Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Plugging Holes In A Potential Volcanoe

Christianity Confronts its Greatest Challenge

by Michael Morwood

The events in St Mary’s, South Brisbane, can too readily be dismissed as an in-house Roman Catholic dispute culminating in the Archbishop removing a priest he considers to be unfaithful to Roman Catholic teaching and practice.

This dispute is more far-reaching than that. What we see here is not so much the tip of an iceberg but rather the flaring of a volcano. This volcano has enormous size and power. Institutional Christianity would do well to deal with it rather than plug holes.
What does this volcano represent and why does institutional Christianity, all the while proclaiming that “the truth will set you free”, steadfastly and even dishonestly refuse to engage the issues?

The refusal to engage has an uncanny resemblance to the refusal to engage Galileo.
Scientific knowledge clashed with Scripture and belief set in concrete. Far easier to silence (try to plug the volcano erupting) the source of knowledge rather than confront issues that called long cherished beliefs and Church authority into question. It took the Roman Catholic Church centuries to apologise for its treatment of Galileo. And once again, Church authority is digging in the heels and refusing to engage what is staring them in the face.

The fundamental issue today is also scientific. One example is the Hubble Telescope and its pictures that reveal to us a universe we could never have imagined even 25 years ago – a universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Another example is 20th century knowledge about the age of this planet and how life developed on it.
This scientific “story” not only invites but demands that Christians (and people of all religions) reflect on their understanding of the mystery they call “God” in this context. Christianity traditionally has two streams of thought.

One stream of thought proclaims that God is everywhere as the source and sustainer of all that is. In this thinking everyone and everything is connected in and through this Presence. And, as some great Christian thinkers have told us very clearly, this Presence is beyond our comprehension, our understanding and our human images. This needs to be clearly understood. This is part of traditional Christian thinking. It is basic Christianity. (This understanding of God is Christianity 101. See first Chapter of John.)

The other stream of thought has focused on God as a Deity who thinks, plots, plans, reacts, intervenes and plays favourites. In simple terms, this deity can be referred to as the “elsewhere God” because he denied access to himself and then sent “his Son” (from where?) to earth. (This is the God of the Old Testament.)

Jesus, in the first stream of thought, is the revealer of God-with-us (everyone!) in our living and loving. He opens eyes and minds to the unseen reality in which we are all immersed and have existence. Jesus challenged people to give expression to this Presence in their lives, so that the “reign” of God, characterised by compassion, generosity, forgiveness and love, would be evident among us.

In the second stream of thought, developed in the Christian Scriptures well after Jesus died, Jesus became the unique “way” to the elsewhere deity. He “opened the gates of heaven”; he “saved” us. Or, at least, he “saved” people who believed he was the unique way to God.
It is not surprising that the second stream of thinking about God and Jesus came to dominate the Christian religion. After the break with its mother religion, Judaism, the Christian Church claimed to have unique access to God through Jesus.

As Cicero would ask, “Who gained?”

Clearly institutional Christianity had much to gain by this thinking. It gave the new religion unique identity and authority. It could – and did – claim that only through entrance into this Church and fidelity to its beliefs could anyone have access to God when they died.
The Christian religion, in its creedal statements, locked itself into this story of Jesus gaining access to an elsewhere deity rather than honouring Jesus’ preaching about God-with-us.

And now this religion is facing the biggest shift ever in its history because so many Christians simply no longer give credence to the worldview or the notion of God that underpins traditional, acceptable, orthodox Christian theology. These Christians are not being “unfaithful” to Jesus or the God Jesus preached or a stream of thought that has always been part of Christian thinking. They just want their religion to shift from a no-longer-believable story about or emphasis on a deity who has definite opinions on whether women should be ordained priests or stem cell research or whatever.
They want their religion to honour God’s presence in people the way Jesus did. They want prayer and liturgy to reflect this Presence with them and to be empowered by it rather than constantly reaching out to a listening deity who might or might not hear or answer their prayers. They want their religion to preach what Jesus preached: the accessibility of the Divine Presence to all people who reflect on their love and generosity.

But, in the Roman Catholic Church, Rome and Episcopal authority do not want this to happen. It seems there is intense fear that the Christian religion will collapse and lose its identity; central authority (and power) will be eroded if there is any shift from thinking about Jesus as the unique “way” to an elsewhere God. So there exists this tight control, this constant plugging of holes to stop the volcano erupting. Theologians are silenced to such an extent that there now exists in the Roman Catholic Church what can only be called a climate of acute intellectual dishonesty, driven by Rome and many bishops. Theologians can not say or write what they really think about this enormous shift and its implications for the Christian Creed and Church identity because they will be silenced. Catholic parishes have been under enormous pressure for some years, with a watchdog, reporting mentality rife in some dioceses, not to make changes to rituals, even though the rituals are shot through with notions of and language about an elsewhere deity. (This is to me the saddest aspect of all of the recent theological controversies. It's almost gotten to the point that it's a sin to think outside the box of redemptive atonement theology. Just like it's becoming sinful to be a Democrat.)

Sadly, the expression given to this shift in St Mary’s, South Brisbane, will be plugged. It will be done in the name of fidelity to Church doctrine and practice. The Archbishop may well think he has right on his side as well as absolute power and authority. But that’s what happened with Galileo and the greatest disappointment for anyone with any understanding of the real issues at stake in this dispute is that Church authority are looking at “truth” with blinkers on.

There is another “story” about God and the universe, about Jesus as revealer of that Mystery, about the Church doing faithfully what Jesus did. It’s a wonderful story, faithful to Christian roots and it has the potential to revitalise the Church at all levels. Rome says Catholics are not allowed to tell, preach or celebrate this story in any shape or form. The Archbishop does what Rome tells him to do.

Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church need to be more courageous in facing the world and these times than this.


Michael Morwood's own history with Cardinal Pell of Australia illustrates the points that he makes in the above article about the silencing of priests and theologians who ask hard questions about the Church's world view. Is it possible to take a theology of atonement developed in the fourth and fifth centuries after Jesus, and make it relevant to twenty first century believers? It may still work in some quarters, but the exodus of laity from the church would seem to say it's past it's sell date. People are looking for a sense of God which is with them, not a God who is out there somewhere in an unavailable zip code.

One of the knocks on St. Mary's was the fact the Fr. Peter Kennedy acknowledged the difficulties he himself had with certain Church teachings. Things like what we meant by the Divinity of Christ, the Virgin birth, certain concepts about the Trinitarian relationship, some of the sexual morality doctrine, and priestly celibacy. It's not that he preached homilies about this, because apparently he didn't, but he did discuss these things outside of formal worship. St. Mary's was a congregation which was given the freedom to think and question, and this led to an expression of worship which took it outside certain aspects of the Catholic tradition. This does not mean St. Mary's didn't express aspects of other parts of the Tradition, other Traditional threads which have been seriously ignored by the Institutional Church, especially since the Council of Trent.

Michael Morwood points this out in his article. There has always been a current in Church thinking which de emphasized the God out there in favor of the God with us and with in us. This is more the God of the monasteries than the God of the institution, and it's certainly not the God of the laity. This 'God with in' is also much more prevalent in the Eastern church than it is in Rome, and this is also the vision of God which is being supported by quantum physics.

The 'God with us and in us' vision actually needs a strong vigorous community to support one's growth in evolving in this God. Jesus Himself made that point in numerous parables. This is not a vision of God which is discovered in a self vacuum. It is a God that is discovered in others, in all others. It is in His reflection in others that we see Him in ourselves. St. Mary's seemed to epitomise how contagious this view of God is for a very disparate flock of people. St. Mary's demonstrated the power of a living God, not a boxed God. It is a shame that room could not be found for this parish in our current Church structure. St. Mary's really does have a message about a viable future for Catholicism. Unfortunately the bigger message is that institutional Roman Catholicism prefers it's past to it's potential future.

In any event the questions aren't going to go away because all the messengers get silenced. For one thing the Church no longer has the power to silence all the messengers because not all the messengers are clerics or theologians. Secondly the Church has run smack dab into the inter net age and can't begin to plug the holes represented by every one's ability to access all the information they want. And finally, but most importantly, human consciousness itself is changing and seeking different answers to age old questions. This is a consciousness seeking union and oneness, not division and otherness. The theology and Church structure of the Jesus of Trent is not going to be able to give credible answers to those seekers.

