The Epic Story of Being

information-overloadIt’s strange how I come to write these posts. Usually I experience or read something that causes an idea to surface suddenly — I have to capture it immediately or it gets lost. This post was triggered by a phrase I read this morning in Psalm 81 — “A voice I did not know said to me . . .” I was propelled outside myself by that phrase — how mysterious is the human mind and soul — and watched as the grand 13,000,000,000 year old story of being flashed through my mind. I’ll share my roller-coaster ride through time with you briefly.

The story arc of being

If a Hollywood Script Writer had to “pitch” the epic story of being to a Producer to get funding, he might do it like this, in 6 major film segments:

  1. Black screen. No sound. Only indescribable divine Being. Then brilliant flash and the story titles flash by as created being emerges, expanding into a universe pregnant with possibility. (Necessary Being — what we call God — speaks the “Word” and creates contingent being to share God’s reality.)
  2. A sun exploding and fragments of flaming matter swirling. A barren planet takes shape, then an ocean, then a forest. Zoom in to see insects and then zoom back to see dinosaurs. Finally pan around and see a group of ape-like savages huddled in fear. Focus on a single savage face as it morphs to a human face. Screen goes black again. (The dynamism of created reality produces the spacetime continuum then biological life. Then, in another great act of creation,  God creates the first human soul as a transcendent being with freedom and self-consciousness.)
  3. Two humans walking in a forest. One suddenly strikes the other with a club. Cut to warfare, human sacrifice and great temples. Then cut to a desert and an old man, an arab herder who looks away into the distance, then packs his tent and family and sets out on a trek westward into the setting sun. (Man’s journey in his search for God, with God finally reaching out to Abraham as the father of true understanding in humanity.)
  4. Rapid scenes portraying Isaac, Joseph, Moses and the Exodus, and then the prophets and exile and return to the Promised Land. (The story of Israel’s growth in understanding about God’s presence in the world and His Plan for them)
  5. More rapid scenes of the familiar story of Jesus: Birth, growth, public teaching and miracles and death and resurrection. The last scene fades into twilight, but it is a dawn not evening. The new reality of “God is with us” has begun. (The story of God’s definitive entry into human affairs in Jesus)
  6. More rapid scenes showing the fall of the Roman Empire, the rise and fall of Christendom until finally, there is a cresendo of modern scenes representing man’s current power and dilemmas. Again the last scene is a pregnant twilight. But is it morning again — or evening? Will this story have a happy ending? Who is the storyteller? The movie leaves a question in the mind of the audience. (The story of the ‘last days’ and the transformation of creation)

A deeper level — the Human perspective versus God’s perspective

As I said, I never know where these posts will lead me. Once I completed my little account of the “story arc of being” several things occurred to me. Using the Hollywood metaphor, the story arc I have just described might be only one of an almost infinite number of ways of telling the story of being. What may make this one different is the weight of theological study of the sources for this particular Christian story. But, since the history of science advances as well, where does that leave Theology? Does theology have a privileged view of God’s mysterious Plan due to these historical sources? If we take the mystery of God seriously, then what Walter Kasper the noted German theologian wrote has some serious implications. “The believer is not better informed about God than the unbeliever, and theologians are not God’s ‘privy councillors.'” This bold statement flows directly from the nature of God according to Kasper: “God makes known his utter hiddenness and his being utterly beyond our power to manipulate and dispose of him.” We cannot claim we grasp God’s Plan any better now, in the 21st century, than Jesus’ disciples understood it when he was present in the flesh in the 1st century. Where does that leave us?

In Chapter 5 in my book Imagining Rama I wrote about our not knowing what is going on in God’s larger Plan. “The condition of being aware of something going on, in oneself and the cosmos, yet being unable to know or grasp what it is epitomizes the mystery of human freedom in the universe for me.” Put more simply, all we are left with is understanding our role in a story that God knows but we don’t — and learning this role in our situation with all its new language and new questions, depends on our relationship with the living God who is hidden yet present. We can’t go to school and study the sources, or even the Bible, and find out precisely what God’s mysterious hidden plan means to us right now, everyday. We must learn our role in the story through our relationship with God supported by the Christian community in which we grow in spiritual wisdom. That is what human freedom means to me. We have been given a free choice to relate to the living God (or not) in order to learn how to carry out the specific role created for each of us since the beginning of time. God sets the stage; we are the actors. We create the diverse possibilities for the future of Earth and perhaps the universe, which God brings, through his intimacy with us in grace, to a happy ending after eons of adventure. [See Ephesians Chapter 1 and 2:10 for St Paul’s view of this.]




