The obvious convergence of two ill-informed at best, uninformed at worst, concepts has created a conundrum from which only God can extricate the christian church. Certainly, human brains and ingenuity, even with the prayerfully sought assistance of God, have been unable to unpack the conundrum for well over two thousand years.
The first concept is the presumption of "knowing" the will of God, including His will for individual human beings, his will for the church community that espouses to follow his teachings for disciples of the faith. The second concept is to presume that whatever the church expresses as the "rules of faith" can and will be followed by human beings living their lives in dedication, even devotion to the practice of their faith.
Let's look at the first concept, the will of God....The Lord's Prayer might be a place to start...
Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.
Amen.* (*from the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer)
We start here with the concept of a holy "father" residing in heaven, awaiting His coming to earth....the pilgrim then asserts that His will is being carried out in heaven and prays that is may be as well on earth....Asking for forgiveness of sins, concomitant with our capacity to forgive others, asking for guidance away from temptation and deliverance from evil both seem like eminently reasonable requests, even petitions, for a people fraught with both guilt and the failing strength to take a wide berth around temptation when it has been encountered and to extricate himself from evil once it has overtaken his life. The belief that all power resides with the recipient of this prayer also seems consistent and congruent with the Old Testament concept of an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent God to whom these prayers are directed.
None of us would have difficulty in accepting the notion of a powerful, ubiquitous and all-knowing Holy Being of some kind. It does not strain our capacity to believe or to imagine.
We understand from the history of the Old Testament that a belief in and a widely held hope about some form of apocalypse, or Second Coming, as part of the appeal to any God, who "could not have" wound up this orb and left it running as would a clockmaker. Looking to the future when the full experience of an encounter with this Holy Being would occur had to be both overwhelming and somewhat intimidating at the same time.
So, belief in an exceptionally powerful Being has its price: it makes those who have been impregnated with this belief both self-conscious and self-critical, considering the potential punishments that could be meted out on the occasion of a misdemeanour. So a notion of God as the ultimate holder of POWER comes very early in our religious language and history.
There are also many 'signs' in the Old Testament that God is guiding the people, both into and out of wars, oppression, pestilence, good and bad rulers and even signs like the Tablets containing the decalogue, as rules for a civilized society, under law, designed by God and delivered to humans in a somewhat mystical piece of theatre....all of it emergent from the imagination and spirit of a highly inventive, and even courageous and prophetic genius....and declared to be sacred...
Just for emphasis, the decalogue is repeated more than once, in somewhat altered form, and provides a reasonable foundation for a society attempting to find its way through the murky fog of potential anarchy and lawlessness. Two laws stand out: no killing and no adultery or messing with another man's wife, nor his property....oh, and honour your parents!
Highly hierarchical, non-debatable, and without any mention of context, or responsibility or a process of unpacking the complexities of each of these edicts. That came later, in Jewish communities in the midrash, and the debates that continue to this day, as part of the development of young boys and girls in the faith and in the community.
A black-and-white universe, while fitting and appropriate to a tribal society, wandering among the hills of the Middle East, searching for a place to "put down roots" seems about as much "documentation" and litigation their often warring factions could endure. And a God in charge, makes it much more possible to keep people "in line".
So with God at the helm, and those at the centre of the boat pulling on the oars, (as it were) the little ship of faith starts out onto a sea (actually many!) of winds, storms, burning sun and patchy catches of fish. Even in those stories, later transformed into New Testament narratives, matters of weak faith, doubt, deviance, deception, defiance and betrayal, including of course, blindness, prostitution, the pursuit of money, leprosy and most other forms of human "sickness" of both the body and the spirit, (today we might include the mind and psyche), none were turned away. Rather, even the murderers on the crosses next to the crucified Jesus were forgiven, if I recall rightly, as were the executioners who triggered the expression, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!" from the dying Jesus.
However dangerous it is to conflate the Old and New Testaments, there is long-standing tradition that links them, as Frye explained it, from "garden to city" (of the New Jerusalem)
The literary mind, not incidentally, looks for form, and for poetic images and for pastoral narrative and does not feel as comfortable with "law" as do some others who search for the cornerstones of their faith in morality. And sometimes, for people of varying appreciations, a clear articulation of the "laws of God" are very helpful in their pragmatic search for guidance and direction in their daily lives....however, that pursuit might push the poetic and the pastoral aside. Their God is one of authority, power, law, punishment and then possible reconciliation.
