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Sunday, 28 December 2008

Wars of Religion and Divine Love

I realize that these views may be controversial and it isn't my intention to criticise or offend anyone else's beliefs. These are merely my thoughts at Christmas-time, which is always a time of reflection.
"Religion," I was taught as a child, is a 'rule of life' or way of measuring - a religio - or 'right thinking.' The religion in which I was raised, preached a beautiful God of Love; a Father; a God whom we find in each other and who, because we all made such a mess of it, was incarnated in Jesus. I loved my religion - I loved the incense, the sense of it touching my own personal 'tragic hero' (on which many of us, in our youth, love to thrive); I loved the beauty of stained-glass windows and the smell of churches, the beautiful writings of saints, the loveliness of the people within my parish...and I loved how it touched my own sense of martyrdom. But some things didn't make sense. I could accept those which didn't make sense to my intellect (after all, I was told, you're not God so His ways are mysterious to us); I could accept those that didn't make sense to my heart - the age-old question "If God is love, why do people suffer?" - Okay, God's ways are mysterious and we step outside of our immediate surroundings and it all makes sense. But still there was niggle right down in my soul - nothing to do with intellect or emotion...something deeper.
The story of the Garden of Eden, I learned, was the terrible tragedy of our kindly Father, offering us everything that was beautiful, and what did our forebears do? They ungraciously disobeyed him and ate the fruit of the wrong tree. For that, women (since the woman, having been temped by the serpent, tempted the man) were condemned forever to suffer in childbirth and humanity was condemned to sweat and labour and ousted from the garden. Now, it wasn't just the culprits who suffered that, but everyone forever. So...the kind, omnipotent, omniscient God of Love created a beautiful garden with a great big temptation in the middle of it; his children yielded to temptation and ever since then we all crawl on our bellies and are born with original sin. "Ho hum!" I thought as a child, "that seems a bit petty from someone so loving and so great?" and when I questioned this was told, "Everyone who ever lived would have committed the same sin - everyone except Jesus or Mary - and that is why we are who we are. That is the meaning of original sin."
So, basically, we're born 'bad' but we're the children of God? Does sour fruit come from a healthy tree? Do figs bring forth grapes? Does the God of Love bring forth 'bad' children?
Happily, I was told, our loving Father takes pity on us and became Incarnate to show us the extent of His love. The beautiful Christ-child was born; angels sang, wise men and kings worshipped him and all kinds of wonders took place because we were at last saved from the sins of our forebears. Hallelujah! Except, we were so wicked that this beautiful child had to then take upon himself the weight of all of our sins down the ages. He had to go through the sheer horror of the crucifixion - this innocent one - to redeem us. Why? Who asked that of an innocent one? Our loving Father (still holding a grudge because someone ate an apple once)? Satan - then Satan is more powerful than Love?? Some sin it must have been to merit such an excruciating (literally) death of an innocent!
I studied theology to degree level to try to understand this. I read Anselm and Augustine and Aquinas and Abelard - saw all the heretics who were burned to death for being a little off-course (or in disagreement with the establishment), saw the simple witches through the ages (the women who simply returned to what we all know in our blood and bones about the real Loving God - masculine/feminine in One), saw a lot of noise about nothing...and spent much of the time looking out of the window at people walking by as leaves fell, or as children ran in the snow and laughed, or as someone pushed a wheelchair and cared for someone else - I saw God in all of that and it was very different from the message of the theologians and authorities. Nothing I learned of those ancient debates explained it. And I was told it was arrogant to disagree with the knowledge and tradition of ages and of far wiser people than I am. So I studied history and read of the 'Wars of Religion', the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation - the martyrs and murders, the heathen and those baptised at sword point....and I looked out of the window and saw the children play in the snow, the old people chatting amid the fallen leaves, the drunks, the beggars, the beautiful people...
Here, in the midst of the Christmas season, there is a lovely crib, handed down through three generations. The figures are all beautifully coloured and so carefully created in such detail with their gold and frankincense and myrrh, the vivid and tasteful colours of their clothes, their serene faces - it is a truly beautiful work of art. It has nothing to do with original sin or the notions of theologians or the attempts of churches to control, or of ideologies or war lords who adopt a religion in order to amass armies, or those who decide that someone else's way of life, sexuality or beliefs are somehow damned. It has everything to do with the Christ within us all. Everything to do with recognizing once and for all that no loving Father would ever condemn generation after generation with original sin, or even see such an abhorrent notion, still less would demand the death of an innocent, or have to die himself to 'save' us.
To my mind, Jesus' message, the message of Christmas, is that Christ lives in each one of us - not only the baby Jesus in the manger (though I adore him), but in each one of us; we are all the expression of Life, of Love, of Freedom from ideologies, of freedom from having to fight for ideologies, to kill for ideologies, or to spend centuries repenting the 'sins of the fathers' and crawl through our lives as sinful worms in the dust. The reality is, surely, that Love means Love - not sentimental or Jesus-the-anaesthetic but Love that says we are, each of us, God's expression, free, as Christ is free.
I honour and worship the child in the manger. I honour you, as you are reading this as an equally beautiful expression of the beautiful creator of all.
Merry Christmas-tide and a very Happy New Year to you!

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