So St. Mary's may now be officially in exile outside of the Church, but it's message is still alive and still symbolizes real problems for the Roman Catholic Church in a modern secular world. Those problems aren't going to go away just because a bishop or a pope says so or refuses to acknowledge they exist. To maintain that posture is to admit one has no answers. That's not a healthy place from which to teach much that's believable about God.


  1. While I agree with the general premise and motivation behind this article, I don't think that scrapping "traiditional atonement theology" is part of the solution...

    Yes, the Church definitely needs to address many issues that fly in the face of modern-day scientific undrestanding. Particularly those pertaining to human sexuality.

    However, I don't think rejecting atonement theology is a method that would bring individuals signifigantly closer to God. In fact, I think it might lead us closer to atheism, I may sound fundamentalist, but I just feel that when we begin to erode certain facets of the Faith everything falls apart. The desire to want to eradicate the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery is an especially dangersous and threatening trend I've come across within progressive Catholic circles.

    What is the Incarnation, Death, and Reurrection of Jesus Christ without its redemptive quality? The sacrificial nature of the Paschal Mystery isn't just an invention of the Middle Ages (like certain theologies regarding sexuality, and other matters pertaining to life are). The fact that Jesus was the ultimate, reconciliation of humanity to God is present throughout all the Gospels and all of the New Testament Epistles, particularly St. Paul's.

    I think it's very dangerous that just because certain Magesterial teachings of the Church are less than credible, that as a consequence the entire Christian faith is watered down and thrown out witht the bath water. Vatican II certainly did call for genuine REFORM, but not for this...

    What is Christianity with the Virgin birth, the Incarnation, the Death and Resurrection of Christ? Yes, there are many things throughout Scripture that, clearly, don't have to be taken literally in all circumstances. The Bible is a book of God's love for us, but everyone acknowledges that the climax and essential purpose of it is JESUS CHRIST. He is the source, summit, and impetus of our Faith. All of Scripture is essentially meant to point toward Him. He is all that matters.

    Perhaps some external practices within the Church have managed to portray God as being "far off" and not close to us. But isn't that why Jesus came to earth? As the God-Man to be "God WITH us?" Jesus Christ will be ever with us for the very fact that He assumed human flesh and raised the dignity of a fallen humanity so that we might have the hope of spending eternity with Him!

    Maybe it's just me, but the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery to me are the crux of the Christian Faith and are not something that can be negotiated with or explained away. What is faith really if we don't have the ability to place our own interpretations of reality in the hands of Someone who is infinitely greater than we are?

  2. Phillip, you make good points, and I have one point I want to make in rebuttal.

    Our sexual theology is a product of atonement theology, of the idea that man is fallen from grace and sinful.

    For me, there are four huge events in the Gospels,Jesus's baptism, the Tranfiguration, the Resurrection, and Pentecost, which point to the Divine nature of Jesus and His teachings.

    It's hard for me to look at Jesus's life and believe His Father is a vindictative jerk who needed His Son to die in order to redeem His own creation. I think Jesus Himself chose to come amongst us because His heart was broken by how clueless we are about our true natures and He wanted to experience why we were so clueless. He found out in spades, but also showed us a whole lot more about what we could be and do if we followed His teachings and learned to love.

