Going to hell

There is an episode in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn where Huck is deeply uncertain if he should tell Miss Watson where her runaway slave Jim is located. His uncertainty is magically overcome when he realizes that the ‘plain hand of God’ requires that he turn Jim in. Everything he has learned in Sunday School, everything his mother drummed into him, points in that direction. He writes the letter of betrayal to Miss Watson, feels all clean and pure, and is able to pray. But then he thinks some more, thinks of his love for Jim and the laughter they have had together. He finally tears up the letter, says no to god, and declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”[i]

Welcome to hell! When your passion and commitment to justice, to doing what is right, leads you beyond the conventions of society and religion it won’t be long before someone damns you to hell. When you get to that place, be assured you’re not alone.

Sometimes in life we come to a chasm. Behind us is all we have known, including god, mother, and morality. Ahead of us is the unknown: godless, motherless, and immoral. And breathing deeply, letting the visionary within us feel, the fool within us act, saying no to fear and yes to courage, we jump...

[i] Adapted from Hamilton, W. A Quest For The Post-Historical Jesus London : SCM, 193, p.15.


Is God only manifested in a male Jesus?

My understanding of Jesus being 'paramount expression of God' is at odds with those who would have no problem saying 'God is Jesus'. Jesus life might have offered a definition of Love/God but it didn’t limit it or constrict it. His life didn’t fence Love in, although some would dearly have liked it to. Saying ‘God is Jesus’ can be understood as limiting the vast, boundless, mysterious, energy of Love that courses through the universe and beyond to one man, in one place, at one time in history with all his particular male Jewish 1st century prejudices intact. This understanding shackles God to the texts and understandings of a period in time.

I can believe that after Jesus’ death the Love that flowed through him co-mingled with that great universal source of Love, and still does. I can understand too how the Church used pictorial anthropomorphic kingly language – ‘forever sitting at the right hand of God’ – to describe this mingling of love. I can understand it, but I wish they hadn’t.

I don’t think however that the limitless Love called God is solely manifested in Jesus. Surely the whole notion of sacred or holy Spirit is saying that the seeds of divinity are thriving within many people, including many who would not call themselves Christian. When the author of the 4th Gospel talks about the Spirit leading us into all truth, I understand that as an unshackling of God out of the cultural particularity of any person, age, gender, sexual orientation, knowledge, and politics and allow that transformative Love to re-emerge, to incarnate, in every time, culture, gender, orientation, and circumstance. Even to incarnate in non-human form.

In the 1980s Rosemary Radford Ruether asked a great unshackling question: “Can a male saviour save women?” Rosemary’s contemporary, Mary Daly, put it more provocatively: ‘If God is male, male is God’. For those who wish to eternally elevate, or beget, a 1st century male into the heart of God, is there any space for women? If the Godhead is masculine then those who worship will elevate the masculine, preferring even oppressive male leadership to female alternatives. If the Godhead is masculine it also becomes oppressive for all who don’t fit masculine hierarchical categories, including many men.

The transformative Love called God is not only known in the male Jesus. God is bigger than that. Love of course is manifest in women too, and a great many others beside. If we allow Love to be only sculptured by the words and actions of men, then the Love that is good news for all genders becomes distorted and misshapen. If Love is locked into the historical Jesus there is little liberation for any one who wants change.

The divinity of Jesus depends on your definition of divine. If you wish to consider Jesus as more than human – and therefore non-human - transforming him into a cosmic superman in the sky, then there are considerable flow-on effects including monotheistic integrity, solidarity with humanity, and the gender/culture of God. If however you understand the divine as transformative Love that is both transcendent and immanent, and Jesus’ life and actions as paramount expression of that Love - but not the boundaries of that Love - then Jesus is not more or less human than anyone else, God is not a Palestinian 1st century male, and we have the seeds of divinity within us.


seeds of divinity within us

It is difficult to contemplate how Jesus is both God and human. How can a human being be the Supreme Being of the universe? How can that human God suffer? Some theological contortionists posit that Super Jesus voluntarily gave up his ability to feel no pain and command angelic armies to identify with us mere mortals. But any one who has a choice to end their torture and doesn’t is either masochistic or deranged. My reading of the Gospel story is that Jesus was not a self-flagellating saviour.

