To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right? A meditation for Pentecost Sunday

Pentecost by Michael Freeman
Biblical Reading: Acts 2:1-21

Our responsibility in Society by James Luther Adams

We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order. The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation. They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning. They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laity – that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers. "The Spirit blows where it lists."
Out of this rediscovery of the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state. Power and responsibility were to be dispersed. In a fashion not unlike that of the primitive church, the doctrine of the Spirit became the sanction for a new kind of social organization and of social responsibility.  A new church was born, and with it a new age.
Once released, the new spirit poured forth into all areas of society. It could not be kept within the bounds of church life. First it was carried over into the sphere of the state. The Independents bagan to say, 'If we are responsible to God for the kind of church we have, we are also responsible for the kind of state we have. If it is wrong to be coerced by church authorities, it is wrong to be dominated by political authorities. As children of God, we ought to have a greater share of power and responsibility in the state as well as the church." By analogy the conception of the new church in a new age was extended to include the demand for a democratic state and society. Thus the democratic state is in part the descendent of the Church of the Spirit" (The Essential JLA pp. 163-164).


Finger pointing to the moon
The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriach Huineng, "I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me."
     The patriach responded, "I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning."
      Said the nun, "You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?"
     "Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"

*****

There is a well-known story that I first heard in educational circles about a sailing ship setting-off for a long voyage to a distant, promised land. The crew begin the journey with passion, clarity and purpose and undertake all their tasks in this light whether they are coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks. However, after many, many months at sea slowly they begin to forget their beginnings and, without them fully noticing it, these tasks become increasingly detached from the initial, enabling passion, clarity and purpose and the crew begin *only* to coil ropes, set sails and clean decks.

It's a story that is used to illustrate a certain understanding of in what consists institutional, even societal, decline. But I'm not sure that's all it is about and, through the theme of Pentecost, I'd like to bring before you another, much more hopeful reading of this story.

I have noticed that, when this story is told, most people believe that the solution to the perceived problem is to be found in restoring the original conditions. If they can restore these, so the argument goes, the deeper meaning of their present tasks will suddenly be restored, all will be well and, re-energised, their journey can proceed as before.

But this reading fails to take into account that the present difficult situation, with its apparent disconnection from the initial, enabling passion, clarity and purpose is, in fact, *fruit* of these same original conditions and that the crew are where they are precisely because of this same fruit.

The first thing to observe is that one simply cannot restore to the crew the initial conditions that obtained at the start of their voyage. This is impossible because, thanks to the experiences of the journey, they are now very different people from those who they were when they originally set-off. They have changed. Additionally, they are now, quite literally, in a different place and time.

The matter of how to restore deeper meaning to the crew and the journey is, therefore, more complicated than at first appears because the only thing that can be restored is their faith in the *promise* that the initial conditions gifted them even though, right at this moment this fruit seems to speak of a lack of direction and purpose and to taste to them bitter, even bad.

In order to go on let's translate the story I have just told into our own institutional and societal terms.

The strange story of Pentecost, the giving of the Spirit, is our story about the foundational moment when we were gifted with our initial passion, clarity and purpose which sent us out into the world to proclaim to it a new message of hope which was the promise that the spirit would be poured out on all flesh. We are now over two millennia away from that moment so we need not worry too much that the account in all its details doesn't make complete sense to us today. We need only observe that our story preserves a memory of an extraordinary moment which was powerful enough to propel our forebears on a new journey with a clearly promise in view. As James Luther Adams' account reminds us, when we reached the sixteenth-century the flame of the Spirit which we had kept alive within our religious communities was then deliberately released by us so that it could begin to spread into *all* areas of society. We released the Spirit because, still believing the promise, we felt it could not, should not, be kept only within the bounds of church and, therefore, only Christian life but must be allowed into the world more widely. As the following centuries continued to unfold the Spirit was indeed poured out on more and more people however the flame that was passed from person to person was no longer in the form of tongues of fire but in the form of the tongues of men and women who, in an increasingly conversational democratic spirit, passed on a passion for the promise. Slowly, but surely, these passionate tongues called into ever wider existence increasingly plural societies full of many different peoples and languages.

This is a wonderful, potentially still growing fruit, n'est ce pas? But difficulties will always arise on any long journey which, at first sight anyway, don't seem positively to be related to our founding conditions. These difficulties often seem to us like bad fruit, we don't like their challenging taste, and the consequence of eating it even makes us feel a little ill and very disorientated. Eating such fruit can start to make us feel that we really have lost our way and can push us into despair.

So what is the apparently "bad" fruit of the Spirit that our society is struggling with? Well, I've brought it to our common table before because I don't think it's actually bad at all, it's just that, at first, it tastes very strange indeed. It is an acquired taste but it is also one which, for the good of our whole world, we must all acquire.

(In my opinion the best and most accessible précis of it has been made by James C. Edwards in his excellent book "The Plain Sense of Things - The fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism". The next two paragraphs draw heavily, and gratefully, upon some of his actual words and phrases.)

As the released Spirit began to bring us the growing and ripening fruit of a radically plural, democratic civic society it necessarily also brought with it the recognition that *every* system of belief (including our own) is only a set of values posited by the will to power in its attempt to preserve and enhance itself. Another, more modern way of putting this is to say that the released Spirit has enabled us to see that every illuminating vocabulary (including our own) is only *contingently* useful - useful "here" in such and such conditions but not "there" in such and such conditions. Each of us here now has no choice but to know that if we had been born in Saudia Arabia or India rather than England our basic illuminating vocabulary would, in all likelihood, not be Christian but Islamic or Hindu. And so we realise that an important part of this fruit's strange taste is that no voice, ideology or belief (not even our own) can any longer dominate the whole in an absolute way - it can only play its part by taking part conversationally in the ongoing process of discernment that is a genuine democracy.

But this recognition, this taste, seemed for many people to destroy what they thought was their sure foundation and a widespread feeling has spread abroad that because of this we as a culture and society have lost our way. In the midst of this we have collectively felt ourselves forced to ask how any cultural symbol (including our own) can retain sufficient power to check our well-documented and contradictory human tendencies both to addictive, individualist self-magnification and to (equally addictive) totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity?

Many today, having tasted this strange fruit of the Spirit, have responded by whole-heartedly giving in to ways of behaving that are forms of addictive, individualist self-magnification. No one cultural symbol suffices but we satiate ourselves by gorging upon a dizzying variety of them from Nike, to Orange, Mercedes, Chanel, to Dolce and Gabbana and we can flit between "identities" to the point where some people could almost be getting new heads every week. Our current financial crisis undoubtedly finds its roots in this approach.

Many others have responded by whole-heartedly giving in to the temptation to adopt rigid, totalitarian and fundamentalist theologies and philosophies. They seek to return to simple symbols that clearly and dangerously mark insiders apart from outsiders, and indicate who is worthy and who is not. To keep to the Pentecost theme this is an approach that says unless your community has (or claims it has) continued to experience the Pentecostal spirit itself in exactly the same fashion as the first Disciples/Apostles then it is not truly Christian, it does not have the truth, it is not worth taking seriously and perhaps should even be suppressed. The symbol of *this* flame and this exact flame alone becomes the only true symbol and all the rest be damned.

It seems to me that, although there exist "liberal" versions of both of these approaches, as the kind of liberal church we are we cannot follow our brothers and sisters in adopting either of them. But what are we to do?

Well, the first thing we can do is recover a strong sense of our own church's identity not by engaging in a slavish dogmatic attempt to recreate the original conditions experience by our forebears but in a continued articulation of the *promise* gifted us, namely, that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and that this would open our world up to multiple languages, visions and dreams. James Luther Adams is one of the few people I have read within our own tradition who saw this clearly and who reminded us that we must accept that Christianity, at least as we in the Free Church tradition have been living it for over four-hundred years, has consistently been revealing to us that our world is plural and that the "new church", for which read "the modern, secular democratic state", is a descendent of the Church of the Spirit. Its priesthood and the prophethood is one to be shared by all people which, in turn, means that power and responsibility in our society must continue radically to be dispersed.

We also need to remember that when we tell others our Free Church story - which can only be done when we are able to articulate it in a solid coherent enough way to be seen to be pointing clearly in a particular direction - we need to make people aware that our understanding of the Christian tradition is to be likened to a pointing finger. In our faith and practice, our way of being in the world we must make it clear we are pointing beyond ourselves and towards the creation of a radically plural, democratic society just as Huineng did when he reminded his hearers that "the finger is not the moon and that to look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"

Without the existence of a strong, recognisable, fat, round, laughing person pointing at the moon we might not be recalled to the existence of the moon beyond the finger. So, too, without the existence of a strong, recognisable, fat, round, laughing liberal Christian church (and I hope we can be this) pointing at a radically pluralistic, democratic society we might not be recalled to the existence of the promise beyond the finger, that God's Spirit is to be poured out on *all* flesh.

To religious and political palettes that like single tastes this fruit is a complex taste indeed but for the good of the world we have to help people acquire a taste for it. Only when we begin to eat it together with passionate pleasure and joy is there any hope of us all moving on to the next course in which all our daily activities, whether they be coiling ropes, setting sails or cleaning decks will begin again to be filled with something like the passionate Spirit of the first Pentecost.

*****

The morning service concluded with a short service of Communion written specially for Pentecost/Whitsunday by the Revd Cliff Reed. For those who would like to see it or use it can be downloaded at the following link:

A Whitsunday Communion Service


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