I write in my “Gospel Comment”† of the gift that is flowing from uncluttered, pre-scientific cultures back to our rationalist, materialist world. In its wackier forms it may appear as the “tree-hugging, alfalfa-munching, muslin-wearing” naiveties of New Age and neo-hippie groups. I am no fan of forms of angel-touting mysticism that sidestep the brute realities of the Incarnation and the Cross, but if push were to come to shove I would prefer that idealism to the cynical rationalism that reduces the central truths of Christianity to fairy tale status, labelling itself “progressive” while dismantling the great Christ-stories of hope and comfort.
In some areas we have grasped this well. We have reclaimed the wonderful respect, for example, that Māoritanga can give us for Ranginui and Papatuanuku, rightly speaking out when we exploit and destroy God’s earth. With the Celts we murmur our “amen” when we lament an attitude that sees “the earth [as] a witch and we still burn her, Stripping her down with mining, and the poison of our wars …”. We voice our opposition (I hope) when that is, as it so often is, the dominant trend in our greedy exploitative culture. We must, for when we do not we are failing in our obedience not so much to the “marks of mission” but to the very commandments of our faith: we are stealing from God’s garden and from the hope-baskets of our descendants.
But we are doing so, too, if we take the texts that are texts of comfort in our whakapapa* of faith and render them meaningless. The balancing act is fraught. Karl Marx famously called religion “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” It can be, if we allow it to be; if it leaves us cosy (which was not what “comfortable”, that maligned word of liturgy, meant) and complacent. “She’s right, Jack” is not the gospel-message.
Nor, though, is “if it can’t be measured it don’t exist.” When I am confronted by the recent horrors of Gaza or North-East Iraq, Central African Republic and Sudan, I will try in some puny human way to respond, giving to aid organizations, writing to politicians, what Paolo Freire called “conscientization” or “consciousness raising.” I will also stutter prayers, often wordless, participating strangely in that mystery St Paul called “the groaning of the Spirit.” When a child dies (more obviously back in the days when clergy saw more funerals) I will offer words and touches of comfort, but, more importantly, I will whisper prayers, entrusting this and all brutal contexts of grief into the weeping heart of God that is also, inexplicably, the eternally-dancing heart of God.
For, beyond the child’s death, beyond her parents’ grief, beyond our speechlessness, God dances “amen” to and with all creation. That resounding “amen” of course can’t be measured, for it is eternal. That is why it is the last word in the New Testament.
† On Matthew 15:21-28 I wrote as follows:
It’s dangerous to put modern interpretations on an ancient text. Matthew wants us to see yet another example of the mustard seed faith that Jesus called for back at Matt 13:31-32 (or three weeks ago in liturgical time). Here in this woman is the great faith born of desperation and proximity to disaster. In the “Global North” (“West”, “First World”, whatever) we have tended to rationalize such faith away, making it an intellectual proposition. Listening to the stories of Indigenous and other non-rationalist believers I am increasingly unsure that this is wise: should I poo-poo the stories of those who have cried out in the face of evil and experienced the hand of God? Despite all the ransacking of the Global South “pre-scientific cultures,” that went on in the name of “progress” it may be the mustard seed of faith that is the gracious gift of the dispossessed, given back despite everything, back to those of us who believe safely from the comfort of our armchairs.
*Very roughly “back-story” or heritage.