  3. The problem with atonement theology only comes if it is seen strictly in itself and as the only possible theological "explanation" for the Death and Resurrection of Christ.
    Eastern Orthodox theology does not focus on the atonement alone but places it in a larger context as one element of a more dynamic view.
    The fall of humanity or the "primordial sin" has more to do with the introduction of mortality, ( seen as a kind of impermanence or inability to remain stable), as an "unnatural" element in human life.
    The Incarnation of Christ removes this impermanence but only through Christ dying and conquering Death, ( "it is not seemly for the Author of Life to be subject to Death").
    Christ conquers death by death, trampling down death by death and bestowing life to those in the tomb.
    This view is an older one than the Anselmian "satisfaction" theology which, when removed from this type of context, leads to extreme nonsense such as that enunciated by the bishop.
    The bishop, by merely repeating without any reflection, the tropes of the catechism, did a bad job of responding to Mr. Moorwood's passionate questioning.
    Mr. Moorwood brings up some deeply troubling questions that need some real answers.
    I agree somewhat with his questions but wish to point out that he repeats, or can be seen to repeat, the problematic views found in early Christianity, more exactly, the views of Marcion who argued that the O.T. God was not the God of Christ. Such views led early Christian theologians to view the O.T. as a necessary foundation of Christianity since the O.T. only makes sense, from a Christian view, as being fulfilled by the Incarnation of Christ and his victory over death.
    We need to look again at all this and renew the language so that such a split view of God does not become the norm.
    It's really needed.
    I went to a bookstore today in Montreal, once a bastion of staunch Catholicism, and found more books for sale dedicated to Buddhism than to Christianity.
    Obviously, the language of Christianity is not being understood.
    It shouldn't take years of theological study to comprehend what should be available to all regardless of educational level.

  4. Phillip:

    When you said:

    "I think it's very dangerous that just because certain Magesterial teachings of the Church are less than credible, that as a consequence the entire Christian faith is watered down and thrown out"

    it hit the heart of the issues I am having now. I agree with what you say, agree that there is much about catholicism that is rich and valuable. There is also much about it that as far as I’m concerned, is blatant deception. For me, now, it is an issue of trust.

    The leadership has betrayed that trust, not once, but multitudes of times. Subsequently, I don’t believe or trust anything any of them say anymore. Hence you will regularly see me write:

    If the Magisterial Authority says it is right and good
    --- it probably isnt
    If the Magisterial Authority says it is bad and wrong
    --- it probably isnt
    The one thing we can count on from the Magisterial Authority
    --- is to be wrong.

    The condom statement the pope recently made illustrates the issue perfectly. Everyone knows that condoms reduce/prevent the spread of STD's. With all the evidence to support that, what type of mind makes a statement that condoms are responsible for the spread of AIDS? What type of mind agrees with this kind of statement? Answer: one that is not functioning properly. What type of mind ignores truth? What type of minds are leading the catholic church?

    The only answer I have, is ones that cannot be trusted.

    I’m not willing to trust my salvation to someone who cannot be trusted.

  5. Sorry guys, I missed these comments. I sometimes think I need to edit commets before they can be posted, but I know how that will kill the conversation. So I don't, but it then means I miss some comments.

    Annonymous from Canada, I actually thing Jesus showed us a lot about overcoming death in his life, not his Resurrection. He was able to create from seeminly nothing. I think this was a huge message to the males of his time that creation is not just a biological function, but a product of the capacity to love, and through that love connect to the Father.

    I don't know why we haven't gotten this message. Women seem to get it better than men, but that may be a result of pregnancy in which we women have very little control and it's really all about process.

    Ultimately Jesus overcame death by His life, not His crucifixion. I may be a heretic here, but I don't think if He hadn't learned a whole lot about love in His life He wouldn't have overcome His death. In my opinion, it's sad in the extreme that none of us who call ourselves Christian and supposedly follow Him as the way, truth and life, have not found the same life over death. Most of our dogma and doctrine reinforces death over life.

    Carl, you and I are both in the position where we should be getting beyond the need to trust in the Hierarcy and trust in our own knowledge of our experienced truth. I keep writing this blog not because I want to dis the hierarchy, but because I have this secret hope that I am addressing their lack of Faith.

    I once wrote a long time ago that I had this continuous disagreement with a very psychically gifted priest who truly did not believe that Jesus was present in the Eucharist or at the Consecration. I told him it was his issue and that he just couldn't let himself believe in that particular MAGIC.

    I used that term because I thought the consecration was magical in a very incredible way. Anyway my priest buddy said it was symbolic only, that there was no physical way Jesus could be present in the Eucharist.

    When he dies, my friend who talks to dead people, who had no idea of mine and his on going debate, told me that he had come to her and told her to tell me the "magic was real".

    I have a very good idea about how that "magic" could be real, and it doesn't involve repeating magic words. It's about community intent.