “..come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolhardiness. All these things come from within, and they defile a man”.   Purity does not entertain any of this.

Jesus makes little specific reference to purity in his teachings, but I believe it is clearly implied.   Purity is important. Let it flourish.

20. Jesus and Justice.

One of the serious continuing arguments Jesus has with the Pharisees is about justice.  Amongst many other quotes, Luke 11:42 has Jesus accuses them of neglecting justice.  By inference, this makes justice and the practise of it, a significant aspect of Jesus’ teachings.
I often go back to the Old Testament prophets of Micah and Amos when thinking of the biblical injunctions to seek justice and I nearly forget that this was one of the main issues Jesus had with the religious and other leaders of his day.   One of the significant arguments Jesus’ has with the Pharisees is about Sabbath keeping.  In Mark 3:4 he asks, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”, and he criticises a ruler of the synagogue in Luke 13:15-16 for untying an ox or an ass and leading “it away to water it”, but not condoning a healing.  These arguments have to do with justice.  Jesus berates the lawyers of his day in Luke 11:46 for loading “man with burdens hard to bear”, and in Luke 11:52 for not doing their job in prosecuting justice but taking “away the key of knowledge”.

One of the tragedies of today is that it seems revenge and punishment is what people are really talking about when they say, “I want justice”.

Again Jesus is not recorded in the gospels as having given any direct specific teaching about justice but by his actions, his example, his conversations and arguments as well as by the main thrusts of his message and ministry, Jesus, I believe, teaches his disciples to act justly and to pursue justice at all times.

Biblical scholars I have read more recently, speak of ‘distributive’ justice and I think this is what Jesus was on about.   I don’t think he was on about ‘retributive’ justice.

I believe Jesus lived justly.  I believe he teaches and argues for justice.   Justice is important. Let it flourish.

21. Jesus and Courage.

Many times Jesus himself demonstrated courage in the face of personal threat and possible danger, in Matthew 8:28, confronting two demoniacs, ‘so fierce that no one could pass that way’, in Mark10:33-34, confronting death in Jerusalem; in Luke 4:29-30, as a result of his courageous preaching all the people of the synagogue, ‘led him out of the city and led him to the brow of the hill on which the city was built that they might throw him down headlong.’, the outcome being in Luke 4:30, ‘But passing through the midst of them, he went away.’  There are many other passages I could quote about the courage of Jesus.   There is dangerous conflict with the religious leaders of his day that goes right through the Jesus story as presented in the gospels.  He courageously confronted his opponents.
Thomas, the disciple, possibly catches some of Jesus’ courage when he said to his fellow disciples about going to Jerusalem.  In John 11:16, he says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.

When commissioning his disciples for mission Jesus obviously implies that they would need courage. It states in Luke 10:3 that Jesus is sending them out “as lambs in the midst of wolves”.  It does take courage to stand up to the world and conventional wisdom and Jesus exhorts his disciples to have it and act with it.

Jesus lived courageously and by word and example he teaches us that courage is necessary in the exercise of our discipleship. Courage is important. Let it flourish.

22. Jesus and Fun.

I think that Jesus and his disciples must have had many times of fun together.   People do not continue to belong to a group unless they have some fun and enjoyment with other members, and Jesus and his disciples were fairly much together for at least 1 year and maybe 3.   I’m sure fun was experienced by them all from time to time, maybe even at each other’s expense.  That’s what fun can be about sometimes.

However, in all the 89 chapters of the four gospels no mention is made of fun.  I cannot find any gospel evidence that Jesus was a funny man.  This does not worry me much.  And again this does not mean that Jesus and the gospel writers could not have enjoyed a good joke.

I have been told that the writers of the gospels were not interested in fun.  I realise this but fun, even if thought of as shallow, still has its important place.  Jesus and the disciples were on about very serious matters and fun didn’t really fit into the story.  I personally find this disappointing.  It does not make his teachings deficient but I think the Jesus story is the less without it.

Even though I believe it is absent from the Jesus story, fun is important. Let it flourish.

23. Jesus and Compassion.

Like love, compassion is central to Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching.   Compassion seems to me to be a little more specific in its meaning than love.   For me, its emphasis is on action.   It certainly involves feelings and emotions when Jesus had compassion on the crowds in Matthew 9:36, with the crowds being ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ and in Matthew 14:14, just when they followed him; in Mark 6:34, and again ‘like sheep without a shepherd’.  We are told in Luke 7:13 Jesus had feelings of compassion for a grieving mother, saying to her, “Do not weep”.   Jesus, in his parables, praises the action of people showing compassion to others.  In Luke 10:33, in the story of the Good Samaritan and in Luke 15:20 when a father welcomes home his wayward son are just a few examples.    Each time these human emotions/feelings led to immediate action.

Jesus does say “Love one another.” and by this it is obvious that he teaches his disciples to be compassionate. He also teaches disciples in Luke 6:36, “Be merciful even as your Father is merciful”.   Mercy can be a product of compassion.

Like love, compassion is central to Jesus’ life, ministry and teachings.  Compassion is important. Let it flourish.

24. Jesus and challenge.

Life has many challenges and they are different for each of us, however challenges are encountered by everyone most of their lives.  There are challenges in marriage, parenting, careers, doing homework, paying the home mortgage, staying on track, winning a race, etc.  For some, getting up each morning can be a real challenge.

Jesus just adds to all this.  No one can read the gospels without being confronted by the challenges Jesus gives.  Sometimes these challenges seem extreme.  Luke 9:57-62 pulls no punches, when Jesus says that “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”, after which he deals with delaying tactics of would-be followers.   In the Revised Standard Version, Matthew 5:48 Jesus gives the ultimate challenge, “You, therefore be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”   I’m not sure that this challenge is very helpful because I think it will only engender guilt.  How on earth can we be perfect?   We know that discipleship was never going to be easy, but being perfect?!

Jesus faced challenges all through his life, sometimes from his closest followers, when Peter rebuked him and Jesus had to say in Mark 8:33, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Jesus’ three temptations related in Matthew 4:1-10 were also symbolic of the challenges he had to face all his life.    Probably the story which demonstrates his most serious challenge is his struggle in the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, related in Luke 22:42, when he prayed, “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me, nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done”, and then he sweated blood, Luke 22:44.  As he did throughout his life, he met his challenges with strength, courage and integrity.

Life is a challenge and I believe Jesus gives us more of the same.  He had plenty and he came through.  Challenge is important. Let it flourish.

25. Jesus and Knowledge.

Because of the 2000 years since the gospels were written, knowledge has now taken on different significance.   Research today, compared with years ago, flourishes and in so doing gives rise to more information, more knowledge.   Increases in information/knowledge is seen as essential today.   I don’t really think that knowledge is as important as wisdom.

However, Jesus does speak of doing some investigation to gain knowledge about the costs of building a tower and in Luke 14:28-31 knowing the strength of an adversary.  Only then is it appropriate to plan what action might be taken.  From Thomas, saying No. 35, Jesus says, “One can’t enter a strong person’s house and take it by force without tying his hands.  Then one can loot his house”.  Maybe not a good example but the teaching is to gain knowledge and only then, act.

Jesus also condemns the unconscionable behaviour of lawyers who in Luke 11:52 “have taken away the key of knowledge”, and also have prevented others from gaining it, thus preventing justice being achieved.  Jesus links his condemnation of lawyers with the Pharisees’ serious neglect of justice.  Jesus also warns about being led astray by false prophets.   He says in Matthew 7:15-20 to “Beware of false prophets”.  Obtain knowledge of their activities/fruits.  “You will know them by their fruits”.  In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus requires us to use our common sense because in a part of the saying, No.45 Jesus says, “Grapes are not harvested from thorn trees, nor are figs gathered from thistles”.

Although knowledge does not seem to be a central theme of Jesus’ teachings, he certainly teaches disciples to seek it when appropriate.   Knowledge is important. Let it flourish.

26. Jesus and Daring.

Acts of daring as such, are not specifically mentioned in the gospels but daring is constantly there in Jesus’ actions and his behaviour, especially when confronting his adversaries.    I have mentioned this when speaking of creativity.  His uncompromising message and the way he presented it, led him into daring activities very often.  He had his particular way of influencing people but I don’t think he was into ‘winning friends’.
In the synagogue, Jesus was not afraid to argue with officials of the synagogue about what is permitted on the Sabbath.  Luke 13:10-17 shows how clever Jesus was, how creative he was, in taking on his opponents in their own territory.  As well as Jesus being clever, it surely demonstrates his daring.   By his example Jesus shows that taking a risk, even daring, is sometimes necessary in the exercise of discipleship, but it may have dire consequences sometimes.   It certainly did for him.

I think he may have been acting in a daring manner when he, in the Sermon on the Mount, said a number of times in Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44, “But I say unto you….”   Was he virtually declaring that the religious     teachers of his day did not really understand the import of the 10 Commandments?   How daring can a two-bit Rabbi be?
One could even ask the question, “If a disciple does not act daringly on some occasions, can he/she really be a disciple?”  Depends, I suppose.

I think Jesus, by example, teaches that daring is important, that taking a risk is sometimes necessary in the practice of discipleship.  Daring is important. Let it flourish.

27. Jesus and Artistry.

Artistry does not seem to come onto the horizon in Jesus’ teachings.   He was on about things other than art and the practice of it in artistry.   He certainly appreciated beautiful creations.

He also demonstrated his artistry with words and images in his many aphorisms and parables.   But teaching about artistry, I think not. Not for me anyway.
However, artistry is important. Let it flourish.

28. Jesus and Wonder.

The word ‘wonder’ is not used much in the gospels but the concept is surely there.  For me, one meaning of it is closely connected to awe.   When contemplating the mystery of life and the cosmos, wonder is a natural human reaction.  I have already mentioned Jesus’ comparison of the lilies to the glory of Solomon.

Wonder can also be associated with thinking, bewilderment and even curiosity.   In Luke 2:18 people wondered at the shepherds, when they told of the birth of Jesus.  In Luke 4:22 we are told that people wondered at Jesus’ gracious words, when he spoke in the synagogue, ‘They said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” ’ In Luke 24:41, the disciples wonder at their experience of Jesus in an appearance after the resurrection. Many quotes suggest that wondering has an element of disbelief, or at least bewilderment, in it.  Sometimes the challenge from Jesus is not to wonder but believe.

Although maybe not greatly connected to the Jesus’ teachings, wonder is important. Let it flourish.

29. Jesus and Strength.

Is there gospel teaching about physical strength?  No; not for me, but maybe it is sometimes hinted at as being helpful.   Luke states in 1:80 and 2:40 that Jesus ‘grew and became strong’ and in Luke 1:80 ‘strong in spirit’.  We can associate different things with strength.   In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks his disciples to stay awake and pray with him and they don’t or can’t. In Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38 Jesus says that “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”.  They apparently needed a bit more physical, emotional strength.   Physical strength came into play when Simon of Cyrene carried the Cross for Jesus, mentioned in Luke 23:26.  Apparently Jesus may have lacked the physical strength.
In John 9:4, when Jesus says he must keep doing God’s work, strength of purpose is certainly the implication. This strength is constantly present in Jesus’ ministry.  Luke 9:51 indicates this strength of purpose, ‘made up his mind and set out on his way to Jerusalem’, as the Good News Bible states it, when Jesus quite predicably knew there would be trouble.   And again in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus displays his strength of purpose.  He says in Matthew 26:39, “Yet not what I want, but what you want”.  Numerous other quotes could be used to point to Jesus’ strength of purpose and this, very often, I believe, would have stretched his physical as well as emotional strength.

Part of Jesus’ mission was to give strength to the weak.  Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1:46-55 points to a similar song of praise in 1Samuel 2:1-10; Hannah’s song.  Reading these, at face value, it seems that God is doing a new thing, turning things upside-down.  1 Samuel 2:4-5, ‘The bows of the mighty are broken, and the feeble gird on strength’ and verse 8 ‘He raises the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.’ as well as in Luke 1:51-53, ‘He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.’   These resonate with me regarding the broad sweep of Jesus’ message and his teachings in that he sought to give strength to the weak and question the status and strength of the strong, and particularly how they exercised these.

Strength/power is important and when disciples have it, Jesus teaches it must be exercised in loving service.  He makes this very clear in Matthew 20: 25-27, “but whoever would be great among you must be your servant”.

In his life and ministry Jesus teaches by example as well as in plain teaching how strength is to be exercised by disciples. Strength used appropriately, is important. Let it flourish.

30. Jesus and Trustworthiness.

Trustworthiness in human relationships is related to reliability.   If I am reliable, to an extent I am trustworthy.   Trustworthiness obviously points also to the wider human virtue, of being able to be trusted, of being one in whom others can have confidence.   Jesus in Luke 16:10-12 when saying, “He who is faithful in very little is faithful also in much…” , opens up this issue by using the word ‘faithful’.  In other words, ‘He who is faithful, who can be trusted even with little things, is trustworthy.’

A number of times in his gospel, John has Jesus using the words, “Truly, truly I say to you…”, or in the Good News Bible, “I am telling you the truth….”  In John 10:1 and 7, 13:16 and 38, etc. the gospel writer is saying to his readers, “Jesus really can be trusted.  He is trustworthy.”   Jesus claims to be so.  All his behaviour deems this to be the case.   There is no gospel account where Jesus can be shown to be deceitful, unfaithful or untrustworthy.  Even his adversaries do not accuse him of being so. They can’t.   Jesus again teaches by his example.  He could be trusted.   He was trustworthy.

In some of his parables Jesus refers to trustworthiness as being the sort of behaviour that brings rewards; as in Matthew 25:14-23, the parable of the talents.  A somewhat difficult parable for me, but according to the master, the two of his servants had been trustworthy.

Nevertheless, trustworthiness was essential for Jesus and he teaches as much to his disciples. Trustworthiness is important. Let it flourish.

Now to my extra list.

31. Jesus and Patience.

In explaining the parable of the Sower, Jesus in Luke 8:15 teaches that the “good soil” represents those who hold the word and “bring forth fruit with patience.”  Sometimes good results take time.  Patience is required.

Jesus showed great patience with his disciples.  When reminding them about the feeding of the crowds, he asks them in Mark 8:14-21 why they don’t understand, particularly verse 21, “Do you not yet understand”.  This was after they had been with Jesus for some time.  Jesus persevered and I think exercised great patience with them.

When in his own home town, where he would have known people and maybe had friends, he was rejected.   He does not rail against them or treat rejection in like manner, with rejection of his own.  The text in Mark 6:6 just says ‘He was greatly surprised.’ and that was it!  He just went on to other village in Mark 6:6.  Patience?  I think so.  In Thomas, saying No.31 Jesus says, “No prophet is welcome on his own turf” and no further comment is made by him.

Jesus teaches patience both by his example and in his parables.  Patience is important. Let it flourish.

32. Jesus and Acceptance.

Acceptance is, I believe, probably the most demonstrated attitude by Jesus in his life and ministry.  In Luke 15:1-2, outcasts and sinners; in Luke 19:5, Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector; in Luke 7:37-38, a woman of the city, a sinful woman, in Mark 7:29-30 in the case of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (indirectly called by Jesus a ‘dog’), in Matthew 8:10, a centurion, a master within the hated oppressive, cruel Roman regime, who had his faith strongly commended, “Truly I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”, in Luke 8:2-3, women who travelled with the disciple band, and who ‘provided for them out of their means’; in Luke 7:36, a Pharisee who invited Jesus for a meal, in John 3:1-2, Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.  All accepted.  I could go on.   In Luke 14:15-24, his parable of the Great feast and in his teaching immediately prior to telling the story in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus includes the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame in the people who disciples are to invite to a party. In the parable, in Luke 14:21, the poor are again those are the specially invited guests.  All are accepted by Jesus.

In Jesus’ day, allowing someone to come into your house or inviting them in and especially having a meal with them, was a sure sign of acceptance, even friendship.

In Luke 9:48, Jesus likens accepting, receiving, welcoming a child, to accepting, receiving, welcoming himself and the One who sent him.

I must ask the question as to whether or not Jesus’ acceptance was universal. I certainly want to think so, however I need to ask the question, “Was his message to be given to the Jews only or to all nations?”   This is still a hotly debated question amongst biblical scholars.  There are several sayings of Jesus which point in the direction of excluding non-Jews.  In Matthew 10:5 we are told, ‘These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but rather go to the lost sheep of Israel.” ’, and again, in Matthew15:24, when a Canaanite woman came to Jesus asking him to heal her daughter, he says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” and yet again in Matthew 7:6 where Jesus says, “Do not give dogs what is holy and do not throw your pearls before swine…”  Dogs and pigs were both unclean animals and so these words were often used as derogatory terms for gentiles.   It needs to be said that Jesus healed the daughter of each foreign mother mentioned above.

Geza Vermes makes a strong case, when considering in detail many more gospel texts than those quoted above, for believing Jesus thought and acted accordingly, in preaching and teaching to Jews and only Jews.    He states
In short, the view that Jesus ministered only to the lost sheep of Israel and instructed his disciples to do the same is the historically correct alternative. [30]
However the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar think differently.  Two of the statements above, Matthew 10:5 and 15:24, are both given a Black designation.   In other words,
Jesus did not say this.  It represents the perspective or content of a later or different tradition.
The Fellows do not believe that these statements are in line with the general thrust of Jesus’ understanding of his mission.    Of Matthew 7:6, the Seminar gave a Grey designation.  In other words, ‘Well maybe.’    In their book ‘The Five Gospels’, the Fellows, regarding this saying, state,
To most Fellows, the sayings in Matthew and Thomas seemed inimical to Jesus.  The immediately preceding context in Matthew calls for self-criticism rather than the slander of others. [31]
I believe this means that the Fellows do not think this is a statement by Jesus is about gentiles, as Vermes claims.
Vermes, in his analysis, looks also at texts like Matthew 28:19, the commission to the disciples to go into all the world, so he works diligently to avoid ‘cherry-picking’ only the gospel texts that suit his case.
Taking a wider view, I agree with the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar who state in their book, ‘The Five Gospels’,
The fellows of the Seminar are overwhelmingly of the opinion, however, that a restricted mission was not characteristic of Jesus (He apparently had considerable contact with gentiles and went through foreign territory on occasion) but reflects the point of view of a Judaizing branch of the movement. [32]
This debate is certainly not new because Peter and Paul had very different views on the matter and it was the cause of great dissention in the early Jesus movement.
Whatever the truth, there are some texts that are difficult to retain when arguing for Jesus’ universal acceptance.  I would add however, that for me, Jesus’ universal acceptance does not totally depend on whether or not Jesus saw his personal and his disciples’ mission was to Jews only or to the whole world. It may have been a matter of pragmatic priorities.   Even if one’s mission is limited, that does not mean one’s acceptance has to be.

So with regards to acceptance, I believe Jesus teaches acceptance in word but more, by example. Acceptance is important. Let it flourish

Note.

I have not gone into this detail regarding many others of the gospel quotations I make.  I am not qualified to do so nor would it significantly assist my present endeavour as well as multiplying greatly the time and effort needed to bring this whole endeavour to completion.   I have done it with this question because I think it is a very important issue.
For all the other quotes, I have taken them at face value as I read them in the gospels.   I realise this is rather dangerous but I think this is the situation that most regular church-goers are in.   They are not privy to the latest biblical scholarship and may not be that interested anyway.   I still believe that the very large majority of the quotes I make are most probably consistent with what Jesus and his early followers believed and taught.   I do realise there is a great deal of debate about the authenticity and the historical connection between Jesus and the gospel records about him, however, the complex of the historical Jesus and the reports, stories, memories and  interpretations of his message in the gospels are what we have and I am content to work with them. I am happy to move on, albeit not with 100% confidence.  Can one ever be 100% confident?   I can’t.

33. Jesus and Tolerance.

Tolerance, for me, seems to require an act of will; that it doesn’t come naturally to many people.  It could need a deliberate push.  The Macquarie Dictionary gives such meanings to tolerate as
to allow to be, permit, to bear without repugnance, put up with. [33]
It does not seem to be much of a spontaneous loving action.  It often requires patience.  Yet I believe it is one of the qualities of love.
Although not specially mentioned in the gospels, I think Jesus sometimes had to be tolerant of and patient with his disciples.  In Mark 8:21 we may have a hint; “Do you not yet understand?”

Many questions could be asked about his tolerance or lack thereof, with his enemies, the scribes and Pharisees.    Maybe there are situations when intolerance is appropriate.    Very tricky!