For the poets and the artists, the pursuit of a faith and a full spiritual life is conditioned by the imagination and by experience of both actions and thoughts and aspirations that would not, could not have occurred without a relationship to God, configured more as counsellor, friend, mentor and perhaps even lover.
God as Judge, versus God as spouse (for nuns, for example) or God as counsellor, mentor....these are complementing yet also conflicting in their application. A counsellor/mentor nudges, guides, hints, paints pictures, whereas a judge "judges" and while God is capable of both, and more, we humans tend to become more attached to one or another without fully and simultaneously embracing the complexities of God. Another voice of God, captured in the Old Testament is God as prophet, able to predict the future, and able to see into the life of things in mysterious ways that both Judge/King and Counsellor do not.
We are constantly involved in some form of a reductionism of God, depending on our perceptions of ourselves, and our universe and our relationship to both God and the universe.
As a practicing Roman Catholic nun pointed out, in a family violence workshop, "The greatest violence we do to each other comes from the reductionisms we impose on each other!"
And, my head bolted to the right, from where her voice was coming, as my heart sped up dramatically, and my hard-drive memory indellibly embedded her words as a gift from God, through her.
Aren't we all looking, searching, hoping and even dreaming for words, musical sounds, mountainous sights, deep rivers and cascading waterfalls to overtake our senses and thereby to infuse our spirits with the most beautiful and the most profound and the most uplifting experiences, as signs that there really is a God, and that there really is a heaven....as the scientists are only recently starting to believe...??
Have we not, perhaps, fallen into a too literal and too limiting by more than half, view and expectation of both the evil of others and the evil of institutions governed by others, as an inheritance from the world view of the christian church (and possibly other faith communities as well) that since God is the one and only perfect One, man must be little more than an ethical, moral and spiritual insect by comparison? And then, when the evidence of human depravity leaps out at us in tsunamis, confirming our jaundiced belief system, we cry once again, "God help us!" for we are helpless sinners and profoundly need to be reformed, transformed, converted to something "better" than we were when we were born.
Is it not, perhaps, a false premise on which to base such an important cornerstone of human existence, that all human beings are evil and in need of transformation, except those who have seen the light and found their Saviour in Jesus?
Have we not, collectively, and historically, fallen into the trap laid by our earliest writers, that our moral compass is so twisted and unsound, that we are incapable of finding our way through the many temptations, without God's unerring and loving guidance?
Or is this equation of the church holding onto the 'word of God' as its touchstone, along with the promise of a hell of an afterlife for those who fail to comply, little more than a group of serious thinking and praying men attempting to marry their "hold" on the word of God, (their interpretation and their applications and their authentic belief that they know something the rest of the world does not) to their perceived need for the church to have control over the lives of its parishoners, in order to justify the existence of the church, now and in the future?
Could the civil society not just as easily and as successfully originate and certainly sustain itself, without making God's law, as perceived by any faith community, the lens through which the world is perceived, the ink with which the laws are written, and the prison bars in which the deviants are held, often without just cause?
Does it not seem that in attempting to please the God of both Old and New Testaments, we have bound ourselves, and our institutional church, in ways that no deity would ever have wanted, in a perverted and misguided attempt to "please" this deity?
Living lives of self-loathing, judgement of others (the only possible outcome of self-loathing) and fear of retribution from a loving and forgiving God is the most unsustainable proposition imagineable.
If we believe that love is truly at the heart of our faith, the love of God for each person on earth, and the love of God for the planet on which we live, and the capacity for love of each other, "as God has and does love each of us" then it is long past time for christians to incarnate such a belief in our practice...without fear of the scurrilous attacks on the frivolity and immaturity of such a belief.
Loving is never easy or without risk. Love is never self-serving and gratuitous. Love is never merely physical and sensational. Love is hard because it requires truth telling, and truth-telling when it is least wanted, or even perceived to be needed by 'the other'...Love is the most courageous act of a human being, risking complete commitment to a relationship, including sacrifice, without ever doing the 'work' of the other...Loving engages both parties to a degree that no other kind of relationship requires or expects and it cannot be contained, managed or regulated by the laws of either the church or the state...
