The quest for spiritual freedom - some further thoughts about "the point of Jesus".

Winter clearing and pruning in the Botanic Gardens
In reply to my last blog post What's the point of Jesus? - Advent 3. Emerging, integrating, expanding and deeping - Henry Nelson Wieman and "Creative Interchange" a long term, thoughtful conversation partner of mine called Harvey posted the following helpful comment:

Harvey said...
Hello Andrew: My response is that what you have presented from Wieman today seems so general ("open-ended creative interchange" )as to be without much meaning. I have been finding an interpretation of Jesus that while very non literal makes that interchange more specific. I am referring to John Spong's "The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic" and Cynthia Bourgeault "The Wisdom Jesus." Both interpret Jesus from the Jewish Wisdom Tradition, with an emphasis that I find very similar to your favorite, Tolstoy's "The Gospel in Brief." All stress a change in "consciousness" in Jesus' teaching and way of life that promotes an interchange beyond all our usual boundaries of tribe, nation, gender,sect, etc. that if integrated will be very expanding and deepening, and defines how radical (explosive)this can be for our human community.
     Thank you for your continuing work in making Jesus relevant for us today. Be Well, Harvey

It needed, of course, a thoughtful reply but what I wrote proved too long to fit into the comments section so here it is as a separate post. As always, I'd value any feedback people are minded to make, either here or in person. It's part of the process of "Creative Interchange" about which I was talking . . .

Dear Harvey,

Good to hear from you. Thanks for your best wishes which I return to you. I hope you have a very happy Christmas and New Year.

Thank you, too, for posing your question because it has quite unexpectedly helped me clarify something important in my own thinking. Of course, I will quite understand if you think that what I write below doesn't really answer your question in a way that satisfies you.

The reason, I think, that you feel there is little meaning (content) in what I wrote is because I'm beginning to think through and act on the implications of something suggested by the great Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur (1886-1956), namely, that the "Jesus tradition" as it played out in Unitarian contexts wasn't what we once thought it was - that is to say some kind of (Unitarian) substantive, theological doctrine or essential meaning.

In 1920 in his essay "The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History” (which I have recently put up on the menu bar of my blog) he felt that the history of Unitarianism did at first sight appear to teach us that "the principal meaning of the movement has been a purely doctrinal one and that the goal we have aimed at has been nothing more remote than that of winning the world to acceptance of one form of doctrine rather than another."

But Wilbur also recognised that, when understood as a whole, the "doctrinal aspect" of our churches was, in truth, only "a temporary phase" and that Unitarian doctrines were only "a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom" (my emphasis). Indeed, his essay begins with a clear statement that "that the keyword to our whole history . . . is the word complete spiritual freedom." The conclusion he delivered to his own day was that, thus far, we had hardly done anything more than remove certain "obstacles which dogma had put in our way" and had only just begun to "clear the decks for the great action to follow."

When I began to work in the ministry I had in mind that I might be able to help discern, and then directly to engage in, some kind of obviously meaningful and substantive “great action” (what ever that turned out to be). Now, after seventeen years of ministry (three as a student, fourteen as a professional pastor) I find that the meaningful task that seems to have befallen me is the rather more unglamorous (but I hope still vital) task of clearing the decks - something that I cannot see has been properly done in the intervening eighty-three years since Wilbur wrote his essay. The major part of that clearing-up involves getting rid of a great deal (perhaps even most) of our old, substantive Christian theological meanings and content - not, as too often has been tried in the Unitarian movement, by simply overcoming them by rejection, but instead by the slower, long term process of surpassing, twisting and reinterpreting them (for an indication of what I mean by this please take a look at my address entitled Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung - surpassing, twisting and reinterpreting our way to complete spiritual freedom.)

Until we can affect this appropriate kind of clearing (where "clearing" is understood verbally - i.e. as an activity - and not a noun) I don't think there is enough space (or the right kind of space) available for much needed new and, I think, more healthy meanings and content to show up.

This is why, I think, I find myself increasingly attracted to the thinking and example of Paul Wienpahl (who, by the way, wrote so intriguingly about Spinoza and Zen) and why I have added his words to the “About Me” section on the right hand side of this blog and on the “About this blog” page found at the top.

Right at this moment I find that it is important to try to be, as Wienpahl wanted to be, “a man without a position” because only then can I do my clearing of the decks in a properly detached fashion. (The clearing away of things once so loved and cherished can, at times, be unbearably painful so the right kind of detachment is absolutely necessary.) This detachment will also, I hope, help me better to see what new kind of religious life and action is made possible (shows up) through such a clearing.

This “clearing” image is very strongly in my mind at this time of year because in the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens (see photo at the top of this post), where my wife and I often walk, there has recently been a major clearing out of trees and flower beds. It can appear quite shocking to the uninitiated to walk there at the moment - it is as if someone is destroying the garden rather than caring for it. Of course, we know that this clearing-out and hard pruning is vital to the long term health of the garden. I can only pray that in my own field I'm being a good and responsible gardener.

In the Gospel of Luke (13:6-9) Jesus tells the following parable:

‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”'

Although I find it hard, I find I have to say that, to my gardener’s eyes, the tree that is the substantive Christian theological tradition (with most of its meanings) no longer bears fruit. I have tried putting manure around it and have done so for a lot longer than a single year. It has still not fruited. It’s time to cut it down, to clear a space so something else - some new religious life, action and meaning - can begin emerge and flourish.

On the other hand the creative event Jesus triggered, the explosive event of open-ended creative interchange I spoke about in my earlier post still seems to me to be capable of bearing great fruit - namely the complete spiritual freedom of which Earl Morse Wilbur spoke.

The open-ended four-fold process of emerging, integrating, expanding, and deepening Henry Nelson Wieman articulates (and which seems to fit with Wilbur's concern) I believe helps us see how following Jesus in a certain way can genuinely free us to be ourselves and so enter fully into our own life, world, time and place. After all, did not Jesus say: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10)?

With warmest wishes,