This is a case where I must exercise serious scrutiny on what Jesus said and did.    I have to be honest and say that some of the gospel stories and sayings/teachings of Jesus leave me confused as to what is appropriate in my discipleship.  Many of his accusations I find troublesome!   But then, I must say, “Who am I to judge?”   I still have to do a lot of ‘faithful questioning’, maybe even a bit of ‘faithful rejection’!

For instance, we read that Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers, how can you speak good, when you are evil?” in Matthew 12:34, and “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! Because you shut the Kingdom of Heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor would enter to go in.   Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you transverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” in Matthew 23:13-15.
The vast majority of Matthew chapter 23 is full of this invective of Jesus against the scribes and Pharisees.

These are damning words, strong accusations against the religious leaders of his day, those who had given their lives to religion and its teachings, studying and proclaiming them.  If it is historically true that Jesus actually said these things, is it any wonder they wanted to get rid of him?  And is it any wonder that I have questions about this behaviour?  I mention a little later the Jesus Seminar’s summation of these sayings of Jesus, but nagging questions still remain for me.   And even if it is historically true that Jesus behaved this way, I do not believe it gives me the right to act in the same manner.

If I take these sayings at face value, does it give me permission to go to people who preach Prosperity Theology, i.e. If humans have faith in God, God will deliver security and prosperity – and call them sons of vipers, and only fit for hell?   How passionate can I be about my beliefs when I think others have got it all wrong and are teaching the antithesis of what I believe Jesus was pointing to, and doing this teaching from within the church?
Of the section from Matthew above, I would say that it is Matthew speaking to his audience in his particular historical situation about 60 -70 years after Jesus.  These words do not sit comfortably for me, with the total ministry, attitude and teachings of Jesus.   For me, Jesus being so vindictive doesn’t sit at all well with the rest of the Jesus story!  But for the regular church-goer, these gospel passages are still there to be read and maybe taken on board.    Quoting again from that radical group of Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, they ask,
Is the level of invective manifest in these condemnations characteristic of Jesus, or does it belong to a later period, when Jews were excommunicating Jewish Christians from synagogues and hostility was running high? [34]
Their answer –
In the judgement of the majority of scholars in the Jesus Seminar, both the detailed knowledge of the Pharisees argument and the level of invective in many of the sayings recorded in Matthew 23:1-36 reflect the later historical context, not the public life of Jesus.   As a consequence, these sayings grouped in 23:15-22 were declared Black by a wide margin. [35]
If this is what such a radical group of scholars say, I can say, with all my personal, positive, prejudicial preconceptions in play, “Thank goodness”.  As you might predict, I really don’t like to think Jesus was like this! This is not the Jesus I see in the rest of the gospels’ picture of him.

So I don’t think I have the right to say such things to the preachers of Prosperity Theology even though I think they are very wrong.

I’m pleased there are available, helpful explanations about this sort of gospel stuff because there are more of these sorts of sayings of Jesus to contend with.   I am pleased that there are a great variety of scholarly commentaries on these issues so I have to exercise my ‘faithful questioning’ very carefully.   I suppose some may think I am easing myself out of a difficult situation.   Maybe this could be said of all my ‘faithful rejections’.  So to be consistent I need to say that even with some of the gospel records of what Jesus said and did, I make some, but very few ‘faithful rejections’.   After serious ‘faithful questioning’ I encourage others to do the same if they think it is necessary.

Jesus never actually says to us that we should tolerate one another.   He goes much further and says we are to love one another.   However, tolerance is important. Let it flourish.

34. Jesus and Freedom.

Jesus was on about freedom.  Luke has Jesus announcing his ‘call’ early in his ministry.  In Luke 4:18 Jesus say “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives… to set at liberty those who are oppressed”.   A major part of his ministry, without using the Jesus story in John’s gospel, seems to be directed to the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the outcasts, the unclean, the sinners and those who had little to no hope in life.  I understand his message to be one of freedom from exclusion, from oppression, from pain, from injustice, from misery, from exploitation.   He taught by word and example that the power of leadership should be exercised in service.  It should be used to set people free, not enslave them.  In Matthew 20:25 Jesus teaches that “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise their authority over them.  It shall not be so among you;…”

I can never imagine Jesus owning a slave.   It was not uncommon nor frowned upon in his day.  But it would have been contradictory to his message.  I am somewhat surprised there is no record of him speaking out against slavery, and vehemently.   He certainly spoke against many social boundaries, barriers and customs.   Why not slavey?  Of course he may have said something about it but it is not recorded so we don‘t know.

He spoke of truth giving rise to freedom.  In John 8:31-36 he links true freedom to knowing the truth by being his disciples.   Jesus states in verse 36, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

I believe Jesus teaches us to work for freedom for others by lovingly exercising what power and influence we have.   Freedom for all is important. Let it flourish.

35. Jesus and Humility.

The writer of Philippians states that Jesus humbled himself, Philippians 2:5-8.  I understand this is set in the dualism of the separation of God and humanity, Heaven and Earth, but humility is still the theme of this passage from the writer.

It could be said when reading sections of John’s gospel that Jesus did not suffer from humility at all, however there is, for me, a classic example of his humility is in that gospel in John 13:3, when ‘he knew the Father had given all things into his hands’, we are told in John 13:4-5 that he washes his disciples feet!.  Peter can’t cope; so we are told in John 13:6.  This, for me, was an act by Jesus of true humility.  In Matthew 20:25-27 Jesus teaches that humility should be exercised in leadership and authority.  Sometimes Jesus states some possible results of not being humble and also of being humble, as in Luke 14:11

Yet again, I think Jesus teaches humility by both word and example.  Humility is important. Let it flourish.

36. Jesus and Kindness.

1 Corinthians 13:4 states that being kind is a demonstration of love.   It involves benevolence, consideration and being helpful.   In Mark 5:24-34 Jesus was kind to the woman who wished to remain anonymous for fear of what might happen to her, so he just said to her, “Go in peace.”

He did not like the disciples preventing children coming to him.  In Matthew 19:13-14, Mark 10:13-14 he wanted to show them kindness.  In Matthew 14:15-16, 15:32 he showed consideration/kindness to the crowds. This sort of kind behaviour happened all through his ministry.

Jesus lived and teaches kindness.    Kindness is important. Let it flourish.

37. Jesus and Gentleness.

As a child I learned a rhyme that began, ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild; Look upon a little child…..’.   Much of the gospel narratives paint Jesus as anything but.

However when the occasion arose, he demonstrated just how gentle he could be.   In Mark 10:16 he took children in his arms and blessed them.   It is my experience that children don’t allow adults to take them in their arms unless they perceive the adult to be kind, gentle and non-threatening.

Jesus was also gentle with adults.  In Matthew 11:29, the gospel writer has Jesus saying that he is ‘gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest’.  In Matthew 20:20-22, Jesus could have reacted very differently when a mother came and asked for privileges for her sons.  In Luke 7:13, in the story of raising the widow’s son, Jesus says, “Don’t cry.”   I can imagine his tone of voice would have been very gentle, as also in John 20:16 when Jesus, after his resurrection, said to Mary, when she had been weeping, “Mary”.  In raising of Jairus’s daughter, I perceive Jesus demonstrated gentleness, in Luke 8:52, saying, “Do not weep.” and in verse 54 ‘taking her by the hand….’   Jesus was a toucher.   Used appropriately, touching can be a sign of gentleness, even tenderness.

However, one might say that Jesus was not gentle with his opponents, chiefly the Pharisees, scribes and priests, lawyers and religious leader of his day.  He seemed to argue vehemently with them on many occasions.   He certainly did not back away.  Maybe being gentle is not always appropriate.

Jesus was gentle at appropriate times, particularly with the vulnerable.   Gentleness is important. Let it flourish.

38. Jesus and Integrity.

Although the word integrity is not used of Jesus, his life and actions demonstrates a human life full of it.  Jesus taught honesty, which is a mark of integrity, when in Luke 3:12-14 he spoke about collecting the correct amount of tax and not robbing to augment wages earned.   He resisted temptations by ‘the devil’, in Matthew 4: 4, 7 and 10, to be side-tracked from his mission and ministry, and by Peter in Matthew 16:21-23, when he felt it necessary to call his friend Peter, Satan.    Jesus lived and died doing his Father’s will, stated in Mark 14:33-36, “..not what I will but what thou wilt.”  He died as he lived, with integrity.   I think this is a positive aspect of Good Friday messages that is sometimes not highlighted.

Jesus teaches and he lived integrity right to the end.   Integrity is important. Let it flourish.

39. Jesus and Generosity.

Jesus taught his disciples to share generously in Luke 3:10-11, by giving a spare coat away and also food; in Luke 6:29b-30, by giving to those who beg and not to require back what has been taken from you; in Luke14:12-14, by giving to those who don’t or can’t repay.  He urged his disciples in Matthew 5:42, to be generous with money, by giving to those who beg and by not refusing anyone who would borrow; in Luke 6:34-35 by loving and doing good.   In Thomas saying No. 95 Jesus says, “If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back”.

Jesus teaches generosity.  Generosity is important. Let it flourish.

40. Jesus and Non-violence.

Jesus was non-violent; well almost always.   From Matthew 21:12-13, it could be suggested that he was violent when he drove the money-changers out of the temple; with good cause, mind you.

I find it interesting that, as far as we are told in the text, Pilate did not try to round up Jesus’ followers.   One would have thought this would be necessary if Jesus, who had been around for at least a year, had been a violent revolutionary with followers willing to do his bidding, as he said.   This rounding-up strategy by Pilate is not reported.  One would have thought also that Pilate would have known about Jesus’ activities if they had been violent, but he says in Luke 23:22, “I have found no crime in his deserving death.”  It only stands to reason that under such an oppressive Roman occupation, the authorities would have had a strong security system to discover, investigate and prosecute any violent subversive activity.  Crucifixions were common.   In fact Jesus says to Pilate in John 18:36, that if he had been an earthly king, given to violence, his “servants would fight”.   Jesus was non-violent but he was still perceived as a threat.

Jesus makes no use of the Exodus story in his ministry.  Not a mention of it.   I contend this was deliberate, because that story is just too violent.   Jesus avoided other Old Testament texts which speak of God’s violence.

In Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 Jesus teaches disciples to have non-violent enemy love.

His way is the way of non-violence and he teaches his disciples that way.   Non-violence is important. Let it flourish.

41. Jesus and Non-vengeance.

In Matthew 5:38-41, Jesus teaches non-vengeance by turning the other cheek and when sued, give more than you are being sued for; in Luke 6:28, by praying for those who abuse you.   In Matthew 18:21-22 Jesus teaches disciples to forgive without limit, forgiveness that is born of an attitude of non-vengeance.

There is a lot of vengeful violent activity in the Old Testament but in Luke 9:54-55 Jesus turns his back on it by rebuking James and John when they want to pay the Samaritan village back for not welcoming Jesus, obviously referring to the violent activity sanctioned by God, in the days of Elijah (Some ancient manuscripts actually mention Elijah in this verse. It is in the text of the King James Bible.). Jesus will have none of it!

Jesus teaches non-vengeful attitudes and activities.  Non-vengeance is important. Let it flourish.

42. Jesus and Equality.

Jesus was consistently on the side of the poor and the outcast, at least in the first three gospels.  He wanted these people to have their fair share and to be accepted. Luke 6:20, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”, needs good interpretation to be understood but I find nowhere in the New Testament where Jesus says, “Blessed are the rich”.  So much for those who preach Prosperity Theology.

In Luke 6:24 Jesus gives little future to the rich.   In Luke 16:13 Jesus states that a person cannot serve two masters and the Good News Bible states that one of these ‘other masters’ is money.   In Mark 10:17-23 in the story about the rich young man, Jesus talks about the difficulties that rich people face regarding discipleship, and in Matthew 19:24 he likens a rich man entering the kingdom of God to that of a camel going through the eye of a needle.  In all of these teachings, I think he is pointing to economic equality.

Important to Jesus, there is also equality of opportunity.   Even though he heals many unclean people in the temple, there is no account of him upbraiding them for being where they were, in the temple.   They should not have been there because they were unclean!  In Luke 18:9-14, the tax collector in the parable, probably should not have been in the temple either, even to pray.    This parable also speaks to me of Jesus looking into the hearts of people rather than taking notice of their status.   He was not into status.  In Luke 15:1 he attracted those who had none. In Luke 15:2 it states that those with status did not like it.  Equality was not on their radar!

Matthew 11:18-19 he was even numbered with those whom the elite looked down upon.   I can imagine Jesus may have sometimes smiled at this sort of accusation by thinking, ‘Well it’s nice to be noticed anyway!’

Jesus was a voice for those who had none, pointing to the need for an equality of advocacy.   In John  8:1-11 he spoke up for the woman caught in the act of adultery, (Notice that Jesus did not say that she was not guilty of the accused offence.); in Luke 6:41- 42, for those who are judged by others as sinful; in Luke 18:10-14, for the tax collector in the parable and more generally in v 14; in Luke 7:44-46, for the woman who anointed his feet, as well as in Mark 14:3-9, especially v6 with, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”; in Luke 10:38-42, for Mary, when she was criticised by Martha, especially vs 41 and 42; and in Matthew 21:14-16, especially v16, and Mark 10:14, for children.   I could go on!

Equality in its many applications, is important to Jesus.  He urges it.  Equality is important. Let it flourish.

43. Jesus and Hospitality.

One cannot always be sure what the outcome of hospitality will be.   It may be wonderful, as in Luke 19:1-10, the case of Zacchaeus, when a change of heart occurs, and the encounter after the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:28-32 when the disciples recognise Jesus.
However, I remember when my wife and I gave hospitality for a night, some time ago, to some strangers, I requested that they not smoke inside and not leave the electric radiator on all night. It was a cold night so we showed them where extra blankets were, if they needed them.  The following morning they had left before we rose from sleep and to my dismay there was a stubbed cigarette butt on the carpet next to the bed in which they had slept and there was a note from them saying that they had deliberately left the radiator on all night to keep warm.  The note also made nasty comments about our home.  Thankfully nothing was stolen.   Sometimes a challenge accompanies the exercise of hospitality.

The parable of the Great feast in Luke 14:15-24, when Jesus talks about hospitality, is both sad and joyful. Just prior to this in Luke 14:12-14, Jesus gave some of his teaching about hospitality.  In Thomas saying No. 64, Jesus says, “Go out into the streets and bring back whomever you find to have dinner.” In Luke 15:1-2, account is given that Jesus is always hospitable to sinners and outcasts, much to the displeasure of the Pharisees.   Mark 2:15-17 states that Jesus embraced the open table fellowship.

Jesus practised hospitality, he teaches it and challenges disciples to practise it.  Hospitality is important. Let it flourish.

So what for me now?

I have tried to do justice to the 43 human virtues/attitudes, linking most of them to Jesus’ teachings, both by word and example. Some of these links have been somewhat superficial and too short.   On some occasions the links have also been somewhat tentative, but I have done the work with sincerity and I think, with quite a degree of validity.  I believe these values/attitudes are good and I have endeavoured to show that it is good that Jesus taught them.

I have obviously given the 43 words my meanings.  Others may see it differently but I have tried to take care in my understandings.  Having gone through all these virtues/attitudes which I hope my great-great-grandchildren will live by, I suggest that Jesus lived and taught most of them by word and/or by example.   I believe, together these 43 virtues/attitudes gave to Jesus his vision of the world, the divine manifesto by which he was liberated and to which he succumbed.   They point me to God’s domain.  By teaching them, I believe Jesus points to that domain.

I have approached this exercise with a regular church-goers’ situation in mind.
Our life experiences are different, unique.  All our parenting or non-parenting and family experiences are different, unique.  Our career, employment or non-employment experiences are different, unique.   Our leisure or hobby experiences are different, unique.  We are all unique!  As such these 43 virtues/attitudes will have different, unique meanings or lack of meaning for each of us.   However, I believe they point the way to make this world a better place and I think this was basic to Jesus’ vision.

The well over 100 references to the gospels I make, are not used as ‘proof texts’ but as a means of linking the 43 virtues/attitudes, sensibly I think, to what motivated Jesus, his life and his teachings.

Together, I believe they can be summed up by Dr. Lorraine Parkinson in her paper already quoted;
Added together, his teachings illustrate the ultimate ethic for life.  We call it love. [36]

I need no biblical theism, dualism or Fall/Redemption theology to aspire to all of this.  Jesus is the One who I know a bit about and I connect with the teachings of this man, as being worth following because they mirror what is of human value and human worth.  I believe that all-together they form part of ‘the truths that inspired and informed Jesus’.  They lead to abundant living.

Regarding the Two Great Commandments of Jesus – In loving a non-theistic God non-theistically, I chase after the godliness, the goodness of the lists of human virtues/attitudes above and in loving my neighbour as myself, I try to live by these same virtues/attitudes in my relationships.   As far as understanding ‘loving’ is concerned, I find 1 Corinthians chapter 13, as quoted previously, a very helpful beginning.   From the New English Bible,
Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence.  Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat of another man’s sins, but delights in the truth.  There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7.  New English translation.)

I could quite easily substitute the word ‘Jesus’ for the word ‘love’ and the passage would be great. Substituting the word ‘George’ for the word ‘love’ presents me with the real challenge of being a faithful disciple living by the teaching ‘of’ Jesus.

I take the gospels’ story of Jesus, which obviously includes the resurrection appearance stories, and I highlight ‘Love keeps no score of wrongs’ from I Corinthians.    In none of these post-resurrection stories does Jesus criticise the disciples for their behaviour during his arrest, his trial and crucifixion, even though they all ran away and left him, even denying him.  It is as though that behaviour never happened.  Not a mention!    One might have thought that Jesus could have said something like, “Well I thought you lot could have done a bit better for me when I needed you most.”  But no.   Nothing!

In these stories I am taught that Jesus ‘keeps no score of wrongs’.   Love doesn’t.   Jesus doesn’t.

So, with all these teachings ‘of’ Jesus, I don’t believe I am throwing the baby out with the bath water even though a lot of the water has been discarded in my venture, thus far.  And the baby may look different. Could I suggest it may be because he has grown up?  Maybe a mature Jesus needs a mature response.

For me, I have ‘faithfully replaced’ the supernatural theistic, dualistic side of the church’s teaching ‘about’ Jesus with the down to earth teachings ‘of’ a most remarkable, unforgettable, profoundly wise Jewish teacher from Nazareth.  As Dr. Parkinson says a ‘God-soaked human being’.  And as I have previously said,
He is the one who defines what a human life looks like when there is total cooperation with God Within.

I believe Jesus was a God-soaked teacher of alternative wisdom, one who continuously cooperated with and uncovered God Within, one who lived a love that made a difference and one who teaches me how to live abundantly.

With all this considered, do I need to start all over again regarding my understanding of Jesus?   No, but I now have a very different basis on which to build my approach to him and his story.  I realise that this Jesus is somewhat different but I believe he does not need the biblically theistic, dualistic, supernatural royal robes he has been given by the church over the centuries and is still given today.  I believe he needs only a pair of thongs, a pair of torn jeans and a second hand shirt.  He is certainly worth trying to follow.   What a guy!
I reiterate,
Perfection is the enemy of greatness. I learn nothing from perfection but greatness is my inspiration.  Perfection de-humanizes greatness.

I cannot accept that Jesus was perfect but I personally accept the gospels stories about him which point to him as being the greatest of human beings.

Jesus did not invent human virtues but I believe he gave a different sort of urgency to many of them, but few, I believe, originated with him.  “Love your enemies” may be an exception.   I believe he re-prioritised and expanded many human virtues in a very special way.    But they are not good because Jesus said them.   Jesus is good because he embraced them.   Jesus is authentic because he lived them.

His humanity is so important because it shows us that these virtues are not out of reach of other human beings, even me.

From my lyrics  No. 18.
Jesus is Our Friendly Teacher
Tune    Converse/Erie

Jesus is our friendly teacher,
Giving guidance as we grow;
We are happy that we know him;
Though he lived so long ago;
When we listen to his stories,
Look at all his healing care,
We can see him loving others
With a love beyond compare.

Jesus is our daring teacher,
Leading in a dangerous way;
We are confident we know him,
Through the conflicts of his day;
He could often get quite angry
When the rulers were unjust;
He spoke up for all the needy;
He was one whom they could trust.

