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The Explorer’s Guide To Christianity by Marcus Braybrooke


Marcus Braybrooke is an Anglican Priest, a Peace Councillor and President of the World Congress of Faiths. Published by Hodder & Staughton, London, Sydney Aucland, 1998. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 9 ‘Go, Post a Lookout’


The prophet Isaiah was told by the Lord to post a lookout and when he asked the watchman what he saw, the reply was, ‘Morning is coming, but also the night’ (Isa. 21:6, 11).

Looking into the future is a risky business and the watchman was sensible to hedge his bets! There are many predictions of environmental disaster, increasing famines, further violence and ethnic cleansing, not unlike the warnings of Jesus that ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth-pains’ (Mark 13:8). There are also signs of a new dawn, as people of faith are renewed in their spiritual life and engage more actively with the problems and suffering of the world. This will be the focus of this final chapter.

This, however, should not obscure the personal strength and encouragement that the individual believer finds in following Christ Discipleship is costly but the new life, which has the quality of eternity, gives meaning and inner peace to daily life. Jesus said, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it’ (Luke 9:23). The ‘daily’, which is only in Luke, is significant. I have stressed the disciple’s personal trust in God’s forgiving love which may come as an unforgettable experience, but the knowledge of this and the commitment that flows from it needs to be renewed each day.

Is Church Membership Declining?

‘The British believe in . . . not putting bums on pews’ was the headline of a recent article m a Sunday newspaper in 1997.1 Based on a comprehensive survey, the article suggested that in the past twenty years, regular adult attendance at church had fallen from nearly eleven per cent to just over eight per cent of the population -- a drop of about one million people. The Blyth Valley in Northumberland had the lowest figure for church attendance. There, ninety-seven per cent of the population do not attend church regularly, whereas in the Ribble Valley m Lancashire twenty-six per cent of the population do attend regularly.

In contrast to the message that the newspaper draws from the figures, it has been argued in some quarters that in fact more people attend church than did twenty years ago, but that they attend less regularly. This is because the pattern of life on a Sunday has changed. Church services now have to compete with a wider range of activities. Many shops are open, professional and amateur sport takes place on a large scale, and families travel to see relations or for recreational purposes. In the small villages in Oxfordshire where I am vicar, I count regular attendees as those who come at least once a month.

The situation may not be as grim as the newspaper article suggests. Even so, there is much to suggest a decline in participation in the institutional church across much of Europe, although in other areas of the world,, such as Africa, South Korea or China, church membership is growing. Several commentators, however, note that even where there is a decline in church attendance, the number of people who say they believe in God remains high.

Is the problem then with the way the churches articulate their beliefs, or with the patterns of church worship, or are the reasons sociological? Some people complain that the churches seem uncertain about their beliefs and moral teaching and seem to adapt them to current fashions, whereas others think there is a need for radical rethinking. A lot of changes to the forms of worship have taken place. Liturgies have become more imaginative and relaxed. Many new hymns have been written and the style of music in several churches is more contemporary. Yet, others deplore these changes and suggest that the beauty and awe of traditional worship has been thrown away. Perhaps the decline is because the pattern of life has changed. People are more mobile. In a village the church may still be one of the centers of community life, whereas in urban areas when people move, they may find it hard to relate to a new church.

My Hopes for the Church

I sometimes reflect on my dreams for the church into which I was ordained in the 1960s. It was to be a more united, more open and more compassionate body, less interested in church membership and institutional preservation, and more concerned to struggle for peace and to speak for and to bring comfort to the marginalized. My disappointment is that the church has been slow to change, reluctant to seek unity, afraid to identify with the poor and hesitant about opening its doors to spiritual explorers who may have questions about traditional beliefs. Many in the Roman Catholic church, who have witnessed the retreat from the openness of the Second Vatican Council, would echo my sense of disappointment.

After having spent a year with the Church of South India, which had united Anglicans and Protestants of several denominations, I was enthusiastic about church unity. At the time of my ordination discussions to unite the Church of England and the Methodist Church were well advanced -- even so, as I was marrying a Methodist, the diocesan bishop refused permission for us to have Communion at our wedding service. The plan to unite the two churches failed to secure the support of two-thirds of the members of the Church of England’s ruling body. Another attempt a few years later was also frustrated. A coming together of those two churches might have encouraged further union: it would have been a powerful witness and could have stimulated many other necessary changes. In fact, for nearly forty years the traditional elements in the Church of England have delayed progress on unity and the ordination of women and other matters. As a result an enormous amount of the church’s energy, at least at the level of institutional decision-making, has been taken up by internal wrangles, rather than by active service of the community.