Progress? Where are we?

chaos_and_meaninglessness_roweIn 1953  Robert Nesbit wrote a very insightful book called The Quest for Community. In it he summarised the prevailing view of  man with these words: “The theologian Paul Tillich sees before him in the western world today a culture compounded not of traditional faith and confidence, but one agitated by feelings of fear and anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, and meaninglessness.” Today, we look back at the 1950s as a time of innocence, of postwar optimism. It is now sixty years since Tillich’s grim words were written. Have we made progress toward a different view of man? How would a wise observer of the world summarize man’s situation in 2013?

Perspective on 2013

Living in Australia, I experience a country free from many of the conflicts that are taking place in the rest of the world. Australia is a comfortable place, with a national attitude of “No worries, mate.” Politics (and politicians) are something to be mainly laughed at. Our economy was barely touched by the GFC. The big issues of the day seem to be rather small on a global scale: boat people trying to land in a country that doesn’t want them, bushfires and floods. People here in Sydney live a good life, enjoying their weather and coffee — and Tillich’s words somehow seem wrong, strangely alien to life here. I find that I cannot get a grip on the Australian psyche to summarize it. It is as if there is nothing going on beyond dealing with the day to day issues of life. Have Australians somehow left the feelings that Tillich described behind? If so, how did we do that?

The search for what?

I have written 2 books about what I call the “quest” for transformation. My personal view is that all human beings engage in some sort of quest for the answers to the bigger questions about life. Yet, I find that there seems to be no zest for such a quest among many of the people I know here in Sydney, and elsewhere in the world as well. People are searching, that’s for sure, but for what? A better career, more recognition, intimacy — all these are discussed frequently as being important. It’s almost as if we have somehow found ourselves further down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than we thought — at the safety, belonging and self-esteem levels — with no energy for self-actualisation or the search for meaning. And, without a search for meaning, can there be any interest in religion or God? Probably not. The days when belonging to a church fulfilled a social need in most people are long past.

So, now what?

The Christian message depends on people seeing the implications for themselves of the larger dimensions of meaning. Jesus came to “save” us from the futility of ordinary human life and death. But if life is only about being safe, belonging and feeling good about one’s self, we can handle those pretty much by ourselves. And that is precisely what our culture is about — self-fulfillment, self-knowledge, self-improvement abounds. Yes, we can go find a “guru” if we want to experience the mystical dimensions of life, but there is no life and death drama connected with that, only our feeling good about ourselves. For someone to make the effort of learning about Christianity, something must jolt them out “no worries, mate.”

The old time revival preachers used the threat of hell and damnation to do that — but that is so politically incorrect today people reject it. So what is the answer? I’m trying the “awe” approach myself. There’s obviously something much bigger than me, Australia or Planet Earth ‘out there.’ Science fiction movies like Avatar give us hints that mankind will play a much bigger role in the universe in ages to come. If people get excited about the potential of what a human being really is — transcendent, on the way to becoming divine — maybe they will get serious about learning about the one who is leading us on that transformational journey. In any case, that’s what I’m tring to do. How about you?



Art is a mystery

There was an interview with Malcomb Turnbull in this week’s Sydney Sun-Herald. (For my American friends, he is the former leader of the Liberal Party now a back-bencher in Parliament, mainly focused on technology.) What grabbed my attention in the interview was his focus on literary insights. “Malcomb has an aesthete’s heart locked in a technocrat’s job title.” Not a bad sentence for the Sun-Herald!

Malcomb and mystery

While being interviewed, Malcomb used Twitter to send the following — “Remember, art is a mystery which the author little understands.” Those of you who know me know that mystery is my favorite theme so I immediately decided that I would support Malcomb — if ever he gets the chance to lead the Liberal Party again, when I become an Australian citizen. Australia (and the world) desperately needs leaders like Malcomb who have a deep and visionary perspective of the future. (Please read on, even you would substitute Julie or Tony or even Kevin for Malcomb.)

