Saturday, November 29, 2008

Building a cathedral

Oh, I’ve been so thoughtless.
Do you remember my friend, Samar? The Palestinian, who teaches at London University? Yesterday, I’d invited her to tea, and it wasn’t until she was sitting down that I realised it was Ramadan. She couldn’t possibly eat any tea. How stupid of me to have forgotten.
How did human beings ever come to devise such a minefield of different, and often conflicting, religious practices?

When I was quite a small child I remember complaining to my family that we were only Christians because we were born in a Christian country. If we'd been born in India, I argued, we would have all been Hindus.
I was told that these arguments were not helpful for a small child.
"And if Jesus had been a cow," I concluded defiantly, "we'd all worship cows!"
This was more than enough for my family, who sat me down on my own to enjoy the totally uncontroversial world of “The Wind In The Willows”!

Talking of reading, have you read this week’s ‘Letter’ from Bishop Spong? I know that we all of us have a tendency to admire the writings of those we agree with, but how could anyone fail to warm to the wisdom of Bishop Spong?

I’ll let him speak for himself, “The Bible .” he writes, “has been used for centuries by Christians as a weapon of control. To read it literally is to believe in a three-tiered universe, to condone slavery, to treat women as inferior creatures, to believe that sickness is caused by God's punishment and that mental disease and epilepsy are caused by demonic possession. When someone tells me that they believe the Bible is the "literal and inerrant word of God," I always ask, "Have you ever read it?"”
. . . see what I mean? In a previous ‘Letter’ he also wrote that he felt the Bible should be an ‘open’ collection of books, not something that was ‘closed’ irrevocably two thousand years ago. There should, he declares, be room for more recent Christian thinkers.
I completely agree. What of Dame Julian of Norwich . . . or Bishop Spong himself? It’s an excellent idea.

All of this got me thinking about the Bible. It occurred to me that, in structure, it's rather like one of our ancient cathedrals. These cathedrals were originally created from individual blocks of stone, trunks of trees and sheets of glass. All these components were worked together, first by manual labour, then by skilled craftsmen. The resulting building was an imposing, man-made structure. It had the inevitable flaws inherent in any man-made artefact, but it was impressive.

Over the years this building was occupied by many other human beings, but these human beings had not come to work on the building, they had come to worship. They brought their prayers, their brought their hymns of praise, they brought their anxieties and their confessions. The centuries passed and their prayer and worship began to alter the building in a very subtle way. The building itself became a repository of the numinous. The walls absorbed the frequencies of the prayers, the vaulted ceilings took to themselves the outgoing waves of praise. The building became sacred. It was a man-made building, it had all the flaws inherent in a human artefact, but the very humans who inhabited it had brought it closer to the divine. Each human who visited it drew from it something to satisfy their own needs - they gave their praise and their prayers, the cathedral gave back comfort and inspiration.

Man, as God, had expressed his unity with God in stone, wood and glass - and made it sacred in its own right.

But, and this is an important point, it was never considered complete. The wisest of the humans who took care of these ancient cathedrals appreciated that the structures were still being created. They willingly accepted additions from different centuries, improvements and alterations. Rather than being an ancient, mummified body, the cathedral grew to fulfill the needs of each succeeding generation of worshipers.

I think the Bible should be the same. . . . open to reinterpretation, open to addition and change. What do you think?