‘Peter’s friends.’ An invitation to join St. Peter’s reading group.

I like 1 and 2 Peter, I also like much of St. Paul.

Peter’s general epistles are a a rip roaring read. Paul’s pastoral / contextual epistles, written to specific new Christian communities, all of who were seeking a ‘fresh expression’ of how to do Christian community either delight or agitate me. I love the ‘Spirit bits’ and, at times (1 Corinthians 13,for instance) Paul’s explanation of true virtue ethics takes human understanding to a new high.

1 Corinthians 13, to a Corinthian reader, must have been truly shocking. Paul, an outsider, a Jew, is basically saying to the Greeks, the self-proclaimed masters of philosophy: ‘Aristotle et al are okay as far as they go; but, the trouble is they never quite get to the heart of the matter, for the cardinal virtues cannot really be enacted without being animated by the the theological virtues, which are the work of the Spirit.’ For an ancient Greek this would be highly scandalous. Equally so for a modern day secular humanist. 

Much of Paul’s writing can be taken and extrapolated into our context. Paul does give us timeless truths. But, and these are the problems, some of Paul’s writings are entirely context specific, his literary genre is after all the pastoral or contextual epistle, whilst some of his thoughts perhaps reveal the zest of a convert who experienced a dramatic conversion. 

Peter’s conversion by contrast is more stop-start. He affirms, then rejects his Messiah. He requires reinstatement by his lord and savior. The stop-start, affirmation-rejection-reintegration pattern experienced by Peter give him a different perspective than Paul. Scripture shows that Peter and Paul had a difficult relationship (and it is interesting to notice that suspicion continues to exist between parties who experience different conversion narratives.) The good news is that Peter and Paul eventually found a way to work together. 

However, and here is the significant warning, Peter knew full well that Paul’s writings would be taken out of context, even by his original readers. How do we know this? Have a read of 2 Peter 3, 16:

”So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do other Scriptures.”

Now if Peter thought that Paul’s wisdom could be twisted by his contemporaries how much more damage could be done through misinterpretation after a couple of thousand years? How can we avoid such twisting? Peter provides the answer. Find a ‘stable’ way of reading Scripture, whilst allowing  the Spirit to breathe new life into the Scriptures (progressive revelation).

My stability is grounded in a highly Orthodox reading and acceptance of Christianity’s guiding principles: the ten commandments, Jesus’ summation of the law, the Lord’s Prayer (all Scriptural) and the Nicene and Apostles Creed (all given through the tradition).I also have a highly orthodox, and therefore conservative, sacramental theology. I am happy to accept the Apostolic tradition, seeing no reason to integrate the biblical categories of apostle and disciple. ‘God is love’ and the imageo deo are also guiding theologies, theologies through which I interpret Scripture. So although I am happy to consider myself highly orthodox, even conservative, in certain respects (probably more conservative than self-styled conservatives!) Yet, I take a so-called liberal view in other respects believing that, whilst much of Paul’s teaching is universally applicable, (his doctrine of the Holy Spirit and his work as a virtue ethicist, for example) his pastoral letters are also context specific.

Progressive revelation guided by the Spirit allows us to complete Paul’s list of ‘in Christ there are no……..’ Paul shocked his readers by placing male and female, slave and free on an equal ontological footing. Fidelity to the Apostolic tradition requires that we allow the Spirit to be alive and active, the only other choice is literal acceptance, the rejection of the concept of (divinely inspired) biblical genres and regressive rather than progressive revelation.

My guide: St. Peter, the rock on whom the church was built.

 

 

 

 

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No! 42 is not the answer. It is 64……

Chapter 64 of the Rule of Benedict to be precise.

I must admit much of the contemporary leadership discourse leaves me cold. I also get cross (I know I shouldn’t – take a few deep breaths Andrew) by the way that leadership models and courses are pedaled on the market, and bought hook line and sinker by corporations and institutions, the church included.

Lightbown’s law – based solely on my experience, therefore to be treated with a massive pinch of salt – suggests that an inverse relationship exists between focusing and studying leadership and, leadership quality itself. My tongue in cheek suggestion is that for the next decade institutions pledge to provide no more leadership courses; a kind of ‘leadership jubilee.’

But, there is one proviso: a careful study of Chapter 64 of the Rule of Benedict entitled ‘The election of an abbot or abbess.’ I reckon this one, brief, chapter stands in contrast to many modern approaches and provides all the wisdom required. So let’s consider my argument (which, yes, I know, is overstated – but there again aren’t all panaceas?)