I don’t know exactly what Malcomb meant by his Tweet. I suspect it was a politician and technocrat’s awe of artists and poets that inspired it. Malcomb quoted Shakespeare twice during the interview. Why are usually pragmatic people like Malcomb (and myself) in awe of poets and artists? Precisely because somehow they allow us tap into mystery. We sense that poets and artists see beyond a veil that covers our eyes. (Anyone who has read my book Imagining Rama knows that I don’t believe the poets and artists are the only ones who can see beyond this veil. We all can.)

Long ago, in a galaxy far away 

All of this leads me to my story about art and mystery. I will use Star Wars and St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians to tell this story. (My mind works strangely, I know.) Both these artistic works have a cosmic scope that goes far beyond anything we usually imagine might be true. Star Wars presents a vast galactic empire at war; Ephesians has God’s entire plan for creation. Star Wars has aliens on the side of humans (Wookies) as well as against them (Jabba the Hut). Ephesians has gentiles being united with Israelites, in the battle against evil. Star Wars has Jedi Knights who use the force to defeat evil. Ephesians promises that the Holy Spirit will equip us with armor to defeat evil. Both Star Wars and Ephesians describe a larger mystery, which their authors “little understand.” Let me explain.

Where did the Force comes from in Star Wars? How did Luke Skywalker learn how to use the Force? (I know, from Yoda, but how did Luke actually do it?) Could the scriptwriter give us the answers to these questions? And, in Ephesians, how does God create a plan which he knows beforehand, and the opportunty for us to use our freedom to do the good works he has prepared for us — while leaving us free? As these examples show, we cannot plumb the depths of either of these stories — because they describe mystery. Mystery is a reality which we will never understand.

The seldom told story

So what’s my point? You must be thinking how can I wrap Malcomb Turnbull, Star Wars and the Letter to the Ephesians together? [Let me hasten to add that I am not involving Malcomb in a religious debate.] To me Malcomb represents every good leader struggling to make an impact in a very complex world. Many people in Australia wish him well in this battle — but are also cynical that he (or any politician) can actually do anything to change things. He is like the leader of the rebel forces in Star Wars in this regard. The question is, who will be his Jedi Knight and use the force to “defeat” the evil empire –the complex political, economic and social system that does not adequately serve the human needs of the people of Australia, which he is attempting to change? He is enough of a realist to know that he cannot do this on his own. But does he believe in Jedi Knights and the Force? Probably not. But they do exist!

That is where the Letter to the Ephesians comes in. St Paul describes the cosmic battle between good and evil, the role of the “force” and who Jedi Knights are. The problem is that even most Christians don’t understand the cosmic story that Paul is telling. (I’m not speaking about Malcomb here, to be clear.) The point of this blog is that we Christians must begin to see the deep truth that is in Ephesians — and our role in making the story known and real. The most basic point of the story is that all mankind, not just Jews and Christians, are called to participate in God’s cosmic plan. Reread Ephesians and see if you agree with me. Then, if you do, go find a visionary leader and support her or him in transforming the world!

Imagining Rama

I’m in the final stages of completing a new book called Imagining Rama. My publisher, planning the cover and layout for the book asked, as they always do, who is your target audience? I told her, initially, “People who searching for transformation” but then broadened the ‘market’ to “searchers.” From her standpoint, the trick is to get people to recognise something of interest to them on the cover, pick up the book, read the blurb on the back cover and open it. Then maybe some of them will buy it. It’s what they encounter on the outside that’s important in selling books: the design of the cover, the title, the author (well-known or not and I’m definitely not), what section the book is in, and so on. That’s why authors need publishers, bacause they know how to get people to take the first steps toward reading what you’ve written on the inside.

What’s inside Imagining Rama will have to remain a secret a bit longer. But I will share the opening of the Foreword.

“Why am I writing this book? I suppose I’m a bit like Arthur Stace, the homeless man in Sydney Australia who wrote the word ‘eternity’ in chalk on the sidewalks of the city for over forty years. He wanted people to encounter something that would trigger their imagination and expand their horizons about living.  That’s my purpose also.”

