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Re-enchanting Christianity by Dave Tomlinson

January 22, 2016

RCChurch people hate the idea that people want to be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ They blame them for not wanting the discipline that goes with church membership. Yet they cannot see that there is hardly any opportunity for spiritual practice in wordy church services. They also loathe the findings of James Fowler about faith development.

The author quotes theologians as diverse as Brueggemann, Moltmann, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, Hans Küng, Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Rahner, Walter Wink, Sally MacFague, Paul Ricoeur and C.S. Lewis

I don’t think he is right when he says that the Lambeth Conference 1988 added ‘experience of God’s people’ to Hooker’s 3 fold stool, though Methodism certainly has.

Nor do I think he is correct in assuming that penal substitution nary astonement is the majority view – it is for evangelicals but not for catholics and orthodoxen. He dismisses this view as portraying a schizophrenic god.

These niggles aside, the author presents a holistic Christianity which furthers the kingdom rather than the church.


“Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.”
Lenny Bruce

“…People are no less spiritual today than they were in the past, but they are a lot less religious. A disconnect has occurred between religion and spirituality: people no longer see religion or church as the natural setting in which to explore or express their spiritual aspirations. So they are drifting away from churches in droves. However they are not doing so because they no longer believe in God, or because they have no spiritual hunger, but because in their experience church is neither offering a faith they can believe in, nor an existential spirituality that can excite or satisfy the deeper yearnings of the soul. Many long to reconnect with the sacred mystery of life, to discover their place in the cosmos, but they don’t see church or religion as a way of achieving this…I see no future in the twenty-first century for expressions of Christianity that are not Spirited. Our world longs for numinosity: for a sense of awe and mystery, for sacredness, spirituality and enchantment, for something ‘more’ than the purely rational and cerebral. If the church fails to engage with, and cater to, this longing, it has no real future…”

“Church is not supposed to be a place of theological `purity’ or rigid conformity to certain beliefs and conventions, but a mishmash of believers, doubters, dissenters and malcontents, each of whom is grappling in his or her own way towards a mystery that is God.”

are churches supposed to be gather­ings of like-minded believers who all share the same views on the Holy Trinity, salvation, the priesthood, sexuality, the infal­libility of scripture and the meaning of the ten-horned beast in Revelation? Or should they, as I believe, be communities of openness and diversity, where sceptics, doubters and dissent­ers are as welcome as those who appear perfectly settled with the tenets of their faith?

open or progressive orthodoxy….should be seen as a tradition of shared speech, of shared symbols, a living community of revelation and discourse, a tradition that makes critical engagement possible. Conversation isn’t only allowed, it’s positively generated out of this sort of orthodoxy. Interpretation is taken as an absolute essential. What we have are perspectives on truth rather than claiming to possess The Truth. Tradition is not a static but a dynamic force, not stifling but liberating. Progressive orthodoxy therefore encourages a dialectical relationship between the received tradition on the one hand and contemporary insights and struggles on the other.

There’s a lovely line in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, by the brother of a young woman who is trying to break free from her patriarchal Greek background, who tells his sister: ‘Don’t let the past define who you are, but let it be part of who you become’. It’s a pretty good definition of the kind of orthodoxy I’m advocating – it’s being deeply rooted in the originating sources of the Christian faith, while recognising that we are moving forward.

Frederick Buechner’s depiction of the Bible as ‘a swarming compost of a book’ is in fact very apt. Compost is the decom­posing remnants of organic materials that are packed with rich minerals and natural fertilizer, and on one level the Bible is a heap of leftovers, decomposing remnants of an ancient struggle to understand God in ways that were authentic at the time. We can’t reconstruct that past, neither should we wish to, yet in our efforts to understand God afresh in our own age, we can benefit from rich theological nutrients and organic spiritual nourishment from the past mediated to us through scripture.