A few weeks ago I was shocked to be told by the ‘leader’ of a publicly funded institution that a ‘regulator’ had criticized his approach to the management of the organization because of an absence of fear as a ‘strategic leadership tool.’ Now, not to put too fine a point on it, I reckon that the publicly funded regulator was a ‘bit of a tool.’ Why?

Because the Bible tells us that love and virtue (you know the stuff that drives out fear) must reside at the heart of our approach to leading and influencing others. St. Benedict takes this point very seriously indeed, ‘reducing’ (or should I say expanding?) the role of the leader to the creation of an environment where ‘the strong may have ideals to inspire them and the weak may not be frightened away by excessive demands.’ Put bluntly Benedict knows that any community will always comprise a mixed bag of folk and that we are better off just accepting, working within, that reality rather than undertaking some form of organizational cleansing, through the use of fear, in order to produce organizational / institutional purity. 

Now Benedict is not some laissez-faire  merchant. Instead he believes that the ‘weak’ serve a useful and community enhancing role, they act as a mirror for our own frailty.

How useful is that?

Benedict does not think that we ‘leaders’ should just allow each and every individual to use the community to pursue their own ends, he knows that this is the way to complete and utter organizational disaster (the banking crisis, for instance), indeed he has a name for organizational spongers, ‘gyrovagues.’ 

Gyrovagues display no loyalty, or stability, all they are interested in is their own ‘gross appetites.’ The abbot must distinguish between the genuine spongers and the weak. Spongers should be excommunicated (let’s not forget spongers can be extraordinarily talented, yet lacking in humility), the weak should be viewed as work in progress. The abbot should use ‘prudence and charity,’ to eradicate vice, ‘so as to help each one in their individual needs……they should seek to be loved more than feared.’ 

Abbots should be ‘chaste, sober and compassionate, and should always let mercy triumph over judgement, in the hope of receiving like treatment from the Lord.’ After all as St.Matthew reminds us, Jesus (our real leader – who all ‘church leaders’ should seek to reflect in their dealings with ordinary folk), once remarked ‘just as you did it to the least of these, who are members of my family (so what right do we have to ‘excommunicate them?) YOU DID IT TO ME,’ (Matthew 25, 40).  

So there we go. To me it seems like a good approach. The only real alternative may be a ‘hirem and firem’ approach, ruthlessly adopted, through the strategic use of fear, in pursuit of efficiency and organizational and doctrinal purity, and that is a very frightening model.

p.s. I find it interesting that Matthew places the Parable of Sheep and Goats immediately prior to the plot to kill Jesus.

Myth, metaphor, mystery, (symbolism )and mission ; a response.

Okay, so let me be clear: 

‘I believe in God the Father Almighty maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord……I believe in one baptism……….I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the Communion of Saints, The Resurrection of the dead and the Life Everlasting.’

My reading of the creed is both orthodox and conservative. Orthodox because I believe in the creed unequivocally, I feel no need to add to it, detract from it, or to reinterpret the ‘back end’ of it, in order to satisfy contemporary sensibilities. All very orthodox!

I am conservative because I am happy to accept that which has been passed on through Christian tradition. Paradoxically the tradition frees me from the necessity to work doctrine out anew, to struggle with the most important characteristics of Christian belief. An orthodox and conservative stance towards the creeds, where I accept the grand meta-doctrines, is the catalyst for taking a more liberal perspective in respect of the subsidiary`-deutro doctrines, for it is interesting what is excluded by the creeds: no mention of specifics of doctrines of creation, atonement, salvation, the sacraments, gender, sexuality and so on. Just the core Meta-Doctrines of creation, incarnation,trinity, the church, baptism and resurrection. Fantastic!

One final omission: the way we engage with Scripture. Did the early Church Fathers get it wrong, by failing to say whether ‘the word’ was to be taken literally, metaphorically or in some combination of the two? I don’t think so. So why do some Christians feel compelled to go beyond the conservative-orthodoxy of the creeds? Is it about power and control? Perhaps, the perceived requirement for certainty? What about the modern preference for homogeneity, not only in practice, but also in belief? Is it fear? Who knows.

So beyond an orthodox-conservative acceptance of the creeds I am pleased to count myself a liberal. Liberalism in this form maybe feeds the possibility for progressive forms of revelation. Sources of such revelation include myth and mystery. Nick wrote eloquently on myth last week, and I largely agree with him. My own view is that a church that fails to take ‘the Holy Mysteries’ seriously will ultimately fail to serve humankind. In entering into the mystery we are provided with the opportunity to deepen and expand our faith. Our minds maybe renewed (very St. Paul) and our spirits strengthened. We may encounter new horizons. But what on earth is mystery, how can we define it in such a way as to be useful, or perhaps better still, meaningful? 

Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing to his friend, Robert Bridges, said: ‘What you mean by mystery is an interesting uncertainty. What I mean is an incomprehensible certainty.’  I like Hopkins’ approach.

What if the creed represents Christian certainty (hope) which is brought into life through the use of, yes literal truths, but also myths and metaphors? Would this lead to a richer experience of God? St. Paul was, in fact, happy with the idea of mystery. He stressed that it is through the person of Christ that we enter into ‘the glory of this mystery,’ (Colossians 1, 27). In 1 Corinthians 2 Paul is keen to point out that in the words of Scripture we find meaning which ‘no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him,’ (verse 9). St. Paul invites us to go way beyond simple words, into something far deeper: the mystery of communion with Christ. 

To enter into the mystery of Christ is made possible through the very ‘things’ provided by Christ for our use in worship and devotion. Words, water, bread, wine are all given special, supernatural, significance when used lovingly and liturgically. Mysticism, again paradoxically, is enacted through the ‘ordinary things of life,’ those things given by our Lord and retained through the tradition. So in addition to myth, mystery and metaphor I would add symbolism to my list of artifacts given to the Church so it may bring about the ‘kingdom on earth as in heaven.’

Myth, mystery, metaphor and symbolism (including words) are truly liberating. The only alternative way of providing meaning is the propagation of untruths and deutro-subsidiary doctrines?

 

 

 

Darken our Liteness; a reflection on the importance of metaphor and myth in ministry

Darken our Liteness: (Re-)discovering Christianity

 

I have recently been reading Diarmaid McCullouch’s A History of Christianity, which has led me to many new discoveries (or in some cases reminders of things I knew already), and these in turn have led me to a perplexing thought.

 

Among the (re-)discoveries are: the fact that the first five books of the Old Testament were written hundreds of years after the writings of the major prophets (who were not fortune tellers but interpreters of God’s will), that Moses was half Egyptian, that Jesus almost certainly was not born in Bethlehem, and that the Romans did not hold censuses in occupied territories. And so on.

 

McCulloch also observes that Origen, the early third century biblical scholar and Christian theologian, asked ‘Who is so silly as to believe that God … planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, … that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?’ McCullouch wryly comments that Origen would have been sad that seventeen centuries later millions of Christians are that silly.

 

Now, all these (re-)discoveries have in no way perturbed my Christian faith, but they have, not for the first time, made me wonder why so often when I visit churches I find a world  where historical accuracy is dispensed with, and self-evident metaphor is talked about as if it were literal truth, even when the talker (often with the benefit of years in theological college) knows perfectly well that it isn’t.

 

Why, if in a few weeks time I attend a Christmas service anywhere in the country, will I hear – not just in traditional carols but from the mouths of learned clergy – an account of a baby born in Bethlehem in a stable because there was no room in the local inn? Why do I so often hear the adult Christ portrayed as a kind of magician, a panacea for all kinds of petty human woes, a grown-ups’ comfort blanket, rather than the man in whom we, sometimes terrifyingly, encounter God.

 

I can happily put up with (some of) the embroidery because, strangely, I know it’s not true, but also because I know that there is a deeper truth, a greater Mystery. Of course, sometimes the way to the Mystery is through the myth and the metaphor. But the way should never stop at the myth. My concern is that preoccupation with, or even hiding behind, the myth does a disservice to the church itself and its founder. More, it is a betrayal. Paradoxically those who most vehemently argue against myth and metaphor are often found to be propagating the fertile fallacies of the worst kind of myth.

Instead wouldn’t it be better if we focused on living myths, those mysteries we can truly enter into, live by even? True and living myths are places to be visited where fact and story creatively collide, with each illuminating and enhancing the other. Living myths contain the deepest and most meaningful truths. The Living Christian Myths, of course, contain not just earthly but eternal truths. The beauty of the living myth is that it allows those who take it seriously to move beyond mere cognitive (historic and scientific) acceptance of facts.

 

Failure to take myth seriously leads to grave misunderstandings, like those of the man who, when he put money into the Christian Aid collecting tin my wife was holding, said, “Of course, I’m Darwin.” “I’m sorry?” “I believe in evolution!”  “So do I.”  “Oh, but I thought Christians…”

 

Churches so often try to appeal to those outside their (literal and metaphorical) walls by offering Christianity Lite – sugary, sentimental, simplistic – and then seem surprised that attendances continue to fall. I think that if churches stuck to the hard stuff, the Gethsemane moments, the real message of the Cross, they might be surprised how many would turn to them in their existential angst. People may need simplicity, but they also need straightforward substance. Paradoxically, they then might be able to hear the angels sing!

 

Nick Fane