There is a story my father told in one of his theological writings that I would like to tell. These are his words:
I know an old woman, my father wrote, who spent most of her life as a devout adherent of the Japanese cult of the fox: Oinari-san. This merit-making, quick-rewarding faith is one of the most popular beliefs in Japan.
The old woman became Christian in her early seventies, without knowing that the change would entail giving up the fox cult.
The day finally came, however, when she was convinced that she should reject her old faith, and she decided to remove the Oinan temple she had built on her property. She prepared a small boat, placed the temple on it, took it to the open sea, and gently pushed it off into the waves.
Since she was grateful for the spiritual help she had received all these years, she watched the boat disappear into the sea with reverence and gratitude.
When I remember her story, my father wrote, I am deeply moved.
When my father admits that he is deeply moved, I wonder if he means that he, like me, feels sad.
Its a sad story…
And I can’t help wondering why…
Why can’t the God of Christianity play well with other Gods in the playground of the universe?
I have made no secret of the fact that, for the majority of my life – well into my forties – I was not a church goer.
One might think that a person like this – someone who transitions from being a unchurched to being churched, might walk into a church and sit down in the pews, and take a look around…
And to be sure, I did some of this…
But my journey, as you folks know better than anyone else, moved rather rapidly from walking past the church door, to walking into the church, up the aisles, and – in a few short years – into the pulpit!
This rapidity of this journey has had its disadvantages. It has had its advantages too, and if it’s all the same to you, I will focus on the latter.
One aspect of my character that results from my unchurched years is that I am not unduly weighed down by the doctrine of the church. I think this is a good thing
(and I hope you agree)
This part of my outlook allows me to read scripture and approach the narrative and poetry I find there without feeling that it is my job to make sure that all of you come away with a specific doctrinal message etched into your hearts and minds.
Early on in my call to the ministry, I was fortunate enough to influenced by the ideas of the theologian Harvey Cox, who reminded me that when it came down to brass and tacks, Jesus was a really good storyteller, and that the best storytellers do not demand that their listeners arrive at a specific conclusion. Indeed, the only thing that a storyteller requires of their listener, is that the person have ears to hear and an imagination to nourish. The imagination is the most important thing – and the genius of Jesus Christ (according to Cox) is that Jesus’ stories did not just stimulate the imagination – they awakened and gave nourishment to the moral imagination.
Cox helped me find my place as a believer. In order to embrace Christianity, it was not necessary for me to assert, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the fact that Mary was a Virgin, and Jesus walked on water.
Maybe she was.
Maybe he did.
But that is not the point.
The point is, that we have inherited a fabulously rich body of literature that allows us, week-to-week, to stimulate our moral imagination. The more we do this – stimulate our moral imagination – the more we are likely to be able to apply that same moral imagination to the consuming and confounding moral difficulties that beset us in our modern life.
And yet, the great majority of people today appear to be of the opinion that “organized religion” as it is rather disdainfully called, is an irrelevant waste of time.
If religion is primarily an archival proposition – an act of stubbornly singing old songs and believing old doctrines – than maybe so…
But if the church is an institution dedicated to awakening and agitating the moral imagination, then it is far from irrelevant.
In a world in which people become fabulously wealthy by trafficking children as sex workers;
in a world in which we harness our best scientific minds to make missiles capable of annihilating civilization;
in a world in which tons and tons of food gets thrown away, even as people starve…
in a world in which politicians actively try to withhold the hard truths of our history from our children…
the very children who, themselves, are terrified to go to school lest they be killed in a mass shooting…
In such a world…
In such a world, an institution that is dedicated to awakening and agitating the moral imagination so that it grows into a very real force that influences the way our minds, our hearts… our very souls interact with the world, is, it seems to me, the most relevant, most crucially significant institution possible.
But this relevance is not something that we, as a church, can simply take for granted. We achieve this relevance by actively challenging each other to imagine ourselves as moral creatures.