It’s tricky, persuading people to listen to what you have to say, no matter how valuable you may think it may be. You have to resonate with some need, some desire inside them. The wrapping of the book and the opening — the outside — must connect with what’s inside them. Isn’t that the challenge Christians face in communicating the Good News? Maybe we need to realise that, no matter how powerful our message is, its “wrapper” (the behaviors of the people living it and communicating it) are what counts in most cases, in persuading people to really listen to the message.



Remind me — who am I?

“When I look at my tattoo it reminds me I want to be free and independent and open to more experiences. . .As Johnny Depp reportedly said, ‘My body is my journal and my tattoos are my story.'” in a featured article “I ink therefore I am” in Sunday Life, Sydney Morning Herald, May 27, 2012.

I come from a different generation, which didn’t value body-art, but I can understand what this young Gen-Y woman (and Johnny Depp) are saying. It’s hard to be who you want to be. You need to remind yourself and others so you don’t forget and so they’ll ask you about your tattoo and, in a way, hold you accountable.

Two things occur to me. Why is it hard to be “free, independent and open to more experiences” in today’s society? That is exactly what our culture values. Maybe it’s a case of ‘espoused values not values in practice.’ Maybe we don’t really want people to become themselves freely or ‘march to the beat of a different drummer’ as Thoreau said. My sense is that the western system actually values conformity, dependency (on consuming) and enjoying the pre-packaged experiences offered by the media and iPhone apps. If you aren’t doing those, you aren’t helping the GDP grow and “you ain’t nobody man!”

The second thing that occurs to me is what would I tattoo on myself? Maybe not actually display three words inked onto my arm but what is the ‘headline’ for my story, like Johnny Depp said? I know what I’d like it to be — Semper Fidelis: a faithful follower of Jesus Christ — but what is actually there, everyday, for everyone to see?

The Great Adventure

I love fantastic stories, especially those which create entirely new worlds in my imagination. For example, The Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars Trilogy. I am currently reading a fascinating science fiction trilogy by S. M. Stirling about ‘The Change’, where the Earth has been devastated by a catastrophy that instantly eliminates all electrical devices, gasoline engines and gunpowder-based weapons worldwide. Within a year, only a small fraction of the Earth’s population has survived, mainly by regressing to medieval farming, military and political practices. An interesting subplot is what happens to religion. In Oregon, where the story mainly takes place, a nature-worshipping Wiccan sect saves many lives and becomes the predominant stabilising force in the lives of many ‘good guys.’ The ‘bad’ guys have no religion and are led by a power-hungry former Jesuit medieval professor. The author is not saying that “witches are good; Christians are bad.” He is simply saying that primitive nature-loving folk, respectfully serving the “Lord and Lady” gods of nature have a excellent survival strategy in such a world. Anthropologically, that would seem to be the case, based on studies of native American and other primitive cultures around the world.

Human Survival

At first, as I read this story, I wondered why the author hadn’t used a Christian community instead of a Wiccan group. Then I realised that the story would have been far more complex. He couldn’t easily describe a plausible, Darwinian survival strategy based on the Christian religion. In fact, as I thought about it, neither could I! Why would Christians be more fit for survival in a primitive world, or in our own modern world for that matter? That got me to thinking. The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars both have a hidden force that orchestrates the downfall of an evil Emperor. In the Change trilogy, even the Wiccan sect seems at certain points to receive help from their gods. Human survival in each of these stories doesn’t happen on its own. The authors use a story-telling device called a deus ex machina (literally, a god outside the system) to rescue the ‘good guys’ from ‘evil.’ The Force rescues Luke Skywalker. An unseen force guides Frodo through a dangerous journey to destroy Sauron’s Ring of Power. Science, in Darwin’s theory of evolution, says humans survive because we are better equiped than other living parts of the ecosystem. The authors of these fantastic stories all point toward the possibility that humans can’t survive on their own and depend on some outside force to rescue them from ultimate destruction.