Jesus is our special teacher;
We will follow where he leads;
We are blest because we know him
Through his words and loving deeds;
As we think about his message,
How he lived and why he died,
We will try to love each other
With a heart that’s open wide.
[1] Funk, Honest to Jesus, 306.
[2] Lorraine Parkinson, from her paper given to the Common Dreams Conference in February 2016.
[3] Funk, Honest to Jesus, 309.
[4] Ibid, 304.
[5] Ibid, 36-37.
[6] Funk & Hoover, The Five Gospels, 37
[7] Ibid, 416.
[8] Ibid, 422.
[9] Ibid, 439.
[10] Ibid, 444.
[11] Ibid, 459.
[12] Ibid, 204.
[13] Ibid, 214.
[14] Ibid, 234.
[15] Ibid, 259.
[16] Ibid, 172.
[17] Ibid, 219.
[18] Ibid, 247.
[19] Ibid, 255
[20] Ibid, 426.
[21] Ibid, 397
[22] Ibid, 37
[23] Ibid, 10
[24] Funk, Honest to Jesus, 309, 305,
[25] Funk & Hoover, The Five Gospels, 104.
[26] Ibid, 237.
[27] Vosper, With or Without God, 32.
[28] Ibid, 32.
[29] Funk, Honest to Jesus, 310.
[30] Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, 380.
[31] Funk & Hoover, The Five Gospels,155
[32] Ibid, 168.
[33] Macquarie Dictionary, 2225,
[34] Funk & Hoover, The Five Gospels, 242
[35] Ibid, 242
[36] Lorraine Parkinson, from her paper given to the Common Dreams Conference in February 2016.

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My fifth area of questioning

5.  The dualisms of Divinity/Humanity and Heaven/Earth and the supernatural dimension which underpin the whole Bible story and much church dogma. 

This is another fundamental which, for me, points away from panentheism.  I suppose this is a predictable area of ‘faithful questioning’ because of what has gone before.  I press on.

I acknowledge that we live in the midst of untold dualisms, usually understood as contrasting opposites; inside and outside, up and down, black and white, wet and dry, object and subject, and so on.  Almost everything is understood in terms of contrast and/or separateness.   All these dualisms, if that is an appropriate description, are fundamental to my understanding of reality.

As I have said, when talking about dualisms in this venture, I am referring specifically to only two dualisms – the theological dualism of God and Humanity and the cosmological/theological dualism of Heaven and Earth.  For me, these two dualisms announce fixed and unalterable separateness in orthodox theology.

Conventional supernaturalist ideas give rise to the need for the dualism of Humanity/Divinity and Earth/Heaven and these dualisms in turn create a special space for the activity of the supernatural.    These dualisms and the supernatural, affirm each other and build on each other in the biblical story, from start to finish.  They form the building blocks on which, I believe, most regular church-goers view reality and on which most church liturgies are created.   They are basic and in my experience are never questioned.

With the dualism of God and Humanity, one of the great conundrums of Christianity debated over the centuries, has been, ‘How can it be possible to combine and unite both divinity and humanity in Jesus?’   He has to be the God-man.  I have been taught that he is human but he is also the second person of the Trinitarian God.   The Chalcedon Decree, one of the early statements of orthodox Christian belief, tries to unravel the issue but most of us regular church-goers who have read it, find that it just adds to our confusion.

The orthodox Trinitarian doctrines of the church rely on Jesus’ divinity; not his humanity.   Many times in church liturgies I hear the phrases, ‘God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit’, or ‘God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost’.

In my past church teaching, Jesus’ divinity was always primary and his humanity, secondary.  He was God become Man.  Not Man become God.   The Incarnation has been taught to me as God becoming flesh or taking on human flesh but never flesh becoming God.    Jesus’ humanity is no difficulty for me but his divinity, in the orthodox way of explanation, is.  His divinity separates him from me but his humanity connects him to me and me to him.   Any supernatural powers attributed to Jesus or any supernaturalistic framework for understanding him makes him other-worldly.  Without his divinity, he becomes one with the rest of us.  For me, his orthodox divinity takes him away with the away-God but his humanity brings him close.  One of the big continuing debates in the church is whether to take the stories associated with a supernatural Jesus literally or metaphorically.   The story about the Resurrection of Jesus taken literally, I believe, needs a supernatural, dualistic framework.    Taken metaphorically, I believe the story can be owned and understood without that framework.

The way I have spoken about the person-ising of God in the Bible, points to the underlying dualism of God and humans.  They are not united.  This is obvious for me, from the beginning of the Bible in Genesis chapter 1.  God creates and humans are created.   For me, this confirms a dualism.   I find it unhelpful.

In my church life I have always been encouraged to think of Heaven and Earth as separate and distinct.   The Heaven/Earth dualism is present in church services I attend now and have attended all my life – ‘Our Father who art in Heaven.’  It is totally present right throughout the Bible from Genesis chapter 1, through the Jesus story, to the end of the Bible with the Book of Revelation.

Without these dualisms we would not have many of the current hymns we are requested to sing in church services today.  The language in prayers I hear today would have to be changed as would other parts of current liturgies, if these dualisms were abandoned.   A huge change would be required.

Rudolf Karl Bultmann, a German Lutheran theologian, was one of the major figures of 20th century biblical studies and a prominent voice in liberal Christianity.   When writing about the world view of biblical times, Bultmann comments,

Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings the angels.   The underworld is hell, the place of torment.  Even the earth is more than the scene of the natural, everyday events, of the trivial round and the common task.    It is the scene of supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand and of Satan and his demons on the other.   These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do.  Miracles are by no means rare.   Man is not in control of his own life.   Evil spirits may take possession of him.   Satan may inspire his thought.   Alternatively, God may inspire his thought and guide his purposes.  He may grant him heavenly visions.   He may allow him the supernatural power of his Spirit. [1]

For 1st Century people, this quotation states the belief in the two dualisms I speak of and supernatural activity.  I believe that most regular church-goers have dispensed with this view of reality but most have retained a more sophisticated belief based on these dualisms.   I think many regular church-goers have at least a vague idea of going to Heaven to be with God after they die.   I have been told this often by other regular church-goers. When we sing of Heaven in many of our hymns, we are not thinking about our present experience of living here on the Earth. The content of the Lord’s Prayer presupposes these dualisms.

In my church past, the supernatural realm was a ‘given’ and I was not encouraged to question or doubt it. Marcus Borg addresses this issue.

The most common modern understandings of God in the church (as well as in our culture) are deist or supernaturalist.  ….  The supernaturalist way of imaging God… sees God as being out there,…affirming that God from time to time supernaturally intervenes in this world (especially in the events reported in the Old and New Testaments). [2]

I have no room for supernaturalism in my view of reality and thus the supernaturalism of the Bible makes little sense to me.   For me, it belongs to 1st Century thinking.   The dualisms which support this supernaturalism, appear to be the way the Bible and the church explains and uses the concepts of transcendence and immanence, being separate and distinct.  Transcendence belongs to the supernatural realm and imminence belongs to our earthy experience.   I believe differently.

So what for me now?

‘Transcendent’ and ‘Imminent’ are two words I wish to ‘faithfully affirm’ from my past church teachings.   However I wish to use them somewhat differently to the orthodox and conventional way.   I wish to combine them.   I realize this is uniting two concepts which seem virtual opposites and to do so is to create an oxymoron or at least a deep paradox.  However, I wish to speak of imminent transcendence – me and everything being in God, and transcendent imminence – God being in me and everything.

The meanings for transcendence are,

transcending, going beyond ordinary limits, surpassing and extraordinary. [3]

and for imminent, the meanings are,

remaining within, indwelling, inherent. [4]

I wish to unite these meanings, suggesting that what is ‘remaining within, indwelling, inherent’ in our ordinary experience of life, there is a ‘going beyond ordinary limits, surpassing and extraordinary’ dimension.  There is an extraordinary dimension which is in our experience of our ordinary living. There is a significant, mystical, aspect to the mundane. Drinking a glass of water can remind us of that on which humanity is totally dependent and that which cosmologists look for when searching the cosmos for signs of life.   Dropping a packet of chips is an example of us experiencing one of the most universally prevailing forces of the universe – gravity.  Walking across a road to avoid on-coming cars gives us evidence of the inexplicable but inseparable connection between time and space.  All, I believe, are examples of ‘the transcendent’ being embedded in our ‘imminent’ experience of life.

I often spend the last hours of the night, 4am to get-up time, in a chair, slipping in and out of sleep.   It is a very comfortable chair where I spend much time relaxing.  It is in a room where I can view the beautiful Lake Macquarie, a large fresh water lake, near where I live.   This room faces east so I can be captivated by the sunrise if I happen to be awake at the time.    This morning was one of those times.   There were a few long thin clouds low on the horizon and they were quite dark, looking somewhat foreboding.   As the sun rose, their colour slowly, nearly imperceptibly, turned to a blazing gold and then to a glistening silvery white.   What a privilege to view such mysterious magic!  As I linked into my Christian heritage, I thought ‘God is light and in him is no darkness at all’, from 1 John 1:5.    For me, this is another example of the transcendent dimension of my imminent experience.   Extraordinary, yet it happens every day if I wish to make myself available to it. I get a feeling of transcendence in my imminent experience.

On a maybe somewhat more trivial note, trying to open the possibility of seeing depth meanings in the ordinary; a hair comb can bring order out of chaos.  Some harsh and even rough treatment can bring about cleanliness when using a toothbrush; tough love. Buttons, joining and securing two separate pieces of material together, or uniting the boundaries/edges of the one piece, can speak to me of forgiveness.   A button, of course, needs a buttonhole into which it can be inserted. So too, forgiveness needs to be accepted for it to be truly effective.

There is a transcendent dimension in all my imminent experience.   God is in everything and everything is in God.

I reckon this way of thinking may point to some of the genius of Jesus in his teaching.   I think he saw the transcendent dimension in the imminent experiences of life and tried to communicate this to his listeners.    ‘You are buttons to the world’ would have been thought of as stupid and I suppose he would have had to explain what he meant, whereas he didn’t have to explain the metaphor of salt.   I think, because it is familiar to us, we do not think he was stupid saying such things as “You are the salt of the Earth.” or “The Kingdom of God is like a sower who went out to sow.”   But, whoever thought of speaking about repentance when talking of a woman, sweeping her house searching for lost coins?  Whoever thought of teaching about the Kingdom of God by speaking of a grain of mustard seed or a woman’s cooking with leaven or about weeds and good grain growing side by side?   All this could be said to be metaphorical thinking or using parables, allegories or analogies to point to some depth meaning. True.  I am comfortable suggesting that it is unearthing the transcendent dimension from within imminent experiences.

The dualism of Heaven/Earth is addressed with another maybe trivial example of the song, ‘I’m in Heaven’.

Heaven, I’m in Heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek. [5]

The transcendent is experienced in our imminent experience.   I believe it’s profoundly true!

Theologically, in this way, my panentheistic belief invites me to unite God and humanity, to do away with this particular dualism.   I believe there is this transcendent dimension of humans because we are in God.   My ordinariness is sacred.  I believe we imminently experience the transcendent, because God is in us.  The sacred is always present and can be experienced.    The sacred is ordinary.  That sounds like a demotion.   For me it is not.   It is a recognition of unity.  The sacred is ordinary and the ordinary is sacred.

I enjoy playing with the word ‘supernatural’.  Maybe a bit over the top.  I like to retain the word in my theological thinking but with a meaning that is not ordinarily held.  It is opposite to the traditional, conventional meaning.   This fun exercise is when I suggest it is made up of the two words ‘super’ and ‘natural’.  ‘Super’ points me towards the transcendent, going beyond normal limits, and ‘natural’ is imminent.  When I am loved and when I love something ‘super’ happens.   I feel vitally alive.  Colloquially, it really is ‘super’.  And when I cooperate with God Within it’s normal for me to love.  It becomes ‘natural’. By uncovering God Within, love just happens.   It’s ‘natural’.  So I believe that when love is given and received, something ‘super-natural’ occurs.  I know I am playing with words but I am not being flippant.  I am trying to unearth the transcendental dimension of our real and personal imminent experience.   Transcendence and imminence belong together.  So I retain ‘supernatural’ in my theological vocabulary but I don’t use the word when talking to others because I think that probably no one else thinks of it the way I do.

One of the reasons why, I think, some people believe in the theism that I ‘faithfully question’, is the occurrence of an extraordinary or miraculous happening in their life.  These happenings seem to me to be not all that rare.  Some church-goers have told me about such an ‘event’ in their lives and I appreciate that when such an event occurs, it is a major event, one which they will never ever forget.  It is so unusual and is often extremely dramatic.  Some remember the event as one which has changed their life; a turning point for them.    It has redefined how they look at reality and God.   Some have spoken to me of a reaching out to ‘they know not what’, when in a desperate situation. A positive experience of the Unknown has occurred and made a life-changing difference to them.  They speak of a transcendent, out of the ordinary, reality which they do not understand but which they have experienced.  Many attribute such events to God’s intervention.  Such events sit very comfortably with the concept of a supernatural God who, from time to time intervenes to make things happen, things which are extraordinary.   For people who experience these events, this explanation can be satisfying and they seek no other.   In my experience, others have put the event down to Mystery and have left it at that. The transcendent has been dramatically paramount in what they have experienced. These experiences, I believe, are part of many people’s authentic living and not something they dream up. For me, they belong to Mystery.

I believe that the two dualisms of Divinity/Humanity and Heaven/Earth make supernatural activity essential if there is to be any interaction between the traditional God and Humanity, between Heaven and Earth.

For many regular church-goers, I believe, this framework gives answers to the mysterious events which happen.   So-called miracles and other strange occurrences raise questions and this dualistic framework helps many people accept how and why they happen.   That’s fine but this framework no longer works for me.   I reject supernaturalism and its accompanying dualisms.

I put all these unusual happenings in the basket named ‘Mystery’.   For me, it is a big basket and it’s full.  While not wishing to diminish these experiences in any way, I assert that God can also be experienced in the ordinary, everything ordinary.

Let us not exempt ordinary experiences from being experiences of God.  The Mystery of God is all around us and, I believe, within us. When confronted by the inexplicable and extraordinary we are confronted in a dramatic way by the Mystery.  Sometimes in our experience, the transcendent dimension is dominant and sometimes the imminent dimension is.

Mystery is Mystery.
From my lyrics (One of my Christmas sets of lyrics)  No. 15.

The Ordinary is Marvellous
Tune    Irby

When we ponder on the Advent story,
When we contemplate the wondrous birth,
Let us sing of miracle and glory
Bursting through our hist’ry here on earth.
Let us also prize the common,
That which happens ev’rywhere and often.

For, although each human birth is special,
It is also very commonplace.
Jesus born in Bethlehem, quite normal;
Numbered with us in the human race;
Born as us, dependent child.
Treasured infant, gently meek and mild.

So we treasure all the common graces,
Live each day as precious and unique.
God is present at all times and places,
On the plains, as on the mountain peak.
Plain yet wondrous, every hour,
God within, enriches us with power.

Many regular church-goers I think, probably have a supernaturalistic, biblically theistic belief system, believing in a separate Supreme Being and the dualisms that go with it.  They might not be able to explain what they actually think or believe.   Fair enough!   I also find it difficult to talk about the Mystery, as is obvious from what has gone before and also from what follows.  Down the ages, we humans have had many different beliefs about God and the reality in which we live.  Obviously, this is still the case today.   I believe we have to acknowledge that we cannot answer all our questions.   Some simply remain unanswered.  I believe this will always be the case.   Understandably we hang onto our beliefs, our faith, much of which cannot be proven or disproved by science, reason, logic or anything else.  This, I believe, is totally legitimate.  I believe it is our universal human experience.  I am sure that it is possible for us to live comfortably with Mystery.     We have to.   It’s here. When confronted by the ultimate questions of human life and our experiences of it, as well as the very existence of the cosmos, I suppose we all eventually end up at the same place; Creationists, Intelligent Design-ists, Evolutionists, Cosmologists, Big Bang-ists, Atheists, Pantheists, Agnostics, Theists, Deists, Panentheists, Scientists, Biblical Theists, etc. In the end, I believe we all eventually encounter Mystery with a capital ‘M’.

From my lyrics  No. 16.
God is Mystery
Tune    Lasst Uns Erfreuen

God in all galaxies beyond,
Yet in our hearts and we respond;
God of mystery shares our history;
God in the gentle breeze that blows;
In every creature as it grows;
God gives glory to our story;
God of mystery shares our history;
Alleluia.

In God we live and move and be;
In God we find our destiny;
God of mystery shares our history;
God is the love that fills our soul:
God is the love that makes us whole;
God gives glory to our story;
God of mystery shares our history;
Alleluia.

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, Essay on Kerygma and Myth.
[2] Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First time, 38.
[3] Macquarie Dictionary, 2245
[4] Macquarie Dictionary, 1068
[5] Irving Berlin, Cheek to Cheek. 1st verse.

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My fourth area of questioning

4.    The Hebrew sacrificial system which is biblically said to facilitate reconciliation between God and humans, and which helps create the basis of the church’s present Fall/Redemption theology. 

This fundamental arises directly out of the previous one and it is central to the Christian message I have been taught.  The so-called gulf that exists between God and human-beings needs to be dealt with.  Reconciliation needs to occur.  Together with the previous three fundamentals, this fourth is crucial in presenting a unified framework to me and other church-goers, for understanding the meaning and purpose of the Cross of Jesus.  The Cross has always been central to my instruction of the Christian faith.   It has dwarfed all other Christian considerations.

This fourth fundamental is a little more obscure for some regular church-goers because I think many may not know a great deal about the Hebrew customs of sacrifice; certainly not the details of their observance.  I think most regular church-goers might have the idea that offerings or sacrifices were made in the past to God, to thank God for God’s goodness and also to make amends for wrong doing.  These sacrifices prompted repentance.

In the Cruden’s Complete Bible Concordance, it gives a statement about sacrifice.
A sacrifice is – An offering of any sort to a deity with the idea of procuring favour or advoiding disaster. The idea of sacrifice is deeply rooted in the instincts of humanity; for it is found among every race at the earliest known period of its history as a well-established and thoroughly understood custom. The sacrifices were, in general, of two sorts,

1. The offering of the first fruits, or of incense, to show the dependence of man on his deity, and to thank him for his benefits;
2. The burnt offering, to appease an angry God when displeased and ready to bring distress upon him.  ……
The Book of Hebrews shows how Jesus Christ, in becoming a sacrifice for man, made further sacrifices unnecessary. [1]

This Hebrew sacrificial system, I believe, forms part of the church-accepted theological basis for not only harmonising, to some extent, the Old and the New Testaments in the evolution of its religious thought, but also it has created an historical basis, essential for the way most church-goers enter into the personal significance of the sacrament of Holy Communion – the Mass.

All this has been encapsulated for me, in the word ‘atonement’.  My understanding of the church teaching I received regarding the ‘atoning’ work of Christ Jesus, is that Jesus freely offered himself as the sacrifice for sin; my sin.

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sin to deliver us from the present evil age… (Galatians 1:3-4.)

And this was initiated and accomplished by God.

What shall we then say to this?  If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all… (Romans 8:31-32.)
God so loved the world that he gave…. (John 3:16.)

These Bible verses, as well as many others, point to God’s initiative.
This, as I remember it, is the teaching I received from the church, or at least this is how I understood it.

Importantly, I have never been instructed that there is any difference between deliberate sin and accidental or unintentional sin, regarding atonement.

God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8.)

This Bible verse was given to me as a cover-all statement regarding my sin.  Subconsciously, I probably thought that my deliberate sin was the more important sin that was covered.  The teachings of the lyrics of popular hymns we still sing in church, I think, point us in this direction.  There are no limits to the sins that are forgiven. However, this is not the teaching of the book of Hebrews.

For if we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and the fury of fire which will consume the adversaries.  (Hebrews 10:26-27.)

Is there some contradiction here?  Certainly a bit scary for those who take notice of this text.  Maybe also confusing.   How deliberate does ‘deliberate’ have to be?

For me, as I have said, a major theme running through the whole of the Bible is identifying wrong doing, human sin, and how it has to be dealt with. There are different ways the God of the Bible deals with it.  Early in the Old Testament it appears that God deals with it in a violent way, killing and destroying sinners in the stories of Noah and the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and the Exodus, etc., etc.   Problem solved.

