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Human Relationships and the Church

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.

Why?

The man born blind

When Jesus met a man born blind ( John, 9:1–12) two issues were addressed. First the man’s blindness. Being blind within his culture he was regarded as bad, a sinner. So were his parents. Neither the man nor his parents had done anything wrong, but the intransigence of humanity was such that it was easier to heal the man than to heal those who were condemning him. Ultimately those condemning him would not let go of their critique. To do so would be to lose face. Though there is a lingering human sense for some people that illness or disability has a human agency, that if, for instance, our children are different it is our fault, science and culture do not generally uphold this point of view. We are born as we are. We are all different from one another and the challenge of Jesus is one of accepting love which bridges difference and loves others, incorporating them into society rather than alienating or condemning them.

Healing a leper

This is further underlined in the instance of a leper coming to Jesus to be healed (Mark 1: 40 – 45). The leper is unwell, but fear of illness had caused society to alienate people with such illness, rather than enabling them to live and be loved within society. So Jesus heals the leper but also points him to the priest who can issue a certificate indicating that he is ‘clean’ and can be reincorporated into society. Jesus’ initial response to the man is to be moved, either with compassion or with anger, depending on the Biblical text which is chosen. There are two and the Greek word in each is different. One suggests compassion, but at a level which is visceral and not the gentler sense which our English might suggest. The other word relates to ‘snorting like a war horse’, it conveys a very aggressive emotion. Neither expression fits an appropriate response to the man himself, or to the illness. It does make sense in relation to the those who would seek to put this man outside of their society on account of something which was not his fault. While some illnesses might carry with them an element of personal responsibility, not all do and even in those that have this component, the sufferer needs to have an awareness of what they are doing in order to avoid the action that is causing the problem and the capacity to alter their practice or context. The bottom line that Jesus demonstrates in these situations is the human possibility of love to incorporate someone different from ourselves and the human responsibility to change our attitude in order that someone else can be whole as they are. The illness and its healing is secondary.

Creation

Arguably in relation to racial difference we are still on a journey of growing understanding. Racism still exists in society, though most societies recognize it as wrong. What is more difficult is eradicating it as we have a deeply ingrained sense of fear, sometimes biologically helpful sometimes culturally learned which makes us fear difference. Increasingly such differences are seen as biologically inherent and make up part of the variety of created life. Indeed, such variety offers a survival premium and hence the emphasis on seed banks and conservation maintaining a varied genetic resource for future generations. So there is a human benefit, aside from any cultural or Biblical injunction at least not to kill, at best to love and care.

Reading the Bible

This moves us to a consideration as to how we read creation stories and particularly phrases such as ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ (Genesis 1: 27). When such passages were first spoken or written people were seeking to make sense of the world in which they lived. Arguably they saw men and women. What they saw was an outside manifestation, but also what fitted in the context of their culture. Difference felt threatening. We now know that human beings  have been around for upward of a million years. We now (except in situations where the Biblical text is read independently of context, variety and translation) recognise that the Biblical text we are reading cannot be read as a literal description of what happened at creation. We also see around us people who exhibit a variety of difference in appearance, genetic make-up, cultural history, mental capacity and theological understanding. This latter is manifested, not simply in nuances of interpretation of one collection of scripture, but in a compendium of different faiths, some of which have come and gone and others are still being practised. In that light we might read ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ differently. We now know that there is, for instance, a spectrum of skin and hair colour, genetically determined. We are also increasingly aware that the same is true of our sexuality. I would suggest that this has been so for centuries. Our forebears would recognise ‘strong women’ and ‘gentle men’, though we now know that such descriptions are limited and simplistic. We are all more varied, indeed ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139: 14), than our simple outer appearance would allow. Turning the phrases around, without I think doing disservice to scripture, we might now say male and female and in many other ways (LGBTQ for instance), we have been made. And if that is so, and we are made in God’s image, this variety must be inherently present in the otherness that we name ‘God’.

Human variety and relationship

These reflections give me pause to reflect and the conviction that, while recognising this fascinating and wonderful variety of created humanity, we should have little surprise that Jesus worked so hard, in the terms of his day, to enable people to live with difference and to love one another, to break down walls of alienation. To do this today we need to see all people as created in God’s image, to work together in mutual recognition of our common humanity for our common good what ever our differences.

In the context of intimate human relations, the church has tended to fit people into models of relationship rather than enabling people to be affirmed in the relationships for which they were suited. This should in no way diminish our reverence for traditional marriage, but neither should we be fearful of other forms, styles and types of relationship. For some these other relationships will feel like a traditional marriage, and could be named as such, others might be seen in other ways, named by other names. Even the term ‘traditional marriage’ is difficult to pin down as individuals relate faithfully to others in a variety of different ways. No two marriages are the same. What ought to be stressed is that no relationship is acceptable which is one sided or abusive in any way.

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.  

O God, let intellect be held – God and the mystery of love

O God, let intellect be held
constrained, that I might simply sense
the depth, and mystery, of love
within this present tense.

As music sets the air aflame,
as sense is dumb and flesh retires
God, reach within my heart again
and fan those hidden fires.

As hands reach out to grasp the grace
that bread and wine should mediate,
reach back through hands that you would choose:
disclose, communicate.

Then held at once in paradox,
remembering in present time,
unite again this human flesh
with sacred love divine.

Andrew E Pratt (born 1948)
© 2003 Stainer & Bell Ltd
8 8 8 6

 

The Trinity – some thoughts – nothing fixed or final of course…

On Twitter recently there has been some conversation about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Traditionally Christians believe that God is manifest in a transcendent form = creator, often called Father.

Additionally God has become incarnate, made flesh in the person of Jesus = Saviour often called the Son.

Finally Christians belove that God continues to be manifest in the life of Christians = the Holy Spirit.

The problem is that the Trinity is not specifically defined in Scripture though the names of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity are provided. Trying to put the ‘persons’ together involves mental gymnastics if we believe in Monotheism. Even the term ‘person’ is problematic as it defines an existent being.

An analogy might help:

Resonance, in chemistry, refers to contexts in which one or more electrons contribute to more than one bond in a molecule. A most common example is found in the resonant bonds between the carbon atoms of benzene rings. The molecule appears to be two things at the same time. Now if that is over-complicated it could be you’re not a chemist. No shame in that. But…

The Trinity says the same of God. God is three ‘persons’ at the same time. If we express this in familial terms we make analogies which are contradictory, don’t work. Anthropomorphising language makes it less intelligible. God is outside our human language and categories and means of expression.

What we name ‘God’ transcends time, space, language, understanding. God is not part of creation or an alternative creation. Ground of being (after Paul Tillich) best expresses this. So let’s just leave ‘God’ as mystery. Forget explanation and practise LOVE?

Thoughts on grace and atonement – The feather of grace – hymn/poem on this site

Grace is unwarranted, unexpected yet universal. For something so important one would expect it to be protected, invincible. Yet the medium of announcement is vulnerable and fragile.
The fact of grace, that we are all accepted as we are without condition is unfathomable, cuts across expectation and logic. To explain it we construct models and metaphors out of human experience. There must be a ransom paid. There is none. Just a birth in a foul stable and a death on a sordid cross.
The way of signalling this drama is through the kiss of a man who subsequently kills himself. His act sets the play in motion. Who would trust something so momentous to such a person?
Choice and decision is placed before Pilate. He wants nothing of it. Natural justice points in one direction. His inaction as much as a negative action seals the injustice that is unfolding.
At the end love incarnate hangs bleeding, in human terms, destroyed, eradicated.
The girder of God’s grace is as frail as a feather, yet achieves total human freedom. The balance could have been so much better weighted. But the feather is God’s way. We are rarely, if ever, going to risk it. It is not expedient. It will not work. We do not understand it. But faith’s feather says this is the way.