Having seen a little of the abject poverty of some people in India, on my return I quickly became involved in the work of Christian Aid and the beginnings of the World Development Movement, which campaigned on political matters relating to aid and trade. My hope was that the church would become a leading voice for economic and racial justice as well as for disarmament. The Church of England in its report Faith in the City and in other reports has shown considerable awareness of social problems and some Christians have taken effective and imaginative action to help those in need in Britain and abroad, through bodies such as Shelter, Crisis or Christian Aid. Yet the churches have hesitated really to identify with the poor or to release their accumulated wealth for the service of the needy. There have been several reports about the Christian attitude to nuclear weapons, but although some Christians were very active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the churches remained at a distance from the campaign. The Church of England has not taken as radical a political and social stance as the Episcopal church in the USA. Again, whilst the church has been vocal in its opposition to legislation to restrict the rights of aliens who seek asylum in Britain, there was considerable opposition to the World Council of Churches Fund to Combat Racism. Uncertainty about the appropriate Christian attitude to other faiths has also meant that the church’s welcome to members of other faiths who have settled in Britain has been hesitant At times, the church has seemed defensively to want to hold on to its special role in British life.

John Robinson’s provocative book Honest to God was published in 1963. It struck a chord with many thoughtful Christians, but although some academic theologians, who have become increasingly detached from parish life, have pursued this radical agenda, the churches to my mind have lacked the courage sufficiently to relate the gospel to contemporary thought. Laity keep their thoughts to themselves lest they upset the clergy and the clergy keep their doubts to themselves lest they disturb the laity. Despite the efforts of the Modern Church People’s Union and ‘Sea of Faith’ conferences and other theologically radical groups, many questioning followers of Jesus have drifted away from church life, or at least from participation in the church’s decision-making forums, thus allowing undue influence to more traditional positions.

Despite the hopes I have had for the churches in Britain, I have to admit that the areas of church growth have in most cases been amongst the more conservative churches. This is seen in the growing strength of Evangelical churches and of the house church movement. There are perhaps several reasons for this growth. Evangelical churches emphasize personal experience of Jesus’ forgiveness and of the presence of the Risen Christ in daily life. Usually, Evangelical churches are characterized by warm and close fellowship. Their teachings are clear and based on an uncritical and therefore apparently straight. forward way of reading the Bible. On most issues of personal morality, they uphold a strict and traditional pattern of behavior.

The question, however, is whether despite the growth of conservative churches both in Europe and North America and in other parts of the world, and the likelihood that they will remain strong, they offer the key to the future in a world that is changing very quickly. I still hope that the church will become more open to intellectual enquiry, more willing to seek not only Christian unity but fellowship with other faiths and more closely engaged with the critical issues of today’s world. I recognize that other Christians feel just as strongly that the opposite path is the one to follow. Indeed, the real division in the church of the future is likely to be not so much along denominational lines, but between so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Christians. Before, however, we look at the questions of intellectual openness, fellowship with other faiths and social engagement, it will help to see why many thinkers picture the new century -- it seems presumptuous to speculate about the new millennium -- as very different from the century that is drawing to a close.

A Changing World

There is a story that as Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, Adam turned to his wife and said, ‘Dear, we live in an age of transition.’ Change is nothing new, but perhaps the speed of change is faster than ever before.

Father Bede Griffiths (1906-94), who established a Christian ashram in South India, in one of his last books wrote, ‘The world today is on the verge of a new age and a new culture.’2 He suggested that scientists are moving away from a mechanistic model of the universe which has dominated their thinking for more than two hundred years. Like those who advocate a creation-centered spirituality, Bede Griffiths welcomes a more holistic approach, which sees the universe as a coordinated and integrated whole. Indeed, the Gaia (Greek for the earth) theory sees the planet as a living entity in which all life is interdependent. Some psychological studies are also moving beyond a concentration on the ego and discovering a new spiritual depth.

