I am the river and the river is in me

One of the interesting things about sitting in international conferences is realising you know more than one spiritual language. My spirituality has not only been shaped by the English Anglican tradition and its evolving manifestations but also by Maori understandings of life and faith. Often in international debates those of us thus schooled see issues with a ‘double vision’.

Outside the rear of St Matthew’s Church are two large trees – an English oak and a native Pohutukawa. Our environment nurtures the trees, and the trees in turn nurture others. Both trees also influence, shade and protect each other. English and Maori spiritualities are like those two trees. We have learnt and are learning to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of both ‘trees’; and being patient when they brush up against one another.

I want to name some of the aspects of Maori spirituality that have shaped and influenced me. In doing so I am interpreting aspects of a spiritual tradition that is essentially not my own. So I do it tentatively, conscious that it is my interpretation and not definitive.

English spirituality usually begins with the individual and then expands out to encompass family, then community, and then environment. Maori spirituality works the other way round. It begins with the land, then the community and family, and lastly with the individual within it.

The word for land is whenua. It is also the word for afterbirth. Traditionally your placenta was buried in the land belonging to your tribe. This land is an individual’s turangawaewae - one’s place to stand. It is the basis of one’s mana or spiritual power. The intimacy with the land is also expressed in its mythical name: Papatuanuku, earth mother.

Depending on the location of a particular tribe this intimacy with the land can also be expressed in terms of connection with a mountain or river. The people along the Whanganui River, for example, talk of their interdependence with the river in a proverb, “I am the river, and the river is in me.”

Unlike the common notion that land belongs to people, Maori understand people as belonging to the land. The idea of selling or polluting one’s ancestral land has therefore the same appeal as selling or polluting one’s mother. The materialist approach to land of ‘take, use, and go’, is countered by the spiritual approach of ‘give, nurture, and stay’. When a tribe has given land, for example when Ngati Whatua gifted nearly half the Auckland isthmus to Governor Hobson and the settlers, it is for the purpose of building relationship, for the good of both donor and recipient.

Maori spirituality is therefore, first and foremost, rooted in an intimate connection with the land and environment. It gives rise to an ethic of treating the earth and all that is sustained by her, gently and with respect. It is a mistake therefore to assume that the loss of land, as has happened repeatedly through the processes of colonization and neo-colonization, is primarily an economic loss. It is a spiritual loss.


Unlocking the Bible

The other Anglican keys for unlocking the Bible are 'reason' and 'community'.

The rational-historical- scientific method is not an enemy of religion. Indeed it opens up for us many of the wonders of life and the universe. We are born with the capacity to think. Faith does not require us to switch off that capacity – even when it leads us to doubt our understandings of God.

A number of letters I received in opposition to my public sermon on Mary described Christianity as akin to a CD of indisputable truths. God had posted this CD from heaven. Our task is to load the disk and run it – but not to doubt the programme, try to rewrite it, or to question its source.

Contrary to this, I think that belief needs to resonate with our experience of life and spirituality; it needs to reasonably resonate, affirming but also challenging; and it needs to be publicly and corporately weighed and deliberated upon. Just because a 3rd century Church council proclaimed a belief and gave it the divine stamp of approval doesn’t mean that a 21st century critical reading of the Bible texts has to or does agree with that belief; nor that scientific advances in two millennia doesn’t negate many of the suppositions surrounding that belief; nor that that belief resonates with community of people committed to the propagation of transformational love [the community that I would call the Church].

The last interpretative key is the community. Traditionally this has been called the Church, and it has expressed its opinion through councils, synods and bishops. I though am somewhat wary of limiting the community’s interpretation of God to groups of predominantly old, European men. The experience of God is the experience too of the young, middle-aged, the poor, women, and the marginalized. It is also the experience of people who don’t think of themselves as particularly Christian or religious. This is why public discourse is vital to the health of religion. Just because the papers are full of letters from people believing in a cosmic superman doesn’t mean that the public concur. Every day I am talking with new and unique visitors about God, and every day I am hearing that God as being, God as transformational love, connects more with their understandings and experience than a supreme being ever has.

Of course want Dean Randerson and me out of the Church. They don’t want anyone to challenge the smallness and irrelevancy of their God. And, in part, that’s why we stay.


Password: Jesus

Right from the beginning Jesus was too powerful to fit comfortably into literary and religious constraints. It is no accident that four different and at times conflicting accounts of Jesus where incorporated into the canon of scripture. It is no accident that at various times in the Church’s history, when it has become bogged down with its own importance, power and piety, a small group of people, claiming inspiration from Jesus, have broken free.

A Christian needs to breathe in the stories and spirit of Jesus. She or he needs to let those stories radically affect how they view the world. When one group is proclaiming they are right and others are wrong, the Christian needs to think about Jesus - who usually took the unpopular position of leaving the game to stand with the marginalized. When one group is saying they have the truth, or the correct interpretation of God, then the Christian needs to remember Jesus who was usually highly critical of people who thought they had a monopoly on God.

