St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury
June 1, 2003

 

"WHY GODTALKERS NEED HUMILITY"

 

In the late 60s I was a post-graduate student and village parson in the US, and I have been back several times. The last (1995) was for a research colloquium at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  This involved about thirty from the US, Canada, Israel and Australia; there were two Australians the other being Sister Veronica Brady, whose name some of you will know. One-third were Protestant, one-third were Catholic and one-third were Jewish.  We had interesting worship, as well as discussion! 

 

One of the Americans was a Franciscan monk.  You would know that Francis of Assisi established this order in the 13th century.  Like their founder, Franciscans live simply and often work with the poor and downtrodden.  This chap told me with a certain wicked enjoyment that the National Catholic Reporter had invited readers to say what they would do if they became pope!  Another Franciscan, a friend of his, had written that he would convene a 'consistory' (a church council) at which "we would infallibly declare that we are not infallible!  Then we would stand back and watch the curia (the Pope's elite corps) self-destruct as they tried to figure out whether to accept or deny what we had said!" 

 

It was about this time that I was also invited to join a network with an interesting name and philosophy.  It had on its board distinguished scientists and religious people from around the world.  It was called 'the Humility Theology Network'.  Its statement of purpose is on the order of service today.  "The Theology of Humility recognises the inadequacy of our senses and our intellect to comprehend fully the Creator who is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal and infinite.  Therefore it encourages thinking which is open-minded, and conclusions which are tentative, and encourages diversity as we build on the strengths of the past with new insights from the physical and human sciences."

 

Those who generate godtalk today (we call them 'theologians') would be more humble if they could learn from the past.  I want to give you five reasons why all godtalkers, myself included, need humility and tell some stories to illustrate.

 

I

 

First, a lot of godtalk has no curative properties.  It's ecclesiastical snake oil!  It may fascinate people in ivory towers, but have no curative properties for sweating, grimy men in a mine shaft or aching impoverished women in a paddy field!  Now and again one finds a sobering illustration of this reminding us that godtalk is vain prattle if it does not mediate answers to human need.

In 1992 a Korean woman got a standing ovation at the assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra.  Her name was Chung Hyun Kyung.  She was also accused of syncretism, paganism, heresy and apostasy; of having betrayed her faith, in other words!  One church threatened to withdraw from the World Council of Churches over what she said.  What happened?  It's quite a story!

 

Chung Hyun Kyung's parents died when she was a young adult.  Only then did she discover the truth about her origin.  Her mother had been unable to conceive.  The parents had arranged for a surrogate to have a child by Kyung's father.  Ex-nuptial births being shameful in Korea, it was hushed up. Kyung's birth mother kept her for a year; then relinquished her. When Kyung discovered this, her birth mother was elderly, and her life was in ruins.  She had experienced repeated bouts of mental illness.  Her husband had died in the Korean War.  Her son, unable to cope with his mother's ups and downs, had suicided in his teens.

 

Chung Hyun Kyung had studied theology in Korea and taken her doctorate at New York's prestigious Union Seminary.  Yet she felt that nothing she had been taught could speak to this terrible situation!  It was too intellectual, too abstract, too remote from the Korean context. She set about the search for another way of doing godtalk, delving deep into Korean folk religion and myth.  In her address to the World Council of Churches about the suffering ones in the world she had 'gone outside' (so to speak) Christian orthodoxy but this was the background! 

 

II

 

Second reason why god-talkers always need a spot of humility: some christian thought has allowed, if not caused, incredible cruelty.  The crusades, the inquisition, witch hunts, heresy trials and persecutions follow when people are obsessed with what they're sure is the 'truth'.

 

Possibly the most shameful example began very early in the history of Christianity.  I refer to the church's teachings (based partly on misunderstanding of scripture) that the Jews had betrayed their calling, that they were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, that they had been rejected by God, and that they were a contemptible people with a contemptible religion. 

 

This history of contempt for Jews and Judaism, of antisemitism, of prejudice and persecution, came to its monstrous climax in the 1930s and 40s with the Shoah (Holocaust), in which six million Jews perished under Nazism for no other reason than that they were Jews.  Nazism was born in the country where the Protestant Reformation began.  It was fuelled by vilification of Jews from no less than Luther himself, and nurtured by the teachings of the churches.  This is one of the reasons I said last week that any statement about God must be ethical.

