Wembley Downs Uniting Church
The Menu is not the Meal (Revd Neville Watson) 23.11.2008
In our quest for a contemporary faith I have spoken about God and I have spoken about Jesus. I have suggested that we should cease using language and metaphors of the first century. Expressions like 'heavenly father' may have been appropriate in a patriarchal society when the earth was understood to be flat with heaven above and hell below. They are inappropriate today. Much better to use phrases like 'Spirit of Life' and 'Breath of Life'.
I suggested too that instead of seeing Jesus as an extra terrestrial being on a work visa from another planet, we should see him in terms of what it means to be a human being. 'To be or not to be' really is the question! We spend our lives conjugating the verbs 'to have' and 'to do'. But there is a prior concern. It is 'to be', and from this the having and the doing proceed. If God is the evolutionary impulse inviting us to fullness of life, Jesus is the one who shows us what fullness of life is about.'
We have spoken about God and about Jesus in contemporary terms. Today we recognise that this in itself is not enough. 'The menu is not the meal'. It helps if the menu makes sense when you read it, but the menu is not the meal. The purpose of the menu is to facilitate the experience of the meal. The reason for going into a cafe is not to read the menu but to experience for yourself what is on the menu. The menu is not the meal. It needs to be experienced.
This is what people like Bishop Spong have been on about for many years. I am no great fan of Bishop Spong. He spends too much of his time tearing up menus. But give him his due, he does point up the importance of eating the meal. In his latest book, most of the chapters consist of demolishing traditional menus and it is only in the last chapter that he gets to the point. 'The reality of God can never be defined. It can only be experienced. . . ‘God was in Christ’ is not a doctrine that leads to theories of incarnation and trinity; it is an acclamation of a presence that leads to a wholeness, a new creation, a new humanity, and a new manner of living. 'In the last page he builds to a crescendo. 'God is about living, about loving, and about being… a call to be fully human… Christianity is dying… The God experience in Jesus – that experience on which Christianity was built - is newly dawning'. Pity he left it to the last page to say it!
Monica Furlong said much the same thing many years ago 'People have stopped experiencing the faith. It has become an abstract intellectual concept'. John V. Taylor is, however, the one who speaks to me in this area of experiencing God. He maintains that there are occasions in life that are 'charged with intensity', times when we become alive to the reality of ourselves, and others, and to the world itself, times which I would describe as 'God! It’s good to be alive!' moments. I’ve mentioned before, coming down Red Hill into a glorious sunset and actually saying aloud: 'God! It’s good to be alive'. One becomes aware of a current of communication between the event and one’s self that is extra ordinary. The Spirit of Life communicates with us. We know in our innermost being the Breath of Life. We breathe deeply.
The doors of perception are opened. Evelyn Underhill speaks of it in terms of 'eyes' and 'no eyes'; Arthur Koestler in terms of humour when one plane of thought intersects another and there is an explosion of recognition. And there really is nothing more powerful, or more revolutionary than a newly recognised idea, or a situation seen in a new way. It is the lighting up of awareness, seeing the situation in a new way, coming alive to the Spirit of Life: Moses and the burning bush, Alexander Fleming and his penicillin, Martin Luther King in the kitchen. With me it was being offered a small scone by an Indian peasant knowing that it constituted half his food for the day. And again, sitting before an open window in Baghdad watching the bombs fall and knowing it was the right place to be. These are, of course, experiences which will mean little to you. Everyone’s experience of God is different. We have unique experiences because each of us is unique. It is so important to recognise that your experiences will mean as little to me as mine will to you. But each of us has them - occasions when we commune with life itself, when we become aware of the evolutionary impulse of life calling us to fullness of life. We become present to the presence of God, the presence of Christ, the potential and possibility of life in all its fullness. As Taylor says, the Christian faith is: 'being fully exposed and receptive towards the reality of the world around us, towards the reality of the human beings we know, towards the reality of our own selves, towards the ultimate reality beyond and within all this.'
And, in the context of this awareness, we can respond or not respond, we can move towards more significant life or away from it – we can either progress or regress. To reject the invitation to life is what the bible refers to as sin, what Tillich refers to as 'the structure of self destruction. Sin is the rejection of the invitation to fullness of life. This is why sin and death are linked so often in the Bible. It is a matter of life and death. 'What matters to God is whether we are alive or not'. It really is a matter of life and death – and there is a frightening amount of deadness around us today! God, the evolutionary impulse of life invites us to fullness of life. We can accept it or reject it. In the words of the Old Testament: 'I set before you life and death. Choose life'. In the words of Jesus 'I have come that you might have life in all its fullness.'
