Threads of Fire (a meditation for Pentecost/Whitsunday)

Today is Pentecost Sunday - Whitsunday - the day upon which our tradition records that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples - a corporate memory which has come to mark the conscious and spiritual beginning of the Christian community.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs--in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy (Acts 2: 1-18 NRSV).

Now, whatever we may feel about this story concerning it’s empirical truth or otherwise and what it might mean, or is supposed mean, what we can say for certain is that the event it recalled was powerful enough to generate a collective religious movement capable of impassioning increasing numbers of people to preserve, spread and live a particular way of life that has continued - albeit in an almost infinite variety of forms - to this very day. A simple but vital fact we must note (even if we are a little uncomfortable about it in our sceptical age) is that without this Pentecostal impassioning of people, this local church would never have come into existence.

After such an introduction my usual procedure at this point would be to offer a thought or two about how we might practically use this story and, rather than claim to be able to find its true and fixed meaning, strongly to suggests that the story’s meaning for us is found only in its use (whether by us in such and such fashion or in another church who think differently).

However, as I reflected upon the story this week, I have been struck by something else concerning the nature of the connection we have with the earliest disciples and, therefore, this Pentecostal experience. I’ll begin by reminding you of some words by the important nineteenth-century Unitarian preacher John James Taylor (1797-1869). He said:

Neither Scripture nor the Church would be anything more to us than mere historical phenomena, without the unbroken continuity of the work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers.

For the most part our liberal churches have understood that this continuity of the work of the Spirit is that which makes us living members of the Church and enables us to appropriate, through our own personal experiences, the meaning of the promises and consolations contained in Scripture. The Spirit is, then, a central theme in our heritage which is a unique mix of radical Anabaptism and Italian late-Renaissance humanism.

When I first read this as a student I had in mind the thought that “the Spirit”, itself, could be thought of as something essential to Christianity. But this idea, that there exists something that one can point to as essential (continuous, core, unchanging) in Christianity, is an idea I’m increasingly beginning to questioning - or, perhaps better – nuancing.

A couple of weeks ago I engaged in a similar questioning when I said I was confident enough to say that I don’t think there is any such thing as the unchanging essence of Christianity that can be taught to anyone (I used the image of a city). All I thought one could say was that there is the process of learning oneself, as did Jesus, to trust that, by relating directly as individuals to that mystery which underwrites the possibility of similarity [and continuity] across constant, infinite change we can have life and have it abundantly in our own times and places. To be a Christian in this sense is not to hold a fixed theory about life but a creative way of fully being in this world (commingling with it) and alert and sensitive our own needs and contexts, compassionate about others, and also to the well-being of the whole of creation.

This made a few people quite nervous (I can see why, I assure you) and, in conversation after the address, the suggestion was strongly made by a number of people that in the two great commandments, to love God and love neighbour as ourselves, we find the simple essence of Christianity - the unbroken thread that goes back to Jesus himself. But the problem with this is that these two commands are not at all distinctively Christian and are, at best, necessary but not sufficient elements of in what consists Christianity. They are, in any case, as central to Judaism as they are to anything called Christianity. Indeed they can be seen in most versions of theism found in the world. One is, then, left with the pressing need to add additional things to these commands before one gets to something that can be called distinctively Christian. But what are those things and where do you draw a line (however indistinct and vague) between the something not being Christian and being Christian? One church tradition will say it is essential to hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, another the affirm the authority of the Papacy or some other church leader, still another will insist on the born-again experience, and yet more who will claim that the core is simply a following of the example of Jesus that entitles a person to be called a Christian. In short, there is simply no agreement to be found.

Some of the best help I have found in thinking through this matter has come from reading the mid-twentieth century Cambridge philosopher R. B. Braithwaite who suggested, and I’m inclined to agree with him, that a person is not:

. . . a professing Christian unless he both proposes to live according to Christian moral principles and (my emphasis) associates his intention with thinking of Christian stories; but he need not believe that the empirical propositions presented by the stories correspond to empirical facts (An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1955 p. 27).


What Braithwaite is suggesting is that there exists, not so much a core essence of Christianity consisting of empirically true stories with a simple set of essential core beliefs that run in unbroken line from Jesus through to us - but rather an identifiable complex, living weave of stories and reflections upon stories which leads to new intentions and new reflections upon those stories and so new interpretations, reflections and intentions etc. etc..

