There is a weekly newspaper called the Church Times and occasionally there are some good articles. One such is the column written by an American professor of philosophy at the university of San Diego , Dr. Harriet Baber. I have always found that she speaks for the majority of us and speaks a lot of sense.
She noted this week how “Hinduism Lite” and “Buddhism lite” have entered American culture, and because they are so divorced from their original religious and cultural roots they are now seen as unthreatening and inclusive, because they need no complex belief structure to make use of them. For example, things like Yoga are universally accepted merely as a fitness regime rather than a school of Hinduism, and how people from all modes of life will speculate about possible past lives, or speak casually about Karma, without having any real insight into what they are talking about.
Rather than being dismissive of this, Dr. Baber sees this as a massive advantage and strength because they are seen as inclusive and can be adhered to with very little religious conviction.
Christianity is different though. As it has developed in the USA and elsewhere, Christianity has become very rigid and hard edged to the extent that it is not seen as something you can engage with unless you have prior cast iron religious convictions. Before you can enter a church it seems you have to assent to a vast array of dogmas and beliefs as unchanging truth.
But the truth is of course, that most of us sit very lightly to a vast array of orthodox Christian beliefs and are truly grateful that no-one ever asks us about them in case we might have to admit it. But to the rigid church, it seems that such “half hearted” Christianity is worse than no Christianity at all.
The result is that the gentle all encompassing Christianity of myths and symbols, silence and searching has all but disappeared in the minds of most Americans, many of whom now see hard core evangelicalism as normative Christianity. This brand of brutal, dogmatic, “you must believe this or else” kind of loud shouty Christianity that looks vibrant and successful from a distance, is in fact, less of a revival, but could be the death rattle of Christianity in the USA. It is an opinion I happen to share.
Why do I mention this – because it highlights the underlying sub-text of what is happening in that gospel story. The conflict between what God may be doing in a time and place that jars with and contradicts the tenets of conventional organised religion. Religions when they get too big for their boots, think they own God. They force God into their creeds and rituals and practices and try to keep him captive there – as a hostage.
The car crash in the gospel reading was not the miracle itself – it was the fact that it was performed on the Sabbath, breaking religious laws that upset the religious establishment. What upset them I think is that God was acting outside of their control. In Jesus God is freed up to act outside the gilded cages built by religious institutions. Any dogmatic adherence to mere words (or indeed rituals) is death dealing in the end rather than life giving. This was recognised well by St. Paul, who wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:6 “The letter kills, it is the Spirit that gives life.” Ironic really since every word of Paul is revered by some Christians almost as the word of God itself.
In this act and many others like it, Jesus is demonstrating that God cannot be held hostage, that God may be sought and discovered in many different ways and situations. In describing the Spirit of God Jesus describes him as being like the wind, you don’t know where it comes from and you don’t know where it is going but you can feel the wind in your face and hair. Enjoy it when it happens and be guided in that direction. Be guided by the wind like in a sailing boat.
If the wind is the Spirit then the rudder must be our intellect and will, directing ourselves and positioning ourselves, as skilfully as we are able, to best catch God’s Spirit and take us on an exhilarating journey. The two act in tandem not apart from each other.
Our life and religious practice should be able to account and react to the Spirit of God which is sometimes fierce but sometimes feels absent and our lives feel becalmed. We should seek balance. We cannot do without the outward forms, the rituals, the myths, the symbols, and certain beliefs and words, but the message of Jesus to us all is one of the sovereign nature and action of the Divine that can dispense or circumvent any of them at any time..
The danger is that we tie God up in all those things, but if we see ourselves, and our institutions more as a sailing boat that is continually seeking the Spirit and being prepared to react to God’s Spirit and be taken along by it – a union of life, Spirit, reason, ritual, and belief in a constant balancing act we might I suggest be far closer, both personally and institutionally to being a sign of God’s presence in the world.