Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

………………….

Having completed my physical exercise

For today, I sit and think of what needs doing

For our holiday next week in Ballachulish

Knowing you’ll help as usual screwing

The luggage box to the car roof. There’ll be some laughs

About my inability to put the washers right

Way up. My stuff’ll go up there while your case

Will go in the boot with mum’s. A few bright

Days will mean we can climb Beinn a Vair

By the ridge and maybe another mountain

If you’re fit. I wonder if your gear is good?

I’ve checked the routes at the fountain

Of all knowledge, Google Earth. The eating places

Are short on veggie choice, you’ll be enraged,

You’ll be… we’ll be….ah, what are these hot tears

Run down my nose and fall upon the page?

The insufficiency of revelation

Buddha. Now there’s name you don’t hear often in the Bible. Krishna’s another. And Aphrodite, Zeus, Hermes, Apollo. Some Gods are mentioned, the Baals, Moloch, to whom children are sacrificed, Astarte the Venus of the near East, but all are mentioned simply to be condemned as idols, as no-beings, as manufactured distraction from Yahweh, the one true God.

Early in the composition of the Bible, Yahweh is praised as the High God who is above all the Gods, signalling a recognition of a hierarchy of heaven, in which the God of Israel is top dog. The faith that Yahweh was the creator of the universe, however, led in the direction of monotheism, and the conviction that the Gods of other nations were unreal. As the Scots version of the Psalm has it:

For all the Gods are idols dumb/ which blinded nations fear

But our God is the God by whom/ the heavens created were.

To the imagination that produced a God who made uncongenial demands for communal justice, and who stood above nature as its creator, the gods of Israel’s neighbours might well have seemed trivial. This meant however that Israel saw God as the inventor of the people, rather than vice versa; which in turn led to an abdication of responsibility for the nature of its God, who for example, commanded the ethnic cleansing of the peoples who had formerly occupied the land of promise. These commands are extant in scripture and are not, as far as I am aware, officially disavowed by modern Judaism or any mainstream Christian church.

And while the followers of Jesus believed they should take his good news of God to all peoples in the world, they maintained their Jewish contempt for the gods of these peoples, so that with few exceptions, until the late 19th century, Christian churches showed no positive interest in any other faith.

This is an astonishment to a believer such as I who has been helped by the Hindu Shiva to notice the creative and destructive dance of cosmic energy, by the Sikh Guru Nanak to value the ministry of communal eating open to all strangers, by the Jain teachers to comprehend the equality of all living beings, by the Prophet Muhammed to fight for the justice of God on earth, and by the Buddha to understand that all of our realities including Gods are produced by the interaction of humanity with its environment. Yet I am still a follower of Jesus. Yet again, I think I am a better follower of Jesus by virtue of what I have learned from these other religions.

An open-minded study of world religions helped me to identify in my own faith those religious motifs that are common to most; and those that are unique to Christianity. It gave me a critical perspective on Christianity and a new appreciation of its originality. Above all it gave me an understanding of the insufficiency of orthodox christianity, in its dishonest closure of revelation at a fixed point in the past, and its lack of interest in pursuing the truth of Jesus beyond its own definitions.

Perhaps my relationship,with the Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn might be a useful example. He has written beautifully of many aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching which he affirms. But he ignores, and is a little embarrassed by, his suffering and death, because for him there is no possible positive meaning in suffering. I understand his conviction and completely disagree with it. But with him I wonder at the ease with which Christians assert the eternal value of a Roman torture; what are all those crosses doing? Buddhism is to do with avoiding, minimising, exiting from suffering, which is an important human skill, but just because of that wisdom, it fails to value the bearing and sharing of suffering. I think that the great Buddhist teacher and I have things we can learn from each other, but I’m not sure if he would agree.

Usually however, those who know best their own traditions of faith also know their limitations, their insufficiency. This knowledge is an essential mark of the health of all traditions of faith. Placing a full stop at the end of a creed is like placing the stone on Jesus’ tomb: finis, caput, done, no more from this source. But hallelujah, he is alive to contradict all claims to finality, even those made in his name.

Our daughter Eleanor died 21st April of this year.

Me:

“My colleague who has brittle bones tells me she’s

Broken her ankle turning over in sleep. Back

From Casualty she says it hurts; I guess it does, remembering

I heard my friend’s forearm crack

On the football pitch. It’s not a great day for being on earth:

In this leafy village the trees are thrashed

By a whipping wind which drives the rainflow

Horizontally past the window. It smashed

My neighbour’s clothes-pole through her yard-light.

