Wednesday, May 15, 2013
I've just got two problems with this line of thinking:
Firstly, I think that the process of finding effective ways to talk about God in your own culture is the primary task of theology. God cannot be trapped in traditions, in words and phrases, no matter how much we have venerated them. God doesn't need to be guarded or protected. Furthermore, when we try and limit God's self-revelation to culturally and historically confined expressions of someone else's faith, we risk missing what the Spirit is doing now because we've created an idol of orthodoxy.
Secondly, any student of history and theology knows that this reinterpretive process has been happening for millennia. For Christians, it starts with the Bible, which witnesses repeatedly to the creative reimagining of theological themes in different historical periods and across a variety of cultural contexts. Such revisioning inevitably happens in translation to different languages and as each language develops (anyone noticed that few people speak in Shakespearean English anymore?). Even in relatively new religious expressions such as The Salvation Army, we've already had multiple versions of the Handbook of Doctrine trying to explain our faith to new generations - and there were several versions of these doctrines in our early history. There has never been a perfect point in time, in which theological concepts reached an objective expression that will last for all time and which can be applied without modification to all cultures.
Does this mean that everything's up for grabs? No, it doesn't. Being faithful to a tradition means that we should look back and understand those who have gone before us and why they expressed their beliefs in the ways that they did. Every theologian needs to find that space, between heresy and the idolatry of doctrine, which allows them to communicate the gospel effectively to those around them and in faithfulness to those who have gone before. To help with that task, we have three important guides: an incredibly rich historical and theological tradition, the community of faith in which we exist and the Spirit that inspires us to articulate anew those things which matter most. It's not an easy task, however, it's the only way forward because for the Church to simply try and defend the past is not only naive but a recipe for demise.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
For many people today, I suspect that holiness is a word that belongs to a previous generation, a concept too easily relegated to history. The powerful witness of the holiness movement in the mid 19th century made an indelible stamp on the character and methods of the early Salvation Army, but can that particular brand of holiness simply be revived today in widely varying social and cultural contexts? Certainly there are identifiable dimensions of holiness that continue to speak to people today: humility, integrity, total commitment, generosity, compassion, grace, connection to the sacred. Yet, one might well wonder whether the word ‘holiness’ has become so loaded with historical meaning that the term itself becomes a barrier to seeing its continuing relevance?
In Salvation Army social programs, the implied connection between holiness and moral perfection can be experienced as instantly alienating and impossibly unachievable for many of the people who are connected to our services. The darker their personal history, the deeper their disadvantage, the greater their problems, the more unattainable this idea of personal holiness becomes and when failure is experienced (as it often is), the impact of guilt and further loss of self esteem is harder still. Even those with the greatest hope and optimism for our fellow human beings would have to wonder why we might set people up for such seemingly inevitable failure?
Yet, problematic though it may be, I believe that holiness cannot be either discarded or ignored. Our obligation is rooted in the command of Leviticus 19:2 ‘Be holy because I am holy’. The motivation for holiness is to be like God, to share God’s characteristics. As a Christian, for whom Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, to be like God is to be like Jesus and to act as Jesus acted – inclusively, compassionately, generously, in powerful ways that bring healing to people physically, socially and spiritually. It seems to me that this is the beginning of an understanding of holiness that can speak meaningfully into the context of our social services and can also be reconciled with our own life experiences.
Much of the way holiness has been interpreted in the past feeds off dualities – holy/profane, clean/unclean, sacred/secular. However, we need to be wary of becoming dualistic in our thinking. When we artificially split our existence into different realities, we sacrifice the wholeness which God intends for us. Holiness which is anti-flesh or anti-body isn’t reflective of the Hebrew tradition, in which Jesus was nurtured. Jesus was clearly critical of holiness interpretations in his day that emphasised ritual purity above the social relationships in which we all exist (the Pharisees and the community at Qumran are examples of this thinking). He is continually associated with the poor, the broken, sinners and unclean but refuses to buy into a worldview in which such associations are defiling. Jesus rejects a holiness of separation for an inclusive holiness of compassion. Furthermore, we see that Jesus’ holiness has transformative power – not that everyone who encountered Jesus magically became saints but through him they experienced liberation, cleansing or reconciliation according to their own needs.
It is on the pathway towards wholeness that we are reminded that the meaning of holiness is always contextual and therefore reflective of the kind of mission that we choose to engage in. When Jesus declares about Zaccheus that ‘today salvation has come to this house’, we can see beyond the one-off redemptive activities (repaying others) that Zaccheus’ life is now placed into a different ongoing context. Can he still retain his job as a tax collector? Perhaps, but if so he will be a tax collector with a new perspective and a very different practice.