God’s Great Adventure

Which brings me to the fantastic Christian story about the survival and triumph of the human race in the universe (still incomplete). You can easily understand the outline of this story in the Bible:

  • God creates the universe for his own purposes, as the framework for a great adventure story.  Mysteriously, He makes room in this story for man to choose to do both good and evil and to disrupt the world. [Genesis 1-4]
  • In the next phase of the adventure story, God selects a small band of nomads in the desert as His special people. They will learn the fundamental theme in God’s adventure story — they cannot survive on their own. They must rely on the ‘force’ to rescue them from their enemies. Otherwise, they will perish. For example, they must have God’s help to escape from Pharoah. [Genesis 12 – 15, Exodus]
  • In the next phase, God begins to prepare his people for a great event, a gift He will send the human race. His people imagine that this is a great military leader who enable them to conquer all their enemies, a ‘Messiah’ who will be the ‘King of Kings.’ [For example Isaiah 49, from among many references]
  • In the next phase, God announces that He is the promised gift. He enters creation as Jesus and demonstrates how mankind is to live, as His Sons and Daughters. In the climax of this part of the story, Jesus demonstrates that evil has no power to kill us, and that taking part in God’s plan to rescue the world from evil (like Luke Skywalker and Frodo) is how we humans are to be a crucial part of His great adventure. [The four Gospels]
  • In the final phase of the story (the phase that we are living in today), all humans are learning how to live as God’s sons and daughters. Christians have special insights into His plan, and therefore special obligations, but no monopoly on doing His will. For 2000 years, the story has been filled with danger, heros and villains, battles and defeats, and surprising turns-of-events, like any good adventure story. Occasionally, things seem about to fall apart but, mysteriously, a deus ex machina rescues us at critical points. The story is guaranteed to have a happy ending! [Paul points to this in Ephesians 1 and Romans 5]

The Christian Role in God’s Story

One of the main obligations of Christians is to tell everyone the story of God’s great adventure — to give them hope, and help them trust God when things seem about to fall apart. We need to tell this story in a way that different people from diverse backgrounds can understand their part in God’s story. I have tried to illustrate how to do that in this post. Our task is not so much to ‘convert’ Wiccans and other non-Chrisitians but rather to help them understand the larger context of a loving God’s great adventure story in which their part can be better understood. It is up to God whether, and if, and how they will be ‘converted.’ In fact, in their diversity they may play an important role in ‘converting’ us Christians.


Christmas as metaphor

The human mind works like this. Very basically, we see something and compare it against what we know and then we automatically know how to think and act. For example, we see an angry face and automatically prepare to ‘fight or flee’ — Scientists have shown that even infants can recognise what a face is, and whether it’s angry.

This demonstrates that our mind and language are fundamentally metaphorical. We see and describe the world by saying, “Oh that is just like something I have seen before. That is an angry face.” Seeing the world like this, in terms of metaphors, works at the deepest level of our mind, the unconscious and automatic level. We don’t reason very often and question whether that object we see really is an angry face which our mind has categorised. As George Lakoff says, “. . .the hidden hand of the unconscious mind uses metaphor to define our unconscious metaphysics . . .” [In Philosophy in the Flesh] Not only do we see faces and other objects automatically; our all-encompassing worldview is also formed by metaphor. This includes Christmas, whether we are Christians or athiests.

The Christmas season uses two conlicting metaphors

We like to say that our modern world has lost the true meaning of Christmas. Santa Claus and his bag full of gifts (comfortably supporting the need to shop to keep our economy growing and healthy) has taken over as the predominant metaphor from the Christ child laying in the manger. I doubt that this only happened recently. In fact, since the earliest days of the church, there was a common metaphor for the world, and that was whatever political/economic idea dominated in a particular age. The Roman metaphor was the great city of Rome and its grandeur. The Holy Roman Empire replaced that with the great church and its grandeur. Thus,  the modern metaphor of the great society creating global economic wellbeing follows a long line of similar metaphors. The infant God in a manger metaphor has always struggled against the dominant metaphor of the times.

The thing about metaphors is that you need to ‘unpack’ them to understand their deeper significance. What do the metaphor of Santa Claus and the metaphor of the infant God mean?