I give thanks for a dry house, thinking

Of those who don’t have one, especially the toothless

Big Issue sellar at M&S in his minking

Jacket: how would the body sustain itself, how

Would the mind endure? The one

Human being ever to choose this life was Jesus,

Said by the Nicene Creed to have come

Down from his life with God, and been made flesh.

All the rest of us are here willy-nilly

Including you, my dear, who had your own exposure

To the worst the world can do. Chilly

Wet days you could handle like a hero, but nights of

Being battered, morning bailiffs at the door,

Vodka weekends, hospital fortnights, and years

Of osteoporosis being sore-

How did you keep going? Now again lovely,

Tears wiped away, you come to tell me

He came down so that you could rise up merrily

With all the disregarded ones whose bellies

Were never filled. Now, as I read how the U.S. cops

Shot an unarmed black man in the back,

Teach me, lady, to live with grace and patience

Till I am given what I lack.”

The Insufficiency of Revelation

“God is insufficient in himself.” These scandalous words ended my last blog on this topic. Of course, I want to add that God has made himself insufficient by being the creator of the universe(s). It is, if you like, God’s will that she/he should be insufficient. The promise of the eschatological passages in the Bible is that God’s sufficiency will also be the sufficiency of creation, when it is brought to perfection. God’s sufficiency is communal.

One question that arises is whether the perfecting of creation is imaginable. Indeed, by what sort of judgement have I decided that it is imperfect? May not the present universe be the best of all possible worlds? My answer is that it may be, if there is no God. But if there is the God of love and justice depicted by the Christian tradition, then surely the condition of the earth, where hatreds abound and millions of people and creatures live and die without justice, can reasonably be called imperfect. I guess I might without faith have judged the universe to be imperfect, but in fact this judgement is consequent on my faith: the condition of the world is a challenge to the honour of God.

If, then, the imperfection of the universe is all too imaginable, can we imagine its perfection? I have already described the eschatology of the Bible as evidence of insufficiency; and this is true not only of its critique of the present, but also of its vision of the ultimate future, which provides prophetic glimpses rather than any detailed blueprint: death will be swallowed up in victory, there will be no crying or mourning or pain, God will wipe away all tears, God will dwell with his people and they with God. These glimpses are more statements of faith that there will be perfection, rather than descriptions of it. That is because we are not the creator or the makers of perfection. When we try to create our own heavens, we make our own hells.

Recognising our insufficiency as makers or planners of perfection is a moral, religious and political virtue. God is the maker of perfection, and we believe it will have the same marks of God’s character as have already been revealed in the world, especially in Jesus. That’s why the eschatological promises envisage the return of Jesus. In the process of perfecting the universe, God requests our cooperation; that we should continue to publicise the story of God, building communities of faith which are capable, with the Spirit’s help, of “living tomorrow’s life today” by sharing God’s love and justice with each other, and with our neighbours.

This does not abolish our imperfection and insufficiency. There have been and are churches which have imagined that God’s perfection is incarnated in them or in their hierarchies, allowing them to pass judgement on other human beings, to make absolute declarations of right and wrong, and arrogate to themselves the holiness of God. This is the behaviour of the High Priest who is so certain of what is good that he secures the crucifixion of Jesus.

By this time my acute readers will have sussed out that my notion of insufficiency has similarities with classical doctrines of the sinfulness of humanity and even of the saints. I am not opposed to these doctrines, but think that they need to be revised and to find their true place within the broader framework of insufficiency which I have tried to sketch in these blogs.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

Me:

People mean well, but when to bypass

The word death, they say loss, “I’m sorry

For your loss,” as if I’d suffered a financial fraud

Or been in too much of a hurry,

mislaid you in the supermarket and never found you

Again, I find myself replying

Although I realise it’s unfair and indecorous

“Yes, we are grieved by her dying.”

Then I remember how for years I’ve been terrified

Of losing you, even when you were well,

Were you safe getting home from the night club?

Was the man you were with reliable?

How much more in your illness! If you weren’t answering

Your phone, I’d get in the car and drive

Miles just to see you, and if you were socialising

I’d need repeated proof you were alive.

My brother said I was trying to micromanage you,

But I knew you’d been assaulted

More than once, or taken double your medication;

So my anxiety could not be faulted.

Often I fore-imagined finding your lifeless body

Or having to identify your corpse;

Living in fear of losing one I loved so dearly

I lost you often in my thoughts.

