If Only... (John Wessel)

  (24 May 10)

If Only …..



John Wessel reflects on prayer.



Why is it that 85% of children who leave Catholic Schools now no longer maintain church attendance? Why did the Qld Uniting Church Synod close its Bookshop & Mission Dept? ‘The National Church Life Survey’ revealed that only 8% of people in UC are aged between 15- 29 year of age.


Only 12% of people in Australia regularly attend church – 88% do not attend. Last year (2008) I heard the then UC Qld Moderator say –“the church is willing to let smaller congregations close.” In all our congregations the hair is white. Where are the youth? What does this say about the future of the church? Why are so many members walking away and there is no real effort to understand the cause of this.


Why is this happening?


I believe the church has not understood the effects that the post- modern cultural change is having on the thinking of the young, or else, does not want to see it. The church has stopped having a conversation with post- modern culture and young people live under a cloud of darkness that the churches do not understand. By clinging to the past we not only lose sight of the present but we fail to allow the future to be born. Hugh Mackay (1999) defines post-modernism as a…


cultural shift so radical that it amounts to the discovery of a new way of thinking … a new kind of change taking place in our society… we are at a turning point…these recent changes have affected Australians’ view of life and religious faith in a very profound and irreversible manner1.


The church cannot admit to what I will later say in this paper because if it does it will lose its power over people and a whole new way of telling the Christian story will have to be developed.


The Tipping Point began with the Enlightenment, with the birth of science and reason with people like Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Darwin. This period was followed by the growth of the secular society, globalisation, a pluralistic world modern technology and communication, materialism and rapid transportation which made the world a much smaller place.


All this became a threat to many within the church from around 1920 on—especially for the powerbrokers. They either retreated, because of fear into fundamentalism, or fiddled at the edges in all kinds of ways and have not been prepared to face the hard questions until maybe it’s too late.


The package we received from 2000 years ago, which came out of a completely different culture and worldview, is no longer adequate to deal with the challenge of this age. Young people will no longer accept what the church teaches. We are living through what may well be the greatest time of change in Christian history.


What I now have to say is inspired by Noel Preston in his book “Beyond the Boundary”. 2. Firstly I need to declare that there are several propositions considered by many as central to the traditional Christian package that I can no longer accept. I do not believe in the literal interpretation of the creation mythology found in the Book of Genesis or in the doctrine of “original sin” that grew out of it via Augustine. Nor therefore do I believe in the need for human redemption through the death of Jesus that had its birth in this mythology. It has been the “fall” and its resulting distortion of God’s creation that has been the bedrock of the way we have told the Jesus story. Without the “fall” there was no need for Jesus to come to our aid. Christianity became a religion of guilt which was encouraged liturgically. If Christianity is to have a future it must find a New Point of entry, a New Way of telling its story to a post- modern world.


I do not believe that the Bible is an infallible document or that for all times has to be considered as “the word of God”. Nor do I believe that the Bible can be understood apart from the culture, the worldview, the agenda of the various writers, and the history within which it was written. However is does contain Truth.


I do not believe that anyone can understand the New Testament until they are prepared to see it through Jewish eyes. Christianity (The Way) for the first 88 years of its life existed within Judaism as a sect. Each Sabbath the Jews read part of the Torah and it would take one year to complete this task. Some ask, why do the synoptic gospels see Jesus’ ministry lasting one year while John sees it as three years? Why? Mark wrote his story about Jesus so it could be read alongside the Torah each Sabbath. However it was too short and only lasted six months. Matthew and Luke filled it out to cover the whole year. (For a detailed account see John Spong’s Liberating the Gospels)


By the time John’s gospel was written the time factor of one year had lost its necessity as the followers of The Way had been thrown out of the Synagogue and the Greco/Roman influence had taken over which is evident in this gospel.