Santa Claus is a happy old man giving gifts to children who have been good. The metaphor means that, if we are good, the gifts will come to us. In our economic system, if we are well-off, we are usually seen as good. We are encouraged to give gifts to the less well-off at Christmas. This is not usually associated with Santa Claus, however, but with Saint Nicholas, who gave gifts to all children, rich and poor alike, without regard to whether they were good or bad.

The infant God in the manger metaphor is more difficult for humankind to unravel. In fact, even Jesus’ mother probably didn’t understand the significance of this puzzling act of God. The angels had to explain it: “I bring you news of great joy that will be for all people.” The infant God is a great gift that brings joy and peace to all mankind. Exactly what this gift is remains subtle and largely hidden. God doesn’t enter the world like a hero or Santa Claus. God’s gift of Himself at Christmas, and His choice to do that in Bethlehem in a manger, keeps on giving because we can’t unravel the mystery of the infant God metaphor! The infant God metaphor is always in conflict with the dominant economic/political metaphor.

Christmas is a time for going back to the 1st grade in school

Can you remember when you were in the first grade? Probably not. What I remember is that I didn’t understand anything — about reading, nunbers, how to get along with the Sisters, or how to be a “success.” I was basically a sponge, waiting to soak up the water of education. [Another metaphor] If I had arrived at the first grade already full of ‘stuff’ I wouldn’t have been ready to learn. That’s what usually  happens at Christmas. We already know what the Bethlehem story means.

Still, when we see the infant Jesus, we experience some conflict with the dominant symbols of our commercialised world. This is a signal that there is some learning at hand. Our task is to make room “in the inn” (our already filled sponge) for the “news of great joy.” If we have been through thirty or forty Christmases (or many more in my case), making room is difficult.  Over the years, we have filled our sponge with our own explanations about the infant God in the manger. For me to learn what this gift means, I can only try to stop thinking and return to my innocent state of readiness, like the 1st grade. “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10] The mystery of the infant God in a manger is there, waiting for us to be ready to receive the good news of news of great joy. Try emptying your mind of all your accustomed stories about Jesus and Bethlehem and wait for God to come.

A Heart-felt Story

An old friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, sent me a note after reading one of my recent posts. In it, he describes how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) views religion, which is worth pondering. We may disagree with some of his views but none of us can dispute the great good that AA’s approach has brought to millions of the ‘least of these’ — men and women trapped in a prison of their own making. God is certainly on the side of AA.

“AA takes an unique approach to what we generically refer to as ‘religion’.  A fundamental principle of AA is that we have been unable to stop drinking on our own, no matter to what lengths we go, under our own power, free will and best wishes.  It simply won’t work.  Organized religions, no matter which ones, were either derived from what was known as Catholicism, such as Protestants of all types, generally known as Christians, as they follow the teachings of Christ.  Others, such as Buddhism, Shinto, Muslim and many others take their beginnings from similar precepts, except they feel Christ was but a holy man, a special prophet, and they, too, have their own.  The Jewish faith is still waiting for theirs.

“But, collectively, they do not offer what any given human being needs – a personal God that loves us unconditionally, will always forgive us our trespasses as long as we keep trying, is not keeping some sort of tabulation or balance sheet to advise Him on which way to send us when we die.  We alcoholics felt we were trying to be good people, but began using the wrong medicine for our ailing minds, and could not stop feeling we had the weight of the earth on us, had to control ourselves and the lives of all we met, and despite our overt feelings to the opposite, we lived a life of self-centered fear.

“Organized religion has become man’s never ending quest to humanize that which cannot be humanized.  It gives all a set of rules, often quite different by religion, by which to live.  They often use the Bible, Torah, Koran, etc., to express these rules.  These books depict the life of Christ, Mohammed, or Old Testament characters, and they all offer wonderful knowledge, but often that knowledge is not applicable today.  Moreover, the books are often in conflict.  Divinely inspired or not, we have to recall that these books were written at least two thousand years ago, some far older than that, and the writers could only write what the readers at the time could understand and relate to.  For example, the concept of time, a day, or other relationships are not only often in conflict between the books, but within any book itself.  For example, did God create all He did in 7 days on the Gregorian calendar, the Chinese or Jewish?  We have no idea.  So we all begin to argue among the religious and throughout time many have used our human influence to desecrate what the Holy writings most likely meant, e.g., the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, and many others.  Who was actually right, on whose side was God?