The search for wholeness can be made all the more difficult in those circumstances that are by nature depressing, debilitating and which diminish our humanity. However, there is no situation in which God cannot break through. I once read the story of Jewish women who spent time wiping the mud and grime off the faces of their fellow inmates in a concentration camp because they believed deeply that we are all made in the image of God. Such activity clearly demonstrates that holiness can be found in those places and times where God is made present – even in the worst of situations. In this way, holy activity can be understood as sacramental in nature – it helps to reveal the unseen presence of God in the midst of the ordinariness of the world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us that the way to holiness is to rely on God, engage in mission in the world and stop trying to be a saint (that is to try and make something of oneself rather than allow God to do the work in us).
When we believe that God wants us to experience fullness of life, then our relationships will actively encourage the fulfilment of each person’s potential and we will work together to address those things that diminish our humanity- things like homelessness, violence, oppression and addictions.
NO HOLINESS BUT SOCIAL HOLINESS
There appears to be little doubt that individualism is currently rampant in our society. With a few notable exceptions, everyone seems to be mostly concerned about looking after themselves. We no longer know our neighbours like people used to just a few decades ago. Even families lack the strong bonds they once had. Too often it seems that life is all about ‘me and what’s mine’.
Whilst we’d like to think that the church is an exception to this pattern, there’s much of the same happening in our own ranks as well. A great deal of our theology has been about our personal relationship with God – how we get it right and how we keep it right. Personal holiness has been largely interpreted as an individual holiness. We maintain personal piety through prayer, reading the Bible, thinking holy thoughts and refraining from evil, all of which can be done in total solitude.
I think we need to regain an appreciation of the importance and relevance of holiness as a relational concept, which is the meaning of Wesley’s often quoted statement “there’s no holiness but social holiness”. Holiness is always relational before it is regulatory. It’s less about rules than it is about the way that we demonstrate care and concern for our neighbour. Jesus’ parable about The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is a perfect example because it explicitly critiques the holiness of the priest and the Levite, whose concern for their own purity has overridden their capacity to respond compassionately to the person in need. Major Elsa Oalang from the Phillipines says quite simply that “compassion is the overriding definitive characteristic of holiness”.
The story of the Good Samaritan also stretches our tribal boundaries so that none can be excluded from this social responsibility. If God is the God of the whole world, then our relationships must also be radically inclusive. The Samaritan redefines ‘stranger’ as ‘neighbour’. We can’t keep anyone at an arm’s length. If we understand love and compassion to be essential characteristics of the nature of God then our relationships cannot be bound by rules and regulations that restrict our capacity to demonstrate this.
It’s also perhaps helpful to remember the Christian understanding that God exists as Trinity. God is communal by nature. This speaks to the reality of our existence. Whether we like it or not, most of us live in communities and are part of intricate and extensive webs of relationship. However, in many cases these relationships are shallow and purpose-oriented. They exist because they meet our needs, whether they be professional or personal. Yet a social understanding of holiness calls us beyond our own personal needs to recognise the greater interdependence of the wider community. This particularly means that we need to seek out those who are more isolated and lacking community connections.
One of the things that I’ve learned in my experience of working with our social services is that social isolation can be awfully debilitating for people. In the absence of good social supports and genuine friendships, people’s health deteriorates, problematic drug and alcohol usage increases and mental illness is exacerbated. If we are to seek holiness, then we can’t ignore the plight of the lost, the lonely and those who have been socially marginalised in our communities. These are our neighbours, whom God calls us to befriend, to show compassion towards and to love generously.
For me talking about holiness in this way – as the search for wholeness in community – makes the subject not just something that I can grasp for myself, but, just as critically, something that I can share with others in my work and throughout my life.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Personally, I find the scientific framework, which can disprove a hypothesis but never absolutely prove something, rather compelling. It causes us to hold what we know to be true carefully, provisionally and with humility. It doesn't mean that we're never able to proclaim what we think we know. It also doesn't mean that everyone's understanding is as good as anyone else's. There are some things that we can know with greater certainty and others that we have to admit are our best guess based on the existing evidence.
It seems to me that this isn't a bad way to approach spirituality. Some religious views use the concept of absolute truth as a way of maintaining power, as something secure to hold on to. I can't help but think that this is a form of idolatry. Surely the only thing that's absolute, in a theological sense, is God? Our understanding of God and, even more, the ways in which we try to articulate that understanding are always incomplete, imperfect. At best, they act as a pointer to what we believe to be sacred.
This is ultimately true of even our most revered sources of revelation - the Bible, our Doctrines, the Salvation Army Songbook. All are human attempts to try and grasp the meaning of God and what a life dedicated to God should look like. They represent people's best understanding, in their own times and cultural contexts, of the truth available to them. They are written by people who were inspired by the Spirit of God and have been proven to have lasting impact because that same Spirit continues to inspire people through their words today.Yet they are not, in the fullest sense, Truth. They point to the Truth, in that they are trying to reveal God, but they don't replace Truth in an absolute sense.