What was the Jesus experience that compelled his followers to stretch the words of the stories available to them (their scriptures, festivals, traditions, and midrash story telling) to enable those words to be big enough to capture their experience of Jesus? I hear them saying, we have met and encountered in the life of the man Jesus everything that we mean by the word “God”. They tried to say, in their own Jewish way, that in his humanity they had found a doorway into the meaning of transcendence, into the reality of the Divine Mystery.


I do not believe that God is some kind of anthropomorphic old man in the sky who is ‘elsewhere’ and who sometimes intervenes in human affairs. This is an ancient, man- made definition of God. Where this definition went wrong was in assuming that such an image equated with reality, but the sacred never dies; it only changes shape. I do believe however in a Divine Mystery - that which is ‘everywhere’, beyond, and part of all that is; a Divine Mystery that is indescribable.


I do not believe that Jesus was conceived independent of sperm being implanted by a human father; however I can say with confidence that “God was in Christ”. What does this mean? The Divine Mystery is beyond and within all that is; however in the man Jesus this presence was obvious; his life was filled with the Spirit of the Divine.


I do not believe all the so-called miracles attributed to Jesus necessarily occurred as they were described; but I believe in the miraculous life-changing power of Jesus.


I do not believe in the literal account of the resurrection as recorded in some of the gospels. But I do believe that the ‘spirit’ of Jesus could not be silenced by his death. That spirit continued to live on in his followers, and still does.


I do not believe that Christianity is the only way God’s truth comes to humanity. While Jesus defines for some of us the Divine Mystery, the Divine Mystery is not confined to this description; but for me personally, Jesus is my doorway into the Divine Mystery. I do not believe that the creeds are helpful as they are dated, political and divisive. As long as the cosmology and worldview which the creedal game assumed held together, that authority survived. But that is no longer the case.


I do not believe that Christianity was helped by Western intervention because it literalised Jewish metaphor. The most self-destructive strategy ever adopted by Western religion was its insistence upon the literal reality of its mysteries and miracles. It held, and still does, that these mysteries could be true only if they were literally true; it disregarded the truth of metaphor and symbol, opting instead for the truth of fact and history. Is it any wonder that the religious stories of the West have been treated like nursery rhymes or fairy stories; things we outgrow and leave behind. However it was that intervention by the West that has sustained Christianity to this day, for better or for worse.


I do not believe in fundamentalism in any religion be it in Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Fundamentalism is never a search for truth but always a search for security. It has its base in fear; fear of the modern world with all its uncertainties. Fundamentalists cling to flat earth science and anything that challenges their belief in an interventionist God out-there is strongly and often violently resisted because it will unravel their incredible bundle of beliefs.


David Tacey says:


In the contemporary world, where so much is open and uncertain, where traditions have been shaken or overturned, where we stand almost naked before the spirit, there is a strong counter-revolutionary force: a desire for absolute certainty, religious security, and nostalgic traditionalism. Fundamentalism offers us a parodic version of our need to turn back to the past, only there the turn back is a fullblown regression, a deliberate and systematic retreat from the demands and revolutions of the modern period. This is not going back in order to move forward, but going back to escape the tensions and complexities of a difficult period. 3.


I do not believe in man-made dogma created by the church that ‘must’ be believed, so as to keep the powerbrokers within the church secure. But I can rejoice in the new found spirituality.


Noel Preston says:


“To me spirituality refers to the human quest to live life with a meaning and a purpose that is linked to a sense of transcendence, that is, a consciousness that we are part of a reality beyond ourselves. It has to do with wholeness, not perfection. We cultivate our spirituality in our ‘inner life’ as we cultivate, maybe unconsciously, authenticity, integrity, hope and love. Spirituality is less concerned with the external trappings of religion, including creeds and catechisms, and more concerned with fostering compassion, and an inner awareness of connectedness to all life. Spirituality expresses a faith stance rather than the assertion of beliefs.” 4.


I do not believe in intercessory prayer; asking a distant, elsewhere God to intervene and change the natural order of things so as to please me. To me the Divine Mystery is everywhere in the universe, transcendent and immanent, beyond and within each of us and is that which shares our woundedness and our rejoicing not to change the natural tapestry that is woven into the very fabric of life with its joys and sorrows, its laughter and its tears but to be with us in all our living. Therefore my “Prayer” is the way I live and the way I love. I like what John Spong says: “Prayer is the conscious human intention to relate to the depths of life and love and thereby to be an agent of the creation of wholeness in another.” 5.


Prayer then becomes less about crying out to God and more about seeking a state of union with the Divine Mystery and, in love, equipping oneself to be an agent who can attempt to address the needs that confront us.


Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer is an example of this type of praying, Grant me the serenity to ...... courage to …. and wisdom to……do something about these circumstances.


So prayer is living in a way that seeks connectedness with the Divine Mystery in which we can experience connectedness with all beings. Meditation on the inner presence and purpose of the Divine becomes important in this process.


I do not believe that my body will exist after my death nor will my consciousness or selfconsciousness exist but because I am part of an interconnected whole, a oneness with all that is, and because the Divine Mystery is also one with all that is and everywhere (even incarnate in me), I will die into the Divine Mystery. I have no idea what that will mean. I am content and at peace with this.


Having removed all of the above what then is the New Story that needs to be told concerning Jesus of Nazareth? What is the “Good News?”


While what I have said may shock some, I can assure my readers that I do not disown my Christian formation. Others calling themselves Christian may disown me – that’s OK. For me, the Christian tradition remains my ‘home’. For me Christianity is not nor ever was static or doctrinal. It is a pathway we walk, a journey we take, into the Divine Mystery. Jesus is the key historical indicator of this. I seek and affirm a spirituality in harmony with the spirit of the Christ which I believe was lived out and taught by Jesus of Nazareth. I seek to be a follower of “the Way.”


What does that mean? It means to walk in his footsteps; it means to endeavour to live by Jesus’ teachings. What are they? As I read his life and attend to his teachings I see them as follows.


The New Story must teach and live unconditional love for all as did Jesus. Such a vision is of a renewed community built around the ideal of love, and understood in personal, political, economic and social terms as a community of eco-justice. If love matters in our personal and private lives then we must find ways to give it expression in the public and political arena. Love is grounded in the interconnectedness of all life and addresses our mutual belonging as a species and across species. St Paul reminds us that all our achievements are hollow and sterile if we fall short of unconditional love. Love reflects the very heart of the Divine Mystery. Love is a verb not a noun.


“God is love and he who lives in love lives in God and God lives in him”.


The New Story must also help break down all barriers that divide whatever those barriers may be and wherever they may be found. There are so many barriers we erect, barriers that separate and divide, even barriers to keep people out of the church if their understanding is different. Coupled with this is the need within the New Story to eradicate prejudice in all its forms. Inclusiveness for all is a keystone and needs to be central in any New Story. For some to be ‘Chosen’ means that there are others who are ‘Unchosen’.


This is seen time and time again in church dogma and especially in fundamentalist teaching, but never in the teaching or the life of Jesus. Jesus’ Way was also without fear; he fearlessly spoke out against the rigid laws of the Synagogue that were exclusive in so many ways. His was a life and teaching about compassion, respect, tenderness and behind all of the above was justice.


The New Story needs to stop concentrating on the after-life and judgement and face the spiritual needs of this life. The church needs to discover this New Story about Jesus’ Way; proclaim it and live it. It would then find itself “Celebrating Being” and the resurrected spirit of Jesus, the kind of resurrection I can believe in, would again live within it and in the life of the world. ‘Celebration of life’ in all its forms would be part of who we are in the here-and-now. This is “Good News” for the world.





1.     Mackay, Hugh (1999) Turning Point: Australians Choosing Their Future

2.     Preston, Noel (2006) Beyond the Boundary

3.     Tacey, David (2003) The Spirituality Revolution

4.     Preston, Noel (2006) Beyond the Boundary (page 274)

5.     Spong, John (1998) Why Christianity Must Change or Die (page 143)


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