This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our thunder and our war;
But our peace is as far as the angel sings
And our faith is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
We shall at last come home,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are:
In the place where God was homeless
All people are at home.

GK Chesterton (altered)

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The house of God – in this case, a hayloft

 

I apologise to lovers of this poem for my alterations – a few words here and there- which I can only justify by confessing that for me Chesterton is 50% wisdom and 50% nonsense, and he frequently published things that a decent editor would have made him revise. Still, even at that, he’s often wonderful.

I’ve spent some blogspace recently building up the elements of a theology of God’s House. Obviously Christmas can be interpreted as a major contribution to such a theology, focusing as it does in popular celebration on a house which is not a house but a stable. Scholars have suggested that the Greek word used by Luke in his birth narrative should be translated “living space” rather than “inn” but the important detail is that in either case, there was no room for a man and his pregnant wife. Luke means his readers to see that the holy child is born amongst animals because he and his parents have been sidelined by the world, as the powerless and needy usually are. The direction of travel of the holy child in Luke’s story is resolutely downward, from the Holy Spirit who comes upon Mary, to the empire ruled by Rome, to the society divided into haves and have-nots, housed and homeless, to the stable with animals. This is the journey that God must make to make sure that nobody is excluded from God’s house, so that no-one can think that God is above or beyond them.

The only people to welcome the child (according to Luke) are shepherds who live outside with their  animals. So this is a very strange house indeed, almost not a house at all, an open dwelling from which nobody is excluded. Nor is it a place of help for the poor and powerless; it is the place where God is poor and powerless, and has to rely on poor but resolute parents to preserve his life. We are not told if Jesus was registered in the census as a baby, or whether the registering was done before his birth. In any case, he barely makes it on to the taxation rolls of the empire which will eventually kill him.

For Luke, this open house is the same as that made evident in Jesus’ ministry to the poor, the outcast, and the sinful; the same as demonstrated in his forgiving death and his risen presence in an inn and a house; the same as offered in the preaching and community life of the first church: an open house of God, where God’s way is revealed and followed, rather than the way of the world. God persuades people into this house through his child who has no wordly status, power or wealth as he quietly helps people to wake up to life.

The church models itself on this house of God, not when it reaches out from its place of comfort to offer help or justice, but rather when it learns from the downward mobility of God, how to divest itself of worldly power, and to become an acccessible house where needy people have the dignity of helping themselves and each other, whatever the need.

The church or the faithful believer both are and are not houses of God, or to be more precise, they are already to some extent, but not yet completely, houses of God; for the house of God is an eschatological reality, existing in its incomplete and persuasive form in time and history, but in its perfection only beyond the horizon of both. The believing person and community acknowledge this truth in their worship which declares that the earthly house belongs to the creator, and is moved by the creative spirit to share the life of Jesus the child  of God, and through him the lives of their brothers and sisters, in the one household.

In the place where God was homeless / all people are at home.

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My childhood fascination and terror when reading stories or watching films about haunted houses came I think from an unadmitted knowledge that any house, including my own, could be home to evil spirits. Like most children I had an untutored understanding of the many bible stories about spirit possession. Indeed my adult education in the subtleties of post-Freudian psychology has extended, deepened but not destroyed my trust in the house as metaphor for the individual soul. 56E1DF29-4F7F-4FD6-8575-BCF525B667AB

One of the reasons for that is my view, learned from both Christian and Buddhist sources, that the individual soul is only an abstraction from our experience of living in relationship and community. Our selves do not end at our skin; our existence is always co-existence, our being always inter-being. I am always part of the souls of others, they are always part of mine. For this reason I have come to the conclusion that no individual soul- house can be void; there are always tenants for better or for worse. I often quote Bob Dylan in support of this view, “well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve someone,”although I think he imagined such service would always be willing, whereas my experience is that much of it is forced. My understanding of the healing miracles of Jesus suggests that often he was dealing with disease imposed or aggravated by communal powers, which he had to evict in order to liberate the sufferer. Indeed, Jesus’ own story of the evil spirit evicted from its host who hears its old house is clean and vacant and then returns along with even more evil pals, has guided all my thinking on this topic.

As I continue to work towards a ‘House Theology’ I need to remind myself that houses/homes can be places of domination, abuse and murder, as well as equality, caring and life. The terrible statistics of domestic child abuse in Scotland, together with those of domestic rape, are sufficient to challenge any sentimental view of house and home. Many victims testify that their first experience of freedom was when they left the family home.

The bible shares this lack of sentimentality about the home. The first murder happens in the first family. If Abraham and Sarah show something good about the home, then Lot and his family show something bad, namely a casualness in the face of evil which brings trouble upon them. Noah’s drunkenness tears his family home apart, while David’s homicidal lust sets in train a sequence of bad relationships within his house years into future. In the language of the prophets, the ‘house of Israel’ is often depicted as inhabited by the evil spirits of injustice and death.C4CF15BB-4F8A-4E39-9691-0F9E133E4E53

The New Testament continues this unsparing view of the house. Matthew’s parable of the evil tenants who want to take over the house, Mark’s story of the man who calls himself Legion, who is so traumatised by the Roman invasion that he cannot live in a house any more, Luke’s story of the Pharisee’s house where Jesus and a sinful woman are treated with cold rectitude- these and many others reveal a ‘House Theology’ which is common across different gospel traditions. The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 is a particularly clear example. The upwardly mobile Zacchaeus is found up a tree because although he has made himself a big man by collaboration with the enemy, he remains small in his own eyes. He is in thrall to the spirit of greed which inhabits his ‘house.’ Jesus therefore invites himself to Z’s house, which he knows contains an accumulation of the wealth of others. In a sense Jesus breaks in, although Zacchaeus welcomes him because he honours him by his presence. Once Jesus is in the house, the evil stuff and the spirit of greed that gained it, have to go out. This is demonsttated by Z repaying fourfold those whom he has cheated. Jesus announces that the Z and his household have been rescued, in his words, ‘Saving justice has come to this house today!’

The fitst healing by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is briefly told, but is another good example. In this case there is no house precisely because the community’s fear of the leper’s disease has sen him banished from home and community. This banishment is the source of the leper’s tentative approach to Jesus, ‘If you want to, you can make me whole.’ This explains Jesus’ ‘anger’ which is the reading of the best manuscripts of the gospel: he is angry at the lack of compassion that forces a man to plead for healing. Then he invades this house of evil spirits by the simple and revolutionary gesture of touching him. His hand goes into enemy territory, the place of exclusion, to rescue the human being. He reveals the combination of fear and callousnness which has kept this man out of the communal house.

Jesus himself categorised his healing ministry by comparing himself to a thief breaking into a strong man’s house to take his possessions. He wouldn’t be able to do this, he says, without first tying up the strong man. He’s talking about Beelzebul, the Lord of the flies, the Satan, the enemy of God. Jesus has to neutralise the power of evil before he can set free those who are possessed by it. He does so by his concern for the victim and his often explicit denunciation of the oppressor, enabled by his own trust in God’s goodness.CFE6A855-5443-4B33-B528-6E56C2908606

The whole of Mark’s gospel is taken up with the battle between God’s House,(kingdom) and Satan’s House, which is given a surprise ending: Jesus, the rescuer of human beings, is expelled from the house(hold) of Israel, handed over to foreigners and killed, apparently abandoned by God. He seems to be defeated and placed in the house of Death, but his tomb is found to be empty and his followers told to meet him in the ‘gospel ground’ of Galilee. The result of the battle is left as an existential question for the reader.

For any House Theology, the house of the enemy is almost as important a theme as the house of God.

The “house of God” stories told by Jesus tell us about fathers, male householders and even a strong man who needs to be beaten up, but women do not have a role. Classic Christian theology of God’s house continues this habit and refers to God as the father or the Lord. The classic narratives of Jesus and the twelve disciples limit his intimate followers to men, although they mentionnwomen who were followers. When we get to the letters of St Paul, we see that the young church communities had women in key roles, although the developing church failed to build on this practice and eventually excluded women from leadership. The church grew up in a patriarchal culture but the practice of Jesus and St Paul seems to have been more radical.

If the organisation of the church became patriarchal, its worship and theology followed suit. The Jewish tradition was of a male God, Yahweh, who was often depicted as a king with no consort. Only the book of Proverbs gives us a divine woman, the personification of Wisdom, who is described as God’s companion in creation. This is a fruitful image of God’s femininity, but it was not much used in subsequent Christian theology.

So, if I am engaged in constructing a theology of God’s House, I should be faced with the question in this blog’s title, “Where’s mama God?”

The Roman Catholic Church has an answer to this question. The Virgin Mother Mary, flesh of our flesh but removed into the life of God, is of course the Queen of Heaven, the mother who brings our prayers to her son, the new Eve who is the mother of the beloved disciple, meaning all disciples. Surely it would be good for a protestant like me to accept the wisdom of the Roman Church in its promotion of Mary, a woman, into the process, if not the object, of worship. Here is someone who redresses the balance of male/female in divinity, and allows a female access to God.

I don’t accept this answer, although I admire its power. For here is a woman deprived of her humanity, namely her sexuality as the wife of Joseph, and the mother of Jesus’ siblings. Perpetual virgin she was not, according to the scriptures, and to make her so was a denial of her womanhood, because female sexuality was a problem to the church, and had to be suppressed for the sake of holiness. Mary can become semi-divine because she is no longer really human. This is an image of womanhood which denies the powerful femininity ascribed to Mary in the Gospels and suggests that divinity is achieved by disabling humanity. The Virgin is part of the terrible story of Roman Catholic refusal of healthy sexuality to its laity while permitting an unhealthy sexuality in its celibate priesthood.

The other, perhaps more serious, defect of Marianism, is that it deflects the question about the gender of God. High-minded theology rejects this question out of hand: God is not a human being and cannot be subject to categories which are only suitable for human beings. Well, maybe, but why then call God father, king and lord? The answer to that may be that we cannot easily think of a genderless being, and do not want to in the cae of God, so “he”remains masculine. But if we take seriously Genesis 1: 27- “ God created humanity in his own image; in the image of God he created it; male and female he created them,” then we must believe that God is male and female rather than genderless. We do not need to invent a female partner for a male God, because God is both male and female, although this femaleness has been denied, suppressed and abominated by traditional theology, which reflects the smelly masculinity of its priesthood.

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There is a wonderfully robust assertion of the motherhood of God in the “Showings” of Julian of Norwich, who sees that the God who gives birth to humanity and the Christ who gives rebirth in the power of fhe Spirit must be Mother as well as Father. Her subtle and suggestive theology is a model of how we can envisage a God who is more than gendered rather than less. There are also theologies based on Lady Wisdom, or Sophia in her Greek existence, which use the rich resources of the wisdom writings of the bible, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Ruth and Jonah, along with Genesis and the Gospels, to set out the femaleness of God. We should note that this is a matter of ascribing femaleness to all members of the Trinity rather than for example, making only the Spirit female. But Jesus was male, somebody will object. True, he was, but what is he now?

The alert reader will have noticed that I incline to take male and female as more than socially constructed roles. Of course there are social constructions of male and female identity, but they are a response to a sexual dimorphism which is a fact of  most evolved life on earth. It is a beautifully imaginative nsight of the Genesis author that this dimorphism has its origin in the complex nature of its creator.

The house(hold) of God does not need a mother to partner the father, because God is both mother and father, the strength of the female and the tenderness of the male, the wisdom of the male and the will of the female, the love of the female and the justice of the male, begetting and giving birth to the children of God and welcoming them into their true home.

 

 

I’ve been writing a series of blogs (try my last six or seven from the archive) about the Greek word oikos meaning house and its place in the Bible, attempting piece by piece to establish the basis of an oikos theology, that is, one which deals with the house and household of God.6A83E45E-4588-464E-93E3-C0987A3B9F98

Yesterday I got my hands on the marvellous new translation of the Confessions of St Augustine by Sarah Ruden, which I’ve devoured since in three sittings, and can therefore tell my readers that they should read this great classic of personal faith, now available in a translation that allows him to speak in real English. It is both beautiful and profound. Near the beginning I found this:

So how I will call on God, my God and my Master, since inevitably calling on him is calling him into myself? But what place in me is there to come into for my God- for God to come into me- the God who made heaven and earth? Is it as if, God my master, there is anything in me that could hold you? Could in fact the sky and the earth, which you created, and in which you created me, hold you? Or because without you, whatever is would not be, does it come about that whatever is holds you? Since therefore I also exist, why do I beg that you come into me, when I wouldn’t exist in the first place unless you were in me. I am not now in hell, and yet you are there too, because if I go down into hell, there you are.

To sum up, I would not exist, my God, I would not exist at all, unless you existed in me. Or is it rather that I would not exist unless I existed in you, from whom, through whom, in whom, everything exists? That’s it, Master, that’s it. To what place can I call  you if I am in you?

I can speak along with Augustine’s meditation, and share his conclusion. He is playing with two ‘house’ metaphors, the human self as a house of God, and the divine self as a house for the universe and its creatures. Biblically these metaphors are seen in passages in which God is depicted as dwelling with or in his people on the one hand, and on the other, passages in which the people are depicted as dwelling in God.6A83E45E-4588-464E-93E3-C0987A3B9F98

We can see these images played out in the biblical story of Jacob who, escaping the wrath of his brother, finds himself in a dream where there is a ladder to heaven, and recognises that it is a house of God He offers himself to God in return for God’s support on his travels. Later, when he decides to face his past and his brother, he wrestles with God, who assures him of his blessing. Once he stops trying to include God in his story and is ready to be included in God’s story, God dwells in him.

”Abide in me” Jesus says, “and I will abide in you.”

Augustine states as a primary truth that he abides in God; but he only knows this because he has opened his heart so that God can abide in him. I also would like to dwell in God forever, or I think I would, but must I also invite God into this poor house, where there are corners, no, whole rooms that haven’t been cleaned for years, where some of my secrets are stashed, where there are places so scary that even I do not go there? Can I be open to the God who is open to me?

Augustine also speaks of Jesus, God’s Word, occupying this frail house of flesh, so that human beings are convinced he is a brother they can trust.  Jesus the eternal word dwelling in flesh is the presence who persuades human beings to open their bodily lives to him. Augustine’s awareness of himself as a body is evident in the Confessions, especially in his anguished recognition of his sexuality as a barrier between himself and God. He rightly refuses to take the easy way out by labeling all bodily and material things as evil – some of his contemporaries did so- and instead sees that he must surrender his whole life to Jesus. But he doesn’t want to give up his sex life. So, he realises the barrier is his own will, which eventually and with great pain, he surrenders to Jesus his Master, and finds peace as he takes up residence in his life. The question is not, as above, “to what place can I call you?” but, “to what place will I give you access?” since God/Jesus/ Spirit will never intrude where they are not wanted. We are always in God, but God is not in us until we invite him/ her in, as Augustine did.

Augustine was sure that he had completely opened his life to God, once and for all, and certainly a profound turning had taken place. But my own experience is that when I invited God into my “house” I put all the messy stuff in one room, locked the door and put up a notice saying, “No Admittance,” but every now and then, God asks me, what’s this? And this? And this? And I realise I didn’t put all the messy stuff away, and that maybe I’d better open the locked room and have no secrets any more.

6A83E45E-4588-464E-93E3-C0987A3B9F98I’m helped to do this by consciously living ‘in God’s house’ of which the church is a model. There I am being trained to see my living space as God’s house, open to all creatures, providing equally for them all, changing and developing towards the ultimate perfection God desires for it. So far it is no more perfected than I am, since God will not force it to be so but inspires the creativity of his creatures; and my commitment to its future encourages me to cede more and more of my interior territory to God.

“How lovely to me is your dwelling, Lord of armies!” (Psalm 84) The psalmist was singing of the Temple, but it can mean also God’s household, his people, the universe as God’s house of life, and even the little house of the individual soul. It is a place, the Psalm says, where the most insignificant creatures, the sparrow and the swallow can enter and make a home. The human being sings that her very heart and flesh cry out for the living God; and is rewarded by the assurance that those who dwell in God’s house and sing praise are blest by the presence of God.

There is a vital spirituality of God’s house, such as Augustine knew, which can find new and contemporary forms of expression.