But now you’re dead and gone from me, your ashes

scattered, it seems I have not lost you;

You talk with me from the other bank of the river

And show me how to trust you.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

m

E:

‘He prides himself it’s not any old puppy farm, no backstreet

Garage operation, with mangy bitches tottering on slack feet

in rusty cages, giving suck to sick pups, but the latest

Tech with light steel kennels, where a stud may find his mate is

Ready to rumble, with medical monitoring for the resultant puppies.

The whole operation excludes anything that would turn off the yuppies

Who come wanting to buy something with a pedigree. He could easily

Forge the papers, but why bother and leave himself open to some weasely

Journalist checking up. No, this is scientific, nothing to do with sentiment

Or animal rights. The bitches are no use after two years spent

In continuous production, and are put down, while the pups, deprived

Of contact with the natural world have poor resistance to disease: strive

As their owners will, they often snuff it young. “I always sympathise

Comparing the germ-laden world with my own hygienic home. Lies

Are unnecessary when the facts are favourable. This is a machine

For turning puppies into pounds,” he says. The business is seen

To observe all legislation, displays certificates of approval

From government and agencies of enterprise. Here you’ve all

The marks of capitalism, except no doubt you couldn’t do this

to human beings, at least not openly, but you’d be foolish

To neglect the ways that human lives are made into profit.

For most of civilisation we sold people on the open market

And may again. My heavenly anger is for animals who suffer

Now, the slavery people may impose on one another.’

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

Me: As soon as I saw it I thought of you. I was back from a short walk in the hills, on a day which had begun with mist and rain, but dried up mid-morning, to provide glimpses of sunshine. As I looked over the bridge on to the pools below I was seized with the impulse to swim in them, to feel the clean warmth of a summer river, to be part of its life. I didn’t because I had no trunks, although there was nobody in sight…

El: …getting old, I guess. I can remember you swimming in your boxers in the North Esk at the Burn, and me in bra and knickers, while young men shouted randy appreciation (I think of me) from the pathway above. But we always noted suitable pools of rivers or burns which would be suitable for what you called a “plonge” on our return from a climb. I suppose the fake french gave the prospect a touch of sophistication…..

M: …a little je ne sais quoi, I would say. But yes, knowing I couldn’t just turn to you, I immediately thought I would tell you about it and plan to come back together. Still here we are, wherever that is.

E: It’s where we are together. When I had a mortal body I could experience the pleasure of just being that body in nature, in its ecosystem, without thought, like a dog or an otter. Here, in a different body there are equivalent pleasures, but I will never now take a plonge in these pools. You’ll have to do it for me. It’s good to talk…

M: You’ve been talking at length in a number of my blogs….

E: Too true! How come I end up doing monologues in a kind of modern McGonagall-esque rhyming verse? Of course people here understand what’s happening, but what about my reputation in the world- among my friends for example? Maybe they wonder why being dead means composing bad rhymes.

M: I’m sorry if it seems bad to you. Of course all the words attributed to you come through me. But I protest that those poems are not written in my style, but in some sense, in yours ; that is, your voice in my voice. Don’t you accept any responsibility for them?

E: Do you ask my permission before you start one of them? Or do you in fact assume that all this dialogue is fake, and that you are the only person actually involved?

M: No, I don’t think that. I have no formal way of asking your permission, just the informal commitment to thinking my way into your skin – or whatever you have now- while attempting to imagine you in your mew life. I rigorously try to exclude from these poems anything that represents my views or prejudices. Of course I don’t succeed, but I do try to listen to you.

E: …..interesting you should refer to skin, which is the physical and often mental boundary of our earthly selves. You have understood to some degree, that here, in God, our boundaries become unnecessary and are worn away, so that we learn not to exclude other persons, and to be ready to be included by them in turn. At the same time we don’t become undifferentiated mush; we are still persons, but persons more and more in community.

M: The Communion of Saints we call it here….

E: But did you ever preach about it? Of course it’s not always a delight. I’m now more than ever open to the suffering of animals and human beings from climate change. Good people are still too hesitant to do anything definite, while bad people are already trying to ensure that when the shit hits the fan, the resources for life will be in their hands.

M: So you must know that I’m seriously trying to believe in you, and to listen to you, yes?

E: Yes. And I also know that I’m not earthly anymore; and just as I can’t have a swim in the River Esk, I can’t, except through you and others, speak to anyone on earth. As God can’t.

M: The channels are that important?

E: You know this from Bible, God only speaks to those who love him and listen.

M: So it’s ok to keep writing poems in your voice?

E: Yes, but listen very carefully please.

M: We’ll talk again soon?