III

 

Third reason for humility: there's always a danger of confusing the husk with the kernel. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote very simple prayers. He used to joke about pushing his barrow-load of church dogmatics around the gardens of heaven and the angels being too busy singing to notice him!  

 

I was on the executive of a state council of churches when the Society of Friends (Quakers) applied to join.  They were invited to forward a copy of their doctrinal basis.  They apologised for not having one, and said they hoped this would not disqualify them.  They were sent a copy of the council of churches' doctrinal basis, and invited to signify their assent to it.  They replied apologetically again.  They weren't sure they could agree with it.  Then again, they weren't sure they disagreed with it either.  They just couldn't quite see the point.  Quakers have never felt that tests of doctrinal correctness were all that critical.  They say, "Isn't the important thing that we're trying to increase the amount of love and justice and peace in the world and listening for the holy whispers?" Quakers are big on listening for the Voice within.

 

It's hard to disagree with people like that, especially when they have the runs on the board.  In proportion to their size, Quakers probably make a more significant contribution in those terms than any other religious community.   It's also hard to disagree with them when you recall what Jesus said.  "Love the Lord your God with all your soul and all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself.  The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets rest on those commands."

 

IV

 

Fourth reason for humility: all godtalk inevitably distorts what it is talking about.  I was thinking of saying the truth gets 'pot-bound'!  It's common for growing things to get pot-bound.  When you release them, you find this dense ball of roots that should be running free.

 

The apostle Paul, who could be both doctrinaire and arrogant, had a flash of unintended wisdom when he wrote to the Jesus people in Corinth: "We have this treasure in earthenware pots." (II Cor 4:7)  He was referring to the story he believed could change history being entrusted to ordinary, struggling human beings like us.  The unintended wisdom here is that anything poured into an earthenware container inevitably takes on the shape of that container and becomes fixed in that shape so long as it's in that container.  What we've been coming to appreciate is that if these pots happen to be white, western, educated and male (as most godtalkers are), what they declare as the truths of God is likely to be shaped accordingly.  This means there is probably no such thing as pure, unspoiled truths of God that are unaffected by the type and shape of the pots.  And it's a good reason for having more women theologians (godtalkers).

 

V

 

Fifth and last, scripture itself precludes arrogant dogmatism. It does this in two ways. First by containing such a varied mixture of different ways of talking about God.  The idea that scripture contains a single, unified, homogeneous bag of belief is rubbish.  But scripture also disallows fixity of dogma quite explicitly.

 

In the gospel of John you find attributed to Jesus a statement dogmatists wish was not there.  When this was written, what had started out as a Jewish revival movement was becoming more distinctive.  Understandably some would be keen to 'fix' what was distinctive.  This was the context in which John's gospel was written.  Yet the author has Jesus saying, "I still have lots to tell you. But the Spirit of Truth will lead you into all that."  That has to be the clearest rebuttal in scripture of any 'fixity' of dogma or 'godtalk'.    It is saying in effect, "Until the Spirit of Truth (in other words, God) is no more, you can't fix anything in concrete!"

 

Nearly four centuries ago a company of 'Separatists', as they were called, quit England for Holland, where the climate was more hospitable to religious diversity.  In September 1620 a company of them boarded the "Mayflower", to settle in New England.  They were the so-called 'Pilgrim Fathers'.  Their pastor, a man named John Robinson, couldn't go. In tears he farewelled them at Leiden, urging them to be open-minded because he was "very confident that the Lord had yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy word."  Hence the hymn beloved of Congregationalists, who come from that stock.

 

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,

By notions of our day and sect, crude, partial and confined:

No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred:

The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word."

 

So let me end where we began.  "The Theology of Humility encourages thinking which is open-minded and conclusions which are tentative, and encourages diversity as we build on the strengths of the past with new insights from the physical and human sciences."     Next week: "When science and religion meet."

 

SCRIPTURES: II Corinthians 4:1-7, John 16:12-15

 

 

An address delivered by the Rev Dr John Bodycomb in St David's Uniting Church, Canterbury,

on Sunday, June 1, 2003.        MAY BE REPRODUCED WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT.