Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Word and the Spirit...

I have been thinking over the last few weeks and months, with an increasing sense of urgency, about the Word. If we are Christians, what distinguishes us as Christians? Where are the roots of our being Christian?

We hear the Word, our hearts receive it, and our wills, by faith, and under grace, respond. But we have to hear the Word.

And yet the Word is at least a most wonderfully complex and subtle amalgam of history, adventure, poetry, song, preaching, prophecy, theology and much else besides; and ultimately, it is Jesus, our Saviour, himself. (John 1:1)

I have sometimes inveighed in this blog against reading the Bible as if it were a set of instructions for some mechanism, applying it like a rulebook for some totalitarian regime. This is plainly foolish, since were that to be the method recommended by the Holy Spirit, the book he inspired and guided would be set out as a rulebook, an unambiguous catalogue of dos and don'ts, and it is about as far from that as you can get. It is full of the grace and mercy of God, and of the complexity and the contradictory nature of the human heart (Romans 7:18-20 ).

Yet the opposite is also true. All religions are not the same. As Christians we are not merely in the position of so many of us in my youth, wandering starry (glassy?) eyed from one faith to another philosophy, from one mantra to another psychedelic substance. We have been given Jesus' teachings, and the Old Testament in whose soil they grew, and which prophesied his coming, and if we follow those teachings, we will know the truth, and that truth will set us free (John 8:31-32).

Confessing Evangelical remarks in a recent post:

The Christian revelation achieves this in at least two ways. First, in the person of Jesus himself: the incarnate Word. Any word about God will inevitably be reductive, giving only "the impression of capturing reality". However, in Jesus we see not a word about God, but the Word who is God. To know God, therefore, is not a matter of hearing and understanding words about God, but about relating to Jesus as the Word...

So we have the Word which washes us, the Word which we eat and drink. Neither of these is less than the Word which we hear with our ears, nor is that Word set aside or superseded. Rather, the sacraments are a means by which our whole person, body and soul, conscious and unconscious (or "pre-conscious" in the case of an infant being baptised), encounters and receives that Word.

In that context, not only are the sacraments a vehicle for the Word, but the Word itself becomes sacramental. The Word that we hear with our ears (or read with our eyes) becomes more than merely a conscious reception of words about Jesus (and hence about God), but a place where we encounter Jesus himself. This is especially true in the reading of Scripture and preaching of the gospel in church. Superficially these can seem to us to be only a conscious hearing of words about Jesus. However, understood sacramentally, it is Jesus himself who speaks to our whole person through them.

All this "cannot be expressed with words, and it cannot be expressed without words"; it can only be received by faith, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

This increasing hunger for God's word, and for a community which lives and prays in its beautiful light (Psalm 119:105) led first Jan, and then me, to search for such things in our own area. We are home at last in a little Baptist church in a nearby village - a young church, planted out of a long-established church in one of the neighbouring seaside towns, full of joy and hope, and of people of every age and background.

I am still a Franciscan, of course: increasingly, I recall Francis and Clare as people who were faithful to the Word and in prayer, who could hold action and contemplation, life according to the Word and the Spirit, in creative tension rather than in opposition. This is exactly where I find myself, and I have to remain true to the call that has brought me here.


  1. Anonymous10:25 pm

    I’m reading this book “Mystical Theology” by Mark McIntosh. Brilliant so far – he is submitting that spirituality has over the centuries been regarded as something the pious women mystics do whereas serious theology is the realm of men in universities. I think we find some of that in this day and age in the orders of the church – the Jesuits are where one does theology ‘for real’ and is a guide for others who are more engaged in spirituality at the personal level. A sort of separation had grown this author maintains is unhealthy, since without a much more serious interaction theology starts essentially making things up and loses touch with God, and spirituality without critical thought can become New Age crap, self-obsessive, and lose the essential communal aspect of Christianity.

    Anyway, there’s several paragraphs I’d like to quote, but this one is one that resonated with your entry. He quotes Herbert McCabe:

    If we are to enter into the mystery of God it is not information that we need, and in principle we could not have information – our language and concepts break down in the presence of God. What we need is to taken up by God himself, to share in his knowledge of himself, a sharing that to us must just look like darkness. So that our faith seems not like an increase of knowledge but, if anything, an increase in ignorance. We become more acutely aware of our inadequacy before the mystery as we are brought closer to it. So it is God’s initiative that is needed. Not that we should speak more about him, but that he should speak to us.