Other writers draw attention to a new understanding of human knowledge. It is never absolute but conditioned historically by the context of the person who knows. Further, our knowledge is interpreted knowledge. Reality speaks to each person with the language he or she gives it We are not in a position to make ultimate or unconditioned statements. The questions that we ask and how we pose them partly determine the answers at which we arrive. All reality is perceived and spoken of from a cultural, class or sexual perspective. Any statement is from a particular point of view. This does not, however, mean, in my view, that there is no reality and that all so-called ‘knowledge’ is only a human construct But it calls in question any claim to absolute and eternal, divinely revealed truths.

Politically and economically the world is moving on from its domination by European powers and more recently by the USA. At the same time, nation states are slowly recognizing their interdependence and that great issues, such as global warming, poverty, drug abuse and international terrorism cannot be dealt with by one country on its own. Global companies and global communications are also limiting the power of nation states. There has also been large-scale human migration, so that now more societies are multi-ethnic and multi-faith.

The Nature of Belief

New understandings of the nature .of human knowledge question the possibility of making statements that are absolutely true. Whereas up to the nineteenth century, and still in some quarters today, statements about reality were thought of as absolute, static and exclusively true or false, today it is recognized that they are always partial and historically conditioned. The idea that there are absolute or unchanging beliefs, on which the religious certainty of conservative Christians is based, is open to question. We have seen that most New Testament scholars recognise that the gospels are documents shaped by their historical context. They reflect the concerns of the evangelists and the Christian communities to which they belonged as well as the interests of those who handed on the traditions about what Jesus said and did. The same is true of the creeds of the church. Although their use in worship can seem to give them a pre-eminent status, they too, as we have seen, are historically conditioned. Their production, for example, was partly occasioned by the wish of emperors that Christianity could bind together the peoples over whom they reigned.

The creeds, or other doctrinal formulae, should not be used as a test to determine whether a person can belong to the church. As long ago as 1938, the report Doctrine in the Church of England said:

The general acceptance of formulations drawn up in another age and another context of thought gives rise to special problems, especially when some of the phrases used are indisputably symbolic and no clear distinction is drawn, or (perhaps) can be drawn, between these and others. . . The word ‘symbolic’ is ambiguous. Statements affirming particular facts may be found to have value as pictorial expressions of spiritual truths, even though the supposed facts themselves did not actually happen.

The Report also says that ‘assent to formularies and the use of liturgical language in public worship should be understood as signifying general acceptance without implying detailed assent to every phrase or proposition thus employed’.3

Further, truth is limited by language. Every description of reality is partial, because although reality may be observed from many perspectives, language can express only one thing at a time. This suggests, for example, that there is never one right reading of a text. It is more like a work of art, perhaps particularly a statue which can be observed from different perspectives. Even more is this the case in our thought about God. The recognition of the limits of language and human knowledge when we speak about the divine is at the same time an affirmation of the mystery of God. It is, as the Indian theologian Stanley Samartha says, ‘the homage which the finite mind pays to the inexhaustibility of the infinite’.4

In the fourth century. the Greek father St Gregory of Nazianzus wrote a poem which expresses the limitations of language before the Mystery of God:

By what name shall I call upon you,
who are beyond all name!
You, the Beyond-all, what name shall give you?
What hymn can sing your praises, what word tell of you ?
No mind can probe your secret, nor intelligence comprehend you.

From you proceeds all that is spoken: but you are beyond all speech.
From you stems all that is thought, but you are beyond all thought.

All things proclaim you - the mute and those with power of speech.
All things join to celebrate you, the unconscious and that which is conscious.

You are the end of all longings and of all silent aspiration
You are the end of the groanings of your entire creation.
Those who know to interpret your world unite to sing your praises.

You are both all things and none: not a part yet not the whole.
All names are given to you and yet none can comprehend you.
How shall I name you then, 0 you, the Beyond-all name?5

The Experience of God

The experience of God is always greater than human understanding. Confidence rests in that experience, not in attempted human descriptions of it. This is why those who value a mystical approach can combine the deep assurance of faith with intellectual openness. The Bible, in a similar way, as the Word of God is secondary to the Word or Logos who became flesh in Jesus Christ The Bible, like the creeds, points beyond itself to a living relationship with God in Christ. This is why I began this book with some account of personal spiritual Journeys.

There is probably no way to argue for the truth of spiritual experience, except perhaps in the change that such experience may effect in a person’s life. There are those who think that a major shift in human consciousness is taking place, one aspect of which is an emphasis on spiritual experience rather than intellectual truths about religion. To some, the church may seem to purvey doctrines and dogmas rather than the path to authentic encounter with the divine. This may be why belief in God remains high whilst active participation in the life of the church declines. This may also be one reason for the interest in Western societies in new religious and spiritual movements. They claim to teach a way to experience the divine. In the churches also the renewed emphasis on contemplative meditation or ‘centring prayer’ reflects the desire to discover and set free the Spiritual Power which dwells in the heart of every person.