However, from the early beginnings of the Hebrew religion, the sacrificial system seems to have been the human involvement, necessary to enable human sin to be dealt with.  Humans need to offer sacrifices to God.  Expiation, atonement is necessary and humans can be involved in the process by offering these sacrifices, usually burnt offerings.  The Book of Leviticus, particularly chapter 16, details different sorts of sacrifices, what their purposes are; how they are to be offered; when, where and by whom.  Many involved animal slaughter and directions are given as to what had to be done with the blood and dead body parts.  At times the temple could become a very messy place.

I reject the Hebrew sacrificial system as having little, if anything of significance, in teaching me about my relationship with God and God’s relationship with all humanity.  I think this concept should be left in antiquity where it began.  What good teaching might be in it, I believe can be learned from many other sources.   However the church seems to me to have embraced this sacrificial framework of thinking, with ‘unquestioning obedience’ and, in my experience, has used it as the dominant framework for teaching its theology of the Cross and practice of the sacrament of Holy Communion – the Mass.   This sacrament has been presented to me as a symbolic remembrance, a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Jesus in payment for my sin thus securing my forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

The Fall/Redemption theology I refer to, is what I understand to be the orthodox and still widely embraced and taught theology of the fallen-ness of humanity and the sacrificial, redemptive death of Jesus.    My understanding of this theology is that we all are daughters and sons of Adam and Eve’s fallen race and thus estranged from God by sin.  That in this continued fallen state, the only way possible for us to be reconciled with God is for God to do something.  This theology teaches me that God has redeemed me and all humanity by sending Jesus to Earth to die on the Cross thus paying the price for human sin, an offering/sacrifice to God.  All is now well because God and human beings who believe, are again at one.  It is said, Jesus died for my sins and if I believe, I am saved.  This theology solves the problem of the presumed impassable gulf that separates God and humans.

I believe the link between Fall/Redemption and the Hebrew sacrificial system is well entrenched in current regular church-goers’ understanding.  They may not be able to articulate it and it may not be all that obvious but I believe it is there.  B. Craddock Emeritus Professor of Preaching and New Testament states in his commentary on the book of Hebrews,

Four statements can now be made to elaborate the condensed but crucial presentation of Christ’s high priestly act:
1. Christ entered the Heavenly sanctuary, the true and perfect tabernacle, into the presence of God;
2. Christ entered once for all…
3. Christ offered his own blood, not that of goats and calves.  Christ offered his own life to God on our behalf, to make atonement, to relate us fully and finally to God.
4. Christ secures redemption that is eternal; that is, it is not repeated ……..
The sacrifice of Christ is, therefore consummated in Heaven. …   More appropriate to Hebrews, therefore, is the understanding that the death on the Cross, ascension, and entrance into the sanctuary of God’s presence constitute one redemptive movement. [2]

I think the teaching of the Hebrews’ passage above is unhelpful, encapsulating the Cross in terms of the Hebrew theology of sacrifice.    I also think it is most likely nonsensical gobble-de-goop for people without a Christian background.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews explains the story of Jesus and particularly his Cross in the framework of the Old Testament Judaist sacrificial system.  Sacrifice is necessary to make atonement, thus making forgiveness possible.   Is this the only framework we can use to look at the Cross?  I certainly hope not.

In the biblical context of Fall/Redemption theology, the sacrifice has to be perfect.  The book of Hebrews spells out what the offering of Christ’s blood means.

..how much greater is the power of the blood of Christ; he offered himself without blemish to God, a spiritual and eternal sacrifice … etc.  (Hebrews 9:14.)

Thus the sacrifice of Jesus is all the more powerful.

because of his likeness to us, has been tested in every way only without sin.   (Hebrews 4:15.)

It seems that Jesus has to be sinless in order that his sacrifice be sufficient for God to be satisfied and thus enable God to forgive human sin.  Biblically speaking, it seems, human wrong-doing is so enormous and universal that it had to be given an incredibly significant punishment/sacrifice to deal with it effectively.   Hence the death of Jesus, the Christ.

A story make help you understand a little better, the problem I have.   It is a well-known story in Christian circles, probably one of the best Jesus told.

And he (Jesus) said, “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of the property that falls to me.’  And he divided his living between them.    Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.  And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.  So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.    But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against Heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.’   And he arose and came to his father.  But while he was yet a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.  And the son said to him, ‘Father I have sinned against Heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “   (Luke 15:11-21.)

Now please continue to read on.

But the father said,   “This is the best day of my life.   I have been waiting for this day for so long.”   They embraced further with tears of joy.   Then the father said to his son, “Please son, wait here for a little.  There’s something that needs to be done.  It will not take long.  Maybe three days.”   So the father, after shutting the gate, went in and called his elder son.  He came in from the field where he had been working all day.
Then his father said to him, “My beloved son; you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.  I have good news.  Your younger brother has come home.  He was dead but he is alive again.  He was lost but is found.  We must all rejoice.  Son, you have been my faithful son all your life.  You are my first son.   There is one last thing I want from you.   We must cover your brother’s sins for they are great.  We need to make a sacrifice for them.   I need you to offer your life for his sins.   Then I can forgive his sins and we can welcome him home.  We can then celebrate his home-coming.”
His elder son, after a lot of thought, said to his father, “Lo, all these many years I have served you and I never disobeyed your command.  My life is for doing your will.  May your will be done.  But Father, all things are possible for you.  Do not give me this cup of woe, nevertheless not my will but yours be done.”
His father then had his first-born son killed.
After this the father went out to the gate where his younger son was still waiting.  He opened the gate and he said to him, “Come in, my son.  All righteousness has now been fulfilled.   Your sins are forgiven and you are welcome here, at your home.   Here is my best robe for you to wear and here is a special ring for your finger.   Let us make a feast for we have you back safe and sound. You were lost but you are now found.”

I’m sorry that with this ending, the story is changed into something horrible.  For me, the story has been robbed of its love.    The father’s loving action for his younger son has become handcuffed to a sacrificial system.  I’m sorry if I have ruined the story for you but, for me, this is what Fall/Redemption theology does to the story of Jesus and his Cross and also the image of God which lies behind it.  Just forget the different ending to the parable, I have presented.   Just read and remember the story as told in Luke’s gospel.

One of the hymns still sung in churches is ‘There is a green hill far away’.

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gate
of Heaven and let us in. [3]

Fall/Redemption theology is encapsulated in these lines of this popular hymn.  All humanity has sinned to the extent that all are separated from God permanently.  The gate is locked.  Since when have the gates of Heaven been locked and by whom?  The gates being locked, I suppose, may be a reference to the barring of Adam and Eve from ever returning to the Garden of Eden, Paradise, once they had been expelled.    It seems that the Cross is the only way the gate can be unlocked so that humanity can re-enter God’s presence.

I utterly reject all this.  I personally believe this hymn, quoted above, should be deleted from all Christian hymnbooks.

I am constantly reminded of Fall/Redemption theology nearly every time I go to church.   Numerous traditional hymns, not necessarily sung at Easter, have lyrics which take me to this theology; e.g. ‘How great thou art’,

But when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die – I scarce can take it in
That on the Cross, our burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin. [4]

I think the Fall/Redemption way of looking at Jesus’ crucifixion is nearly universally accepted by regular church-goers but unlike me, I think many have not questioned it.  In my experience, we are not encouraged to do so.   I believe this general acceptance is the case for a number of reasons, some of which stand out for me.

One important reason for not questioning Fall/Redemption is that it is an expression of the normal, conventional way we think how wrong doing must be dealt with.   It must be punished.   I believe this is the way human beings understand justice.  Wrong doing must be punished.   That’s how justice works.  If wrong doing is not punished, it could lead to society disintegrating.  It might lead to anarchy.   We need limits to help condition our behaviour, and dire consequences must be in place if we don’t cease from wrong-doing.  Fall/Redemption theology expresses theologically, the predicament of, and remedy for the broken relationship between God and humanity caused by human wrong-doing.   Some sort of punishment is essential before reconciliation can occur, before the impassable gulf can be bridged.   This punishment is understood as a sacrifice that must be paid.

I reject Fall/Redemption theology simply because it does rely, to an extent, on this conventional wisdom stated above; that wrong doing must be punished.  It seems to make sense in the secular environment.  It fits into how we normally think.   This conventional thinking may be appropriate for the smooth working of human society but I believe it should not be the basis of theological understanding of God’s relationship with humanity. Using traditional orthodox concepts and language, ‘Is there any room for God’s unconditional love?’  I think not.  ‘Is there any room for grace, the unmerited forgiveness of God?’  I think not.  Conventional wisdom, although it may be essential in our secular thinking, imposing punishment of wrong doing, it just does not work for me, regarding the God/human relationship; not even in traditional theological thinking.
For me, a second important reason for the acceptance of Fall/Redemption theology is the way it is so closely linked to the notion of vicarious suffering.  We all accept as noble, the notion of vicarious suffering; suffering on behalf of another, suffering of one in order to prevent the suffering of another or others.  I hear of people lying on top of others during a massacre to prevent bullets killing the person underneath.  Vicarious suffering is the theme I hear at war memorial services.  Absolutely noble.  I hear of people who drown trying to save another, often a stranger, from drowning.   I hear of policemen and policewomen who get killed in the line of duty.   Absolutely noble.  We often hear stories of vicarious suffering and we are inspired.   Vicarious suffering is the most noble of human actions.

What I have been taught by the church about the death of Jesus fits perfectly into this concept of vicarious suffering.    He died for me; I am told.   He died in my place; I have been taught.    He was without sin yet he took the sinner’s place and died.   He need not have suffered, but he willingly did so, in place of me and all humanity.  He suffered so I don’t have to.  Jesus endured vicarious suffering.   What could be more noble?  It solicits admiration, thanksgiving, adoration.

However, I do not accept the connection of Jesus death on the Cross with the vicarious suffering.

We sometimes might ask, “Why was Jesus’ death, his vicarious suffering, necessary in the first place?”   When I ask this question I am given the answer, “Because of sin.”   I then ask the next question, “Why did sin make it necessary?” The church has said to me in answer to this question, “Sin demands a sacrifice. Sin has to be expiated. There must be atonement.”

For me, God’s activity then becomes chained to this understanding, based to a large extent on the Hebrew sacrificial system.  For me, if this basis of a sacrificial system is rejected, this whole theological edifice comes crashing down.   If there is no need for a sacrifice, any belief in a vicarious nature of Jesus’ death is irrelevant and meaningless.
I believe that the human vicarious suffering examples mentioned previously, have nothing to do with forgiveness.  They are motivated by selfless love and the intention to prevent, if possible, the suffering of others.   The motive for enduring the suffering is not to facilitate forgiveness.  The examples above have nothing to do with forgiveness.   The motive is love and the purpose is to prevent the suffering of others.

In stark contrast, Fall/Redemption theology is all about sin and facilitating its forgiveness because of the underlying imperatives of the sacrificial system.  In Fall/Redemption theology as I understand it, God requires a blood sacrifice before God can forgive sin.  I think this is the way most church-goers understand the Cross, its purpose and its meaning.  However, for me, this understanding does not grow out of the teachings and the behaviour of Jesus.  It is an antithesis of all Jesus is about.

Another major problem I have is that I cannot accept the image of God which lies behind this theology.   I have been taught that Jesus accepted the concept of a Messiah but he understood this calling in terms of being the Suffering Servant of God.  A classic statement of this image is in Isaiah chapter 53, the Song of the Suffering Servant.    In many translations, God is the one whose will is done by making the servant suffer.

The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.   (Isaiah 53:6.)
Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief.  (Isaiah 53:10.)

In the Good News Bible this verse is translated as,

The Lord says, “It was my will that he should suffer; his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness.”    (Isaiah 53:10.)

These are not the only statements in Isaiah 53, but the above are there.
I believe suffering is often what honourable, principled, selfless human beings are subjected to.  This can be the way they are treated by their contemporaries and more particularly, by the power structures that cannot tolerate their rebellious behaviour.  However to attribute this suffering to God’s will, to have God actively involved in inflicting the suffering, is totally unacceptable to me.

Quoting from Borg and Crossan,

Was the death of Jesus the will of God?  No.  It is never the will of God that a righteous man be crucified.  Did it have to happen?  ….. But it did happen this way.  ….. and early Christian storytellers, looking back on what did happen ascribe providential meanings to Good Friday.   But this does not mean Good Friday had to happen. [5]

I believe Jesus’ suffering was caused by corrupt, ignorant, fearful human beings.  Not God!

Quoting again from Borg and Crossan,

But for another reason the execution of Jesus was virtually inevitable.  Not because of divine necessity, but because of human inevitability – this is what domination systems do to people who publically and vigorously challenge them.  It often happened in the ancient world.  It has happened to countless people throughout history. [6]

From my lyrics  No. 12.

He was a Threat
Tune    Maryton

The leaders of his day were right;
He was a threat.  He had to die.
He caused unrest, but did not fight!
He was a threat. He had to die.

He spoke against abuse of might;
Yet Romans used it to deny
Justice and truth; the sword was right;
He was a threat. He had to die.

It was not God who planned his death;
He was a threat! He had to die!
Evil still says with every breath,
“He is a threat!  He has to die!”

I do not accept a violent image of God but it seems that the above passages from Isaiah sponsor it.  In my understanding of Fall/Redemption theology, it certainly embraces this image.  God makes everything happen.  God sent his Son to die.  The biblical God has to be in control.  Everything that happens must be in accordance with God’s will and plan.   I do not believe this but it seems this is how biblical theism works.

I am at a loss to grasp how killing someone can be a loving act that enables forgiveness to be given.

The sacrificial system is virtually the only framework given to me by the church in which I can approach and contemplate the Cross of Jesus.  I do not believe that the Cross of Jesus made a cosmic difference to the God/human relationship.   Is there an ‘unquestioning obedience’ to a modified Hebrew sacrificial system in the church-goer’s understanding of Fall/Redemption theology?   I believe this is more than possible.   I now believe there is another way to understand the Cross of Jesus, its power and its meaning.
I have dealt with my difficulties regarding Fall/Redemption theology using what I understand to be the orthodox theology still taught by large sections of the church.  However, my real difficulties are built on far more basic

Thus, for me, a sacrificial system is not only totally irrelevant, but in fact, misleading.
So what more for me now?

Speaking in traditional concepts, I do not believe that the Cross has anything to do with God’s forgiveness.  Believing that I ‘live and move and have my being in God’ and that ‘God has life and being in me’, I must fathom out how sin is dealt with, without a blood-sacrifice.  If the Cross of Jesus has nothing to do with God’s forgiveness, how can God forgive?   With my Christian upbringing I don’t find this question difficult to answer.   Personally I do not have to look very far to find a satisfying answer.  I believe, with confidence, the following.

Love conquers all barriers and forgives all wrong-doing.   I believe the way sin is dealt with is that it is forgiven.   Love and love alone makes forgiveness possible, initiates and secures it.  Love is strong enough to accomplish this and love is that which strengthens me to forgive even as I am forgiven.

From my lyrics  No. 13.

A Sacrifice?
Tune    Salzburg

The tragedy of tragedies
We’re taught that violence wins –
That blood of Jesus is God’s plan
To wash away our sins.

Can we accept a world where grace
Is always freely given?
A world that Jesus dreamt about
Where sin is just forgiven.

There is no need for sacrifice
To pay a price for sin;
Forgiveness, mercy, grace occurs
When love abides within.

I am not advocating cheap grace; that we just take forgiveness for granted.  God to be in me, and for me to have my living, my moving and my being in God, brings with it the most profound responsibilities of living my life so that God Within is always uncovered and expressed in love, in every circumstance.   If I do not endeavour, with all my being, to uncover God Within, then my discipleship of Jesus is shallow, non-existent.  I make a mockery of all Jesus’ teachings, and thus his life and his death.

So now I believe there is another way to understand the Cross of Jesus, its power and its meaning.   For me, it is more positive but has nothing to do with God‘s forgiveness.  It has to do with the passion, the integrity and the strength of purpose of Jesus.   He was willing to die to show me and all humanity this passion, integrity and strength of purpose.

I believe the Cross of Jesus defines him and his message.   The Cross was inevitable, given the way he lived and what he taught.   The possibility of suffering and conflict did not distract him from what he believed was his mission in life.  Suffering and conflict were certainly not foreign experiences for him.   The gospel stories tell us that Jesus struggled; he was tempted to change course; he sweated blood in his decision making; he thought at one stage that God had abandoned him.   Yet, he never let go of his personal dignity, his strength of purpose, his integrity, his willingness to take responsibility for his actions, his will to love and forgive others, right to the very end.

And he did it alone!   I think I might be able to be reasonably strong when standing with others of like mind, but I am nearly certain that I could not do it alone.   But Jesus did.

Jesus was betrayed but he loved his betrayer.
His disciples all ran away and left him but he loved each one.
Jesus was denied but he loved his denier.
The crowds turned against him but he loved them all.
Jesus was falsely accused but he loved his accusers.
He was abused but he loved his abusers.
Jesus was cursed but he loved those who cursed him.
His mother grieved for him and he loved her.
Jesus was killed but he loved his killers.

What amazing inspiration.   What intense humanity.   What provocative challenge.   What a man!

The gospel stories tell us that there were 7 sayings from Jesus when he was dying on his Cross.  Many commentators do not believe these sayings actually came from the lips of Jesus but together, I believe they present a story that fits perfectly with what we know from the gospels, about Jesus of Nazareth.  He lived with integrity and this was how he died; with unquenchable integrity.   He died as he lived and faithful to what he taught.
Combining the sayings from all the gospels, I have a significant picture of Jesus.

* “My God.  My God; why have you forsaken me?”   (Mark 15:34.) These are the dying words of a man who was humiliated beyond reason and without legitimate cause.  He had been betrayed and denied by those closest to him.  All his friends had run away, leaving him without support.    He felt isolated, totally alone.   He was broken.  Why would he not have called out to his God in such utter desperation?  Was he wrong, after all?

* “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  (Luke 23:43.) These are the words of a man, even at the point of his own death, who cared for a stranger who was also dying.  He gave hope to another in a hopeless, tragic situation.  Love still flowed from him.

* “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:46.)  These are the words of a man who believed deeply; a man whose confidence in God could not be destroyed.  He knew he was finished but he still trusted that God would be there for him.  God would take care of him.  He knew.

* “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.)  These are the words a man who forgave others who were killing him.  They didn’t ask for it.  They didn’t deserve it but it was still available in abundance. He had taught forgiveness and now he lived it.  Forgiveness was the last thing he could give them and that’s what he did.

* “Woman behold your Son.  Behold your mother.” (John 19:26-27.) These are the words a man who cared for his mother to the end.  Women were there at the Cross, grieving.  His mum was one of them.    At his death, she was important to him.  She was beginning to age and he was concerned for her.  He wanted her to be cared for.

* “I thirst.”  (John 19:28.)  These are the words a man who was very human.   His body was drying out.  e was suffocating.  He was suffocating.   The one who gave ‘the living water’ to so many, could give no more.   Now, he needed some himself.   So he cries in his own need.

* “It is finished.”  (John 19:30.) These are the words of a man who endured to the end.  Exhausted, weak, drained and empty.  He had run his course.  He had completed the task given to him.  He had remained faithful.  Nothing more was needed to be done.  He couldn’t do any more but he knew he had done well.  He had loved to the end.

He uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. (Mark 15:37.)

This crazy mixture of contradictory human emotions and deathly experiences were those of Jesus, my friend, my mentor, my guide, the One who completely exposed God Within, the One who calls me to follow.

What amazing inspiration! What intense humanity!  What provocative challenge!  What a death!  What a man!

The centurion surely had it right when he said, “Truly this man was a son of God.”

I shout “Hallelujah” and I weep with tears of sadness but also of admiration.  So I shout “Hallelujah” again because in Jesus’ words are the seeds of resurrection.   This man is certainly worth remembering and following

From my lyrics  No. 14.

When Jesus Died so Long Ago
Tune    Horsley
Original lyrics are ‘There is a green hill far away’

When Jesus died so long ago
And shared our human fate,
He did not curse his human foe
Nor utter words of hate.

He prayed for those who drove each nail;
He comforted a thief;
He struggled to let love prevail;
He battled unbelief.

He breathes his last; he bows his head;
This is the end – but NO!
The powers that be – they think he’s dead;
They are so wrong; we know!

Jesus is crucified but he doesn’t stay dead on his Cross.  God is killed but God doesn’t die.    Love is murdered but it is never exterminated.   Jesus, God, Love never ends!   This is the wonderful news of the Gospel!  This is the message I gain from the Cross of Jesus.
For me, all this more than fills the hole created by what I have rejected.   The empty hole is now full to overflowing with love.