Not just instinctive creatures…
Not just happy, or content creatures…
Not pious, doctrinally rigid creatures…
But moral creatures.
Beings that are willing to do the hard work that it takes to try (even if we don’t succeed) to be good to each other.
Not only good to each other, but to the creation that gave us life also.
And if, as I have suggested, the imagination is the crucial element that makes our religious life deeply relevant to the world – then it is important that we do not allow our interaction with scripture to be constrained by the limitations placed on it by doctrine.
I know it’s weird to hear this from the pulpit, but it feels quite clear to me that doctrine itself – with its emphasis on preserving a certain cherished view – is the enemy of the imagination, and is, therefore, the very thing that makes the church irrelevant.
This, however, does not mean that everything that is offered by the imagination is automatically good, and everything that is dictated by doctrine is automatically bad.
There are many doctrinal affirmations that are of deep importance. Likewise there are many things that can be imagined that should, most decidedly not be followed.
That’s why we use scripture. Scripture, to be sure, is the landscape of our religious tradition. If we go here we are never far from the wisdom that has sustained generations of believers. This is nothing to sneeze at. But scripture – narrative and poetry that can be found there – is at the same time, the fertile ground for the imagination.
Well, this seems like a perfect moment to turn to Psalm 65 – the beautiful hymn to creation that Judith read for us this morning.
This psalm was, believe it or not, the passage that caused all that rigamarole about imagination and doctrine to come barrelling out me.
It’s because this psalm – as beautiful and as majestic as it is – causes me to rebel against doctrine, in a way that gives my moral imagination pins and needles. I hope the same will be true for you.
When I read this psalm, I am aware of two powerful themes. One theme is the incomparable beauty, power and majesty that we encounter as we move about our astonishing planet. The psalm refers to:
the roaring of their waves,
the morning dawn,
the fading evening,
the abundant land,
the rain that feeds the crops,
the meadows covered with flocks,
the valleys mantled with grain…
But all the blessings and bounty of nature are not celebrated for their own inherent value.
Since this is a psalm, these things all point to the second theme – which, of course, is God – the creator.
you call forth songs of joy.
You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain,
for so you have ordained it.
I will admit to you that a strong strain of unchurched spirituality that I have never really tried to erase from my soul, bumps hard up against the doctrinal requirements of monotheism.
When I took the photograph that graces the cover of this morning’s bulletin, I was walking along the barren headland of an island off the Western coast of Scotland. At that time, as with every other time that I have spent time alone in the wilderness, I did not feel the need to make the doctrinal move that the psalmist made.
I did not feel the need to praise the maker of the ocean.
There was no impulse within me to move beyond the grandeur of the coastline itself – the terrible surge of the churning sea, the rocks jutting resolutely against the gale – to ruminate about a divinity that made it.
I do not feel the need to worship something beyond or behind the natural world – rather I tremble in its presence, as in the presence of the divine itself.
That the doctrinal reflexes of monotheism require me to think beyond the natural world for its maker, rather than perceiving its maker directly therein – makes it possible for me to conceive of a natural world that is separate from God.
Can there be a natural world that is separate from God?
The very idea pains me.
My heart is warm within me, as I think of that old woman watching her fox shrine float out to sea.
My father writes, quite matter of factly, that of course, Christianity required her to give up her previous religion –a way of life that had, until that time, sustained her.
Is this requirement hard-wired into the nature of the universe? Is it because our God is a jealous God?
Or is it because our Christian doctrine requires us to think of God outside of the fox.
But, I ask, how can God not be the fox?
Of course it is absurd to point at a fox and say – “that is God.” But isn’t it equally ridiculous to point at a fox and say – “God is not present there.”
God, surely is not limited to the natural world, but to say this is not to say that the natural world is separate from God. That is like saying that the natural world is separate from humans. Oh what trouble that idea has gotten us into!
Surely God is not limited to the fox
But God cannot be other than the fox.
We are the natural world.
So too, is God.
To me, it’s like this:
The Fox is not God, but God is the Fox.