This week, as we were discussing the ‘Visitation’ reading which we were to have on the coming Sunday we arrived, once more onto the topic of the virgin birth of Jesus. There is a wealth of material that is easily accessible about this topic and so I won’t go into the actual debate about it here. (Here is a link to an interview about it with John Dominic Crossan (http://bustedhalo.com/features/busted-john-dominic-crossan ). It was another thing about this conversation which struck me as interesting. Our group member said words like “Well, if the Virgin Birth is not true, what else is not true? What can I ‘hang onto’ as a sign of the truth of my faith?” Now that is a question really worth asking. Everyone is interested in what it is that is the ‘sine qua non’ of their own faith.
When we were studying Augustine, we found out that he was interested in ‘reliable knowledge’ and because things that changed could not be reliable, he, as a neo –Platonist, was looking for the ‘Ideas’ that did not change, and so could be relied upon.
It is in this way that I think that for some, the idea Virgin Birth functions. If God can do ‘this’ then God is worth believing in as the Christians present God. But I wonder what other forms of reliability there can be?
It is sometimes the case that reliability is delivered by ‘my group’. This means that there is a certain set of shared ideas within the group, and as long as I belong to that group, I can feel ‘sort of’ safe because I ‘belong’ to a group. Now we are in the realms of what constitutes group membership. Being a ember of a group is sometimes constituted by sharing certain beliefs which distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’. These kinds of groups have linguistic signals that allow members to tell who can be trusted and who cannot. Belief in the Virgin Birth, or Belief in the name of God as ‘Jehovah’ or belief in worshipping on the ‘Seventh Day’ are all signals that distinguish one lot of ‘us’ from one lot of ‘them’. So that’s one form of reliability. Any form of questioning of these forms of group identification immediately shows one to be ‘not a member of the group’ and so ‘unreliable’.
Other forms of reliability are drawn from various forms of authority. The teaching of the Church is one form of Authority that some people accept as the thing which cannot be questioned. In John Henry Newman’s Hymn ‘Firmly I believe and Truly’ we see the intimate connection between the reliability of the Church’s teaching, and connection with Christ, where he says
And I hold in veneration,
For the love of Him alone,
Holy Church as His creation,
And her teachings are His own.
Protestants tend to put the words of the Bible in this place, so that the reformers cry of ‘Sola Scriptura’ becomes their anchor point. Much of the resistance to changes in our social and sexual attitudes comes from the people who want to defend the Bible. They say “If we think that the Bible says X and the Bible is the thing that has ultimate authority, but you think that you want to do Y, when what happens to our anchor point when even what we think that the Bible says can be questioned?
But for me, although I take very seriously the doctrine of the Church, and the words of the Bible, I do not think that either of these represents where my own ‘anchor point’ is. Here’s what I think my own ‘anchor point’ is.
This is a story from the Hassidim. All of the rabbis used to get together to tell each other stories. Everyone had to participate. But there was one rabbi, crippled, and in a wheelchair, who was so shy that he always tried to opt out. But the other rabbis insisted that he tell a story. He said “ Look, I am not very good at it. But my master, who taught me the faith, was a wonderful storyteller. You should have seen him! When he told a story, he would become almost possessed by the power of it, and in his telling, he would jump around and play-act all the parts. He was brilliant.” At that point, the crippled rabbi was possessed by the story of his master. He jumped out of his wheel chair and started to dance and gesticulate around the room. He was healed.
This is my first ‘anchor point’. I do not know whether something ‘really happened’ or not. But what I do know is that I m possessed by these stories. And these stories create a world, a universe, in which what I may hope for is laid out. In believing in these stories, I am believing in the universe as described by them. What is more, these stories tell me of a God who, in Christ, stands behind, and sponsors these stories. So in trusting the stories to guide my hope, I am trusting the God whom, the stories themselves tell me, lies behind them. This God, is, as the hymn says ‘In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. ‘ But the stories are not.
So the stories in the Bible are the entities that ‘animate’ me, just like the rabbi. They are not ‘doctrines’ or ‘teachings’ that have to be believed, but narratives that have their own power to ‘animate’ (en-soul) me. The God who sponsors these stories, is my God.
Then comes a distillation. St Paul says in the letter to the Romans Chapter 4, that it is God who brings into being that which is not. It is that same power that created the world from nothing, that raised Jesus from ‘nothingness’, so that ‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new Creation.’ That is my ‘summary’ of what the stories individually communicate in their own way. So I continue to hope for, and look for the the signs and evidence of God’s calling into being that which is not. I continue to hope for the ‘New Creation.’
It is these signs that are my second anchor point. As a friend of mine once said “The less we see happening, on the ground, what the stories in the Bible tell us is possible, the less we tend to believe in the stories.’
This is why each hear, hoping, I ask “Is there anyone who wants to participate in a renewal of their faith or who wants to become a Christian for the first time?” This is why I have spent my whole ministry with places that are on the verge of going under, or who always work with financial difficulty. As 2 Corinthias 4:6 tells us “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” If this is what the stories said of them why can’t that also be true of us?
Allowing myself to be animated by the stories, without asking too much about what lies behind them: trusting that the same God who sponsors them is working in me and us today: trusting that the work of this God is to give us the hope that a ‘new creation out of nothing’ is what we may hope for, even in death: trusting that this is still possible and looking for the ways that it is happening now. These are my anchor points.