As I have now explained, the framework on which I build my understanding and approach to the Cross is totally different to that which I have been taught by the church.  It is the framework constructed on the pursuit and demonstration of universal and ultimately worthy human values, of human dignity, of the human will to forgive, of human strength of purpose and especially of divinely-human love.  And it all happens in God.   It is a framework of Godly actions, of Godly motives, of Godly strength, of Godly forgiveness, of Godly love.   How can I do anything else but stand in silent thankfulness to Jesus?

My main question regarding Fall/Redemption theology is, “Is it compatible with the life, death and teachings of Jesus?”  My emphatic answer is “No.  Not for me.”

Jesus is the one who continuously cooperates with God Within.   Jesus is the human picture of godliness.  Jesus is the one who teaches and demonstrates true humanity, the way humans can live abundantly.  The work of Jesus on the Cross was the demonstration right to the end of his life, of what he taught.   He died, living what he taught.   He struggled desperately but he remained faithful to the end of his life.  His integrity remained even in death.  He did not do all this to secure my salvation or to bridge a gulf between me and God, but to demonstrate, to live out and remain faithful to God Within.   Jesus was faithful to the end.

Historically, Jesus’ crucifixion was consistent with the Roman strategy of killing subversives and all those who challenged the absolute authority of the Empire.   In the gospel stories, it would appear that his death was also the result of the Jewish religious leaders’ attitude; that he had to be silenced because of his dangerous, unacceptable teachings which undermined the orthodox religion they taught.

In some ways I feel the church and its teachings have betrayed Jesus and God with its Fall/Redemption theology.

Having stated my difficult situation, have I had to ‘Start all over again’?   I think so.  My questioning has kicked in and without, I believe, any blinkered, uncritical allegiance, ‘unquestioning obedience’ to past beliefs in what the church has taught me.  If I have rejected beliefs, I have done so because they no longer work for me.   I need to have a set of beliefs built on what I understand Jesus teaches me, that are relevant to me, challenging, sensible and able to prompt me to live abundantly, courageously.

I believe that if forgiveness is necessary and it very often is, then love and love alone initiates and secures it.    This is the Good News from Jesus.  The Cross challenges me to love with a capital L.

I find at Easter some church celebrations challenging and inspiring.  Some of the Passion hymns I have been taught in church, invite me to be present at the Cross, evoke a personal response to the tragedy of it all and summon me to realise that I am a participant in the sinful structures of human society, which often bring about the execution of good innocent people who are trying to make the world a better place.
A final note.  My wife and I forgive each other without any shedding of blood!  We forgive each other because of the love we have for each other and it is a continuous process.  End of story.

For me, Easter is the time when Jesus shows us who he really is and what he really stands for.

[1] Cruden’s Complete Concordance, 556.
[2] B. Craddock, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 12, 107.
[3] C.F.Alexander, Together in Song, Hymn No. 350, verse 4.
[4] Carl Boberg, Together in Song, Hymn No. 155, verse 3.
[5] Borg and Crossan, The last Week, 161.
[6] Ibid, 161.

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My third area of questioning

3.   The impassable gulf between God and humanity caused by human sin.

For me, this is one of the most damaging elements of orthodox Christian beliefs, yet it has been central to my past Christian teaching.  I have to do a lot of ‘clearing out’ and ‘faithful rejection’.

This theological idea of an impassable gulf between God and humans, grows directly out of the first two fundamentals that I question and then reject.

These are that God, thought of as anthropomorphically, is a separate and distinct Being/Person, separate and distinct from the cosmos and all creatures in it, including human beings.   There are two separate persons involved; me and God.   This impassable gulf is also built on the theological emphasis that all humans are totally unworthy and incapable of bridging this gulf, by anything they might or might not do.  If one of the persons in the relationship cannot do anything about it, then the other Person must.  This is what I have been taught.

This gulf, I have been taught by the church, and to which I have given ‘unquestioning obedience’ for so long, is, I think, accepted by most regular church-goers without question.

It is my understanding of orthodox traditional theology, that human/my wickedness has caused a breakdown in the relationship between these two distinct Beings/Persons, God and humans/me.  This breakdown is so significant that humans cannot bring about reconciliation either individually or collectively.  For humanity/me, the situation is irretrievable and hopeless.  Only God can do something about it if God so chooses.  I have been taught that the gospel announces that God has chosen to do something.  God has bridged this gulf by means of the Cross of Jesus.   This, for me, has been equated with the ‘Good News’.

Human sin certainly puts strain and stress on our relationships with others, within ourselves and, using the traditional theological talk, also with God.  Sometimes in relationships between humans, this strain and stress is so intense that we terminate a relationship.  We might move away from the other person and have nothing more to do with them.  The situation may become irretrievable.  I have sometimes heard the term ‘incompatibility’ used in such circumstances.

More generally in life, we may find it difficult to accept others as they are and we sometimes reject, even condemn what we see in ourselves.   Unfortunately, for some humans, this condemnation can escalate into self-loathing, even suicide.

My religious instruction in the church has also taught me, unequivocally, that because I am such an unworthy person, my sin has created this huge, impassable gulf between me and God.   I have been taught that I have been created in God’s image, but that I have soiled this good image and I continue to do so constantly to such an extent that I have made the death of Jesus necessary.

I now believe these church teachings are unhealthy and not worthy of the word ‘Christian’.

So what for me now?

For me, panentheism turns all this completely on its head.  In this aspect of my journey with Jesus, I need to reconstruct my whole basis of Christian theology.

Holding panentheistic beliefs, I no longer believe that humanity and divinity are separate.  God is in me and I am in God, so we are united.  So with all humanity.  There is no possibility for any permanent and complete separation.  If I have my living, my moving and my being in God there is no impassable gulf that needs to be bridged.

I do not believe that human sin creates an impassable gulf that can only be bridged by the death of Jesus.   For me, the Cross has nothing to do with reconciliation between God and humans.  It has nothing to do with God’s forgiveness of human sin.  The death of Jesus is not an atoning or redeeming sacrifice.   For me, the blood of Jesus saves me from nothing. That is not what the Cross is all about.  If God and humans are united, then there is no need for such a sacrifice; no need for the shedding of blood.    The meaning of the Cross must, and can, I believe be found elsewhere.   I deal with this more fully in my next area of questioning.

This is all totally different to what I have been taught and what is championed in many of the traditional hymns I am requested to sing as well as much of the church liturgy used in church services today.
If I also believe that God is ‘above all and through all and in all’, there is no separation.  God is in all so there is no gulf to be bridged.    A unity with God exists for everything.

Not quite there for me in biblical language, but just about, when we read

.. nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:39.)

If a unity exists, it exists because of love.  This is now my belief.

From my lyrics  No. 11.

God Lives Within Humanity
Tune    In Dulci Jubilo

God lives within humanity;
Divine and human unity;
In our care and gentleness
God conveys a blessedness.
As with Jesus, God imparts
Divine intention to our hearts.
Jesus lived to bless;
God in us will bless.

I believe all relationships are dynamic, never static.  They can be nurtured or damaged.  We are influenced by many and various things that prompt us to change our relationships, both for the good and the bad.

Concerning the present situation of terrorism, I have heard the term ‘radicalisation’.   It could be described as the process of convincing a normally healthy, well-adjusted human being into becoming a suicide bomber.  By constantly exposing a person to negative, hateful, satanic ideas and persuading them that violent, murderous actions are not only appropriate but necessary to correct the world, a relationship with evil can be established and nurtured.  Rewards in an afterlife can also be important in some radicalisation processes.

So too, with my relationship with love, generosity, forgiveness – God Within, if you will.  I need to have these relationships nourished, challenged and nurtured.   I need to be around people who are loving, generous and forgiving.  I need to have experiences that remind me of these qualities that are essential for abundant living.    For me, this is one of the benefits of my church affiliation.   Not that church people or church experiences are all positive and good, always loving, generous and forgiving.  Not at all, but they are often helpful and point me to the Jesus way.    I need a constant challenge to allow God Within to have influence and give me direction.   I find my church associations and some church services help in this.

Obviously there is a constant struggle to leave myself open to God Within.    I’m not really sure why the struggle continues but it is my experience.  I suppose it is part of my experience of being human.   Also, I suppose it could be because there are so many influences in my life that urge me to forget about Jesus and his challenges, to forget that other people are important and that love and forgiveness are essential to abundant living.  Often, it might be that my super-ego battles with God Within.   For me, this struggle is not evidence of an impassable gap between God and me but an experience of my responsibility to allow God Within, that divine dimension of me and to which I am totally united, to prompt and influence my actions.  Discipleship of Jesus is not often easy!

So Yes.  The Bible sometimes tells me about me.

I do not understand my own actions.   For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing that I hate.   (Romans 7:15.)

Maybe not always to that extreme, but certainly in the effort to improve my behaviour, the struggle is there continuously.  There is need for an internal reconciliation.   I also feel bound to the bad repercussions of the structures of the society in which I live.  Sometimes I seem unable to do anything to effect any improvement. Reconciliation needs to happen.  Whenever there is disharmony between or within humans, no matter how serious or trivial this may be, reconciliation does need to occur.  Disharmony is disharmony and needs to be addressed.   However, for me, the excesses I have been taught by the church, regarding my own and universal human sin, are overblown excesses.  I do not believe what I have been taught about an impassable gulf, the complete and permanent separation between me and God.
God Within is part and parcel of who I am.  God Within is always within me, prompting me to do that which is loving, generous, forgiving, considerate and hospitable.  Because I may not often win in this struggle does not mean there is an impassable gulf created which can only be bridged by the death of Jesus.  There is a unity of God and humans; God and me.   That continues undiminished.  God Within is the God dimension of me/you.  That remains.

I don’t think I am ignoring the existence of evil and wrong-doing but I am not going to let these define me, my life and my beliefs.  I am not going to believe that I can do nothing about my relationships with myself, others and Jesus.   I can and sometimes do do something.  That means neither that the war is over and won nor does it mean that the situation is irretrievable and hopeless.  To use again traditional religious terminology, ‘It does not mean that it is up to God to do something because I can’t.’   I know I sometimes fail but when I do, God Within, that divine dimension of me challenges me and is in me, picking myself up, dusting myself down and starting me all over again.   I often lose the battles but sometimes, empowered by God Within, I win them.

There is a continuous struggle but, I believe, there is no impassable gulf.  God is within.

Even though I have had to ‘Start all over again’, I am in a better place that I was before.

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My second area of questioning

I’m hoping to edit this posting to make it a bit more like the original book. So here goes!!!

2. The underlying emphasis of humanity being sinful and worthless, both in the Bible and similar in many ways to that which is presented in the past and current church services I attend.

This second fundamental which is basic to what I have been taught by the church and I now seriously question, could lead me into depression if I took it too personally. I believe the dark side of humanity is tragic and so real. Human sinfulness and unworthiness cannot be ignored because it is all too evident everywhere we look. Many good human initiatives fall well short of expectations because of greed, lust for power, unbridled hatred, the dominance of our super-ego and so many other human failings. These failings prompt us to do horrendous things to our Earth home and to each other. Without wishing to absolve personal responsibility, I think these human emotions/attitudes/activities are very often initiated and exacerbated by fear, ignorance, peer pressure or the pressure of institutions and exclusive, elite communities to which we belong. Unfortunately I am sometimes sucked into this way of thinking and acting. When we think about it, we know we could do far better as a human race and we know we could also improve our own personal behaviour. We are not without fault for many of the bad things that happen.

In the secular environment in which I live, I am continuously confronted with stories and news about this negative side of life. I need to remind myself of the following injunction as being an appropriate and wholesome attitude to life, even my life.

‘Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8.)

I find it very sad that the mantra for the mass media seems to be,

Finally publishers, whatever is false, whatever is criminal, whatever is unjust, whatever is profane, whatever is abusive, whatever is violent, whatever is corrupt, if there is any scandal, if there is anything worthy of punishment, publish these things. They sell!

Not long ago, I decided to reconsider whether I wished to continue the practice of being woken up at 7am with the national news, broadcast on my bedside radio. I was guided by the thought, ‘If there is one, just one good news story in the first three, in any of the next four mornings, I would continue the practice.’ After this four-morning trial, I ceased the practice. It was just too negative. I don’t find it helpful to commence my day with stories about tragic events or about the bad, corrupt, criminal, abusive behaviour of humans. I now call the evening television news, ‘The Police News’. Most times this title is accurate because of what is served up every evening. When reading the newspapers, I often skim over the headlines of the articles. In the first five or so pages of the daily newspaper we get, I would estimate that often, something like 80% of the articles are about this negative side of life and human behaviour. From all this continuous exposure, we could gain the impression that all life is bad, sordid and uninviting. I don’t need the church and my experience in it, to confirm this impression.
I find there are four areas of concern.

A. The earliest Bible stories.
B. Church teachings and the story of the Fall.
C. Current church liturgies.
D. Hymns we are requested to sing.

A. The earliest Bible stories.

There is an emphasis in the earliest, and well-known stories of the Bible of this downside of humanity. This emphasis continues into the New Testament teachings.
The Christian environment in which I have be brought up, has as part of its tradition, the Hebrew biblical pre-history stories in chapters 1-11 of Genesis. In these chapters, humans are portrayed as disobedient and self-indulgent in the Garden of Eden story, and then as murderous in the next story about Cain and Abel. It takes Genesis only about 100 verses, excluding those which list names in genealogies, to arrive at the summation that all of humanity deserve the death penalty because of their wickedness. The story of Noah and the ark tells of this mass execution, yet it has been taught in Sunday School for centuries. WHY?

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, I will blot out man whom I created from the face of the ground, and beasts and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7.)

In these early biblical stories there is no story of human love and compassion. There is not even a hint that humans have the ability or inclination to be concerned about one-another’s well-being. I find this tragic. There is but one comment that any human had a positive side. It is said in Genesis 6:8 that Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord and that he was a righteous man. In the rest of the Bible I can find no collective noun that describes humans as being good in any way. Maybe I have not looked diligently enough. However, the negative side is still prominent in the biblical instruction of the New Testament, with the collective noun ‘sinners’ being used quite often,

But God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners…. (Romans 5:8.)

B. Church teachings and the story of the Fall.

There is an emphasis in church teachings I have received, that humans in general, are to be regarded as totally unworthy. With the continued importance in church teachings given to the ‘Story of the Fall’ (The Garden of Eden story in Genesis 3), I find it little wonder that Augustine in the early 1st Century CE (Common Era), and later that Luther and Calvin in the 16th Century, taught that humans were ‘totally depraved from conception’.

Total depravity is the fallen state of human beings as a result of original sin. The doctrine of ‘total depravity’ asserts that people are, because of this fall, not inclined or even able to love God as they should, but rather are inclined, by nature, to serve their own will and desires. Even religion and philanthropy are wicked to God because they originate from the selfish human desire and are not done to the glory of God. This doctrine obviously continues to emphasise the negative side of humanity. I sometimes feel like calling this doctrine ‘totally depraved’.

C. Current church liturgies.

Liturgies used in church services remind all members of the congregation, every Sunday, that we are sinful and unworthy.

It is my experience that prayers of confession are often quite detailed and encourage church attendees to own the sins mentioned. We are left in little doubt about how bad we are, even though we have the words of God’s forgiveness pronounced immediately following the prayer. I sometimes wonder if these words have the effect intended. In church services which include the Mass, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the liturgy, in which those present and requested to participate, requests the mercy of God up to 8 times.

Again this emphasises human unworthiness, needing God’s mercy. In church services I have attended over 80 or more years, I have never been asked to participate in a prayer which gives thanks for my/our virtue or good behaviour. Do I/we exhibit none of this? I am told to be careful lest I slip into pride. In liturgies of confession I experience very Sunday, I don’t think I am likely to slip into pride and remain there.

D. Hymns we are requested to sing.

Very important for me, is the sentiment and ideas in the lyrics of many of the hymns we are requested to sing in church services. So many refer to human-beings as members of Adam’s fallen race, unworthy and needing God’s forgiveness and mercy. One I remember well from my past church experience, which was sung very often, has the words in each verse,

Before thy throne we sinners bend…. [1]

The whole hymn is a plea for God’s mercy and grace. God is pushed further away, onto God’s throne, separate and distant, and this God is pleaded with for forgiveness and mercy, neither of course, being deserved.

One hymn I have recently learned means a lot to me. The middle verses are,

No need to fear; Love sets no limits;
No need to fear; Love never ends.
Don’t run away shamed and disheartened;
Rest in my love; trust me again.

I came to call sinners, not just the righteous;
I came to bring peace; not to condemn;
Each time you fail to live by my promise,
Why do you think I’d love you the less. [2]

I find the sentiments expressed poignant and personal, powerful and persuasive. I am pleased this hymn is in the hymnbook we use and I am pleased to sing it each time it is chosen. However, it is all about my unworthiness and in spite of this, God’s constant love. This affirmation about God is positive and powerful. The ‘Bad News’ about me is countered by the ‘Good News’ about God. Is there not any ‘Good News’ at all, about me?

I believe that numerous church-goers put considerable and continuing effort into living loving lives as Jesus’ disciples. Do we always fail miserably? Could this human effort and the success of sometimes living a virtuous life, be affirmed and celebrated, at least occasionally? It is my experience that it practically never is; sometimes maybe in the sermon but not in current liturgies and hymns we are asked to sing. I believe recognition of this positive side of humanity should be acknowledged and affirmed in church services.

So what for me now?

I was very pleased the other day to receive an email which commenced with,

There is nothing in nature like the daily acts of kindness that characterise humanity. We are by far and away the most altruistic of all known species.

There was no identifying sender and no attribution to the quote given. However I thought, ‘I’m pleased that someone can say something good about humanity.’
My belief is that humans are basically good but, of course, capable of wrong doing in the extreme. As I have previously asserted, God Within gives us all a positive divine dimension. God Within is exposed in a million places by millions of people in millions of unreported human encounters. These loving encounters are sometimes prompted in rebellion to the behaviour of the powerful, when they behave badly, irresponsibly or corruptly.

Many of the expressions of love and compassion occur quite spontaneously, especially in response to some particular and urgent human need. Recently my wife had a serious fall in a public carpark. When she fell, she chipped a front tooth and hurt one of her knees badly. She was crying and calling out for help. I have never seen her so distressed. Thankfully no bones were broken. Within a few seconds, literally, there were four strangers with us, all wanting to lend assistance. They were able to help and for that, we were very thankful. This example demonstrated to me what just about always happens when someone is in trouble like that. It is ordinary and probably that is why it never gets into the television news. It’s not sensational. Thank goodness it’s ordinary. It happens all the time. Little people keep love alive.

Why do I think that humans are basically good? It is because I believe that God is inherent in all life, within in a way that human-beings can experience, appreciate and respond to. This God dimension, I suggest is not dependent on adherence to any particular set of creeds or beliefs, not especially evident in religious people, not the prior possession of any particular human group or culture, but universally inherent. Human goodness, the God dimension of humanity, is exposed, expressed and seen whenever love and compassion are lived. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that humans are spontaneously good and concerned for one another. I believe it is the millions of little people who produce this evidence. Why are there so many voluntary organisations which depend totally on the good will, unpaid support and effort of ordinary people?

Reportedly, in his last essay, Steve Jobs, before he died, wrote,

There is a big difference between a human being and being human. [3]

He is using the word ‘human’ in a positive sense and I think he is affirming that goodness is the essence of humanity but, of course, human beings do not always let it shine through. He is implying that to be ‘human’ is to be good. I agree.

I am certainly not saying that humans are in no need of forgiveness and reconciliation, both within themselves and between them and others, but I am saying that this is not the whole story.

In my lyrics below, I suggest there is a praiseworthy side of humanity. So much spontaneous love and concern as well as premeditated love and concern is shown by human beings to other human beings with no thought of reward or even recognition. Many may not call their behaviour actions of love and concern, but that’s what they are.

Recently I heard of a neighbour breaking a window of a house which was on fire, to rescue two elderly people trapped inside. After the fire was put out and the two elderly people were safe and well, someone said to the neighbour, who had risked his own life, that he was a hero. His reply was, “Well that’s a bit ridiculous. Anyone else would have done the same.” This sort of comment is made so often by ordinary people.

Little people keep love alive.

This is my experience in life and my beliefs need to reflect it.