What I am asserting is that it is the God experience in Jesus that lies at the heart of our faith. And that after all is why most of us are here today. Think about it for a moment. What is the motivating force that brings you into the community of the Church: intellectual belief or sensate experience - recognising, of course, that you cannot really separate the two . I can only speak for myself. I am not here to learn the doctrines, duties and privileges of the Uniting Church. It is because I have sensed the presence of God in life and want to take it further. The reason why people come to worship is to engage with, and to further, their experience of the sacred. Experiencing God is the name of the game – recognising again that everyone’s experience of God is, and must be, different. Is this idea of experiencing God found within the traditional narrative of the Christian faith? Very much so! Indeed, the New Testament story of Jesus can be read as that of a person who experienced God to the extent that it became the central reality of his life. The bible is full of stories of people experiencing God. Abraham and his vision of the future, Moses and his bush aflame with divine radiance, Isaiah describing it in terms of a burning coal touching his lips, Jesus seeing the heavens open and the Spirit descending. On Mt Tabor Jesus experiences the past and the future in relation to God. Pentecost seeks to portray it with its mighty rushing wind and its fire – both symbols of the presence of God. It goes on and on and on! As Marcus Borg says 'For Jesus, God was not simply an article of belief but an experienced reality.' Borg uses the word 'mystic' to describe Jesus. A mystic is one who experiences God, who moves from an everyday consciousness to an extra-ordinary state of consciousness, one who realises that the menu is not the meal, that the partaking of the meal is all important, that there is all the difference in the world between knowing about God and knowing God. The menu is not the meal. It is the experience of the eating of a meal that sustains life in all its fullness.
And what I find exciting is the growing acceptance of this today, that the Christian faith is not something to be believed in but to be experienced in life itself. This is in no small part due to the atheistic writers who have so ferociously attacked fundamentalism. The current wave of atheistic writers like Dawkins, and Harris, and Onfray and Hitchens and their fundamentalist adversaries will likely argue forever. I find Dawkins and co as fundamentalist as those they oppose. As Richard Eckersly pointed out some time ago, Dawkins pits the best of science against the worst of religion. The picture would be very different if the worst of science was pitted against the best of religion. What the atheistic writers do is to attack an outdated idea of God, an idea which in Wilber’s and Sanguin’s book we 'include and transcend' in the developing spiral of life. What the atheistic writers fail to do is to deal with awareness, consciousness, and experience – call it what you will! To be alive is miracle enough. To be conscious of being alive is even more so. To be conscious of being conscious takes it a step further.
Charles Birch, one of the patron saints of Australian science, comes close to it when he says that to deal with the subjective side of life you have to be a philosopher of sorts. He freely admits that for him the most important thing are his feelings: the feelings he had in the past, the feelings he has now and the feelings he has anticipating the future. You may remember that John Stuart Mill said something the same in his autobiography that 'the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings'.
I am not unaware of course of the importance of belief, of getting one’s ideas clear and rational. But that is not the aim and end of the Christian faith. That is the menu. The aim and the end is to sit at the table and experience the meal. I am mindful too of how easily this truth can be distorted into emotional excess and crazy theology. The mega churches preach a prosperity gospel and engage in all kinds of weird and wonderful practices in the name of the Christian faith. Without one’s theology being sound you can even end up promoting violence in the name of the one who was non violent. If we don’t get our theology straight we can end up endorsing both the actions and the execution of the Bali bombers.
What am I in essence saying this morning? It is that, notwithstanding its many perversions, experiencing the faith is the name of the game. Sure we need a menu, a menu we can understand, but the menu has no significance in itself. Its purpose is to help us enjoy the experience of the meal.
One quick question to conclude. How do you identify an authentic experience of God? My quick answer would be to see if it lines up with that which we see in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is and remains for me an expression of fullness of life. He is an authentic experience of the evolutionary impulse of life inviting us to fullness of life. As Taylor says: the most theologically mature pronouncement about him in the New Testament is in the words in the first chapter of John’s gospel. 'In him was life'. It is the most one could say of anyone. May it be so for all of us.
Charles Birch last year wrote a book entitled 'Science and Soul '. In his book Birch refers to Harry Emerson Fosdick the great preacher of the 1920s. Fifty years ago, I heard a recording of one of his sermons and I can still hear the tone of his voice ringing in my ears. He was telling the story of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the twelve liner resolving ' that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from earth'. The editor of a newspaper in nearby Harrisburg heard the address and wrote in his paper: ' We pass over the remarks of the President and are willing that the veil of oblivion be dropped over them.' And to this day I can hear Harry Emerson Fosdick’s high pitched voice. 'The fool, the stupid fool! He stood in the presence of greatness and he disbelieved'.
I pray to God it might not be so with us today!
130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882
Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands, Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands