Ireland’s Spiritual Revolution

three_leaf_cloverMost of the world was surprised this week when Ireland voted overwhelmingly in a popular referendum to legalize gay marriage — the first country in the world to make that decision through a popular vote.   Ireland.  For centuries, one of the most traditionally Roman Catholic countries in the world.  And one in which, until recently, the Roman Church held enormous influence and power.  And a church which still officially teaches that gay marriage is wrong.

It seems appropriate that this revolutionary vote took place around the time of Pentecost, when we are reminded that the Spirit sometimes invites us into places we would never have expected to find ourselves.  That certainly seems to be where much of the Roman Catholic hierarchy currently finds itself, and they seem uncertain just how to respond.  An Irish bishop commented, in the aftermath of the vote, that the church really needs to search its own soul, and understand how it has become disconnected from the sensibilities of the Irish people, particularly the younger generations.  This bishop publicly worried that the church risked irrelevance if it didn’t engage in some serious reevaluation of itself.  That is a rare thing to hear a Roman Catholic prelate say.  On the other hand, the Vatican’s Secretary of State — another bishop, and one of the more powerful members of the hierarchy — reportedly called the Irish vote a “defeat for humanity.”

I myself was disappointed to learn that the Anglican Church in Ireland was also less than enthusiastic about this referendum.  Ireland’s only female Anglican bishop wrote against the referendum in advance of the vote, saying that God prefers that children be raised in a traditional family structure.   And some in the Irish Anglican church took pains to point out after the vote that same-sex marriage, while civilly legal, would not be conducted in Irish Anglican churches, and Irish Anglican clergy would not be allowed to be involved in them.   It seems that the Roman Catholic Church is not the only Christian community that is in need of some soul-searching.

What disappoints me, but doesn’t really surprise me, about the reactions of much of the religious hierarchies to the Irish referendum is that it fails to entertain a revolutionary possibility:  that the Irish vote may be a work of the Spirit, seeking to teach the church something new that the church refuses to hear.  There is an arrogance, particularly among hierarchically structured churches, that the Spirit is only able to speak through official channels, populated by officially authorized persons (usually bishops).  There is a presumption that the church somehow controls the Spirit — or, perhaps more accurately, a presumption that the Spirit would never dream of going outside official channels.  It is an arrogant assumption that truth is somehow the property of the church, rather than something that belongs to God.

I find myself wanting to repeat a quote I used in last week’s post, which is actually a part of the Gospel reading assigned for this Sunday:

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

~John 3:8

The verse is something of a play on words, since “wind” and “Spirit” is the same in the Greek in which John’s Gospel was originally written.  Jesus’ point is clear:  no one can presume to control the movement of the Spirit, the dynamic, living divine energy that moves in the world according to God’s choice, not ours.   The Spirit does not belong to the church — rather, the church belongs to the Spirit.

We are accustomed to equating truth with power:  those in power have the truth, and vice versa.  Of course, we challenge this all the time (how many people, for example, think that powerful politicians have much of a handle on truth these days?), and yet our thought remains structured around this equation, power=truth; or, at least the right to say what the truth is.   A careful reading of the gospels shows the way in which Jesus undermines this traditional thought structure (which was even more embedded in his world than in ours).   Jesus is constantly pointing to those in power as having lost the truth, and he is constantly pointing to those who are disempowered — the marginalized of society — as being possessors of it.   For Jesus, the movement of the Spirit — and of truth — is from the margins to the center, not the other way around.

Ireland is, I think, for us today an example of precisely this dynamic.  The Spirit is speaking truth about human life and human relationships from the popular margins toward the center of the church’s power structure, and those in that center seem for the most part not to want to hear it.  The question is, will they remain intransigent?  If they do, they will indeed become irrelevant, as the Irish population — and others around the world — are carried on the winds of a new truth that is blowing against the bulwark of Christianity but so far, only getting in through some small cracks here and there.

Will church leaders continue to bewail what they see as the abandonment of “the truth” by larger and larger numbers of people, until no one is coming to their churches anymore?  Or, will they begin to entertain the possibility that the Spirit is out there, outside the centers of ecclesiastical power, calling for a spiritual revolution just as Jesus did centuries ago?

“You cannot bear them”

200px-Holy_Spirit_as_Dove_(detail)The coming Sunday is the celebration of Pentecost:  often called “the birthday of the church”, it is a celebration of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church.  We talk about the Spirit a lot, yet what we mean by that is not necessarily clear.   For me, the Spirit is about our on-going, living connection with God, that which continues to open us up to the life of God.   It is God meeting us and us meeting God.  This connection is a part of us, but our awareness of it is not automatic.  While we may experience it, we may name it differently.   And if we want to experience the full dynamism of this connection, we must cultivate it through intentional spiritual practice.

Often, it seems to me, we are unwilling to accept just how important and dynamic this connection is.  When Jesus speaks of the Spirit, he often does so in ways that are unsettling, because he suggests that the Spirit may overturn things that we hold dear.  In one of his most well-known teachings about the Spirit, Jesus says,

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

— John 3:8

In these words, Jesus suggests that living fully in the dynamism of this spiritual connection is like being blown about by a strong wind that is likely to take us where we might not think to go ourselves, or where we might be strongly opposed to going.

That suggestion is amplified by this Sunday’s Gospel reading (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15), in which Jesus says,

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”

While the Spirit may want to take us to places we are not ready or willing to go, Jesus recognizes that we cannot go fruitfully to those places before there is a certain maturity, and certain level of spiritual development.  The Spirit pushes and pulls us, but is also sensitive to what we are able to bear and what we are not.  And yet, the Spirit will not wait indefinitely.

In my experience, as the Spirit pushes and pulls and tries to say new things to us, a lot of Christians put a lot of energy into pushing back, and sticking their fingers in their spiritual ears.  Often, we do that by locking the Spirit up in the Bible, and insisting that anything the Spirit might have to say to us now must have been said before.  If you can’t justify it according to the Scripture, then it must not really be the Spirit who is speaking.  That, I think, is a betrayal of Jesus.

After all, who do we say that Jesus is?  We say that he is the icon of a person who is deeply and fully caught up in the dynamic connection of Spirit.  We say that the goal of the Christian life is to become as Christ-like as possible, which means to be as deeply and fully caught up in the connection of Spirit as possible.  Jesus knew the Scriptures of his time well, and yet he never felt himself bound by them.  The gospels report that when people heard Jesus teaching, they were astounded because he taught them as one who had authority.  Biblical scholars tell us that what amazed them is that Jesus did not teach by reiterating what the well-known rabbis before him had said, and then basing his teaching on the foundation that they had laid, which was the classic teaching style of his time.  Instead, Jesus simply taught, without reference to those who had taught before him.  He relied on a profound inner authority that flowed from that Spirit connection.  Jesus had new things to say, and while he honored his tradition and believed that the basis of what he was teaching could be found there, he was not afraid to say those new things, even when others were convinced that he was radically departing from the accepted theology and morality of his time.

That is one of the ways in which we are called to be like Christ.  To cultivate our connection with Spirit is to cultivate that inner authority that flows from Spirit.  That opens us up to new expressions of truth, and allows our tradition to evolve.  Too many Christians today seem to want to entrench themselves behind biblical barricades, insisting that the Spirit can only speak in biblical terms.  And yet, we do not worship a once upon a time God.  We worship a God who is living and active, who is not interested in guiding us to live like first-century or fourth-century or nineteenth- century people, but rather in empowering us to live fully in our own time, enlivened by the Spirit.

What we celebrate at Pentecost is the God who continues to speak to us today, and who calls us into new ways of living and being that the people of Jesus’ time could not possibly have imagined.  That doesn’t mean that they were wrong and we are right, or vice versa.  What it means is that human beings are evolving as spiritual beings, and our relationship with God is evolving, as well, allowing God to say things to us that we could not bear before.  Some of us are still not ready to bear them.  But, the Spirit does not wait indefinitely.

That They May Have Life

prayer imageI came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

~ John 10:10b

As the religious news services and others trumpet the latest survey results about religion in America, showing a decline in the number of people who say they are Christians and a significant increase in those who claim no religious affiliation at all (something that now describes 25% of the American population), I am reminded of how complicated being Christian in America has become.  Now, let me be clear:  I am NOT joining the bandwagon of those who want to claim that American Christians are being persecuted.  They are not, and it is ludicrous to even make such a claim (and an insult to people elsewhere in the world who truly do experience persecution).   No, when I speak of the complexity of being Christian in America, I am not talking about cultural shifts of the type that the latest survey reveals.  I am talking about the complexity created by Christians themselves.

That quote from John’s Gospel at the top of this post — “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” — has for me become the thing that defines what I believe Jesus was really aiming for in his life and ministry.  The essential message and meaning of Jesus was of God’s desire to liberate people from everything that prevented them from living a deep, abundant life.  Abundance, from the perspective of the Gospel, is not an abundance of things or wealth, but rather an abundance of meaning.   That abundance was to be found in a deep, abiding grounding in God that revealed love as the organizing principle of the universe and overflowed into relationships of compassion and justice that liberated people from whatever prevented them from experiencing this abundance in their own lives.  Jesus was always about setting people free.  Liberation is the basic theme of the Hebrew Bible and of the New Testament.

But any encounter with the dominant forms of Christianity in American culture — and probably most other places in the world — would probably not leave people with the impression that liberation lies at the heart of the Gospel.  From the time Christianity became powerful as the official religion of ancient Rome, it began to lose its liberating message, as it began to take into itself and replicate the cultural biases of the societies which it “converted.”   Rather than liberating people into a transformative relationship with God, Christianity became more interested in enforcing a moral code which became the definition of righteousness and holiness.  In this paradigm, there were kinds of people who were definitely other:  sinners who displeased God, and in some theologies, so thoroughly displeased God that they were rather beyond redemption.

This moralism continues to characterize the dominant forms of Christianity in America.  Too many churches continue to confuse morality with righteousness, and proclaim a twisted “gospel” which has nothing to do with the life and teaching of Jesus and everything to do with trying to preserve a way of life (and a way of thinking) that is changing.   So desperate are the acolytes of this gospel to hold onto their world view that they lash out in increasingly hateful ways, and presume to do so in the name of God.

It’s little wonder, then, that people are becoming less enthusiastic about Christianity, as Christians appear more and more in the public arena as conservators of a disappearing era rather than as serious spiritual explorers who have something to offer humanity in our common search for meaning, liberation, and transformation.  Rather than inviting people into an abundant life, as Jesus did, too many Christians are trying to push people into a narrow, limited life that weighs people down rather than freeing them up.  Ironically, this was exactly the criticism that Jesus leveled toward the religious leaders of his time, accusing them of laying burdens on people that were too heavy to bear, rather than inviting them into a transformative relationship with the living God.

The bottom line is that the Gospel has ceased to be good news for increasing numbers of people.  And the fault does not lie with them:  rather, it lies with us who fail to the Gospel compellingly both in word and action.  And that is a betrayal of Jesus, and of the mission and message he entrusted to us.