If however you begin the Jesus/divinity discussion like I do with a working definition of God as boundless and transformative Love the shape of the conversation changes. Instead of thinking about how Jesus could be a divine Supreme Being and a man, we can think about how the immense power and potential of transformative Love could be so prevalent in a person’s life that it defines that life. Athanasius had the Creator [Father] as eternally begetting, and the Son [Jesus] as eternally being begotten. One was the Source and one was the Expression. Cannot we think of transformative Love being source and its manifestation in Jesus being an expression?

I believe that in every person are seeds of that divine transforming Love. Some people water and nourish those seeds, and some don’t. Some people live out the results of that nourishing by loving and giving, generously and unreservedly. And some don’t.

There are plenty of seeds, wind blown or planted, that come into the gardens of our lives. There are seeds of greed, violence, and selfishness. There are seeds of kindness, hospitality, and justice. We have choices about which ones we water and which ones we don’t, which ones we weed out and which ones we fertilise.

The divine Love seeds are somewhat different from other seeds. They not only take water and nutrients, but they also give to the garden – enriching the soil, supporting other emergent plants, and perfuming the whole environment. Love is cultivated by the garden, and the garden by Love.

I think divine Love not only shone out of Jesus by his words and actions, but also was so powerful that his followers would later say something like: ‘When we saw Jesus we saw God, when we experienced Jesus we experienced God’. Transformative Love was so prevalent in his life that it defined his life and his life came to define Love. Not only was Jesus a billboard pointing to God, the very billboard was as if God was here appointing you and me. Still today Christians, me included, use the words and actions of Jesus to shape our definition of the very nature and essence of God. In this sense Jesus is unique.


Divinity - Athanasius and Arius

Occasionally I am quizzed about whether I believe in the divinity of Jesus. It’s one of the tests of orthodoxy and some are keen to prove that I am outside its bounds.

There is a great history associated with this debate, not least the theological turf war between Athanasius and Arius in the 4th century. Athanasius, that fiery bishop of Alexandria, was of the view that Jesus had eternally existed and was both God and human. A lowly Palestinian carpenter, Jesus, was not only elevated into the heart of the mystery and magnificence of God, but also had always been there. God was not upper class, or class-less, but of the peasantry. This was highly contentious and revolutionary in a class-ridden society. The emperors, when they figured out the political ramifications, were not pleased and regularly banished Athanasius.

Arius on the other hand was concerned about preserving monotheism. He believed that Athanasian theology led to two Gods: the Father and Jesus. Further, deification politically removed Jesus from any meaningful identification and suffering with humans. The placing of a heavenly crown on his head beamed Jesus away from earthly solidarity. Jesus would be a chaplain to kings not a champion for the poor. In this Arius’ foresight would prove to be right.

In time Athanasius won, and we have the dubious legacy of the Nicene Creed. Unfortunately however the potential of Athanasius’s theology to bring down the mighty from their thrones, to relativize their power, and to lift up the lowly and meek was not realized. If the proof of the theological pudding is in how effectively it feeds the poor, we may have been better off with Arius.


The Oak In Aotearoa - part 2

The Anglican Church Mission Society [CMS] egalitarian tendencies in turn gave rise to social concern and justice. One can think of William Wilberforce, for example, who was a great influence on Marsden. Wilberforce’s concerns included slavery of course, but also the treatment of animals, the literacy of children, and the control of vice. The concern for social justice in the 19th century was expressed in a very paternalist ‘we know best’ way. However that concern in time gave birth to the social work agencies of today, like our neighbour the City Mission, and the justice-centred political stances of our Church, as evidenced in the Hikoi of Hope and anti-tour movements.

New Zealand spirituality has long known, almost instinctively, the difference between power and wisdom. Whether someone was a Prime Minister, a Bishop, or a local Minister, their position of power did not make them wise. It was rather what they did and said. We expect of our leaders people who can understand us, regardless of their intellectual or business acumen. We expect too our spiritual leaders to be forthright in defending the vulnerable and criticising the powerful. Politics and religion have always mixed, but thankfully not always smoothly.

