From ‘still believe to believing again’

From ‘still believe to believing again’

Keith Rowe Acts 9: 1-19; 1 Corinthians 13:1-10

Sun 31 Jul

Today I embark on the third of a series of 4 sermons searching for clues as to how we might re-image God in an age when the idea of God has been banished to the sidelines. I have chosen to enter this discussion through foundational Biblical stories of significant figures that each broke with inherited God images and re-encountered God in new ways. Today my focus is the apostle Paul who was literally jolted into a fresh and life changing appreciation and image of the presence and energy of God. The story of what is often described as the ‘conversion of Paul’ is of foundational significance in the development of the Christian adventure.  Note: Paul was not, as has sometimes been supposed, converted from Judaism to Christianity. He was born and died a Jew and during his life Christianity as an organised body of belief and practice separated from Judaism had not yet emerged. He was however soundly converted from life within one image of God to life within a new God-horizon.

We begin with the event at the heart of the story. Saul, as Paul was known before the event, lived firmly within an image of God as ‘Holy Warrior’. As an agent of orthodoxy his task was to snuff out the Jesus version of Judaism lest it undermine loyalty to an inherited conviction that imaged God as a heavenly and uncompromising defender of a chosen people and their land and nation. God was imaged as like a Holy warrior and Saul regarded himself as a warrior-like agent called by God on high to persecute those who questioned inherited orthodoxy. He lived within a ‘them and us’ world – we’re right, they’re wrong and our task is to get rid of them or at least silence them. On his way to Damascus in search of followers of ‘The Way’, the earliest name by which Jesus followers were described, Saul’s deep down spiritual assumptions and reason for living were questioned. A flash of light and a voice from the heavens accused him of persecuting not just followers of The Way but Jesus himself whose life and influence was now embedded in the community of his followers.

Saul was jolted into a whole new way of imaging and living in God. He set out on the road to Damascus living securely within the image of God understood as divine warrior. He hadn’t invented this image of Warrior-God. There is a sad stream of tradition within the Hebrew Bible that pictures God in this way and continues to haunt our world to this day. I would like to think the image of God as a jealous and avenging warrior belongs to the infancy of religious awareness but it lives on into our more sophisticated times. In our time followers of ISIS justify their heinous crimes against humanity in the name of Warrior-God. George W Bush and Tony Blair believed their version of Warrior-God blessed their war mongering actions in Iraq. There are Christians in the USA who seek a President who will live from the image of Warrior-God. Warrior-God has and continues to sanction the worst of human violence.

We know from his letters and the Acts of the Apostles that for the remainder of his life, now known as the apostle Paul, he gave himself to the promotion of human unity. The hater of difference, the man who in the name of Warrior-God built barriers between the so-called chosen of God and all others became history’s most consistent promoter of human unity. Indeed some contemporary secular philosophers claim Paul, the teacher and practitioner of radical universalism, as a guide in their search for human harmony. He sought to break down barriers between Jews and Gentiles, free citizens and slaves, women and men. He wrote of love rather than competition being the glue that binds the human family together. Now an active promoter of the Jesus way he pioneered ways of being human that grew out of God imaged as the energy and possibility of human cooperation, friendship and harmony. He valued diversity in unity, arguing that just as a body is made of many parts each with its particular functions so the church, or for that matter any human group, could respect difference while reaching toward unity and respect for one another. He travelled throughout the Roman Empire establishing groups of Jesus followers who he encouraged to model a form of caring community life that was possible for all people. They were to be first fruits of a future yet to be realised and his letters to his congregations are frequently critical of avoidable divisions that diminish their sense of community. Paul’s conversion from devotion to Warrior-God to a deep and consistent commitment to God imaged as energy of human unity represented an enormously significant step in the development of the Christian way.

We cannot overlook the cost to Paul of his radical shift of perspective and changed imaging of God. The sense that warrior God was no more believable and had in fact died in his experience left him blinded and disoriented. The former warrior in the service of Warrior-God became like a child being led by the hand toward health and a new beginning. For three days he neither ate nor drank and was dependant on the care of others. He was helped by previously scorned followers of The Way to find and define himself afresh. The story describes him as being like someone who has had scales removed from his eyes and had to learn to see and interpret life in a new way.

Paul’s shift from Warrior God to Unifying God was more than a simple change of mind. It was change that redefined who he was and what his life meant. It caused him to set aside views and values that had been foundational for him. Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of scientific discovery wrote of how in order to make sense of our world we build theories, secure houses of meaning within which we may live in comfort and security. Over time, Kuhn suggested, frameworks for meaning grow increasingly inadequate. We hedge them around with qualifications and re- interpretations but eventually they collapse because they no longer fit the facts of life or serve the tasks of human living. The collapse of any house of meaning, religious or secular, individual or communal, is inevitably followed by a time of uncertainty and a search for new ways of making sense of life. For some the pathway from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood passes by as a continuous development from naivety toward wisdom adequate for the demands of life. For others the journey is punctuated by struggle as outworn images and views are shed while new ones take time to grow. Around middle life it is common for people to go on ‘a second journey’ when new spiritual perspectives develop and crowd out previously accepted but now inadequate ways of understanding life. God-images that no longer make sense are shed. Some drop out of organised religion while others remain seeking for new and more adequate foundations for living. Some brought up in a conservative Christian setting struggle to image God afresh as they try to reconcile God awareness with emerging scientific knowledge of the evolution of life in an expanding cosmos. In New Zealand the church has been fortunate to have Lloyd Geering who in an attempt to put into words what God, life and faith mean for him, became a catalyst for many to re-believe, to believe again, to re-image God, to go on a second journey into God. Over recent decades St Luke’s has become a community of pilgrims exploring life’s second journey, rediscovering God-life after the collapse of earlier modes of belief.  It’s a valuable and needed ministry and it seems to me we have a continuing role to play offering skilled and careful pastoral/theological assistance to those who having let go of inherited images of God are learning how to believe in new and life enhancing ways. Change is written into life and is true for the Christian life as for every other part of life.

We should never underestimate the trauma for individuals and communities of faith when a primary image for God dies before another has been born. I have an aging book entitled ‘The God that Failed”. It’s written by 6 literary figures who in the 1930’s gave their allegiance to Stalinist Communism believing it to represent a pathway into a desirable future. Each confesses it to have been a ‘God who failed’. Many Christians could write a book with a similar title describing images of God they once espoused but later left behind as dead relics. Some contemporary philosopher-theologians like to quote from W H Auden that the important thing is not to ‘still believe’ (the same thing) but to ‘believe again’ (after the death of a failed God-image).  They write compellingly of the need to let go of images of God that no longer serve life and to allow fresh God-images to emerge. Some of these fresh images are in fact ancient images seeking to be reborn in our day: like Paul’s image of God as unifying energy, Jesus’ image of God as love enacted within the human family or Moses’ image of God as the mysterious ‘I am’. Some of us are enriched by god-images gifted to us by other faiths. Certainly renewal of the Jesus Way in our time requires the death of ‘Warrior God’ and His look alike versions so that God as unifying energy, embodied love, the mystery of ‘I am’ may become the God-images in which we live. We live in a time when the death of outworn or life denying images for God is to be welcomed but the death of once valued convictions or God images can be a grief filled and difficult experience.

Contemporary philosopher-theologian Richard Kearney wrestles at depth with the question of how life-giving images of God might be reborn in our time. He has coined the word ‘Anatheism’ (God again) to describe something important happening in our time. Anatheists are those who have experienced the necessary death of all forms of Warrior God and now believe again. Anatheists are people who have experienced the loss of inherited images of God that once gave shape to their living. They have entered afresh into the life of God, now understood as unifying love, grace filled presence, embodied love. Rather than believing still they believe again. Rather than regarding atheism as a final resting place they have stayed within the question of God until held within a fresh imaging of God reborn within their living. Atheism dogmatically held and worshipped leads to denial of the mystery and wonder of life and a sense of purpose and meaning greater than can be reduced to mathematical equations. Anatheists are on a never-ending journey into deepening awareness of life impregnated with the presence of God. The rebirth of Christian vitality and integrity in our day requires the death of Warrior-God and the re-discovery of God as unifying energy. We are on the same journey as was Paul, from death to life, from division to unity, from competition to cooperation.  

Paul was an anatheist. He let go an inadequate and life denying image of God. He experienced the confusion and loss of meaning that followed the death of Warrior- God, but that seemingly life and death struggle cleared the decks of his life for God the energy and motivation of unifying love to be born in him and to flow through him into the world. In my next sermon I’d like to explore, with a little help from Pope Francis, how God might be imaged in a world threatened by climate change, ecological vandalism and vast technological change.

Some things to ponder:

What’s important is not that someone believes in ‘God’ but that the ‘God’ they believe in is a genuinely life enhancing reality in their lives.  What do you think?

Have you experienced the loss or death of an inherited or youthful image of God that had to be left behind? Does the idea of a second journey make sense to you?

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead celebrated what he described as the ‘Galilean origin of Christianity’ – ‘It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love.” (1929)

“Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.” (1925)

“The image under which the growth of God’s nature is best conceived is that of a tender care that nothing be lost.” (1929)

Philosopher-theologian Richard Kearney: “What comes after God? What follows in the wake of our letting go of God?….(there is) the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism….this third option, this wager of faith beyond faith I call anatheism. Ana-theos, God after God…an idiom for receiving what we’ve given up as if we were encountering it for the first time…a returning to God beyond or beneath the God we thought we possessed.“ (2011)

Anatheism refers to “some kind of letting go of one’s received beliefs- even provisionally, momentarily, hypothetically – is something that I consider central to the reimagining of the sacred, and to the possibility of genuine faith, which, as Dostoyevsky reminds us, comes forth from ‘the crucible of doubt.” (2016)