“AA says that we must have a higher power of some kind, because then we are able to do what we could not, what medicine cannot, what the greatest minds in medicine cannot, and it works.  It has worked for me going on 19 years.  Without the ability to ‘turn over’ that which I cannot do to a Higher Power, I would not have been able to stop, and death is the ultimate reward, no matter how much I wanted different.  The proof is that 19 years, and the many other years of millions who have tried, given themselves over to that Higher Power, and followed the principles.  It is noteworthy that AA does not mandate, or even suggest, any details about that Higher Power, or suggest a relationship to organized religion of any kind, simply saying that He exists, and that He is not me.  It goes on to say that for as long as I try to run my life (and most often the lives of others),  a true belief in a power greater than me is impossible.  There is no other alternative.  Either God is everything or He is nothing, and that’s it.

“I was recently diagnosed with a 50-50 chance of death from lung cancer.  Today, complications from Chemo have required me to attend to my heart, and have a pacemaker installed.  I had to have spinal shots to put steroids in my back to be able to walk properly.  I am still on disability.  But, from day 1 of all of this, I accepted what I had, as not given by God, but given to me by the luck of the draw in an imperfect world.  But I accepted it, and maintained my faith in a God that loves me.  AA gives me no special prayer for any one thing, although it has some suggestions offered by St. Francis, among others.  AA asks me to accept my frailty, and the hand I am dealt.  With this acceptance comes ownership – this problem was mine, not the fault of me or anyone else, but it presented an opportunity to look at each day given me as a new opportunity, and I was able to consider the cancer almost as a type of adventure, a learning experience from which, if it were His will, I would come out the other side a better person, closer to that Higher Power than when going in.  There is glory in fighting for one’s life, but when you give it all you have, there is futility in trying to call on more, when I am out of strength.  However, there is strength in calling on that Higher Power, asking for the strength to do His will, whatever that might be, and hopefully be of help and inspiration to others along the way. AA never suggests I do six Litanies or other formal chants that were in good faith defined by other humans and along the way, included in a doctrine that God had never mandated.

“AA condones no organized religion, nor does it condemn any.  It teaches that “Condemnation prior to investigation” will get you nowhere.  It does not name or frame your Higher Power – that is up to interpretation of each member, as long as it is not that member himself who becomes his own Higher Power, for anyone who does that has already failed.  It teaches to surrender that which is not mine, such as control of the lives of others, to that Higher Power, for He alone has that control.  It teaches me that perhaps I have abused, willingly or not, my gift of free will, and asks that I turn my will and my life over to my Higher Power that He may guide my every move.

“Does it always work?  It would, if we were perfect, but we are not.  We seek only progress and maintenance of a spiritual connection with our God.  If we falter or fail, we come to Him for a chance to try again.  We would find it hard to forgive ourselves were we not completely sure that God forgives us when we keep trying, and if He can forgive us, who are we to overrule Him?  So we keep on trying, keep on praying “only for His will for me and the power to carry that out” as the driving force of each of our days.

“I hope this helps in your writing, Jim.  It comes from the heart from a good man that was drowning in self-centeredness and self-condemnation, who found there is One who is greater than I, and who loves me, and will help me every step of every day of my life, if I will but ask.

Living as if . . .

Hindus describe how man lives using a story about four ages of man.

  • Youth simply enjoys life
  • Young adults use their powers to achieve
  • More mature adults seek ways to contribute
  • Then, finally, some people seek  ultimate meaning

What story do we Christians tell about life? I would call it the “living as if” story. Christians live

  • As if everyday reality is much more than what it seems on the surface
  • As if God is present and active in our lives
  • As if love is the most fundamental force in the universe.

The question is, how do we live as if our story is true when the world around us tells a different story? The world tells us to live

  • As if everyday reality is exactly what it appears to be
  • As if God, if He exists at all, is remote and not active in our lives
  • As if energy is the most fundamental force in the universe

It seems to me that the purpose of church is to help Christians live their ‘as if’ story. A good way to measure whether this is happening is to look at the ‘fruits’ of the church. Paul describes these this way: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. . . Since we live by the Spirit let us keep in step with the Spirit.” [Galatians 5: 22-25]


A transformational story about God and life

Thomas Merton believed that life is a process of going from “innocence to experience and back to innocence.”