George Augustus Selwyn arrived here in 1842 having been consecrated the year before at Lambeth as Bishop of New Zealand. Like Marsden he brought enthusiasm, prodigious energy, versatility, and organisational nous to the task. His first visitation was characteristic. In six months Selwyn visited every settlement and mission station in the North Island; and he traveled 3,664 kilometres -1,900 by ship, 400 in canoes, 134 on horseback and 1,226 on foot. He spread the English broad-church notion that the Church was there for everyone; it was not just a club for the religiously minded.

Like the CMS Selwyn valued the participation of the laity, and their financial support. When the first constitution was drafted in 1857 it radically gave the lay representatives the same voting rights as the clergy. Similarly too to the CMS Selwyn had a paternal evangelistic and social concern towards Maori. He was critical of the Government’s land policy, and this infuriated many European settlers. His inclusive educational vision at St John’s, giving equal opportunity of education and spiritual nourishment to settler as well as to Maori, also provoked many settlers and even clergy to be quite hostile.

Selwyn was of the English broad-church tradition and not an evangelical. He introduced clergy to the country who represented a wide range of churchmanship. Though there were some fierce arguments, especially with the CMS, Selwyn didn’t seem to be threatened by difference. Amongst the clergy were men like Frederick Thatcher, John Kinder, and Arthur Purchas. The beauty of neo-Gothic architecture as seen in the Selwyn Churches and surrounding us here in St Matthew’s, and the sublime music of the English choral tradition were introduced. Painting, photography, poetry, medicine, geology… all were manifestations of the glory of God.

The spiritual gift is an appreciation of beauty wherever it is to be found. Whether it is architecture, music, movement, or poetry, our English heritage inspires us. It also challenges us to go on creating beauty in our worship, buildings, music, and language. Today that appreciation extends eclectically across our numerous cultures and art forms. Part of this gift of appreciation is realizing too that all learning is an opportunity to excite the soul with wonder and mystery.

The oak in Aotearoa, English Anglican spirituality in this land, is very different from England. A spiritual visit to the Church of England while initially inspiring with the architecture and music can soon deteriorate when confronted with the liturgy, elitism, and theological blindness one can easily find. The English people of course are wonderful; it is just that their past sometimes seems more a burden than a blessing, an encouragement to stagnate rather than be creative.

A spiritual visit also can awaken in us fresh appreciation of the gifts our English forbears in the faith bequeathed. They helped found a church that values beauty, imagination, and innovation; a church that delights in finding ways around problems – ways that include rather than exclude difference; a church that stands up to the powerful and criticizes them; a church that is broad; and that is at its best there for everyone – not just those for the morally and religiously sanctioned.

The oak stands beside the pohutukawa proudly on our soil, and justly so.


The Oak In Aotearoa - part 1

Outside the rear of St Matthew’s are two trees, an oak and a pohutukawa, symbolising the two spiritual traditions, English and Maori, which continue to influence us.

The English Anglican spiritual tradition came to this land in the 1800s. For those early missionaries it wasn’t a matter of trying to replicate the Church of England in these green and pleasant lands. They sought instead to create something new and better than England, and dare I say they succeeded.

When the Revd Samuel Marsden, through the interpretation of Ruatara, first preached in Aotearoa on December 25th 1814 he knowingly, and unknowingly, brought gifts.

Marsden was an evangelical. He believed that by introducing Maori to the Bible and Prayerbook in their own language he would introduce them to God. Evangelicals believe in the power of the written word, and therefore put great store on literacy and translation.

The gift of literacy opens up for us the worlds of others’ imagination and reasoning. It is still, despite the dominance of visual media, the key to unlocking the boundaries of parochialism. Spiritually literacy can take us beyond ourselves, opening possibilities, challenging assumptions, and plunging us into the limitless God.

