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Thursday, 28 April 2011

Why Easter needs to be less religious

Attending a Good Friday service at a small suburban Anglican church this year I found myself grappling with the question as to whether the service was about the death of Jesus, or whether it was really in the end about us and about being religious.

The bulk of the service was fine with the focus on reading of Scripture, Psalm 22 and the reading of the passion narrative from John. Then we got to the reflection which turned to focus on us and a focus on the things we wanted to let go through writing them on to a slip of paper and hammering them to a cross set up at the front of the worship space. While this might have been therapeutic it did not have much to do with what happened on Good Friday and became an occasion for individual introspection. We are here in the realm of religion, in which the focus is on individual and the internal, private, spiritual experience unrelated to public issues and the wider world.

Stanley Hauerwas observes that the words from the cross "Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing," reveals that all our assumptions about God and the salvation wrought by God  are rendered presumptuous. What is happening is something much more significant and much more  broad ranging in its implications than an obsession with ourselves. "We are made members of a kingdom governed by a politics of forgiveness and redemption." (Cross Shattered Christ p.31) Yet this note was almost totally absent in the religiously focused Good Friday service that I participated in.

We became focused on ourselves and yet as Stanley Hauerwas reminds us in his reflection on the cry of dereliction "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?" we are confronted in these words by the sheer unimaginable differentness of God which shatters all our attempts to understand God in human terms. Any attempt to short circuit this profound reality of difference is the first step towards the creation of an idol, the creation of a god whose ways we can understand and manipulate through our internal emotional responses, to make us feel comfortable and at ease in the world. 
Our idea of God, our assumption that God must possess the sovereign power to make things come out all right for us, at least in the long term, is revealed by Jesus' cry of abandonment to be the idolatry that it is.(p.64)

Focusing on ourselves and our emotions in the context of a world redefining and almost unimaginable event is to shrink the Gospels down to a point where they can be absorbed into a consumer, narcisitic "me" focused culture and community. Our liturgy, our hymns and prayers that we share in our gatherings of the community that would seek to follow this strange messiah needs rethinking.

A rejection of Christianity as being centered on individual "religious experience" has profound implications for how we understand, and have misunderstood, in the contemporary world, the character of liturgy. Christian liturgy argues William Cavanaugh in his discussion of "Liturgies of Church and State":
... knows no distinction between sacred and secular, spiritual and material. To participate in the liturgy is to bless God as God blessed all of material creation, to respond to God’s blessing by blessing God. And as Schmemann says, “in the Bible to bless God is not a ‘religious’ or a ‘cultic’ act, but the very way of life.”14 As such, liturgy is the natural (not simply supernatural) act of humanity, to imagine the world as God sees it, and to return the world to God in praise. All of creation is “material for the one all-embracing Eucharist,” at which humanity presides as priest.15
 It is only because of our fallen condition that it seems natural not to live eucharistically, to accept the reduction of God and God’s blessing to a small reservation of life called “sacred.”16 When this happens, what remains outside the sacred is not simply the “secular” or the “natural,” stripped of God, disenchanted, and functioning on merely material principles. For the Bible does not know the material as some self-sufficient substrate upon which is overlaid the spiritual. There is no such thing as pure nature devoid of grace. ...  But what remains when humans attempt to clear a space of God’s presence is not a disenchanted world, but a world full of idols. Humans remain naturally worshiping creatures, and the need for liturgy remains a motivating force, as we have seen in supposedly secular space. Christ came not to start a new religion but to break down the barrier between human life and God. Therefore to be redeemed from our fallen condition means to resist the imagination that would bifurcate the world into sacred and secular. Casting away this division means seeing also that Christian liturgy and the liturgies of the world compete on the same playing field, and that a choice between them must be made.

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