As much as we might like certainty, and the sense of security that comes with it, we can end up creating idols when we overestimate our hold on the truth. At the same time, we close ourselves off to new revelation, new understandings, which might in fact open us up to greater knowledge and bring us closer to God.
As I write this, I'm keenly aware of two things. Firstly, I've come to these views based on the experience of being wrong thousands of times. Secondly, I could be completely wrong in what I'm saying now. But I'm ok with that. (And presumably you are too, or you should really be reading something else...)
Monday, August 27, 2012
I need to clarify something here. The Salvation Army does some spectacular social work. We have some cutting edge programs meeting the most pressing of human needs. We turn up faithfully in the midst of disasters and we send help into the darkest of places. Yet very little of this is done by soldiers or even officers of The Salvation Army. Our greatest reservoir of social work expertise is undoubtedly our dedicated employee base, many of whom are not even Christians. I sometimes hear criticism of this development within the Army, as if professionals took over the work of loyal Salvationists by stealth in the night. Yet I'm still waiting to be overwhelmed by the number of soldiers undertaking social work degrees.
Imagine things were different. What if everyone who identified The Salvation Army as their church took this mission to the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable of the world very seriously indeed? Imagine if you walked into a social work class at University and had just come to expect that half of the class would be Salvos. Imagine that we had nurtured and developed such expertise in our officer ranks that our uniform could be relied upon to designate the person in the room who would always have an informed opinion, finely honed by experience and education, on any subject of social policy or practice.
The unfortunate reality is that, too often, the person in the uniform is the person who knows least about these subjects. Of course, the general public love The Salvation Army for the work we do in the community. Many Salvationists have known that feeling of slight embarrassment when they're thanked for work that they've taken no part in. I think it's time to rethink our position. What will it take to be able to genuinely take credit for the wonderful work of The Salvation Army? Are we ready for it?
Friday, June 29, 2012
For a number of reasons, over the past couple of weeks, The Salvation Army in Australia has come to be associated with the worst kind of homophobia in our media and in the LGBTQI community. I'm personally devastated by this association, as are many of my Salvo friends and colleagues.
There's a part of me that's naturally defensive. Certainly, there's been some irresponsible and inaccurate reporting going on. No doubt, the officer in the middle of the saga was unfairly targeted. I know, as well as anyone, that this characterisation doesn't reflect the wonderful, non-discriminatory work that goes on in hundreds of social programs right across this country - some of which is performed by gay and lesbian employees on behalf of The Salvation Army. But somehow, this doesn't satisfy the shame and sorrow that I'm feeling.
I've lost count of the stories of anger and hurt that I've listened to in recent days. No matter how much misunderstanding may have contributed to this, a defensive attitude just doesn't seem to work in the face of the very real pain that people are feeling. Context is everything and the public perception at the moment is that The Salvation Army, an organisation with massive public support in this country, has been seen to vilify a group who already figure disproportionately in terms of depression, self-harm and suicide, particularly amongst young people.
No matter how much we might want to reclaim our own image, those who've been hurt by what they've heard need to be our first priority. There's no quick fix to the damage that's been done. We need to genuinely engage corporately and individually with the gay community firstly with an unequivocal apology and secondly to build the kind of robust relationships that ensure that such misunderstanding never happens again.
Some honest self-examination is needed to identify the various factors that have led to this tragic episode. We may not be guilty of all the things we're currently being accused of, but we're not innocent either. Though I'm confident that our social programs function without discrimination, I'm not so sure that our Corps are all gay-friendly places of acceptance and belonging. How many gay soldiers and officers are continually dealing with feelings of shame and guilt? How many are quietly slipping away? It's not just a matter of doctrine or positional statements or how we read the Bible (though all these things matter), it's the acceptance, compassion and love that we show to people, not because of who they are or aren't, but because they're made in the image of God.
I am sorry. I am deeply saddened. I have shared some of the pain of my gay and lesbian friends and colleagues. I am committed to playing whatever part I can to ensure that we can and will do better.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Brand New Start
My aim was to capture the meaning of Easter now, though with some clear pointers to the historical roots. I've written before that I think it's just as important (if not moreso) for us to live resurrection as it is to believe certain historical facts about the resurrection. If we say that we believe but our lives don't demonstrate new beginnings, if we don't make space for the people around us to experience hope in the midst of despair, I don't think we've known all there is to know about resurrection.
The chorus is somewhat inspired by this quote from Leonardo Boff:
Wherever people seek good, justice, humanitarian love, solidarity, communion and understanding between people, wherever they dedicate themselves to overcoming their own egoism, making this world more human and fraternal and opening themselves to the normative Transcendent for their lives, there we can say, with all certainty, that the resurrected one is present, because the cause for which he lived, suffered, was tried and executed is being carried forward.
Monday, April 2, 2012
Monday and beyond