E: Yes, thanks, it’s my pleasure, like a plonge in a summer river….

The insufficiency of revelation

The Bible is pretty frank about human need for God, although mainly this is a need of which many human beings are unaware: namely, their need for God’s law and love to guide their lives. Religion, as a human construct generally states the human need for God’s favour and protection, which can be gained by using certain rituals, prayers or pilgrimages. The Bible is somewhat sceptical about this sort of religion, and Jesus’ teaching is focused on God’s desire to rule the world by love, rather than on any assumption about human need.

The letters of St Paul may be seen as the classic texts on human need for God, because he sets aside the Jewish Torah as being an instrument of condemnation rather than of guidance, while promoting trust in God’s love through Jesus, as the entry into God’s rescue plan for humanity. Outside this rescue, human beings are depicted as slaves of sin. None of the trappings of religion are needed however, just a joyful trust in God and a readiness to receive God’s Spirit and to live by his ways. This leads to eternal life, which mortals cannot have without a relationship to the eternal God.

Do human beings need God? Yes, they need to set aside their arrogance along with all attempts to manipulate God by religion; and trust in the freely -given love of God through Jesus, which allows them to accept the holy spirit, and to live just lives in this world, and to share eternal life in the next.

The Bible is a good deal less open when it comes to God’s need of human beings. In fact there is no direct acknowledgment of it at all, in spite of the overarching biblical narrative making God’s need of humanity quite clear.

As far as the Bible is concerned, the Creator God has a problem, because he/she has made a creature who can disobey him. No other creature can do so, but human beings find it easy, and by their disobedience spread evil throughout the world. God is caught on the hop and tries intervene, but is ignored. Eventually he almost decides to uncreate the whole thing, but substitutes a mighty flood which kills everything except faithful Noah, his family and representative animals, instituting a new start. Does any human reader of this story think that God’s strategy will work? No, and God doesn’t either, repenting his rage and readying himself for the long haul. If he cannot frighten humanity into obedience and he doesn’t want to destroy them, what can he do to save his good creation? He has to work by persuading them to co-.operate in perfecting creation. He has to stop throwing his weight around, and get down to building trust with humanity starting with Abraham and Israel. God needs human beings to save his reputation as creator. This implication is absolutely clear in the book of Genesis. And is confirmed in the Gospel of John, where the author states that “God loved the cosmos so much that he sent his only son……not to condemn the cosmos but that through him it might be rescued.” But that rescue can only happen through “those who have faith in him.”

God needs the human trust without which his divine love for creation cannot succeed.God needs human beings to cooperate with his rule, so that the seventh day of creation may come, and he can take his rest, knowing that all is good. That perfection is pictured in the Bible’s eschatological passages, which are recognitions that what we know in faith is insufficient: God needs our full commitment, and when he gets what he needs, there will be, as Paul says, a new creation. Revelation is insufficient because God is insufficient in himself.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

E:

I’ll explain why in a minute but right now my mind is taken over
With memories of A.A meetings where in order to recover
My sobriety, I was urged to begin my new life by surrendering
My identity, my alcoholic pride, my ego; to cease pretending
That I was in control, and entrust my future to a Higher Power
Mediated through the Meeting and its programme. God
Forgive me, I refused, because while recognising the broad
Humanity of the programme and its people, I’d been educated
By violence never to surrender my inner self , and in truth I hated
The new person they wanted me to be. I hadn’t fought like a savage
Just to become a sober, decent citizen, but imagined a self more lavish
In its pleasures and commitments. Some of this was my addiction
Speaking.

….
………..Now here I am in a place where divine friction
Is erasing me. It is a vast cirque of maybe limestone such as
I’ve seen in photos of the Picos de Europa, by the soft touches
Of water, wind and ice worked into the shapes they are now
Which will be obliterated day by day until they bow
To necessity and are gone. It is like a speeded up video
In which I too am impacted by forces that rid me of
Whole bits of myself. See, my feet dissolve into the alpine
Flower I bent to examine. I feel my new roots. My spine
Is wrenched and straightened in a tower of rock. My arms
Are feathered in the slow beat of the vulture’s wings. Alarm
Shoots through me, not at the changes, but at my own desire
To be changed, to let go, to breathe myself away, expire
Into the blessed community of creatures. I am afraid no longer
Of being handed a fixed identity like a transferred footballer
In a new shirt, but hopeful for the unique love that is myself
To share the love of every thing and person in the commonwealth
Of heaven. This is process, not completion, but I hope to see
Its end. Let my life be yours, I pray, but let it still be me.