The emphasis on spiritual experience is not without its difficulties and there can be dangerous aberrations, especially -when the spiritual is confused with the psychic. Personal spiritual experience should be balanced by reference to a community of faith and its traditions and to scripture. Its authenticity is seen in a life of love and service.

My immediate point, however, is that the emphasis on spiritual experience allows both confidence and openness. The danger of fundamentalism is that it rejects the view that all truths are historically conditioned and gives an absolute authority to a particular truth. It cannot allow for other truths. Similarly, fundamentalism rejects the idea of symbolism and myth and sees a particular religious story as true in an absolute sense. Such a position allows for no compromise or willingness to accept the validity of other spiritual traditions. Fundamentalists cannot theoretically accept a pluralist society in which equal status is accorded to people who belong to different religions. Fundamentalists are committed, by the logic of their belief, to work for the victory of their views. Many do so by honest democratic persuasion, but others seek to coerce those who disagree with them. This is why fundamentalism is so dangerous in a world where both many national societies are becoming multi-ethnic and multi-faith and the lives of all people are becoming increasingly interdependent

A faith community in which spiritual experience is central can be open to those who are questioning or who have doubts. It becomes a pilgrim community in which people grow by sharing their experiences and insights.

Such a community can also relate to other communities of faith. Rabindranath Tagore (1861 -- 1941), the Indian poet and writer, said on one occasion that ‘to reject any part of humanity’s religious experience is to reject truth’.6 This is not to say that all religious claims are the same nor equally valid. People may have a true experience of the divine but may misinterpret its significance. Interfaith dialogue is not just a matter of understanding the other, it is a grappling together towards a deeper apprehension of the divine, in which different insights correct and enrich each other.

The assumption, however, is that other traditions of faiths are genuine responses to the reality of the Transcendent Yet this is an assumption that many Christians are still reluctant to make. They may be willing to work with people of other faiths on practical matters and to ensure good religious community relations, but because they do not accept the spiritual authenticity of other traditions they are unwilling to come together with them in prayer. This, however, is to impoverish attempts to bring spiritual and moral values to bear on both national and world society, because practical action needs to flow from the life of the spirit.

Prayer and Action

In the twentieth century, several religious teachers have stressed the interconnectedness of the life of prayer and contemplation and that of practical action. Mahatma Gandhi (1869 -- 1948) said that ‘the only way to find God is to see him in his creation and to be one with it. This can only be done by the service of all, sarvodaya. I am part and parcel of the whole and I cannot find him apart from the rest of hum~ty... If I could persuade myself that I could find him in a Himalayan cave, I would proceed there immediately. But I know that I cannot find him apart from humanity.’7 The Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton (1915 -- 68) also saw the inextricable link between prayer and action. The practice of solitude, he wrote, brought ‘a deepening awareness that the world needs to struggle against alienation. True solitude is deeply aware of the world’s needs. It does not hold the world at arm’s length.’8 In a paper given at Bangkok, on the day of his death, Merton said that ‘the monk is essentially someone who takes up a critical attitude towards the contemporary world and its structures’.9

It is in waiting in the presence of God that the evil and cruelty of the world becomes clear. The vision of the world as God intends it to be and the reality of suffering in so many people’s lives should result in commitment to serve the poor and to struggle for justice. Equally, the person who immerses himself or herself in such action and struggle needs the inner resources of a spiritual life.

Spiritual life and concerned action belong together. Both can help Christians into a closer relationship with people of other faiths and of good will. Just as the emphasis on spiritual experience moves a person beyond differences of ritual and belief, so the urgency of the need to end war and violence and injustice, to bring relief to the hungry, to stand with those who are exploited and to seek to protect the environment unites Christians with people of other faiths. The American theologian Paul Knitter has said that ‘concern for the widespread suffering that grips humanity and threatens the planet can and must be the "common cause" for all religions’.10

Identification with the Poor

Where the church is identified with the poor, and is active m the struggle for peace and justice, it does not have to worry about questions of relevance. It may attract opposition, especially for supposedly ‘meddling in politics’, but it is certainly not on the margin.