From my lyrics No. 9.
Humans Do Amazing Things
Tune Ebenezer
When surrounded with adversity
Humans do amazing things.
When struck down by grim calamity
Humans do amazing things.
Strangers risk their lives to rescue;
Danger ignored; the trapped must be freed;
People are of priceless value;
All to help each one in need.

I was speaking to one of my friends the other day and asked her about what she was doing. She said she was putting a lot of her time into helping refugees, Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who had settled in Australia. She said she helped with English language learning classes on a weekly basis and recently had bought and made available, sewing machines to some of the women who wished to learn how to make their own clothes, etc. She said this latest exercise took a lot of time and effort from her, because all sewing machines are different and she had to learn how to use them before she could teach anyone else how to use them. I was surprised because I thought sewing machines were just sewing machines. Even though she sometimes got worn out with the refugees’ many and varied requests for help, she said she loved it all.

I do not believe she told me all this to get praise from me but she told me, just in answer to my questions. She was telling me about her life and activities. However, I felt inspired. What a wonderful way to spend one’s life.

Little people keep love alive.

In different words and from my theological background, I wish to say, “The kingdom of God is alive and well.” Are we all ‘totally depraved from conception’? I think not.

From my lyrics No. 10.

The Beauty Within Us
Tune To God be the Glory

The beauty within us – the impulse to care
Is God’s image planted, of which we are heir;
For friend and for stranger when need is severe
Our heart gives attention; our help is sincere.
When we heed others’ need
And no matter how small,
When we heed others’ need
We respond to God’s call;
With God deep within us, our spirit is bold;
The Christ is then present; his love we unfold.

I believe there is an innate goodness in human-beings. God Within shines so brightly if we decide to let it.

In all this, my panentheism is very evident and the basis of what I believe about human beings. We all have a divine dimension; God Within. We are in God and God is in us.
I have to ‘faithfully reject’ what I understand to be this fundamental of the orthodox Christianity’s emphasis, regarding the sinfulness and unworthiness of humanity. I don’t have to ‘Start all over again’ but I have to reconstruct considerably, this emphasis that I have been taught in the past by the church so that I can accept some balance about how I regard humans and myself and their/my behaviour.
________________________________________
[1] Edward Cooper, Together in Song, Hymn No. 131, every verse.
[2] Deirdre Browne, Together in Song, Hymn No. 693, verses 2& 3.
[3] Steve Jobs, The world’s six best doctors.

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My first area of questioning

I think I have mastered the way to [ost on my blog so I am going at it.
1. The biblical presentation of God, similar in many ways to that which is presented in the past and current church services I attend.
In the ‘clearing out’, ‘faithful rejection’ process, when I am speaking of theism, I am not referring to the idea of a grand old man sitting on a throne above the clouds in the sky. I think most church-goers have dispensed with this centuries-old concept. However the theism, I am speaking of, is born out of this ancient set of ideas.
This theism espouses the idea that God is a separate Being, not inherent in the universe but distinct from it and all that is in it. This theism asserts that this Being created all things, has relationships with human beings and enters into, or intervenes in the world of human affairs to execute God’s will. This theism is what I refer to by the term ‘supernatural theism’. This separate God has been presented to me as having attributes of, and behaving like a super, almighty human being, sometimes violently. This is all consistent with the biblical presentation of God so I also use the term ‘biblical theism’.
I have four main areas of questioning.
A. An anthropomorphic God.
B. A person-ised God, separate from humanity and ‘away’.
C. An ultra-violent and punitive God.
D. An almighty God, always in control of everything at all times and places.

These are certainly not the only emphases in the teachings about God I have received. Other images of God presented to me have been helpful and remain with me. But, concentrating on what I have to ‘clear out’, these four areas have all been significant in my past church instruction that have caused me much questioning.

I believe these four teaching emphases have not been different to those given to many other regular church-goers.
A. An anthropomorphic God.
Even though God has been presented to me in some abstract ways, nearly all throughout the Bible, God is presented anthropomorphically as a super human-being with human attributes. In both the Old Testament and the New, there is a continuous use of anthropomorphisms regarding God.
‘Anthropos’ is the Greek word for ‘man’ or ‘human’. An anthropomorphism, when speaking of God, is a statement that uses words and concepts, emotions and behaviours which are appropriately used when speaking of human-beings and their activities. These anthropomorphisms all seem to be describing God, the essence and nature of God, the activity of God and what prompts God to do what God does.
This presentation of God that I have experienced in the past, is a very major problem to me now. Nearly every time God is spoken of, words used which try to describe the activity of God, the nature of God, the relationship of God to things or humans, etc., are couched in anthropomorphic language and pictures. The Bible is full of it and my past church teachings are full of it. Church dogma and doctrine are also full of it.
I find it all unhelpful. It always makes God far too small for me.
The only verb I can use now, is ‘is’. ‘God is’ is about the only sentence I can use that makes much sense to me but some complain that that is not really saying anything. I can add some abstract concepts like ‘love’, ‘spirit’, etc. But I can’t say “God is loving”. That, for me, is to speak anthropomorphically, pointing to an activity of a human. Loving is what humans do. So when I use “God is”, I can follow it only with a word that does not convey an activity.
From the Bible, God has human physical features. Here are some.
• God has fingers. (Luke 11:20.)
• God has hands. (1 Peter 5:6.)
• God has arms. (Isaiah 40:10.)
• God has ears. (Nehemiah 1:6.)
• God has eyes. (Ezra 5:5.)
• God has feet. (Nahum 1:3.)

From the Bible, God does lots of things that human do. Here are some.

• God creates. (Genesis 1:1.)
• God sits. (Psalm 47:8.)
• God shuts in. (Genesis 7:16.)
• God walks. (Leviticus 26:12.)
• God goes about. (Deuteronomy 23:14.)
• God goes his way. (Genesis 18:33.)
• God calls. (Exodus 24:16.)
• God rests. (Genesis 2:2.)
• God pours out. (Joel 2:29.)
• God fights. (Joshua 10:42.)
• God destroys. (Jeremiah 15:7 8.)
• God kills. (Genesis 38:7.)
• God smites. (Exodus 12:29.)
• God speaks. (Joshua 8:18.)
• God listens. (1 Kings 17:22.)
• God looks. (Isaiah 18:4.)
• God sees. (Matthew 6:6.)
• God smells. (Genesis 8:21.)
• God laughs. (Psalm 2:4.)
• God whistles. (Isaiah 5:26, 7:18.)
• God touches. (Job 19:21.)
• God blesses. (Joshua 17:14.)
• God forgives. (Exodus 34:6-7.)
• God is a man of war. (Exodus 15:3.)

From the Bible, God is stated as experiencing many human feelings and emotions. Here are some.

• God has feelings of jealousy. (Exodus 20:5, Nahum 1:3.)
• God has feelings of hatred. (Amos 5:21.)
• God has feelings of love. (Hosea 3:1.)
• God is weary. (Jeremiah 15:6.)
• God takes delight in. (Deuteronomy 28:63.)
• God pities. (Jonah 4:11.)
• God is sorry about what God has done. (Genesis 6:6-7.)
• God is slow to anger. (Psalm 86:15.)
• God is vengeful. (Nahum 1:2.)
• God changes God’s mind. (Exodus 32:14.)
• God wants to find out. (Genesis 18:20-21.)
• God remembers. (Genesis 9:15.)

All these are but a minute sample of that which is encountered all throughout the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. Together, with numerous others, they create the constant image of God as a super-human Being.
Most of these texts are poetry or poetic and none, I believe, should be taken literally. However, although it can be difficult to speak of God in ways other than with anthropomorphisms, these are used constantly in the Bible without much effort, it would seem, to move beyond them. In many cases, I believe it was thought unnecessary to try. God was a supreme super-human and spoken of as such.
I should not be too critical of the authors; after all, most of them did their work about 2000 years ago or more. Nevertheless their writings are all there, and we, regular church-goers, are encouraged to read and study them.
God ‘lives’ and ‘acts’. These are both anthropomorphisms. That’s what humans do. God is referred to as the ‘living’ God and God is always doing things. The Bible teaches that God is deeply involved in human history, performing God’s actions. It seems to me that the whole of the story of the Bible is built on the idea that God acts in the human arena. This is all anthropomorphic talk.
I have grown up in a church environment in which people have attached the personal pronoun ‘He’, to God. ‘Father’ is constantly used when referring to God. Although the suitability of these words is hotly debated now, linking God only to the masculine gender, in my experience, their use has not been debated regarding their anthropomorphic overtones. Some clergy, who have a bit more courage than others, sometimes refer to God as ‘Mother’ and use the pronoun ‘She’, and these have been seen by many regular church-goers as adequate but maybe a bit questionable. However, the word ‘It’, used when speaking of God, has been seen as derogatory, somewhat insulting to God and thus unacceptable. ‘It’ would take away the personhood of God and this seems to be offensive. The anthropomorphic personhood of God still persists universally.
For the Bible, this anthropomorphic talk begins in Genesis chapter 1. Here, God is the only actor, the only doer. God ‘speaks’, ‘makes’ things, and then ‘observes’ what God has done. That’s what humans do. God even ‘rests’ when it is stated that all God’s work is finished. That also is what humans often do. The whole concept of a God who ‘creates’ is built on this anthropomorphic way of thinking.
This approach to God is constantly presented in church services I attend, particularly regarding God the Creator. Also, in church services, God is asked to ‘hear’ our prayers and ‘answer’ us. This God is thanked for what God ‘does’. All anthropomorphisms.
With anthropomorphic language everywhere in the Bible and in church services I attend, one might reasonably ask, “Could there be another way of speaking about God?” I believe there can be and there actually is. This anthropomorphic way of speaking is no doubt helpful in our early religious learning but for me, it should be left in Sunday School. My concept of God is no longer chained to anthropomorphic pictures. This is why I cannot speak of God as a person. To person-ise God is to think of God in categories which are inadequate and unhelpful for me now.
So what for me now?
I begin by saying that my present beliefs are panentheistic – my response to the Mystery.
I understand panentheism as the belief that God is ‘in’ everything and everything is ‘in’ God. For me, panentheism is the belief that the ‘divine’ pervades and impregnates every part of the cosmos but is not limited by it. In panentheism, God is viewed as the soul of the cosmos, the universal spirit/energy present everywhere at every time, the divine dimension of all that is, the divine fabric in which everything, including the cosmos, is clothed.
While pantheism asserts that ‘Everything is God” and ‘God is everything’, and thus limited to ‘everything’, panentheism claims that ‘God is inherent in everything’, but not limited to ‘everything’. Pantheism restricts God to all that exists whereas for panentheism, God is without limitation in time, space and all other categories.
Pantheism and panentheism should never be understood as being the same. I deal with this in more detail a little later.
Having panentheistic beliefs sets a completely new path for me, from which to view reality, the cosmos, humanity and the meaning of everything religious, including Jesus and his Cross. It supersedes any anthropomorphic image of God I have had previously. It replaces what I understand to be, the misleading idea about the separation of God from humanity – God, a separate and distinct Being. If God is ‘in’ everything and everything is ‘in’ God, there is no separation. It also precludes any violence in God. God being in absolute control becomes irrelevant. These have to do with anthropomorphic images of God.
This is so, so different to what I have believed previously, however, I still have strong connections with the Bible, with church teachings and with some of what I experience in the current church services I attend.
I replace the anthropomorphic images of God with more complicated, mystical images of ‘spirit’ and ‘energy’. These are somewhat abstract, and thus maybe more difficult to embrace. I am reminded of the teaching in a gospel conversation that Jesus has with the woman of Samaria.
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24.)
Certainly not the easiest to comprehend. In this quotation, God is not ‘a spirit’, but ‘spirit’. For me, the two are different and this quote points beyond the dominant biblical images of God. However the quote includes,
…those who worship him… (John 4:24.)
This falls back into anthropomorphic talk which, for me, is a pity. God again becomes a ‘him’
To try to appreciate what I mean when talking of ‘spirit’, I go to such concepts as the spirit of Christmas; abstract but very real and experienced. We speak quite easily about the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of good-will, or the spirit of generosity, etc. I believe we can think about ‘spirit’ in the God-context, in the same way. What can be more ‘Holy’ than the spirit of reconciliation, the spirit of generosity, the spirit of forgiveness, the spirit of inclusiveness? We don’t person-ise the spirit of Christmas, of generosity, of goodwill, of goodness, but we know the emotions and feelings we have when we are involved in such. We do not thank Christmas, generosity, goodwill or goodness, but we still have a very personal experience of them. To thank them, we would have to make them into Beings or persons or individual entities. We can’t do that. It would be absurd. They are not entities. They are abstract concepts but very real and experienced. I’m not sure that such concepts can be understood, but they are practised and certainly experienced and the results are wholesome. When confronted by a ‘grump’ during the Christmas period, we might say, “Get into the spirit of Christmas and stop being grumpy.” We understand what we are saying but we are not talking about a person or entity, when using the phrase ‘the spirit of Christmas’. So too with God. I can experience the God/Spirit without an outside, separate Being called God.
I do not find the word ‘energy’ in my biblical concordance, so I’m not sure that this concept is present in the biblical way of thinking. Energy is not a first century concept but it is central to modern thinking, particularly with the explosion of scientific information and the current way of understanding the cosmos. Good energy is one of the experiences, emotions we might have when encompassed by, or involved in the ‘spirit’ of Christmas, generosity, goodwill, goodness, and so on.
I also find it significant that God is referred to as love, in 1 John 4:16a, and not a loving person. This is mystically abstract.
B. A person-ised God, separate from humanity and ‘away’.
With this constant use of anthropomorphic language when speaking of God in the Bible and in current church services I attend, God is person-ised; spoken of as a person. In the teachings I have received from the church there are three persons in the Godhead.
This teaching is contained in the idea of the Trinity. There is God the Father, the first person, worshipped as the almighty Creator and in control of everything at all times and places. There is God the Son, the second person, worshipped as God revealed in human flesh. There is God the Holy Spirit, the third person, worshipped as God who gives gifts to humans, and who can dwell with and in us. Three persons in the one Trinity. This, in a nutshell, is what I have been taught by the church. This orthodox Trinity is built on the person-ising of God. I often hear the phrase, ‘God in three persons’.
For me, the orthodox Trinity seems to emphasize the separateness, distinctiveness of God and this begins biblically, in the Genesis stories. God, the Creator, is distinct from the creation. God is separate. This separation continues biblically because God ‘sent’ the Son, Jesus, to Earth. God, the Holy Spirit, has to ‘come and abide’. If there is no separation, such language is inappropriate. I no longer believe God is separate and distinct from human beings or the cosmos. God is not ‘away’.
It was suggested to me that God had to be a community of persons if God is love. It is not possible to conceive of love unless it is given and received. Hence there needed to be more than one person in the Godhead. Love is a shared experience. If God is Love, God needs to give as well as receive love. All very anthropomorphic. That’s what humans do!
God, thought of as a person, can help when trying to answer such questions as, “Who can I praise and adore? To whom do I pray? To whom can I give thanks? To whom do I confess my sins? Who forgives me?” These can all be answered fairly easily if God is thought of as a person. If God is not thought of as a person these questions can pose difficulties. I have been taught that I can have a personal relationship with God, but if God is not a person, how can this happen? As a follower of Jesus I am told to love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, but if God is not a person, how can I do this? Not unreasonable questions.
Persons, by definition, are separate, distinct from one another. They can have relationships with one another but they are separate, individual and distinct. God and human beings can have relationships, very close relationships, but they are separate and distinct. This is what I was taught.
The biblical narrative also localises this person-ised God; living somewhere. Another anthropomorphism. Early in the biblical story there is the mountain of the Lord, Mt. Sinai/Mt Horeb, see Exodus 3:1, Exodus 19:17-18 and many other references. This is where Moses was given the Law, and where he, his brother Aaron and sometimes others were summoned to go to meet with God. Later in the biblical story, the tabernacle/tent, see Deuteronomy 31:14-15 and many other references, was where God had an earthy abode. Later again in the church teachings I received, I was introduced to the Holy of Holies, see Hebrews 9:3, in the temple in Jerusalem where God could be approached once a year by the high priest.
I think it is interesting that we still call churches, ‘Houses of God’.
Marcus Borg says that,
Supernatural theism images God as a person-like being. To be sure, God is an exceedingly superlative personlike being, is indeed the Supreme Being. A long time ago, this personlike being created the world as something apart from God. Thus God and the world are sharply distinguished: God is ‘up in Heaven’, ‘out there’, beyond the universe. [1]
In the early creeds of the church, which were given to me to memorise, God is person-ised, localised in Heaven, away and separate. Every Sunday I am reminded of this separation each time I am asked to say the Lord’s Prayer.
Our Father which art in Heaven…. Thy will be done one Earth as it is in Heaven.
I am constantly reminded in church services I attend, that God lives in Heaven. I believe that these ideas are not taken too literally by many church-goers, however, I believe this localising of God leads to the concepts of separation and transcendence; that of God being holy and separated from sinful human beings but having special local places on Earth where this God could be approached.
I am also confronted with this separation in many of the hymns I am requested to sing in present and past church services I have attended.
Matthew Fox, discusses the subject.
Experiencing the diaphanous and transcendent God: – ‘C.G.Jung has written that there are two ways to lose your soul. One of these is to worship a god outside you.’ If he is correct, then a lot of churchgoers in the West have been losing their souls for generations to the extent that they have attended religious events where prayer is addressed to a god outside. The idea that God is ‘out there’ is probably the ultimate dualism, divorcing as it does God and humanity and reducing religion to a childish state of pleasing or pleading with a God ‘out there’. All theism sets up a model paradigm of people here and God out there. All theisms are about subject/object relationships to God. [2]
So what for me now?
Referring to some of my past church teachings, I think the writer of the Psalms may have been at least moving slightly outside the idea of God being localised, when stating a conviction about the omni-presence of God – God being everywhere.
Wither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or wither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to Heaven, Thou art there! If I make my bed is Sheol, Thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10.)
The psalmist speaks of God as present everywhere in the world in which we live. With this, God is being de-localised and thus de-person-ised to some extent.
The sayings Gospel of Thomas, an early written gospel not found in the Canon of Scripture – the Bible as we now have it – has Jesus saying,
Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up a stone, and you will find me there. (Saying 77.)
This saying of Jesus goes a bit further and in a slightly different direction than the Psalm, but I suggest it is along much the same lines.
I ‘faithfully affirm’ all this but wish to go a lot, lot further. I do not believe that God is present everywhere in the world as a separate, distinct Being, as the above quotes suggests, in a side-by-side association.
I believe God is ‘in’ the world/universe, inherent, united to it; ‘in’ it as its divine dimension. This is pointed to in the New Testament.
One God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all… (Ephesians 4:6.)
This suggests to me that God is more than omni-present. God is omni-inherent. The first suggests a side-by-side association whereas the second points towards the unity embraced by panentheism.
But even more please.
For me, it is not only that God is ‘in’ the cosmos, but also that the cosmos is ‘in’ God. So I go further with panentheism, believing that I am ‘in’ God. You are ‘in’ God. Everybody and everything is ‘in’ God. I find biblical statements to this effect.
In him we live and move and have our being; (Acts 17:28.)
This quotation is stated by some commentators as being a quotation from Greek poetry, probably from a stoic philosopher, but the writer of the book of Acts uses it to affirm the theological emphasis that human life and experience is ‘in’ God.
I express this emphasis in many of my lyrics, an example of which I quote. There is not the traditional side-by side association – God being with us or near us – but an ‘in-ness’, a unity emphasised.
From my lyrics No. 2.
In God We Live and Move and Be
Tune Ballerma

In God we live and move and be,
In God we have our place;
If we accept this for ourselves
Then love shines from our face.

In God we live and move and be,
In God have harmony;
We praise and celebrate with joy
This mystic unity.