In the best of the evangelical tradition there is a touch of anarchy. If you give someone a Bible and say ‘discover God for yourself’, you are relinquishing control. The Church of England, like the State to which it is wedded, has been historically concerned about control. God was kept on a tight leash, only to be addressed by the theologically certified and episcopally approved. The Church Missionary Society [CMS], who backed Marsden’s venture, often kept the leash slack - except in moral matters. Allied to this disregard for rigidity, dislike of bureaucracy, and ambivalence about control, the evangelicals valued the participation of laity and clergy, women and men. The CMS had egalitarian tendencies.

The Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand is today highly participatory, democratic, and innovative compared with Mother England. Partly this is due to the CMS influence, partly to Bishop Selwyn and his visionary model for the Church of England that he constructed here, and partly it is due to the many women and men, Maori and Pakeha, who have guided our Church since. Our theology, liturgy, and governance have been shaped not just by the traditions of old, but by what worked for us, what made sense to us, and what justice demanded of us. Is it any surprise therefore that New Zealand was one of the leaders in the quest for the ordination of women to the priesthood?

This spiritual gift I am talking about could be symbolised with a piece of number eight fencing wire. It is the kiwi ‘can do’ attitude. We make things happen, even if the imported components are faulty. What we care about is community, about helping our neighbours, and giving each other a fair go. If transplanted religion doesn’t quite fit with our cares, we modify the religion not our cares. We change the rules to fit the people rather than change the people to fit the rules. We value ‘what works’ rather than ‘what’s always been done’.


Mana and Manaakitanga

It is a mistake to assume that spirituality is a sort of holy exercise that one does on Sundays disconnected from the rest of the week and the rest of life. In Maori spirituality, as in the best of the English tradition, spirituality is the holy art of weaving the connections between community and individuals, play and work, the happy and the hapless, the sacred and the secular.

There is a saying that Maori don’t meet to worship but worship when they meet. Although it is very much a generalisation, it points to the understanding of Wairua Tapu, the sacred spirit, permeating all of life. So when a meeting is about to start – whether it be on a marae, a school, or in home, or place of work – it begins with prayer. The karakia acknowledges that in all we do the spiritual is present. It acknowledges too that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

One of the most well known Maori proverbs is ‘He aha te mea nui? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.’ ‘What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.’ It goes to the heart of Maori understandings of community. The purpose and priority is the good of the people. The English notion therefore of striving for individual excellence and personal fulfilment is tempered by the Maori notion that the purpose of such excellence and fulfilment is to serve the needs of the community.

Regarding Mana. Earlier I interpreted it as ‘spiritual power’. It means a lot more than that, but there is no simple English translation. It includes self-worth, self-respect, status and identity.

The spiritual work of community is to build one another’s mana. The purpose say of a Church community, like us, is to build each individual’s mana. When arguments arise and hurts are voiced, the task of us all is to find solutions that build the mana of the other. Mana is more important than personal prestige and aggrandizement. As the proverb says, ‘waiho ma te tangata e mihi’ ‘Let someone else acknowledge your virtues.’ Let us be that someone else to one another.

Manaakitanga is the exercise of hospitality. It is symbolically enacted at every powhiri [welcoming ceremony]. The karanga [call], like the korero [speeches] that follow, acknowledge firstly the dead. The dead are part of the living, and shape us. By ritually respecting them and not ignoring them, we draw out their goodwill and remove the poison from any bad memories.
The korero acknowledges the whakapapa [genealogy], that is the linkages between past and present, between the hosts and the guests, and the simple truth pressing noses], and kai [food] follow. Music, physical touch, and the sharing of food are all spiritual tools for the building of community.

The poet James K. Baxter, once penned the following words about the discipline, difficulty and calling of hospitality [Manaakitanga]:

Feed the hungry;
Give drink to the thirsty;
Give clothes to those who lack them;
Give hospitality to strangers;
Look after the sick;
Bail people out of jail, visit them in jail, and look after them when they come out;
Go to neighbours funerals;
Tell other ignorant people what you in your ignorance think you know;
Help the doubtful clarify their minds and make their own decisions;
Console the sad;
Reprove sinners, but gently, my friends, gently;
Forgive what seems to be harm done to yourself;
Put up with difficult people;
Pray for whatever has life, including the spirits of the dead.