Don Samuel

The work of Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, Bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas in Mexico may be taken as an example of this involvement. Don Samuel, as he is known to everyone, was the first of five children of a family of modest means from Irapuato in the state of Guanajuato. He was ordained in 1949 and was made a bishop by Pope John XXIII who sent him to San Crist6bal. His training gave no hint of the identification with the poor that has been the hallmark of his ministry. His first pastoral letter was a denunciation of communism.

Early on, however, he made a decision to visit every town and village in his vast diocese, which encompassed the whole state of Chiapas -- some 29,000 square miles. What shocked him most, as he traveled through the forests and up and down the mountains, was the poverty and abandonment in which the indigenous people lived. He tried to provide assistance, but came to see that this help was destructive of the indigenous culture. As he wrote later, ‘We had only our own -- ethnocentric and moralistic -- criteria to judge customs. Without realizing it, we were on the side of those who oppressed the indigenous.’11

The Second Vatican Council was a turning point for him as for so many other Catholics. By 1968, the bishops of Latin America were denouncing ‘the institutionalized violence of the international monopolies and the international imperialism of money’.12 At first the bishop had stayed in the big house when he visited a village, but later he stayed in the shacks of the poor. He became more and more aware of the oppression and exploitation of the indigenous people.

Don Samuel set out to incarnate the gospel in the cultures of the various communities. This meant that instead of using Spanish for everyone, each of five language groups had to be addressed in its own mother tongue. The number of catechists, who were now chosen by the local community, increased. Readings from the book of Exodus helped to make the people aware both of their oppression and of a desire for liberation. The diocese committed itself to accompany the people in their search for integral liberation and soon peasant organizations proliferated.

Don Samuel’s concern for the poor was quickly met by the hostility of the rich landowners and of the government. The Vatican, which was seeking to improve the relations of the Catholic church with the Mexican government, was also critical. But Don Samuel was good at enlisting the support of international human rights bodies.

When, on New Year’s day 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army’s uprising took place, it was Don Samuel who became the mediator.

The problems of the Chiapas people, and indeed of Mexico, are by no means solved, but it was clear to my wife Mary and I me, when as part of the Peace Council we visited San Cristóbal in 1996, with what enormous respect and affection Don Samuel is regarded. The meeting of the Peace Council ended with the first interfaith service in the cathedral, which was crowded for the occasion. After the blessing, the Peace Councillors mingled with the congregation to light the candles which everyone had been given.

This is but one example. Better known is the struggle of Martin Luther King (1929-68) against racial discrimination in the USA, or Bishop Desmond Tutu’s (b. 1931) vocal opposition to apartheid in South Africa. The respect that Desmond Tutu has gained is evident in his appointment to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Where the church has a feeling of being out of touch and irrelevant, it is because it has not identified with crucial issues of the moment. Many individual Christians and Christian groups have been active in the search for peace, for equality of the sexes and for protection of the environment, yet it seems that seldom has the church, as a body, been the leader in these campaigns.

What Should be the Priorities for the Church?

What then seem to be the key issues on which one may hope to look to the church for a spiritual and moral lead? The Four Irrevocable Directives identified in the Declaration Toward A Global Ethic, which was drawn up at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, may serve as a guide to this discussion. At the end of the Parliament, most members of the Assembly added their names to the Declaration. Leading Christians of many denominations were amongst those who signed, including Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and the Rev Wesley Ariarajah, Assistant Secretary-General of the World Council of Churches. Christian contributors to the book Yes to a Global Ethic (1966) include Cardinal König, who was Archbishop of Vienna from 1956 to 1985; Dr Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches; Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; Dr George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury; Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, Archbishop of São Paulo; Bishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, who is a Nobel Peace Prize Winner; and Cardinal Bernadin.

The Declaration in its fuller form affirms that every human being should be treated humanely. The four directives are:

Commitment to a culture of non-violence and respect for life.
Commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order
Commitment to a culture of tolerance and a lift of truthfulness
Commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women.

Non-Violence

The first directive is controversial, as the dominant tradition in the church has not been pacifist. As we have seen13 arguments were developed that allowed Christians to take part in a just war. Many Christians, however, who were not pacifist, opposed the possible use of nuclear weapons and also opposed threats to use such weapons. It was argued that the devastation such weapons would cause outweighed the dangers of a cruel dictatorship, which they might prevent. Many Christians were active in campaigns to oppose nuclear weapons, although I personally was sad that this never became the position adopted by the Church of England.

The statement of the Global Ethic seemed to go too far for some Christians. Did it rule out the use of force by a United Nations peace-keeping body? The Declaration was in fact carefully nuanced. It recognized that ‘wherever there are humans there will be conflicts’.

Such conflicts, however, should be resolved without violence within a framework of justice. This is true for states as well as for individuals. Persons who hold political power must work within the framework of a just order and commit themselves to the most non-violent, peaceful solutions possible. And they should work for this within an international order of peace which itself has need of protection and defense against perpetrators of violence.14

The use of force is not ruled out. The commitment is to the most ‘non-violent, peaceful solution possible’ as well as to the establishment of an effective international order. Violence is not just the use of armed force. Economic exploitation is a form of oppression. The Declaration recognizes the importance of justice and does not rule out resistance to tyranny, even in the last resort by violence. It is said, ‘Wherever those ruling threaten to repress those ruled, wherever institutions threaten persons, and wherever might oppresses right, we are obliged to resist -- whenever possible non-violently’.15 It is also true that boycotts and economic embargoes are a form of violence and can cause considerable suffering.

Even if the commitment of the Declaration is not to complete pacifism, it is a major challenge to the behavior of many nations. At present some forty wars are raging m the world and violence seems to be endemic. Major Western powers such as the USA and Great Britain have been willing in recent years to resort to war, although many Christians in the USA opposed the Gulf War. If the churches are to be outspoken in their call for non-violence and an international order, they may expect opposition, especially from those who want to hold on to the full sovereignty of the nation state.

Economic Justice

The commitment to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order may be even more challenging as it questions the standard of living to which many Christians in the West have grown accustomed. If the poorer nations are to improve their standard of living does this mean at least slower growth in the richer nations? If not, the strain on natural resources and the increasing pollution may be catastrophic. Another issue is ‘Third World debt’, and many Christians with others are campaigning through the Jubilee 2000 Coalition for the cancellation of unpayable debts by the poorest nations. Christians are also campaigning about intolerable working conditions in many developing nations. One of the worst forms of exploitation is the growing sex-tourism in some Asian countries.

Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns

In some parts of the world, the church is helping the poor to take control of their own future. In 1971, Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns of São Paulo launched a programme called ‘Operation Periphery’, which involved many people in helping to solve the problems of those who lived on the outskirts, ‘the periphery’, of the city. It led the Christians of São Paulo to get to know the millions of inhabitants who lived in poor housing and who had to travel perhaps five or more hours a day to get to their work. Those who lived on the periphery were helped to organize themselves into communities which could press for better education, better transportation and better health conditions, which meant provision of clean water, sewerage and garbage collections. This, says Paulo Evaristo Arns, led the inhabitants of these poor areas to see other needs of which they had not been conscious before.

It soon became clear to all those involved that it was very dangerous to be poor. Not only, were the poor more liable to disease and to the destruction of their homes by floods, but they were looked upon by society as being potential criminals. If something was stolen, the police arrested the poorest person in the vicinity. If there was a riot at a football game, the police beat the worst-dressed of the men. For this reason, the communities founded, in each neighborhood, a center for the Defense of Human Rights.16

The search for a just economic order is not only a matter of relief, it needs ‘conscientization’, or making people aware of the oppression that they suffer or cause. It also requires political struggle.

Unemployment

The commitment to a culture of solidarity and economic justice is equally important in the so-called ‘developed nations’, where in many of them there is a growing gap between those who have a comfortable lifestyle and those who are deprived and marginalized. Patriarch Bartholomew I, in his response to the Global Ethic, underlined ‘the tragedy of unemployment which plagues Europe today’. He wrote:

It is obvious that neither moral counsel nor fragmented measures of socio-economic policies are enough to confront rising unemployment. The problem of unemployment compels us to re-examine the self-evident priorities in our society. . . We are trapped in the tyrannical need continually to increase productivity. . . Thus, the economy becomes independent of the needs of society.

The demand for profit, the Patriarch suggests, is at the expense of the quality of human life and relationships. An example of this is the reluctance of firms to encourage job-sharing. ‘What’, he asks, ‘will be the political mandate that will convince humankind willingly and joyfully to sacrifice its impetuous need for consumption and its limitless demands for unquenchable productivity in order to rediscover the communion of life within the community of persons?’17

There needs to be a moral change which will demand new political and economic policies. Christian conviction has to be expressed in the struggle for a new pattern of society.