A good bit of life is the sharing of jokes, and some of the best jokes are Jewish. The Jewish mama for example, with her pride in her son’s achievement. Here she opens the door to visitors, in floods of tears,

“Oi veh, oi veh, my son the famous surgeon has been killed in a car accident…!”

Even God can be in a joke:

The poor man approaches God and says, I’m told a million years to you is as a second. God agrees that this is true. The man goes on, I’m told a million pounds to you is as a penny. God agrees to this also. Well, says the man, can I have a million pounds? Sure, says God, just give me a second.

But as far as I was taught, there are no jokes in the Bible.

Just give that some consideration. Jokes are a an indispensable part of living, cementing friendships, easing family tensions, increasing social joy, helping us bear misfortune, offering us insight into life, but there are no jokes in the book which is the basis of our faith and practice as Christian people! Serious believers will answer, The Bible is about our eternal salvation. Do you think that’s a topic for jokes??

Well, yes, I do, don’t you? Aren’t a substantial proportion of traditional jokes about the pearly gates?

A minister who has been recently received into heaven with a modest commendation is disturbed to see his lawyer being welcomed at the gates, with a flourish of trumpets and a special anthem by the heavenly choir. He complains to St Peter, I spent most of my life in faithful service, and I was hardly noticed at the gates but my lawyer has just been welcomed with all that razmataz! Ah, son, replies Peter, you see, in heaven ministers are how shall I say, ten a penny, but this is the first lawyer we’ve ever had!

So of course, we are delighted with jokes about eternal salvation, especially if they offend those who’re sure of theirs. But that takes us back to our jokeless Bible. Is it really so solemn, or is the problem the humourless people who have given us its traditional interpretation?

Maybe I should confess that I find the Bible full of jokes, the Old Testament more than the New, although Jesus provides a ready supply. In fact the Bible story has barely begun when we are given several jokes, in the narrative which has been solemnly called, The Fall of Man. You remember that Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit then hide when they hear the voice of God, who easily finds them. Why were you hiding, asks God. Because we are naked, answers Adam. Who told you that you were naked, asks God; have you eaten from the forbidden tree of knowledge? Perhaps this is more a smart deduction than a joke, but I imagine it was delivered with a chuckle. So Adam tries his own joke, It was the woman you put with me, she took the fruit and gave it to me! It’s not a great joke but it blames God for the whole mess. Humour is woven into the great story, which theologians have misinterpreted over centuries. Surely God’s punishment has to be taken seriously, but how can it be, when part of it is removing the legs from a kind of snake we’ve never seen?

Once we open our eyes and ears to the jokes of the Genesis author, we realise that they are built into the whole design of the story. What greater joke can there be than a God who creates a creature which then proceeds to outguess its maker at every opportunity? Unless it’s the spectacle of a creator who is so enraged at his creation that he destroys almost all of it in a flood, and then repents his action. You need a strong sense if humour to appreciate this story. (The biggest joke of all of course is that this comic-cuts narrative has been made the basis of an utterly humourless theology about the total corruption of humanity.)

I could go on. Genesis is the funniest and most profound piece of theology in the Bible, with the exception of the Jesus tradition represented in the Gospels. If we only take the nicknames He gave to his disciples, Cephas the rock for Simon the shaky; the MacThunders for the aggressive sons of Zebedee; jihadi for the ex-zealot Simon; we can see a wry humour which is not without affection.

When Jesus talks about hypocritical religious people, he exposes their play-acting but finishes with the mild observation, They have their reward. This is accurate and funny. As is his vivid remark about trying to remove a speck from your brother’s eye while having a log in your own. We need to waken up to this dry, passionate, humorous voice which the first three gospels give us as the voice of Jesus.

The parables of Jesus are another example of his wit. The rich man in hades demands that Abraham should send the poor man with some water to moisten his mouth. You can imagine Jesus imitating his accent. Abraham then explains that heaven is a reverse mirror image of the rich man’s society. As it placed a great gulf between rich and poor, so God has placed a great gulf between reward and punishment, so nobody can help him. What fun this is for the poor people listening! Jesus is not giving a lesson about the geography of the afterlife but about the justice of God.

Once we open ourselves to the humour of Jesus, we will find it everywhere in the gospels.

Jokes, which make us laugh because they reveal the contradictions, disproportions, ironies, and baffling stupidities of human behaviour, are integral to any tradition of thought that offers us wisdom. The fundamental joke of the Bible is that the creator God has to learn to be a human being in order to perfect his creation. We need to read the story with humour as well as piety.