Joined: 16 Nov 2006
|Posted: Mon Mar 13, 2017 11:30 am Post subject: Spirit of Love 3 - Participatory Spirituality
|Here is the third address on the Spirit of Love by Jo James
The Spirit of Love – 3 : Towards a participatory spirituality
April 27, 2016
Two weeks ago I identified the underlying principle which underpins human culture as the principle of co-operation and mutual aid, and suggested that a mystical description of this principle is the statement: ‘God is Love’. Today I want to develop that idea a little further and ask if what we are really seeking to do as religious people is recognise how we can ‘participate’ in that love? Not just worship it from afar or consider it in some abstract way but take up our own place within it and take part?
This question was William Ellery Channing’s pre occupation – how we partake in God’s holy spirit. The ways in which we can rise to our highest nature – our best selves.
The lovely idea that ‘All is God’ is called Pantheism, pan – All; Theos – God, and it gives rise to all sorts of paganistic and earth based spiritualities, its an idea that I know is of great value to many of us travelling on the Unitarian path. For me, and I must tread lightly here, with every respect for Pantheists and Deists who co-habit our tradition, but for me, there is a certain limitation to this idea that God is everything, which is that identifying God with everything, life, the Universe, and well, you know; Everything, makes God rather impersonal and emotionally remote. And the more we come to understand about the deep structure of ‘everything’ the more I feel Pantheism becomes a bit like worshiping physics in the end.
An emerging theological idea that I find a bit more interesting is called Panentheism – all within God. This idea allows us to maintain the knowledge that God is never absent from anything, that God is that ‘in which we live move and have our being’ but allows us the vision to perceive that God is also beyond all things, that God has God’s own existence independent of everything and also makes space for the acknowledgement that one of the attributes a God of infinite attributes must be a personality.
Natural catastrophes of any kind, the suffering of the innocent, and the deaths of our loved ones, even the floods and storms which beset us this winter are a challenge for any view of God as love. But we could recognise the way in which that which challenges us also propels us towards greater participation, greater interaction and greater co-operation.
The writer Rebecca Solnit has recently published a book called ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ in which she explodes the myth that when disasters occur humanity resorts to a primitive ‘law of the jungle’; her findings are the opposite, she cites a range of catastrophes over the last century in which evidence is clear that people became their ‘best’ selves. To quote from the back cover of the book: “disasters reveal the human ability to imagine and spontaneously create communities that fulfill our desire for connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness.” In many cases the terrible suffering experienced by a community became fundamental to that community’s sense of itself.
The suffering of the people in slavery in Egypt was the galvanising event of the story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, and the book of Exodus has been described as the identity document of the people of Israel.
Isaiah is speaking of the Exodus when he writes that:
“In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.” (Isa. 63:9)
Isaiah’s vision recognises a participatory divinity, a spirit here with us, suffering with us, a presence we always have the option of participating in, of co-operating with.
To work and live according to the will of God, (a sentiment which surely all our ancestors would have recognised) is not at all incompatible with our less religious times if we consider the idea that we are ‘within God’. Then, ‘doing the will of God’, being co-operators with God, is to work with the grain of our environment instead of against it, going with the flow of human interaction instead of being in conflict, finding common ground, being tolerant, coming together to offer comfort and kindness in time of need, overcoming challenges by human ingenuity and that human trump card the ability to empathise.
Channing saw the evidence of our divine origin in our ability to partake of divinity and he was not put off by our seemingly infinite capacity for wrongdoing. He blames the laws and confinements of our oppressors for the evil we do and I agree with him. I was delighted recently to come across an article about a town in Germany which experienced the usual number of deaths on the road, the usual number of collisions until they removed all the road signs, speed restrictions and directions and took down the traffic lights, where upon the accident statistics dropped dramatically. I know its risky to extrapolate an entire theology from a road traffic strategy but it does seem to show that we are able, if we are allowed, to be self moderating beings, in self organising systems.
Actually all sorts of groups work like this, associations like the National Childbirth Trust or Alcoholics Anonymous. They have no authority from above directing them but work on the principle of mutual aid.
When I was working in South America I found that they have a get together called a Minca: if you have a big job you need to do but no money for labour you invite everyone over to do it with you and have a party afterwards. In Finnish its called a talkoot, in Arabic a Naffir, almost every culture does it and each has a word for it… in America they call it a Barn Raising and you know who still does it? Literally I mean – raises barns that way – and sometimes churches too; Anabaptists, one of our spiritual ancestors. A barn raising or you know what the other term is? A bee. Like a ‘quilting bee’ or a ‘sewing bee’; where all the women get together and get the thing sewn up… surprisingly enough that term doesnt come from bees buzzing around and working collectively which is what I had first assumed – it comes from a different root word – bene, the old English word for prayer.