And there is the rub...that our faith journey is not one in which either the church or the state can play a role.
Nevertheless, our religion demands that we accept the premise that we begin as evil, defined so by a "fall" story that has crippled the growth and development of our faith for centuries. And while writers like Matthew Fox have attempted to overturn the impact of that "fall" in books like his "Original Blessing" through which he articulates the gift of wisdom and insight in the fall, as opposed to the punishment that previous interpretations have awarded the story, nevertheless we are still living, as Christians, in deficit, scarcity, and starving for the love of God, which is all around us, in every breath we take, in every bird that sings, in every leaf that bursts from its bud, in every baby that smiles and cries, in every loving touch from our partner, and in every theme in every symphony.
We cling to our imperfections as our definitions of our essences as human beings, and the argument goes that to do otherwise, would be presumptuous, arrogant, and unseemly. We even link, consciously or unconsciously, our sickness and our pain to our sinfulness, as if we expect God to punish us for being alive. Death, then becomes the last great punishment, to be avoided at all costs, because the risk of going go Hell is far too monstrous even to contemplate. Sickness, pain, both of our anatomy and our external circumstances take a toll far greater than necessary, given our fixation on our extrinsic realities.
If we are to become truly loving, we must bring our Shadow realities into the picture, which, given its capacity to insert itself without our conscious engagement, will happen anyway. We must commit to the unpacking of our personal and our institutional Shadow, as an integral part of our developmental journey, as spiritual beings, in our relationship with a deity whose capacity to love the totality of our being is limitless.
And that requirement, very different from the legalistic restrictions on our public persons, and on our public attitudes to others, is essentially missing from all christian faith pilgrimages. In its place, we have made idols out of what we consider to be enforceable extrinsic sins that can be observed, documented, prosecuted and punished, (with or without due process) to the denial of whatever might be happening within the person's inner life.
The church falls into the classic trap of being seduced into using the empirical evidence of our lives to judge our "conformity" with the faith canon while, simultaneously, failing completely to pay attention to the Shadow sides of our lives, including its own, as the more important ingredient in all our development.
The church has, through a glaring default of centuries of over-focus on the observable, the canons, the buildings, the liturgies, the bank accounts, the fuel bills, the correct theology in the homilies, the correct relationships among and between the clergy and the laity...all of those matters that can be litigated in a public or private forum...left the spiritual lives of both its members and adherents, and the institutional lives of its organizations to drift aimlesslessly, without the courage even to acknowledge the "sins of omission"...that this process involves.
The overt and covert competitions, patronizings, vindictive revenges, suicides, ex-communications, cold shoulders, insults, cooked books, inappropriate relationships, the corporate reductionisms....all of these have come to characterize the institutional church's relationships within and without, among members and between churches of common and differing denominations....and there is no hue and cry to protest this sacrifice of things that matter to the things that can be included in the accountant's ledger.
We have, in effect, somewhat willingly and consciously and somewhat unwillingly and unconsciously, created anther public corporation in the name of God, that has little or nothing to do with fertilizing, incubating, delivering and developing disciples of Jesus Christ Resurrected. It has everything to do with generating numbers on pages of membership, and on accounting ledgers, and on front pages of newspapers, and in transcripts of 'court hearings' and in 'lists of baptisms, marriages, burials, attendees, special liturgies'.
We have failed utterly, in developing a community of persons committed to their own and their colleagues spiritual lives, of disclosure, of unpacking their individual and collective Shadows, of rendering the extrinsic secondary to the intrinsic, of rendering the things of the spirit to God and the things of accounting to the accountants.
In short the lawyers, accountants and marketers have taken over the church, along with the gender warriors (female) and the prices that are and will be paid are enormous.
I recall working with a female clergy, a student of the Myers-Briggs testing instrument, who invited the congregation to complete the test, and afterwards, having analysed the results, thereafter wrote her homilies in a manner directly shaped to the demographic curve of her audience. Now that's a level of marketing that Wall Street would envy. I am convinced that her motive for pursuing ministry as a career was to advance the feminist cause from the bully, political pulpit. She demonstrated contempt for men, without having to face that truth, because obviously no one in her circle of influence was willing to pay the price of confronting her with that truth. And that circle included her supervising bishop who had to know the full truth of her situation. And if he didn't, he needed to!