The Environment

The Patriarch also highlights the urgency of ecological issues. Much of the discussion of the first directive has concentrated on the issue of non-violence, but it also says that ‘the lives of animals and plants . . . deserve protection, preservation and care’.18 The church’s record on this issue has been subject to criticism, and certainly modern European society has tended to exploit the natural world and to emphasize the gap between human and other forms of life. Some of this, however, is more a reflection of the Enlightenment than of biblical thinking. When, according to Genesis, God gave human beings dominion over the natural world, they were expected to exercise their rule in a way that reflects God’s loving rule and care. Increasingly, Christians are giving attention to ecological issues. The Orthodox church, for example, has established the first day of September as a day of meditation and prayer to focus on the continuing ecological destruction of the planet. The church also convened an international conference in Crete, but as Patriarch Bartholomew says, ‘our efforts will be meaningless if they remain fragmented’.19 The demands of the world call upon Christians not only to act ecumenically but together with all people of faith and good will.

A Partnership Between Men and Women

The church’s record on the fourth directive which calls for a commitment to a culture of equal rights and partnership between men and women has also been criticized. Much of the discussion in the Anglican communion has concentrated on the question of whether women should be ordained. As yet, the issue has hardly been publicly debated in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Women theologians, especially in Asia and Africa, have drawn attention to Jesus’ own willingness, despite the conventions of the time, to meet freely with women and to identify himself with the deprived. There is a call to the churches to put their own houses in order, but perhaps even more important to join with those who struggle for an equal partnership of men and women.

In many parts of the world, women are still oppressed, and in Western society sexism is still rampant The contemporary American theologian Charlene Spretnak quotes figures which indicate that one in every three women in the USA will be raped during her lifetime, and that one woman is physically beaten every fourteen seconds in the USA. She also says that a random survey of women in Los Angeles in 1986 found that sixty-two per cent had been sexually abused as children.20 The churches have to challenge this abuse and the culture that underlies it.

The question of homosexuality is even more controversial. Yet despite the churches’ traditional teaching on the subject, the demand to reject all forms of discrimination seems likely to lead to growing acceptance of different lifestyles and patterns of relationship, although this is already a divisive matter between conservative and more liberal Christians.

A new awareness of the feminine will also change ways of thinking and perhaps help a rediscovery of the inner life. There are questions about traditional language used in worship. Many churches now avoid the use of the word ‘man’ when human being is meant. I try to avoid the male personal pronoun in writing of God, but sometimes to do this makes a sentence rather clumsy.

The issues go deeper. Charlene Spretnak says that ‘efforts radically to transform all institutions in a society must necessarily fall short if the deepest informing assumptions go unexamined’.21 This she tries to do. She says:

[The] social structures and attitudes in our society draw legitimacy from the central assumptions of Western religion and philosophy. Creativity in the universe, ultimate mystery, the divine -- all are symbolized by the distant father-god, ruling in transcendence far above Earth’s realm of blood. mud, birth and death. The goal of most Western spirituality has been to transcend nature and the flesh (which meant primarily man’s escaping the ‘lure’ of woman’s flesh). Western philosophy, following the Pythagoreans, identified man with mind, subjectivity, determinate form (substance) and potential transcendence. It has identified woman with body, passivity, indeterminate and disorderly form (process) and ‘dumb’ matter. Throughout the history of Western philosophy, three vital concerns of men raised in patriarchal culture continually appear: separateness, reactive (defensive) autonomy, and control.22

Since the mid-seventies, Charlene Spretnak says, a movement of spiritual renewal that honors nature, the female and the body has flourished. This ‘Goddess spirituality’, as it is often called, is evident in some New Age movements. Some Christians strongly object to talk about Mother Earth or calling God ‘she’, but others believe that this tradition, present in Celtic Christianity, needs to be rediscovered. It should help a recovery of the importance of ritual and symbolism, an embodied way of knowing the world, and a more intuitive approach to religious teaching. It will also foster a greater sense of the unity of all life and of our dependence on and relationship to the Earth.

Truthfulness

The third directive is a commitment to a culture of tolerance and a life of truthfulness. Discussion of this tends to concentrate on the media and the power of the mass media, which as it becomes increasingly global in its coverage, is becoming immense. Control of the media is concentrated in too few hands. There are other issues, such as the ethical dimension of scientific and medical advances, and issues of integrity in political and business life.