Here one may turn to a striking and helpful reminder offered by Wittgenstein when he noted that “the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres” (PI 67).

The fact that we can touch this thread and that it extends from ‘here’ to some ‘there’ across distance ‘n’, is so powerful that we often find ourselves still tempted to say that, therefore, there exists in this thread a single essence. Wittgenstein thinks this is to some extent playing with words and that “one might as well say: ‘Something runs through the whole thread - namely the continuous overlapping of these fibres’“ (PI 67).

But if you think about this the ‘continuous overlapping of these fibres’ is not really a thing at all, at best it is a method of proceeding that allows ‘threadness’ to appear in the world under certain specific circumstances; in this case when you are minded (for whatever reason) to take animal hair, vegetable or other fibres and twist them into something that we call a thread and use as a thread.

But we must be careful in using the image of a thread in our consideration of our relationship with Jesus and the disciples because the ‘thread’ we are considering here is not a physical one confined to the present temporal sphere but a spiritual one which we are imagining stretches back across time and space and through innumerable individual minds, hands and cultures.
But surely the most we can say we inherit across the centuries from the earliest Christians is this odd collection of disparate, contradictory stories that comprise our Bible plus a sincere desire to use them to weave a good and abundant life; one of the threads in this complex fabric is the bright orange flame coloured thread, that is the Pentecost story. But we can only weave it as we find in our here and now; we cannot weave the bright orange flame coloured thread of our forbears; that has gone and is irrecoverable.

Another way of putting this is that I don’t think we inherit any essence of thread or an actual at all, only the possibility of making ‘threadness’ real in our present lives.

Hearing what I have just said you might be tempted to say, aha, the essence of Christianity is found in this ‘possibility of threadness’ which flows out of Being itself. But, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago it was Hegel who noted that “this mere Being, as it is mere abstraction, is therefore the absolutely negative: which, in a similarly immediate aspect, is just Nothing” (Hegel’s Science of Logic trans. A. V. Miller: London, George Allen & Unwin, 1969, Part VII Nothing §87). Hegel is claiming that whenever we take away the particularity or concreteness of our actual experience and this actual world we are left with only Being which ‘is’ Nothing. It is wrong, therefore, to think of Being as a fixed, stable, unchanging essence because Being alone is nothing. And here I can return to something I pointed out in my address about the Ascension (reusing an image borrowed from the poet David Slavitt's translation of Virgil's Georgics) “It is all particularity - as in grammar”, and to be a Christian “is to conjugate irregular verbs. Beyond the rules, you must learn the brute words themselves by rote and with stern hunger for schoolmaster.”

Everything is particularity and so I do not think we (can) inherit an essence of Christianity but only the possibility of spinning something new and alive in the here and now and that possibility is only enacted on in so far as we are filled with the spirit actually to do it – in this way we are touched with a unique Pentecostal spirit that bears a family resemblance to that talked about in Acts but which is uniquely of our own time and place.

What kind of Christian fabric that inspires us actually to weave is inevitably going to be unique to us, but it is vital to understand that this is not to claim that it is, per se, better or purer that other Christian fabrics – and it is certainly not (as our forebears believed was possible) to articulate a perfect, essential form of Christianity. No, it is simply “to live according to Christian moral principles and to continue to associate our intention with thinking of Christian stories.”

Cliff Reed, the Unitarian and Free Christian minister in Ipswich, has written some words which lays before us the kind of Christian fabric that, inspired by the Pentecostal spirit of our own age, I think we are trying to weaving today:

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving behind what cannot be retained:
the creeds written to cement a long dead empire;
the justification for slavery, genocide and witch-burning; the refusal to hear other people’s truth;
an idolised book, a man diminished to a god.

We leave these behind and move on,
not in arrogance, not unaware of tradition’s worth, not creating new bigotries as bad as the old ones,
or so we hope!

We move on,
carrying with us the free and timeless heart of Jesus,
faithful to what was said and done in love for liberty by him, by those who follow him, by those who give his spirit voice and flesh in every time and place.

We are the Christians who move on,
leaving even the name behind, maybe,
a name that Jesus never knew.

We are the Christians who move on,
Seeking and sharing the divine heart in everyone,
as Jesus did.

THE CHRISTIANS WHO MOVE ON
For an ICUU Executive Committee meeting,
Weston, MA, April 2002
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