Rosie’s disenchantment with her father’s religion was en­tirely understandable. The ‘God’ she experienced at home was a relentless critic: a harsh parent who always expected more of her than she could give, someone who controlled her with feelings of shame and guilt, and who punished her when she got things wrong. To walk away from such a monstrous deity was not only understandable but also essential for Rosie’s spiritual, mental and emotional well-being. And as her story demonstrates, agnosticism, or even downright disbelief, can, paradoxically, become a pathway to real faith.

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou, And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art. Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream, And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolaters, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.’

The kingdom of God is basically God’s programme to trans­form the world, both on a personal and a societal level. ‘The kingdom of God is what the world would be if God were direct­ly and immediately in charge.’1° The problem with the word ‘kingdom’ is that to our ears today it tends to denote privilege, exclusion and hierarchy. Whereas the layers of meaning in the original Aramaic and Greek words, malkuta and basileia — both of which are feminine words — suggest something more egalitarian and liberating, a quality of leadership that enables and empowers rather than dominates. Malkuta also means ‘counsel’ or ‘advice’, so God’s kingdom is that state of things in which God’s guidance is carried out, resulting in a state of empowerment. To pray ‘Your kingdom come’ is to ask that our personal and collective attitudes be aligned with God’s good counsels.

Conservative Christians tend to major on the personal as­pects of proclaiming God’s kingdom — the call to be born again, and the like — whereas more liberal or progressive Christians emphasize the kingdom message in terms of transforming society. For Jesus, there was no distinction between the two: the message of the kingdom is directed at both personal and social transformation.

John Dominic Crossan, the Irish—American religious scholar, suggests that we replace the term ‘kingdom of God’ with ‘a companionship of empowerment’.” This certainly echoes the sense of the Aramaic word malkuta, which Jesus himself would have used.

as Archbishop Peter Carnley points out, Paul locates the body of Christ in two places — ‘on the altar and around the altar, as it were’

I believe in the resurrection of Christ. My faith is built on it — not on a theological conjecture as to what happened to a body of flesh and bone, but on the recognition that Christ is indeed alive in the world today. He lives in you and me. He lives in people. He lives in bread and wine, in kindness, in compassion, in justice, in laughter, in friendship, in goodness — wherever God’s kingdom of life, hope and liberation is mani­fest, Christ is risen

mission is not about trying to get people ‘saved’, or trying to get them to join the Church, or even about trying to get them to convert to Christianity. Mission is about making God’s liberating love and peace and justice a flesh-and­blood reality in ways that can potentially transform people’s lives, or potentially transform a neighbourhood, or potentially transform the world.

One very inspiring grass-roots example of kingdom-orientated mission can be found in the work of Umthombo, an initiative to help street kids in Durban, South Africa. Thousands of orphans and vulnerable children live on South Africa’s streets. Abandoned, often raped, abused, infected with HIV/AIDS and driven to crime and prostitution, street kids are considered a nuisance, a threat and an embarrassment to the authorities. Umthombo is a unique project in that it is predom­inantly run and staffed by former street children themselves, and is a voice for street children across the region. Umthombo is indeed replacing the barbarism of death with a culture of life. It brings healing, dignity and self-worth to the neglected, downtrodden and disempowered fringes of human society. But it is also a companionship of empowerment, creating a new community of solidarity, and educating young people to think politically and theologically about their situation and to be organized in pursuing social justice for themselves and others.

Umthombo is not an evangelistic organization in the nar­row sense of the term; it doesn’t exist to ‘preach Jesus’ or plant new churches, but rather to spread life, hope and liberation through empowerment, through acts of love and social justice, through being an agent of hope and transformation both of individual lives and of an entire social circumstance. This is kingdom-orientated rather than church-orientated mission.

Sadly, a lot of mission has lost (or never discovered) this point of reference. The problem arises from confusion between the Church and the kingdom. The mission of God is to estab­lish the kingdom in the world, and the Church is an agent or servant of that mission. ‘There is church because there is mission, not vice versa.’ When the Church sees itself as the object of God’s mission, it easily becomes triumphalist, imag­ining that the flourishing of the Church automatically equates with the flourishing of the kingdom of God. But this is not necessarily the case.

Traces of God’s kingdom can be recognized wherever love is shared, where life is truly lived and justice is sought, where freedom is experienced, and fear is overcome. Indeed, wherever God’s healing, reconciling, inclusive will is enacted on earth as it is in heaven, God’s reign is present. There are glimpses and echoes of this all over the place — in loving families, in all kinds of sacrificial acts, in the campaign Make Poverty History, in Red Nose Day, in a young man helping an elderly woman onto the bus, in simple acts of kindness shown to friends and strangers alike, in attempts to resolve conflicts and bring wars to an end, in efforts to preserve the world for future generations, in adding beauty to people’s lives through art and music, in forgiveness when it’s not deserved, in the daily fulfilment of jobs and callings that make people’s lives happier and more fulfilled. These and so many other things contribute in some way to answering the prayer, ‘Your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’

David Tacey writes, ‘it must allow itself to be seen not only as an institution, but also as a mystery that can feed and nourish the spiritually starving world.’ Many people see religion merely as an empty shell, he says; in order to sur­vive, ‘it will need to reach into itself, and reveal the mystery that forms the basis of its light and wisdom’. The community will always be receptive to mystery if it can be expressed in valid and contemporary ways.”

What does this mean in practice? Tacey argues that churches need to shift from being places of ‘devotional worship’ to be­come ‘centres of existential spirituality’.’ By ‘devotional wor­ship’, Tacey is referring to forms of worship that are controlled and ordered, but spiritless. So what is needed for churches to become centres of existential spirituality? I don’t think it means that liturgy must be scrapped. It means that liturgy needs to have more of the feel of being a spiritual practice than a formal ceremony. With words, with silence, with ges­tures, with actions, with movement, with human contact, with images, with symbols and with sacraments, people need to feel that they are re-entering the sacred mystery of God’s loving presence. And to depart feeling cleansed, inspired, stimulated, renewed — re-Spirited.

At St Luke’s we have also attempted to become a centre of existential spirituality by creating a programme of events that will not only nourish the spiritual life of regular churchgoers, but also connect with ‘the scattered community’ of spiritu­al seekers and pilgrims. ‘Breathing Space’ includes a regular ‘drawing room’ where people can explore art as meditation, use workshops on different approaches to prayer, poetry evenings and concerts, Enneagram workshops to deepen self-awareness and nurture personal and spiritual growth, yoga classes, spir­itual direction, discussions about the meaning of Christianity for us today, and much more.

Yet I fear that all too often, even where concerns about the environment — or poverty, or social justice — do make it onto the Church’s agenda, they are there as add-ons to lend credibility to the gos­pel rather than as real gospel concerns in and of themselves.

The promise of Pentecost is that God’s Spirit, the life-force of the resurrection, is ‘poured out on all flesh’. ‘This doesn’t just mean people’s souls. It means their bodies too. It doesn’t mean just the ‘flesh” of human beings: it means the “flesh” of every­thing living,’ The gospel is God’s ‘Yes’ to all life.

The sort of dualistic thinking that has led to the idea of ‘sav­ing souls’ rather than saving whole persons stems not from the original sources of Christianity but from Gnostic influences in the early centuries of the Church. Gnosticism viewed the material world, including the human body, as inherently evil.

And while the early church leaders repudiated this thinking, its influence persisted throughout the centuries. Indeed, much of Christianity has been characterized by spirit/matter dualism. And the effects have been devastating in producing a nar­row, guilt-laden pietism that is ill at ease with the body, with sexuality, with femininity, with nature.

Yet Christianity is a religion of incarnation, placing a high value on matter, on flesh, on the physical. In Christ, God took an earthly body, became one with matter, impregnated the material with the divine. Therefore, Christian spirituality should not be understood as a vision of the human soul ris­ing above the material world to encounter the divine in some supra-mundane realm; but rather, as a vision of humanity en­countering the divine within the physical and material world. This is the incarnational—sacramental principle, which is so fundamental to Christian understanding.

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