Every Sunday in our worship we symbolically place great value on hearing the Gospel read. It is the Jesus story that is our interpretative key for understanding all the other writings of the Bible. If a text doesn’t measure up to the Jesus standard, then it’s not worth listening to.

We need to understand though that Jesus wasn’t faultless. He made mistakes – like when he ridiculed the Syro-Phoenician woman. His views were shaped by his context: male, Jewish, first century, Palestine. He would have been appalled to think that people would spend centuries after his death worshipping his literal words, as if words from the past have a sacredness devoid of context. He would though have been pleased to think that people would interpret his message of radical, inclusive, forgiving and self-giving love into their own time and day, and live it.

Jesus was an unrepentant iconoclast – smashing oppressive images of God. I think it is much more faithful for us to follow in his questioning, challenging, and confrontational tradition – even when we are in conflict with individual texts of scripture – than to try to replicate his worldview, moral code, and theological givens. We are called to be Jesus’ disciples, not his imitators.


Religious Experience and Sacred Writings

Religious experience of course is as diverse as humanity. We are each shaped by our experience. As a 14 year old, for example, I remember feeling overawed and giving myself to that awe as I invited a Jesus-shaped God into my life. Of course God, that power of love, was already there; only I didn’t know it at the time.

It was a mystical experience. Friends encountered God similarly. Powerful feelings, circumstantial oddities, potent dreams, strange plays of light and sound, goose-bumpy tingles… all of which pointed to the wonder of something bigger than ourselves which was not to be feared but was a mystery that held us and strangely loved us.

It is not difficult to find books or conversations of people having similar numinous experiences. These experiences are not limited to Christians, much to the angst of some! Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, even agnostics, also experience the numinous – although they usually use a different vocabulary to express it.

To base one’s theology on these feelings can by vacuous. There are no theological tools or ethical direction offered automatically with religious experience. One needs to turn to other sources for that.

Some start to build their understanding of God by turning to sacred writings; in particular Christians turn to the Bible. To accompany my numinous experience as a 14 year old I was given a Bible and told to read and memorise it - which I did. I can still quote large portions of it off by heart. The premise was that if one knew the Bible, it would provide both theological construct and ethical direction.

I loved the Bible, and still do. I have read it repeatedly most days in the last 33 years. However the initial appeal in time wears off, unless one goes deeper, and then deeper again. To fail to bring all our whole self, including our critical and academic faculties, to our reading is to not take the Bible seriously. It makes me mad, for example, when a Christian minister insists on interpreting Paul’s writings about homosexuality as condemnatory of mutual same-sex relationships today, when the context and focus of most of Paul’s comments concern pederasty. Similarly it makes me mad when the Bible is used to support male hegemony, or anti-Semitism.

All sacred writings, including the Bible, are written by people. The authors are people with foibles, as well as insights. Communities and individuals have for centuries edited out the bits they don’t like, but thankfully have not sanitised it too much. Wisdom as well as folly are both present in the Bible.

Just because sacred writings are old does not mean they are right. Just because church councils have said they are inspired by God does not make them free from error or relevant to our world today. The Bible in the hands of a 14-year-old literalist can offer a map for inflicting pious condemnation, heterosexism, male chauvinism, slavery, and bigotry. And plenty have followed those paths.

We need interpretative keys into order to unlock the Bible and creatively find our way further into the mystery called God. Anglican Christianity offers three: Jesus, reason, and community.


Expelling the Cosmic Superman

Well, it's been a long and lovely summer here in New Zealand. Lucky has been at the beach, doing his thing, chilling out and all that.

While Lucky has been playing the Auckland press has been having a go at our assistant bishop and dean, Richard Randerson. It is both sad and surprising that many of the writers submitting letters to the paper have little understanding of Christianity’s God. Dean Richard’s critique of a Supreme Being with anthropomorphic attributes has led to cries for his resignation.

I find theologian John Macquarie’s distinction between ‘God as a being’ and ‘God as being’ helpful. ‘God as a being’ reduces God to some sort of cosmic superman, with the power to control, create, love, etc. ‘God as being’ however points to the understanding of God as a transformational love energy that infuses our world.

The superman idea, which admittedly can be easily supposed from the traditional metaphors of ‘almighty’, ‘father’, and ‘lord’, is essentially idolatry. It makes God into our creation. It is about fitting God into our moulds, and keeping God there. It is a small God.

In the Bible this moulding of God repeatedly happens, and repeatedly the spirit of transformational love iconoclastically breaks those moulds. God is bigger than anthropomorphic constructs. It is easy to read the Bible and collect all the references to prove that supergod exists. It is also not that difficult to read the Bible and find the ongoing iconoclastic tradition. We need to expel the cosmic superman back to the Krypton of our needy imagination.