The author of John’s Gospel has Jesus saying to Phillip,
Have I been so long with you and yet you do not know me, Phillip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, “Show us the Father?” Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me? (John 14:9-10.)
‘I am in the Father and the Father in me’ is for me, a statement of unity, in-dwelling, not a side-by-side relationship. The Father is not ‘with’ Jesus but ‘in’ Jesus.
The author of the epistles of John goes even further, stating,
God is love; and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16b.)
For me, this quote is saying much the same thing about humanity, whereas the previous quote from the gospel speaks only of Jesus. I suggest that the two above quotations are by no means unique in the New Testament. For me, they address my problem of the God/Humanity separation. Many times this ‘in-ness’ is mentioned by the writers of the New Testament.
When discussing matters with the Pharisees, Jesus says,
The kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21.)
There are many times when the New Testament writers speak of God being ‘in’ all, us being ‘in’ Christ and Christ being ‘in’ us; etc.
For ‘in’ him we live and move and have our being. (Acts 17:28.)
So we, though many, are one body ‘in’ Christ. (Romans 12:5.)
Therefore if anyone is ‘in’ Christ .. (2 Corinthians 5:17.)
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives ‘in’ me. (Galatians 2:20.)
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one ‘in’ Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28.)
And that Christ may dwell ‘in’ your hearts… (Ephesians 3:17.)
One God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and ‘in’ all. (Ephesians 4:6.)
He is before all things, and ‘in’ him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17.)

These texts invite me to embrace a different approach when asking the question, “How can I understand my experience of God?” I quote the above texts as examples of what I think is an emerging theme in the New Testament.
It’s also important to note that we would have this theme embraced a lot more if we had a different Canon of the New testament; one which included some of the early Christian books and writings which were available but not included in what we now have. One such book, The Gospel of Truth, has this ‘in-ness’ as a major theme of that Gospel. It states, as a teaching of Jesus,
And the Father is within them and they are in the Father. They are full and undivided from the one who is truly good. (Gospel of Truth 6:6-7.)
Mystical and like some of the sayings of Jesus in John’s gospel, but I find it helpful.
The Gospel of Mary, another Gospel originally excluded from the New Testament, also has this ‘in-ness’ as one of its main themes. I discuss these ancient documents, together with others, a bit later.
It is interesting to me that the concept of God’s ‘in-ness’ in us and our ‘in-ness’ in God does not surface in the Old Testament, not remotely. Early in the Bible story, even to say the name of God was strictly forbidden. The Jeremiah passage below moves towards in-ness, but there is still the side-by-side relationship and no unity: not for me anyway. The law or covenant is given an ‘in-ness’ but not the Lord.
But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall each teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, “Know the lord.”, for they shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34.)
As always, analogies are deficient in some aspect of their use, but I go there to hopefully add a bit of meaning. When I swim in the ocean I am totally surrounded by it; I am buoyed up by it; it is beneath me and above me. My movement is in the ocean. The ocean is far bigger than that which is close to me. My experience of the ocean is very limited but that doesn’t mean the ocean is limited to my experience of it. Most of the ocean is distant from me but that does not mean the ocean is distant. It is totally present. While I am in the ocean, many other things are also in the ocean; ships, other people, fish, etc., etc. Their ‘in-ness’ doesn’t alter nor lessen my ‘in-ness’ and mine doesn’t diminish theirs.
So I am ‘in’ God but God is not limited to that experience. The limitation of this analogy is obvious, in that it does not address God’s ‘in-ness’ in me. The ocean is not ‘in’ me. There is also present the side-by side association.
Quoting again from Matthew Fox,
What is the solution to the killing of God and the losing of human soul? It is our moving from theism to panentheism. Now panentheism is not pantheism. Pantheism, which is a declared heresy because it robs God of transcendence, states that everything is God and God is everything. [3]
Fox continues,
Panentheism, on the other hand, is altogether orthodox and very fit for orthopraxis as well, for it slips in the little Greek word ‘en’ and thus means, ‘God is in everything and everything is in God.’ This experience of the presence of God in our depth and Dabhar (the creative energy ‘Word’ of God) in all the blessings and suffering of life is a mystical understanding of God. [4]
God Beyond, God Within and God Between.
God, for me, is the spirit dimension, inherent in everything and everyone, including me and you. It is a way of understanding which goes in the opposite direction to the ‘away’ God who is separate and distinct. To try to unpack this belief, I speak of ‘God Beyond’, ‘God Within’, and ‘God Between’.
When I speak of ‘God Beyond’, ‘God Within’ and ‘God Between’ I am not talking about the nature, the substance or the essence of a Being I might call God. I am trying to indicate how I ‘experience’ and how I respond to the Mystery, the Divine, the Sacred, the More – God. The experiences I include are experiences of the world beyond me, the internal experiences of personal decision making, self-examination and self-talk, as well as the experiences I have with other people. So the phrases ‘God beyond me’, ‘God within me’ and ‘God between me and others’ make sense to me.
I need to emphasise that, for me, these are not three Gods. I have little connection with the orthodox Trinity because, for me, God Beyond is not God the Father; God Within in not the Holy Spirit and God Between is not Jesus. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I have been taught, are all persons in the orthodox Trinity whereas for me, God Beyond, God Within and God Between are phrases by which I point to the different ways I ‘experience’ God. Even though God is de-person-ised, my experience of God is still very personal.
If what follows makes me an atheist or heretic, so be it. Strictly speaking I would class myself an a-theist, i.e. one who is not a theist. However, I believe in God; the ultimate Mystery. I am a panentheist, so in one sense of that word, I suppose I am some sort of theist.
What follows includes statements of my beliefs, as clear as I can make them, but which may not be easily understood. My beliefs are all so filled with Mystery that I am not sure I understand them myself. Maybe that is because I don’t always understand all my experiences but I still have them.
I don’t think I am very different to some other church-goers when I say that my beliefs begin and end in Mystery, with a capital M. Mystery is everywhere; in the minute, micro cosmos to the gigantic, limitless cosmos; in my very complex personal life and all my relationships with that which is outside me. What wonders have we yet to discover about the atom and molecules on which all our physical cosmos is partly built? What secrets are hidden in the millions of out-there galaxies which may never be understood? How can I understand myself and my behaviour? What is time? What prompts me to forgive? Why do I relish eating a banana every morning but my eldest daughter hates them? Why is there gravity? Why am I here? Who or what is God? Mystery everywhere. I am bewildered. Are there no answers? Is there no certainty to which I can cling?
I have to try to respond to this all-pervading Mystery as best I can with beliefs that help me to make some sense of it all and help me to live life abundantly. So I try to limit my comments to my personal experience of life. I ask “Where and how does God fit into my life?”, or as importantly with my present beliefs, I ask “Where and how do I fit into God?”
If I build my beliefs on my experience of life, I realise my experiences are extremely limited. It is our brain and mind that interprets all our experiences and it does so in the context of our personal history, our prejudices, our environment, our reading and thinking, our knowledge and intellect, our world view as well as our specific predispositions at the time of our experience. All this is very subjective but that is the only way I think we can approach this subject. To speak of a revelation or some objective knowledge we may think we have been given, is still to understand this in the way our brain and mind filters, appraises and interprets it. It can be no other way.
Because I take ‘living and moving and having my being in God’, very seriously, then I am never separate from God, and because I take God being ‘over all and through all and in all’, very seriously, then God is never separate from me. All my human experience is ‘in’ God and God is ‘in’ it all. I am never separate from God and God is never separate from me.
When standing in awe of nature and looking at the stars of the universe, I experience God’s awesomeness. When receiving forgiveness and love from others, I experience God’s loving. When feeling I need to visit someone, in knowing that I need to apologise, in setting the priorities of my life, I experience God’s challenging. When visiting people in nursing homes I am confronted with the God’s vulnerability. In my fearful reactions to the stormy fury of nature and the speed of comets and meteorites, I experience God’s power. In my peaceful reactions to the growth of trees and the twinkling of the sun on the surface of rippling water, I experience God’s quietness. In acknowledging the never ceasing movement of unnumbered electrons around an immeasurable number of nuclei of atoms, I am present to God’s energy. When I am with people who are sick or suffering, I am confronted with God’s pain. When trying to lift heavy weights, when walking slowly up a steep hill and when trying to swim against the tide, I am present to God’s force on our planet Earth. In the evil deeds humans do to each other, I become aware of God’s sadness. When I act in a hurtful, irresponsible way, my experience is that I am the cause of God’s sadness. In contemplation of the magic of my computer, I experience God’s minuteness and intricacy. When looking at a sunset, I am bewildered by God’s beauty. When enjoying other people’s company I experience the joy of God’s company.
Most of this is very anthropomorphic talk and I suppose I am speaking of God as a human with human emotions; etc. I am trying to express how I accept the experiences I have in life, as experiences of God’s ‘in-ness’. My experiences however, are anthropomorphic. They must be because I am human.
For me, God is known, identified in all these experiences and more, and they are all my experiences. These experiences and the recognition of them are my interactions with the Mystery, so when I have these and all other experiences I am experiencing God. God is ‘in’ them all.
Because of the immense amount of baggage that comes with the word ‘God’, I am somewhat reluctant to use it at all, however with the prepositions ‘Beyond’, ‘Within’ and ‘Between’ following it, I think it is nearly permissible.
God beyond.
To unpack my beliefs in more detail, I begin with God Beyond. For me, God is ‘in’ all. God Beyond is the divine dimension of all that is, including all that which is ‘beyond’, outside me. God Beyond is that which is not restricted to me but not distant from me. So the phrase ‘God Beyond’ is appropriate for me because nearly everything is beyond me. Other people, trees, ants, rocks, moon, stars, galaxies, most atoms, molecules, microbes and bacteria are outside, beyond me. Life is not limited to my life. There is much more. Existence is not limited to my existence. There is much, much more. I, others, and everything else have limitations but, for me, God Beyond has none. I experience God Beyond when I experience that inherent everlasting life-spirit-force, that fundamental fabric, that Ground of Being of everything that is, that happens, has happened and will happen. My experience of God Beyond includes all my observations and all my encounters, because God is the divine dimension of all I observe and encounter. When I walk around my suburb I see numerous examples of it. One is when I see a bird or birds in flight. Another is very common, when weeds, grass or even flowers push up into light and air from beneath concrete footpaths. They are probably looking for cracks through which they can emerge. That’s just what they do.
My experience of God Beyond, is that this life-force-energy-spirit is inherent. Bees swarming, rocks enduring, stars exploding, atoms in continuous internal energetic motion, animals, bugs and insects surviving and multiplying, clouds coming and going, the cosmos expanding at an ever increasing rate, all happening, all enduring, all living, all evolving, all moving, all in God and God in it all.
Not necessarily good or bad. Moral categories are irrelevant for a great deal of what I experience in God Beyond. It’s just how things are! Everything has evolved the way it has. It is all ‘in’ God and God is ‘in’ all; God Beyond.
So much of what I experience in God Beyond has nothing to do with morality. It is rather senseless to say, “The Moon loves the Earth.” That is a nonsensical statement. Love has nothing to do with it. The moon and the Earth are what they are and that’s it. They have evolved that way. Apparently they are both essential for each other’s existence and their continued survival as they are. They have a gravitational relationship, not a love relationship.
It’s like saying, “Orange likes going quickly.” That also is an absurd sentence. It is combining separate and different categories of thinking/speaking. Orange has nothing to do with likes or dislikes. It also doesn’t move. We just don’t talk that way. So it is, for me, with a lot of God Beyond. Much of what is beyond me, just is, and has nothing to do with morality, what is good or bad, loving or not. Morality, for me, has to do with God Within and God Between. Morality comes into play when humanity is involved. More of that a little later.
I experience God Beyond is that Mystery which keeps everything together. I experience being connected to everything, to everything which is other than me, beyond me. Amongst other things, evolution teaches me this. When referring to God’s dear Son, a New Testament writer states,
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17.)
Giving this verse a free and expansive interpretation, God Beyond is my experience of this; being connected and holding together. Everything in the cosmos is interdependent. Everything is connected and holds together because God is ‘in’ all and all is ‘in’ God; God Beyond.
Why do I feel guilty when there is so much inequality in the world? Why do I feel happy, even tearful, when I hear of someone, a complete stranger, being revived and has ‘come back to life’ after an accident? Because I am connected to all. Why do I shrink from pictures on the TV of millions of refugees trying to survive, none of whom I know? Why am I delighted when I see dogs happily playing together? Because I am connected to all. Why do I feel angry when I know some rich companies rip the system off by paying no tax? Why do I sit in awe of a sunset? Why do I get motivated when I know I can do something to make the world a better place? Because I am connected; because I am part of the whole; because I am in the thick of it all. God is ‘in’ me and God is ‘in’ all, holding everything together, me included.
The other day I had read to me a newspaper story of how some people smugglers, in order to escape being prosecuted, pushed people, even babies, off their boat into the Mediterranean Sea, to drown. As the story continued the person reading to me was in tears. Why? Because she was connected. We all are connected in God Beyond.
My wife and I enjoy watching Australian Rules football on TV. We are both somewhat addicted. When the team we support wins a match we happily exclaim, “We won!” Strictly speaking, we probably had nothing to do with it. But we still say “We”. Why? Because we are connected. For me, it can be no other way. Being human is being connected to all other humans in God; God Beyond.
The above may be regarded as trivial examples and maybe they are but I think they point to something far deeper; that we really are connected to all the universe. I am in the universe and the universe is in me. Psychological explanations can and are given for the feelings we have and I don’t wish to ignore these but I am still comfortable with bringing God Beyond into the picture.
I can ignore and not care about that which is beyond me, but I believe that is to deny my human-ness.
My belief is that God Beyond is the Mystery in which all things hold together. God Beyond is in all and I am there, experiencing it. I experience God Beyond as Source of the glue, the energy that keeps neutrons, electrons, positrons, protons, etc. together in the atom; as the Source of the glue, the energy that keeps atoms together in molecules, molecules in compounds, compounds in materials, materials in structures, structures in planetary, solar and galaxy systems, etc., etc. All together. This is my experience of the world, the cosmos; God Beyond. For me, God Beyond can never be thought of as a person. That is far too limiting, far too parochial, far too anthropomorphic.
A person-ised God who is separate from humanity and ‘away’, makes no sense to me.
A major statement of my belief now is, ‘My experience of God Beyond is of a totally limitless inherent Mystery in all.’
From my lyrics No. 3.
God Beyond
Tune Ar Hyd Y Nos

Time and space are both a mystery;
God is beyond.
Limitless yet with a history;
God is beyond.
When we think of human millions,
Study galaxies in billions,
When we ponder stars in trillions,
God is beyond.

In nonillions*, yet are living;
God is beyond;
Tiny cells are unforgiving;
God is beyond;
Genes bequeath to us our hist’ry,
Germs attack and give no mercy,
Microscopic – all is mystery;
God is beyond.

*A nonillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
There are at least 5 nonillion bacteria on the earth’s crust!

God Within.
I have the human experience of God Within, the experience of God within me. This is where I experience that God is love, all-encompassing and all-challenging, costly, surrounding, accepting love.
As soon as I think of God Within I am into the realms of human relationships and ethics. If I ‘live and move and have my being’ in God and God lives and moves and has being in me, this announces God Within. There is a divine dimension to all humanity, my and your humanity included. This is universal and not the possession of just a few.
In a way, God Within is a paradox to what has gone before about God Beyond, yet for me, it is not inconsistent with it. This paradox, even maybe a contradiction exists, in that while I have no control whatsoever over God Beyond, I certainly do have some control over God Within or at least my response to God Within. I have little control/influence over my immediate environment, less over the environment further away from me and minuscule, if any control over the larger environment. I liken this to the life of a house fly and the control/influence it has on the whole Earth. Not a great deal, I suspect. The same can be said of my life and the control/influence I have beyond my immediate environment even though I am connected to all of it. Such is my experience of total lack of control/influence regarding God Beyond.
However, because of my ability to participate in decision making and thus have some control over my behaviour, I do have at least some control over my response to God Within. My experience of God Within does not obliterate my free will. I can, through my behaviour return to the universe the benevolence the universe has shown me or I can refuse to do so. In other words, if I decide to, I can do or not do unto others what is good and appropriate. I can nurture life just as my life has been nurtured or refuse to do so. I can, as part of an interdependent system, contribute or refuse to contribute. I can act responsibly with regard to all else or I can manipulate, abuse and destroy because it suits me or amuses me.
Even though God Within is within, maybe supported in the New Testament by
All that came to be was alive with his life. (John 1:3)
God Beyond intrudes in my life as God Within. I don’t mean that the intrusion is from outside. I mean intrusion in terms of making a presence, which is already present, felt. Because I can involve myself in decision making, I can co-operate with this intrusion/influence or work against it. I can uncover it, let it be exposed or I can keep it suppressed, hidden and even inoperative. This is my experience. God Within is expressed in many different ways in my living experiences.
• When I pray, I am involved and God Within is my experience of God in me praying.
• When I am thankful, I am involved and God Within is my experience of God in me being thankful.
• When I love others, I am involved and God Within is my experience of God in me loving.
• When I do bad things, hurting others, I take responsibility for these and God Within is my experience of God in me being sad and wanting me to change, wanting me to listen to God Within and take heed.
With some ‘faithful reappraisal’, the Jesus Christ phenomenon gives me a picture of continuous human cooperation with God Within. Jesus is the story of what God Within is all about, what God Within looks like when continuously exposed, uncovered from within humanity, by conscious human decision.
God Within has free reign in Jesus. This is why Jesus is still so central to my beliefs. When I think of God Within I immediately think of what Jesus said and did, of how he lived, loved and died and how he continues to be alive for me and many others.
From my lyrics No. 4.
My God is in Jesus
Tune Kremser

My God is in Jesus; the gospel is telling
The story of one who was servant of all,
Whose love and compassion, so rich and so compelling.
Restores the broken-hearted, supports those who fall.

My God is in Jesus, who shares all our living;
From inside our being we know he is kind.
Compassion displayed in the power of his giving;
My God is in Jesus. Real love is defined.

I think this might be what some of the passages in John’s gospel are about. The gospel writer relates Jesus having a conversation with his disciples. As I have said previously, the writer has Jesus saying,
Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father in me. (John 14:11a.)
This, I think, is the gospel writer saying for Jesus what I am trying to say for me and all humanity. The Father is ‘in’ us or God is ‘in’ us; God Within.
This ‘in-ness’ makes the experience of God, for me, very personal. God doesn’t have to be a ‘person’ for my experience to be personal.
I quote from Gretta Vosper.
Sit for just a moment. When you think about it, you may find that you haven’t been thinking about god theistically – as a distinct, other being separate and definable – for a while. You may think of god as a remote being for some of the time, but you also may have often thought of god as a feeling that makes you want to be the best person you can be.
You get that feeling when you plunk a quarter into a stranger’s parking meter. You get that feeling when you talk to your kids about trying to make this world a better place, and they tell you some pretty good ideas they’ve come up with, all on their own.
You get that feeling when you stop and talk to that other person who has been sitting all alone the whole time you have been visiting your mum in rehab. All he does is smile at you and nod but that feeling is almost tangible. You get that feeling when you pick up the package you were expecting, and in it you find that perfect gift you ordered for your child, your lover or yourself.
I invite you to think of that feeling as god. [5]

From my lyrics No. 5.
Love and…..
Tune Gloria/Iris

When we strive to be much better
Do not think that it is odd
To believe this urgent feeling
And its forcefulness is God.
Love ….. ….. ….. and challenge
Can be life reforming;
Love ….. ….. ….. and challenge
Are so life transforming.

When we share a tragic moment
Do not think that it is odd
To believe this tender feeling
And its sentiment is God.
Love ….. ….. ….. and kindness
Are, in life, enfolding;
Love ….. ….. ….. and kindness
Are, for us, upholding.

