Regular readers of these bogs – if there are any- may by this time be wondering what relationship this “house of God”theology bears to traditional Christianity. I hope that they may have noticed my frequent biblical references, but perhaps something more definite is desirable.
I have put forward the practice of “House of God”ecumenism, ecology and economy as the virtues required of contemporary followers of Jesus, and indeed as desirable practice for all people. What is the relationship of this triad to the traditional theological virtues of faith, hope and love? My perhaps rather surprising answer is that they are precise interpretations of them for our time.
So ecumenism = faith?
oikumene = inhabited world
The biblical word faith (pistis in Greek) is used in two ways: firstly as denoting the trust that a person or community may put in God; secondly as defining the content of that relationship.
Jewish faith, originally in a tribal God, gradually discovered that true faith can only be placed in the one and only God, whose goodness is offered to all people. If Israel is the chosen people she is chosen to bring God’s blessing to all the families of the earth. This quality of faith is difficult, for such a God is uncomfortable, cannot be seen or held in the hand like an idol, cannot be relied upon to do what the community wants, may indeed turn against the community for sins that cannot be sorted by sacrifices, or may even, as in the captivity in Babylon, abandon the people to destruction. Israel’s faith in such a God, expressed by prophets and lawgivers, is her great gift to the world. It is an ecumenical trust which can be shared by any person or community anywhere, anytime. This is the faith expressed by Jesus. One may say that his trust is more radical because it emphasises God’s complete trustworthiness while also protesting at being abandoned by God. Perhaps we can say that the ecumenical trust of Jesus especially includes sinners and the god-forsaken.
The content of that trust is also ecumenical. God is declared to be the one creator of the universe, the giver of life, who provides for plants and birds and animals as well as all human beings. Faith in Jesus is trust in his way, and in His life, death and resurrection as God’s declaration of love for all creatures. The content of trust written in the books of the New Testament is explicit that Jesus the Son of God is the universal rescuer, that the Holy Spirit reveals to all people that they are children of God, and that God the Father has through his son broken down all racial, political and religious divisions so that his family can be one.
The content of faith must be ecumenical, for example it must leave behind customs that belong to one culture only, and it must be translated into all human languages. The truth of faith, the Gospel, must be made accessible to all, and must be re-stated and re- practised by those who receive it. We do not fully know the truth of God until we have heard from the lips of all peoples. We do not fully understand Jesus as Son of God until we hear his story from the lips of all peoples. So we won’t ever have the full truth on this earth, but only when we join the saints from all peoples in God’s kingdom. But faith whose content denies ecumenism is not Christian faith: a racist faith is not Christian; a macho faith is not Christian, a fundamentalist faith that puts the bible in the place of God, is not Christian. Of course prejudiced or dogmatic people may be Christian, but not the content of their faith. Faith in a God who creates the universe and loves all its creatures cannot be a sectarian faith: it is universal or nothing.
Hope = ecology?
oikologos = understanding of the universe as a house for life
Today there is news of the discovery by astronomers of an exo-planet within our galaxy which might be suitable for the kind of life we know on this planet. It is about 11 light years away, and its temperature varies from -50C to +20C like Scotland in a bad year. Atronomers will continue to focus on this planet, analysing the light that comes from it to see what can be deduced about its chemistry. As i understand it the farting of billions of microbes, such as pioneered life on earth, sends a distinctive methane signal; and it pleases me to think that this is how extraterrestrial life might introduce itself to us.
Thanks to the development of physical, cosmological, biological, and ecological sciences since Darwin, we are able for the first time since we were all hunter-gatherers to see homo sapiens as part of the web of life on planet earth, rather than separate from it. It is our understanding of that web and its history which allows us to look more intelligently for life in the rest of the universe.
Ecological thinking however, is at first sight not hopeful for homo sapiens, as it has established clearly the facts of global warming caused by human destruction of forests and ocean, and our pollution of the atmosphere. Of course there are many powerful people who don’t want to admit any fact which might occasion a fall in profits, and many poor people whose struggle for mere survival is so terrible that they have no energy for anything else. But for millions of people ecological understanding is a precious addition to human wisdom which enables them to see the intricate web of life for the first time, and to appreciate the delicate balance which makes life possible. The simple revelation, for example, of the symbiosis between our lives and the biomass of bacteria in our guts, lets us see how intimately human life is bound up with non – human.
The latest ecological predictions, issued this week, point to an accelerating catastrophe which is overtaking many species on earth, brought about by loss of habitat to human industry or housing, the widespread use of toxic substances in agriculture, the gas emissions which cause global warming, and the persistent gross stupidity of human governance being given into the hands of those whose maximum attention span is until the next election.
So how can I say that ecological thinking is hopeful?
It’s hopeful because without it we and many other species are dead. It’s hopeful, if you like, because it’s the only hope of fruitful life on this earth. It is the necessary form of hope for our time.
But what about God? Aren’t we told to place our hope in God? Well, it may be the case the God can rescue our lives from the death of the earth, but the biblical witness is that he desires to rescue the earth as a house for God’s creatures. The message God sends to Noah doesn’t sound too hopeful in the first instance – a great flood is coming- but it is the only hope for all life on the planet. House- of-God ecology gives us facts and tells us that if we can face the facts, we can live.
But doesn’t Jesus promise to rescue us from the cataclysm which will come upon the earth? Jesus promises that the Father will rescue his children and establish his rule on earth, but disclaims all knowledge of when this will happen. He does however promise that their individual lives are precious to God and that they will abide in God’s house forever. Meanwhile they should as persons and communities allow God to abide in them: one day they will dwell in God’s house, but now God will dwell with them, if they keep his commandments. The assurance Jesus gives for the future enables his disciples to live creatively in the present.
That brings us back to the present in which through his ecological prophets God commands all people to face the facts of their sins against the earth, to stop doing what is wrong and to learn to do what is right for the one household of God’s creatures. Yes, God’s creatures, for ecological hope tells us that we cannot be rescued without them. The one house of God includes all forms of life.
But how can the history of ecological evolution bring hope when its record shows at least two major extinctions of species, and we rediscover continually the dry bones of creatures which have preceded us on this planet? Certainly we should abandon any magical view that God will protect our species from extinction. God has given total freedom to his creation, right down to the behaviour of subatomic particles and God’s hope for the perfection of his creation requires its cooperation, and particularly ours. Through the free process of evolution homo sapiens has developed the capacity to protect life on this planet, if he wants to.
The desire to protect the planet and its creatures exists in such a small minority of human beings at present that the hope of whole nations cooperating to do so seems no more than a pious wish. The importance of house-of – God ecology is that it is eschatological, pointing to something already present but not yet fully realised. The effective human desire to protect the planet would be an a emergent stage of human evolution. Ecological thought and action are forms of hope for our time.
love = economy
oikonomia = the management of God’s house (hold)
This may seem at first sight the most perverse of my re-interpretations: how can the precious emotion of love be identified with the down and dirty business of economy?
The early Christians nevertheless used this word to desribe the whole process of God’s love: the creation of a universe; the gift of life; the choice of humanity then Israel to represent his economy on earth; the mission of Jesus as God’s son; the gift of the Holy Spirit and the call to all people to unity in the one family and household – these were described as the elements of God’s economy, which is love.
In this theology, love is no mere emotion but rather the practical wisdom by which God woos humanity to share his life in the one house. (in this is love; not that we loved God, but that God first loved us and sent his son as the reconciling sacrifice for our sins. Ist Letter of John 4) This overwhelming generosity, expressed in the whole creative enterprise of God, is the “economic” model for life in the one house of God. Church communities are not called to preach a different economy from the capitalism that dominates the world, but to be a different economy in which life is shared equally and the generosity of God is made available to all. This, rather than anything less definite is the love that moves the sun and the other stars.