A Starting Point for Theology
Sixth Sunday of Easter: 5th May, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
An atheist was walking through the woods. "What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!" he said to himself. After he had been walking for some time he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look. He saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charging towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder but saw that the bear was closing in on him. He looked over his shoulder again and the bear was even closer. He tripped and fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw that the bear was right on top of him, right paw raised to strike him. At that instant the atheist cried out, "Oh my God!"
The bear froze.
The forest was still.
The man was surrounded with a bright light and a gentle but powerful voice spoke deep into the atheist's heart. "You deny my existence for all these years, you teach others that I don't exist, and now you ask me to help you out of this predicament. Am I finally to count you as a believer?" The atheist paused for a moment. "It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now God, but perhaps you could make the bear a Christian."
"Very well," said the voice.
The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed. And the bear dropped his right paw, brought both paws together, bowed his head and spoke: "Bless, O Lord, this food to our use and ourselves to your service."
The intellectual battle between atheist and believer is nothing new. From St Augustine, St Anselm and St Aquinas, to Paul Tillich, Sally McFague and Rowan Williams all the great theologians have engaged in the some form of apologetics. Tillich defines apologetic theology as "answering theology." He writes: "the perennial question has been: Can the Christian message be adapted to the modern mind without losing its essential and unique character? Most theologians have believed that it is possible; some have deemed it impossible either in the name of the Christian message or in the name of the modern mind" (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 7).
As Christians we all run the risk of closing our minds to the critique of the world around us. In essence this closing of the mind is fundamentalism. Fundamentalists are not just terrorists, or people who attend "happy-clappy" churches. Anglo-catholics can be fundamentalists too. A fundamentalistic way of thinking is surprisingly seductive and subtle, it can take a hold of us and we might not even notice: "I have the answer; I know what God is like; I know how God should be described; I know how God should be worshipped ... or even experienced; I am right and others who differ from me are wrong." Fundamentalist thinking, what ever shape it takes, is damaging to the individual and damaging to community.
There is no magic antidote to fundamentalist thinking, to the dangers of an ossification of our faith, but I think a good starting point is prayer; and in particular contemplative prayer. Anselm's beautifully crafted words from the opening to his book Proslogion say it all: "Come now, insignificant man, fly for a moment from your affairs, escape for a little while from the tumult of your thoughts. Put aside now your weighty cares and leave your wearisome toils. Abandon yourself for a while to God and rest for a little in Him. Enter into the inner chamber of your soul, shut out everything save God and what can be of help in your quest for Him and having locked the door (Matt 6:6) seek Him out."
When we take the time to do this, to set aside time for contemplation and prayer, the world somehow looks different. The grudge I am nurturing is just that little bit easier to let go of. My attitude towards my neighbour is a little more loving. My heart has opened and softened. The Holy Spirit has more room to move in my life, God draws me beyond myself, helps me to engage more fully with the world around me.
The words of scripture ignite with meaning: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."
Close with a time of silence and meditation ...
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.