    Isn’t that it? All the theology and liturgy and saints and everything is a waste of time if it’s not all an expression of an actual relationship with an actual God. And it certainly feels like we can’t MAKE it happen – we feel like the girl at the dance sitting properly against the wall while all thoughts are consumed in the hope God will look our way.

    But I think we can be more aggressive. I would like to know how to tackle God and pin him to the ground so he can’t get away.

  2. Wonderful comment, Ann - thank you!

    I think the wallflower / Jacob dichotomy is maybe askew, though. To continue with your dance hall analogy, God is the guy who only has eyes for you. You only have to look at him, really look at him, and he's yours (you're his)! Or so it seems to me.

    Our problem is so often that we look at what we think is God, and wonder why it's unresponsive. But of course if it's our own preconception, or someone else's pre-packaged plastic Jesus, it ain't gonna respond!

    And that's why I've become so obsessed with the Word. If we read the Word (as opposed to paraphrasing it, or trying to unpick it, or hijacking lumps of it to hit people with) he is there.

    "Your word, O LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens." (Psalm 119:89)

    Jesus: "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life." (John 5:24)

    and so forth!

  3. Anonymous11:00 pm

    Yes, you're right. God is certainly the one who has eyes only for each of us - somehow that phrase of "only for each" is true even though not semantically sensible.

    I have to find another quote from that McIntosh book to post to you, since I think one of the major points of his work is somehow related to what you are saying so clearly here.

    It's that the Word of God can't be enlarged/replaced/bettered by commentaries; he insists that the meaningfulness of the Word is encountered in reading the original. (Yes commentaries are useful too, but don’t replace reading the original.)

    There's something core, noetic, nuclear, and radiant about the Word that when read creates the spiritual reality for an encounter with God that saying "more" or explaining it all misses. My sister, who is a storyteller, explains it well in that context. If you explain the symbolism of a story as you are telling the story, you wreck it.

    But what I haven't found a good explanation of “dry periods” which I guess I was thinking of subconsciously in my dance situation. It seems that God shows up when He wants, not when we call. I suppose that is appropriate, God being God. But sometimes there is a dryness because I’m not praying enough myself, and sometimes there is a dryness because God (as in John of Cross’ Dark Night) wants us to not be addicted to the experience of God, but to want God only for Himself. Yet, on the other hand, I see some examples (Brother Lawrence, Jon von Rysbroeck) were people end up continually in the presence of God. But then there is Mother Teresa who felt the night for many, many years. There are examples all over the place.

    I don’t think there’s an explanation for that, is there? All we can do is have a regular prayer life, and leave the rest to God, and pray for deliverance from our attachments.
    The one thing I do believe is what your reference in looking at Him: letting Him love us radically changes us, and it is not that easy to let Him love us as much as He wants. We get embarrassed and turn away, or it’s too intense. we feel our creaturehood (is that a word) and feel his gaze too much. But it is that gaze that transforms, doesn’t it?

    I have to confess I was surprised to see you land in a Baptist Church. I agree that the Catholic Church doesn’t stress scripture as much as I’d like (I came from a protestant background), but do you find you experience the absence of the Liturgy of the Eucharist?
    It’s funny, my husband has his own analogy for understanding all the denominations which I’ve found very wise. He says we should regard all the denominations like different medical specialists, and as a good doctor would say – you need a surgeon not an internist if that’s what they thought, likewise the different denominations’ ministers should tell all their members – on a case by case basis – what other denomination they should start attending because it would be good for them. Makes sense to me…I have seen isolated Pentecostal interpretations of scripture so “out there” I’d like to send them to the Catholic Church to get a good dose of the wisdom of time and lots of others who have read and prayed about those passages (I’m thinking of a case I know where someone told me in the church they attend they understand we are supposed to pile up as much stuff as possible, since it will all be returned to us after the second coming of Christ). And, as it implies, we need the elephant put back together, as we need one doctor who sees and manages the patient as a whole.