Jesus is the historical person around whom many faith statements have been uttered and thankfully many have been preserved in the four biblical gospels; there for all of us to read.
Some of these memories were embellished and some were eventually set in concrete, in church dogma and doctrine. This complex of the historical person together with the faith statements about him has evolved into what many regular church-goers understand as Jesus Christ. The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are so entwined now that it is nearly impossible to separate the two. As Greg Jenks states
No critical research will ever succeed in capturing the historical Jesus. [6]
That no longer concerns me very much. Together they form the complex that calls me to follow. I try to. I have more to say about this in a later section about Jesus.
When the gospel writer has Jesus saying,
He who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9b.)
I believe he is saying that Jesus’ life is to be seen as the picture of a continuous and total co-operation with God Within. Jesus totally exposes, uncovers God Within, so we are able to see the Father when looking at him. This belief about Jesus makes him very available. As the Second Person of the orthodox Trinity, who is seated at God’s right hand making continuous intercession for humanity, even metaphorically, is quite unhelpful to me now. It emphasizes separation, the away-ness of God.
This is why I dislike the lyrics of traditional Christmas carols so much. They speak of this separated God making a fleeting visit to Earth from who knows where, in the human form of Jesus. I wish to speak of the welling up from within humanity of God Within. In Melbourne, Australia, at one of the meetings at which I led a discussion on my hymn lyrics, someone said that it was sad that I could not enjoy the poetry and imagery of the meeting of the realms, a coming together of God and humanity, which they said is championed by the Christmas carols. I replied that even though the poetry was great, I couldn’t enjoy the traditional lyrics because, for me, most of them tell of a fundamentally non-existent movement. The movement is not a ‘meeting’ but an ‘exposure’: not a ‘coming together’ but a ‘coming out’
From my lyrics No. 6.
God Lives Within Humanity
Tune In Dulci Jubilo

God lives within humanity;
What joy at Bethlehem we see;
Quietly born amongst the hay;
We recall good news today.
Jesus, Mary’s little child,
So precious and so undefiled;
Jesus’ special day;
God amongst the hay.
For me, there is another aspect of God Within that has little to do with ethics or behaviour but has to do with connectedness, as I have mentioned. I experience God Within as the Source of the glue that keeps me together. God Within is the personal, individual aspect of God Beyond, keeping me connected within and connected to all else. Scientists may call this glue gravity, magnetism, forces of attraction, evolution, etc. For me, it is God Beyond, inherent in everything and concerning me, this is God Within. Even though there are many different aspects that go to make up me, I am a ‘connected’ individual. God Within keeps me together. If God is ‘in’ all and thus ‘in’ me, and if I have my being ‘in’ God then my connectedness is ‘in’ God; God Within.
A major statement of my belief now is, ‘My experience of God Within is of a totally personally present and continuously inherent Mystery in me.’
God Between.
I have the human experience of God Between, the experience of God Between me and others.
God Between also has something to do with the statement, ‘A group is more than the sum of the individuals who comprise it.’ Something more is present than just the sum of all the individuals.
When God Within is uncovered, expressed by one person and interacts with another person, then a relationship of love, concern, compassion is created. Love is given and received. There is more at play than just the existence of the two separate individuals. There is a connection, an interplay, a movement back and forth. There is an action, a reaction, a re-reaction, a re-re-reaction and so on. Something is going on between these two people. When this occurs, it is what I mean by a human experience of God Between.
God is the human experience inherent ‘in’ this movement back and forth, because this movement is ‘in’ God.
Here I am speaking of my experience of life. I am not trying to define God or make a statement about the essence or nature of God.
So in the wider community, when justice is done, when reconciliation is achieved, when good laws are passed, when diplomacy triumphs over hostility, when the hungry are fed, when the handicapped are noticed, when corruption is replaced with honesty, etc., I believe God Between is evident and experienced. When joy is shared, when affirmation is voiced and heard, when forgiveness is given and accepted, when lovers are both fulfilled, when encouragement is volunteered and received, … then something significant happens between people. When this happens between people, it is, for me, an expression of the human experience of God Between.
Whenever I visit anyone who is sick and in hospital, I just about always become extremely frustrated at not being able to find a convenient parking spot. So many cars! However, on some patient reflection, I realise this situation is brought about by so many people who must be visiting sick friends or relatives. This is evidence of God Within, uncovered by those who are doing the visiting and I hope that both patients and visitors are experiencing God Between as the visit continues, when a love, concern, compassion is given and received.
In some ways the relationship between God Within and God Between is, for me, akin to the relationship between the traditional Second and Third persons of the orthodox Trinity. John’s gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of this Trinity, would bring to mind all that Jesus, the Second Person of this Trinity, said.
But when the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26.)
In somewhat like manner, God Between is that which is experienced when God Within is remembered and expressed between people.
This, for me, is what remembering Jesus points to. When remembering Jesus I believe we are remembering that clear and unambiguous expression of God Within. If we allow this memory to have influence in relationships, we then can experience God Between. In my belief, this is the God dimension of the relationship.
A major statement of my belief now is, ‘My experience of God Between is of a totally and continuously involved inherent Mystery between people.’

From my lyrics No. 7.
God Between
Tune Ar Hyd Y Nos

In community with others
God is between.
Prizing them like sisters, brothers,
God is between.
God involved in human action,
Spark of life in each reaction,
Core of every interaction
God is between.

When we learn to live together
God is between;
Harmonizing with each other,
God is between.
When corruption is deemed loathsome,
When our diff’rences are welcome,
When community is wholesome
God is between.

My beliefs in or about God have to do with a God-dynamic. By that I mean God Beyond, God Within and God Between is my experience of continuous movement in my life. God Beyond, inherent in all being, gluing together, encompassing; God Within, inherent in me prompting, influencing, guiding, sustaining; God Between, inherent in relationships, initiating, responding, connecting. All are dynamic, on the move. This is the way I experience God. Experience is always on the move. My experience of God is always on the move.
This is very anthropomorphic talk. As such, it demonstrates the inadequacy of language and maybe my inadequacy in using it. I suppose it could suggest that I am excusing my anthropomorphic talk while still criticising the anthropomorphic image of God presented in the Bible and in current church services I attend. I defend what I am saying because I submit that I am not trying to define God, but I am talking about my experiences of God and they must be anthropomorphic because I am human. Maybe the biblical writers were also trying to communicate their human experiences of God and not define God. Not sure? Like Dr Val Webb’s book title ‘Like Catching Water in a Net’ or like trying to be noisy by clapping with one hand, whenever we talk of God, we may be talking nonsense. But we continue to talk.
With beliefs that I now have, God is so much ‘in’ everything, every time and every place that intervention is something that just doesn’t fit in the picture. Intervention presupposes separateness, as in the whole biblical story. ‘Inherent’ is the word that makes more sense to me. God is totally inherent so to talk of intervention makes no sense to me at all.
These beliefs engender in me a reverence for all life, a wonderment at the cosmos, a positive attitude to my fellow humans, a challenge to love and live life the way it was meant to be loved and lived, like Jesus, and importantly, it compels a ‘faithful replacement’ of the away, distinct, separate, outside God, with the experience of God as ever present, surrounding, inherent, indwelling and involved. This means I have made a ‘faithful rejection’ of many of my previous belief emphases and a joyful acceptance of new belief emphases. I wish in no way to suggest that others need to have the same beliefs as me. All I am saying is, “This works for me at present.” So my present Trinitarian faith statement goes something like this:-
I experience God Beyond as a totally limitless inherent Mystery in all.

I experience God Within as a totally personally present and continuously inherent Mystery in me.

I experience God Between as a totally and continuously involved inherent Mystery between people.

If these comments/ideas/beliefs are more acceptable to you when you omit the word God, that’s fine. I would still want to hold onto the three ideas of Mystery as being Beyond, Within and Between as what I experience and what I think permeates all my existence. We might substitute the words ‘goodness’, ‘love’ or ‘creativity’ for God. You may wish to substitute other words.

From my lyrics No. 8.
God Beyond, Between, Within
Tune O Store Gud

God is beyond, within, between – not absent;
Not far away, not on some lofty throne;
God is beyond, within, between so constant;
No gulf to bridge to some angelic zone.
This is Good News; we know that we belong;
For God is love; for God is love.
This is Good News, we sing the Jesus song;
For God is love. Yes! God is love.

In this part of my journey I think I have had to ‘Start all over again’. Sad in a way, but for me, necessary.
The away, anthropomorphic, theistic, almighty, Creator/God has been replaced with an awesome inherent presence, a divine dimension to and in everything; God Beyond. The godliness within every person that which prompts love and compassion of humanity for humanity, is the God dimension of every human being; God Within. Jesus is the total expression of cooperation with, and the uncovering of God Within. The godliness being active in human relationships giving my relationships with others an added sacredness, is the God dimension in human love relationships; God Between. I now have a set of beliefs that I can joyfully embrace, that make sense to me and challenge me to live abundantly.
C. An ultra-violent and punitive God.
This anthropomorphic, separate, distinct and person-ised God is presented to me in the Bible as extremely violent in many of its stories. This violent God is very active in stories in the first biblical books, Genesis and Exodus. The well-known and remembered stories of Noah and the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and the Exodus, all portray God as powerful, in an unforgiving ultra-violent and punitive manner. The way I understand Fall/Redemption theology is linked closely with this violent image of a punitive God. According to this theology, God punishes human sin by means of the violent death of God’s Son. A blood sacrifice seems essential. I deal in some detail with this a bit later, with the Fall/Redemption fundamental.
The fear of punishment in hell by the punitive God, is, I believe, not totally absent today for many regular church-goers. In a very recent TV program, highlighting the message of Christmas, I heard an 8 to 10 year old choir boy, from an unidentified Church in Australia, say that we should be joyful at Christmas because Jesus has saved us from God’s punishment and saved us all from going to hell. Parts of the church continue to teach these sorts of things. Shame!
Later when questioning the reverence and authority given to the Bible, I deal in detail with the whole matter of the violent image of God as presented, analysing some examples from the Old Testament.
So what for me now?
This causes a further exercise of serious ‘clearing out’, ‘faithful rejection’. What I have been taught about the violence of God is quite abhorrent. This presents a huge problem for me in my journey with Jesus.
I must say, however, that this violent image of God is absent from my present experience of church. In church services I attend each Sunday, I am always pronounced ‘forgiven’ after the prayer of confession. This is stated as the Good News from God who loves me and all others. The hymn I quote, ‘Come as you are’, as well as many other hymns I sing in church services proclaim this love. These lines from this hymn affirm this beautifully.
Each time you fail to live by my promise,
Why do you think I’d love you the less. [7]

The church services I attend do not contain any emphasis on punishment from God, and there is no hint that God is violent. Bible passages read, seldom if ever, make reference to the violence of this God. Even though most of the hymns I am requested to sing reflect on my unworthiness, they do not continue with God’s harsh judgement and punishment. ‘God is love’, is the controlling, significant theme of my past church Christian education. This, for me, more than counter-balances much of what the Bible teaches. I can quite confidently say, “God is love and Love is God.”
D. An almighty God always in control of everything at all times and places.
For me, this concept announces biblical theism and supernatural theism. The God of the biblical witness, and as presented in many current church liturgies, is almighty. Biblically, this idea of God’s powerful, controlling activity spills over into the concept that this God either initiates/causes all that happens, or at least allows all that happens, to happen. This is what I have been taught.
Early in the biblical stories, it is this God who, in the Exodus story is stronger than the gods of the Egyptians, freeing God’s chosen people from slavery. This God wins wars to reward Israel’s faithfulness in worship and also punishes Israel with military defeat, if it has been unfaithful or idolatrous. God does it all. This emphasis in the teachings of Deuteronomy leads the writers to make the following statement.
And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you; and you shall be plucked off the land which you are entering to take possession of it. (Deuteronomy 28:63.)
God is in total control. God causes both the good and the bad to occur. For me, this concept of God is morally bankrupt, unbelievable and somewhat absurd. I believe this is not the God about which Jesus teaches.
Biblically speaking, this God is determinative, even in personal relationships to the extent of preventing or activating pregnancies; see the story in Genesis 18:9-14 & 21:1-2. I think we know a little better these days! This particular power of this God is most notably present in the Virgin Mary story.
Providence, the foreseeing care and guardianship of God over God’s creatures, plays no part in my understanding of reality. With the away, separate God, this ‘providence’, for me, requires powerful and continual intervention. It can also lead to ideas of favouritism. If this is the case, unanswerable questions like, “Why here and not there?” and, “Why then and not now?” arise. These questions arise only if the process of intervention of a God is operative. I pursue further, the repercussions of this concept of God’s intervention, in the later section of my book, ‘Prayer and Praying’.
These questions escalate into theological contradictions and unsolvable moral dilemmas for me. However, I think there are many people in our churches today who attribute to a providential, powerful God, the good things that happen and they give thanks to God for them. It seems though, that many of these people are reluctant to also blame this same God when bad things happen. I quote from Gretta Vosper again.
Following any natural disaster, newspapers are filled with stories and pictures of people thanking God for their survival. The feeling is natural but the attribution is problematic. It is as though they are utterly oblivious to the loss or death of their neighbours, of children and the elderly – who have succumbed to the conditions…. We must listen to the words we so commonly use, and hear within them the silent implication that if God chose to save us from the flood, God must have also chosen not to save the person who drowned next door. [8]
If church-goers pause to reflect on these issues, I believe they will be confronted by this dilemma that Vosper raises.
Expanding into the wider experience of humanity, one of the ever-present questions which plague us is the origin of evil and suffering. Questions arise like, “Where does evil come from?” and “Why is there so much pain and suffering?”
It seems to me that one way the Bible tries to address this problem is with the book of Job. From a supernatural theistic God standpoint, the so-called friends of Job have their answer and it is that God punishes wrong doing. Job’s three friends argue that Job must have done something really bad to warrant such punishment from God. Job denies this and is left with the burning questions; “Why am I suffering? Is this punishment, and if so, for what?” Job is not perfect but all his belongings are destroyed, members of his extended family are all killed and eventually he is personally struck down with serious illnesses. It is all too much for Job, so he complains bitterly and demands answers from God. Following the traditional theological themes, Job’s friends think they have the answer and try to convince Job to repent.
I believe the problem for Job and his friends is not suffering or the origin of it. It is their theistic God. They look in the wrong place for an answer to their questions about the origin and cause of suffering. Their theistic, anthropomorphic God makes everything happen or allows things to happen, and they explain what is happening to Job, built upon this theology. God causes or allows Job to suffer and there must be some good reason behind it. They try to persuade Job to understand his predicament, the way they do.
Of course, any question about the actual existence of this outside, all-controlling God is totally foreign to Job and his friends’ approach. Such a question would not enter their heads. If it did, it would be counter to their whole view of God, reality and life. I believe they have an ‘unquestioning obedience’ to biblical theism and the separate, distinct and almighty God who is in control of everything at all times and places.
If the commonly thought issue that the book of Job tries to address is the question, “Where does evil and suffering come from?”, it gives no satisfactory answer to me. Not sure that it does for anyone else, either. As an aside, I would also contend that the saying, “Have the patience of Job”, is a misnomer because Job is sometimes anything but patient.
In his book, ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’, Rabbi Harold Kushner discusses the question as to why is it that good people suffer and bad people often seem to escape it. My understanding of his book is that he eventually confronts the dilemma of ‘Is God all powerful or all loving?’ I believe he feels he cannot hold these two concepts of God together at the same time. He comes down on the side of, ‘God is all loving’. This, of course, brings into serious question God’s almightiness. Kushner suggests that the question of ‘Why is this happening to me?’ is not a question but a cry of pain. He afterwards suggests that the question really is ‘Now that this has happened, what will I do about it?’
So what for me now?
If I have rejected the idea of God’s intervention, then I have to find some other reason or reasons why things happen, bad things.
The process of ‘Cause and effect’, makes a lot of sense to me and is consistent with my experience of life. So I too, look for causes, just like Job and his friends. If I reject the idea of God being in control of everything at all times and places, what for me, are the causes of things happening, particularly those things that cause human suffering and pain?
I believe the question of suffering can be answered from a non-theistic standpoint, with a large dose of common sense. Gretta Vosper helps me here.
It is crucial that we peel away the interventionist deity concept from our belief system and face reality. We are the origin of blessing and curse in our world, not some otherworldly deity – not in Christianity, not in Judaism, not in Hinduism, not in Islam, not anywhere. [9]
I find some of this statement difficult. It is in its somewhat universal implication.
We are the origin of blessing and curse in our world.
I think we humans are certainly involved in much of the pain and suffering experienced, but not all.
For me, pain and suffering are most likely caused by any one or more of the following,
1. The fearful, stupid or ignorant, ill-conceived or irresponsible and even the corrupt behaviour of humans.
2. The amoral workings of the forces of evolution and the universe.
3. Bad fortune.

These three causes seem to me to point towards the origins/causes of evil and suffering. Sometimes various combinations of the above are the cause. Possibly an over simplification, but I find them a good starting point.
1. The fearful, stupid or ignorant, ill-conceived or irresponsible and even the corrupt behaviour of humans.
This first cause of things happening, is the most important for me. I believe that human beings cause many things to happen or prevent them happening, both good and bad. When we talk of, ‘making the world a better place’, I believe we can actually do this. Peace comes about because humans make it happen, and wars are human initiatives and engaged in by humans. Loving deeds of compassion are done and murders are committed by humans. Inequities in our communities are often the direct result of human greed. We know that some bush fires are the result of the deliberate actions of arsonists yet we have armies of volunteer fire-fighters. Ignorance and lack of appropriate training can cause unnecessary accidents when big or small machines are operated illegally or unsafely. Car and truck crashes are often caused by drivers who have consumed alcohol or drugs before or during a journey. With investigations of presumed accidents, we often hear the phrase, ‘human error’. All this comes back to human behaviour, human involvement. One could go on and on regarding the fearful, stupid, ignorant, ill-conceived, irresponsible or corrupt activity of humans that cause the pain and suffering of other human beings.
2. The amoral workings of the forces of evolution and the universe.
Secondly, the amoral forces of evolution and the cosmos are obviously operative.
I do not believe I earned the good and/or bad genes I inherited from my parents. I had nothing to do with it. They are the result of an amoral evolutionary process. It just happened.
The happenings in nature caused by gravitational forces, shifts of the Earth’s tectonic plates, changing seasons, etc., obviously affect our human experience. Earthquakes occur. For us humans, they can produce very bad results. Gentle summer breezes and cyclones cause both pleasure and suffering for humans. Refreshing rains as well as draughts and floods cause both good and bad results for humans. Gravity is absolutely necessary for life as we know it, but it too can cause disaster. Forces of evolution and of nature and the cosmos are in place and for me, that’s just it. Sometimes these forces produce results, both good and bad, without any involvement of humanity. But they are all amoral. They just are.
3. Bad fortune.
Apparently one of the reasons why the Book of Ecclesiastes was nearly left out of the Old Testament was because of its perceived negative view of life. Another reason may have been that the book gives voice to the possibility of ‘chance’ having influence.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11.)
My Bible concordance records the word ‘chance’ only five times in the whole Bible. Four are inconsequential like in the story of the Good Samaritan.
Now by chance a priest was going down by that road…. (Luke 10:31.)
The fifth speaks of the Ark of the Covenant going in a certain direction but that reference is somewhat nonsensical for me.
The inclusion of ‘chance’ in biblical themes/emphases is not welcome. It calls into question the concept of God being in control of everything at all times and places. In my experience, ‘chance’ is also not welcome in much theological discussion in the church today.
For me, chance, luck, good or bad fortune are sensible components of how to think about life. Chance/luck is operative everywhere. Lotteries is an obvious example that comes to mind. There are millions of other examples that could be quoted. Sometimes on the TV news, we hear of accidents involving a miraculous escape from injury. Usually luck plays a part. So often we hear of a person’s house being burnt down in a bushfire or utterly destroyed by a cyclone or tornado and the house next door is left undamaged. Nine times out of ten, I believe this is a matter of good or bad fortune. One could go on. Random events occur. For me, this is abundantly obvious.
To attribute a miraculous escape or a devastating tragedy in an event, to God, is for me, both absurd and morally bankrupt.
Sometimes, to an extent, we can help create our own luck. Not smoking might have a good effect on our chances of getting cancer. By driving within the law and not being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, may lessen the possibility of having a car accident. Good diet is beneficial to our health. Our behaviour and life-style may influence the luck we have, at least to some extent.
There are probably other causes which affect the way reality works but I believe the three mentioned are operative. Synergy occurs constantly. Different causes, when working together or against each other, make things happen. This, for me, is common sense. I may have skimmed over this issue rather superficially. It is incredibly complex, but I understand that what happens, happens without an almighty God who intervenes.

Having ‘cleared out’ what I perceive to be the anthropomorphic, person-ised, separate, away, the sometimes violent and always-in-control images of God, I have moved away from some of the major beliefs about God which I have been taught and held for many years. All these categories of thinking are no longer relevant to me when speaking of God. For me, all this is a huge move in my beliefs. I feel I have created a very large empty space that needed filling but I feel I have filled it with common sense and some alternative, more acceptable theological beliefs. At least for me anyway!

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[1] Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 65.
[2] Fox, Original Blessing, at the beginning of his chapter entitled Panentheism.
[3] Ibid, from Fox’s chapter entitled Panentheism
[4] Ibid, from Fox’s chapter entitled Panentheism
[5] Vosper, With or Without God, 230.
[6] Jenks, Jesus Then and Jesus Now, 18.
[7] Deirdre Browne, Together in Song, Hymn No. 693, verse 3.
[8] Vosper, With or Without God, 28.
[9] Ibid, 29

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