  • When we are innocent children the world is magical, and death doesn’t exist.
  • As we grow up, we learn from experience that the world is a difficult place. We must compete with others to succeed.  Evil, sickness and death enter our story about life.
  • Then, a different form of transforming innocence may enter our life. The Holy Spirit leads us to discover that God is on our side and death holds no fears.  In On Being Liked, James Alison describes this process of encountering and learning a mature form of  innocence with finding a fresh, transforming story about God.

Many Christians have a story about God that emphasizes our sinfulness. This story arises from the church’s explanation for why Jesus had to die for us. He had to “atone” to God for our sinfulness.  For example, the Catholic Catechism defines atonement in this statement: “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.” [Article 1992].   This description creates an image of God as a Judge who requires a victim (His Son) to offer his life to make up for the sins of his creatures. In this story, God is merciful but also just and there must be retribution for man’s sinfulness. In his mercy, God substitutes Jesus and we don’t have to pay the price for our transgressions.

Atonement puts sin at the center of our story about God. Alison creates another story about God’s motivation and Jesus’ passion. Jesus’ apparent “losing to death, was not done so as to ‘please the Father’ but rather to get through to us.” Death has no power in God’s reality and we need to get beyond our ideas about death created by our experiences in the world that stand in the way of our becoming His sons and daughters. “God has nothing to do with death and humans need not either.” Jesus become man to show us how to ‘play the game of life’ as God wants us to.

Alison uses the metaphor of how a loving parent teaches a child to play tennis to illustrate how Jesus teaches us. The parent could obviously win every game but chooses not to and loses artfully, pushing the child to learn how to play. Jesus played the ‘game of life’ and by giving himself up to death, apparently ‘losing to death.’ By doing this he showed us how to “live as if death were not.” Jesus lived in a world filled with the threat of death but he took no notice and lived freely and lovingly.

If we look at  the ‘100,000 foot view’ of Jesus’ life, one theme becomes obvious: forgiveness. It was why he was sent and it characterized his life and death.

  • “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:17]
  • (to the woman accused of adultery) “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she said. ”Then neither do I condemn you.’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave you life of sin.'” [John 8-11]
  • (from the cross) “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” [Luke 23:34]

So, playing the game of life as Jesus did involves learning what such forgiveness entails.  Alison illustrates that our normal way of thinking about forgiveness falls far short of what Jesus means.

  • Forgiveness is “losing the human need to survive-by-creating-human-victims”
  • Forgiveness is “moving toward someone who I am like in such a way that they will be free from death with me so that together we can become a new ‘we'”
  • Through forgiveness “As we forgive and are forgiven we come to see what really is.”

The expansive, inclusive and creative meaning that Jesus gives forgiveness is not something we learn like all other subjects. It is a transformation that we undergo, probably for our entire life. It means viewing worldly failure and death as God does, as things that are not real! “We gradually learn to live as if death (and failure) are not by, in a variety of ways, undergoing death beforehand so that it loses all power over us and we start to be able to live free of its compulsions.” Paul talked of this as ‘dying to self’ and Jesus told the parable of the seed needing to die in order to yield fruit.

We must give ourselves permission to question the usual story about atonement (and the teachings of our church) in order to potentially find a new ‘transformational story’ about God’s intentions in sending His Son and allowing His death.  A fresh story about Jesus and a potential new image for God can change everything in our lives. Yet, we also sense that commiting to a new story about Jesus is a very serious business. The danger is that we might set ourself up as the ultimate authority for our beliefs about God. We might commit the sin of pride and throw out all the learning of wise and good Christians over 2000 years. Nonetheless, we also sense that, to be fully human, we must prayerfully ask questions about the Atonement and not simply swallow our church’s story whole. Ultimately, we need to share what we find with other Christians, and study what the church and Bible says, before we finally commit ourselves to a new story about Jesus’ way of playing the game of life. Such conversations are precisely why we need to be in a community of Christians: to find a way to reach the truth through honest conversation about such provocative questions.