There are also significant questions for the churches about their own integrity. In some church circles, Christians are hesitant to raise difficult questions or to express their doubts. Many Christians have been ‘shielded’ from the fruits of biblical criticism. The question of integrity is also one about authority, power and control. The 1938 report Doctrine in the Church of England says that ‘every individual ought to test his or her belief in practice and, so far as his or her ability and training allow, to think out his or her own belief and to distinguish between what has been accepted on authority only and what has been appropriated in thought or experience’.23 Such an emphasis has to allow for variety of belief and view within the community.

Another test for the church is how far it can build an accepting fellowship where people can articulate their own experience of God in Christ This again raises questions about the future organization of the institutional church and whether it can or should maintain its present hierarchical structure where authority seems to come down from on high. At the Reformation some churches rejected this and many theologians acknowledge that the local church is a true church, but doctrines of authority and the adoption of some modern centralized styles of administration seem to give the lie to this.

Is the church a body with agreed beliefs guarded and maybe adjusted by a self-perpetuating hierarchy? This has been the dominant pattern in the largest churches, since, following the conversion of Constantine. Christianity became the religion of the Empire. If, however, instead of correct belief about God’s self-revelation in Christ, experience of the living God present by the power of the Spirit in Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian fellowship, then the Christian community becomes a circle of friends who strengthen each other in their search for deeper awareness of divine reality and love. In that search, the individual and the community are open to inspiration from many quarters, but inspiration that is tested by the mind of Christ and the common experience of the group. Leadership in such a community is shared.

The test of the authenticity of faith is the caring and loving quality of the life of the community, its service to others and its commitment to the struggle for justice and integrity of the whole creation.

To those who follow Christ in this way, the fortunes of the institutional church are of limited interest What matters most is so to abide in Christ and for Christ to abide in the believer that the divine love may radiate the fellowship of believers and bring light to the world.

O Lord, let the Church be truly your collective body in the world today, the Christ-Community, guided by You, filled with your Spirit, loving and serving men and women as you did when you lived our human life.

Help the Church to give itself for the world so that men and women may have the priceless treasure of your grace and love, 0 Lord of the Church, O Savior of the world.24

Books which give a sense of a new age include Bede Griffiths, A New Vision of Reality (Collins, 1989); Leonard Swidler, The Meaning of Life at the Edge of the Third Millennium (Paulist Press, 1992); Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace (HarperCollins, 1991); Keith Ward, A Vision to Pursue (SCM Press, 1991); and Hans Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium (HarperCollins, 1991), and Global Responsibility, to which reference has already been made.

 

Notes:

1. The Observer, 9 November 1997, p. 19, referring to UK Religious Trends (Christian Research/Paternoster Press, 1997).

2. Bede Griffiths, A New Vision of Reality (Collins, 1989), p.9.

3. Doctrine in the Church of England (SPCK, 1938), pp. 37-39.

4. Stanley Samartha, One Christ. Many Religions (Orbis, 1991), p.4.

5. The English trans. from the Greek is by Mary Rogers. The poem was quoted by Fr Murray Rogers in ‘My Gift From Hindu Friends’, in World Faiths, no. 99 (summer, 1976, p.20).

6 Quoted in Theologizing in India (1981).

7. Quoted from Harijan by Bede Griffiths, in Christian Ashram (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966), p. 127.

8. T. Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Sheldon Press, 1977), p. 58.

9. T. Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (Sheldon Press, 1974), p. 329.

10. Paul Knitter, One Earth, Many Religions (Orbis, 1995), p. 21.

11. Quoted by Gary MacEoin, The People’s Church (Crossroad Publishing, 1996), p. 23.

12. Ibid. p.25.

13. See above p. 220.

14. A Global Ethic, eds. Küng and Kuschel, p. 25.

15. Ibid. p. 28.

16. Yes to a Global Ethic, ed. Hans Küng (SCM Press, 1996), pp. 158-59.

17. Ibid. p. 129.

18. Küng and Kuschel, A Global Ethic, p. 26.

19. Küng, Yes to a Global Ethic, p. 130.

20. Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace (HarperCollins, 1993), p. 117.

21. Ibid. p. 133.

22. Ibid. p. 119.

23. Doctrine in the Church of England (SPCK, 1938), p. 36 (Slightly altered to avoid sexist language!).

24. George Appleton, Jerusalem Prayers (SPCK, 1974), p. 77.

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