I want to catch you up on a book that came out a year ago but that I've just had a chance to read -- The Rebirthing of God: Christianity's Struggle for New Beginnings, by John Philip Newell.
But before I get into details, I want to disclose that Philip is a friend whom I've gotten to know through Ghost Ranch, the national Presbyterian education and retreat center in northern New Mexico, where both of us teach regularly -- he more often than I. He and his wife Ali are both pastors in the Church of Scotland and are simply terrific people. I turn to Philip's work whenever I want to know or learn something about Celtic spirituality. (I'll be teaching a week-long seminar at Ghost Ranch in July. For details, click here. For seminars or retreats Philip will lead at Ghost Ranch in 2016, click here. He will be there the week before me and the week after. I am hoping he'll also stay for the week I'm there.)
Here is what I wrote about him a few years ago when he was in Kansas City and had dinner at my house. (Which is where the picture on the right below was taken.)
All right. Enough disclaimers and introductions. Now about his book:
The subtitle might lead you to believe that Philip is going to offer yet another recipe for saving declining Christian denominations in the U.S. or Europe or elsewhere in the world. Well, yes and no. This is not a book full of cogent advice about what kind of new evangelism might work with the religiously unaffiliated (now about 23 percent of adult Americans). And it's not a volume full of programmatic ideas for how to turn moribund Protestant churches into thriving centers of activity, as they had been in the post-World War II years.
It's deeper and broader -- and, in the end, more important -- than all that.
It's about what those of us who are Christian must do to rediscover the deepest, most transformative truths at the heart of faith found within the Christian household, as he likes to call it. It's about taking a deep breath and reconnecting with what Christianity wants to say about our home, the Earth, about the vital place of compassion, about what it might mean to be back in touch with the light of God and the light within us, about how to travel the road of faith as pilgrims, about what effective spiritual practices look like, about what nonviolence might teach us about our connection to the Prince of Peace, about how we can mine the deep wells of our imagination and even our unconscious and about what in the world it would look like if we took the idea of divine and human love seriously.
Philip draws heavily on his experience as the former warden of the Iona Community in Scotland, which means bringing to our attention many of the lessons of Celtic spirituality, which understands that the world was not simply made by God but also is made of God and which, therefore, is attuned to those "thin places" where the human and the divine nearly touch.
I have made a list of 25 pages of this 135-page book from which I want to quote, but I will limit myself to just a few to give you a taste of his inviting imagery and his persuasive insights.
Christianity today, he says, "is like a great giant who has fallen into the stupor of deep sleep. Its mighty energies for good often lie dormant. When it does stir, as if half remembering the enormity of its strengths, it too often stumbles into irrelevancies and half-truths that are more like a nightmare than a real awakening. Perhaps it is truer to say that Christianity as we have known it is not simply slumbering, it is dying and will be no more. But whether it is a deep slumber, from which we need to awaken, or a death, from which we need the radicalness of resurrection, there is a desperate yearning among us for new beginnings."
To think about what Christianity might be for the rest of the 21st Century and beyond, he writes, it's important to understand the radical nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and to think about what that might mean for the church, of which he is the head: "The story is not about resuscitation. It is about resurrection. It is not about reviving the old form. It is about something new, something we could never have imagined, emerging from death."
As Christianity finds its new way in a religiously pluralistic nation, such as the U.S., and a world full of vibrant and often ancient religious ideas and traditions, what might it have to give to the world? Philip writes this:
"What is it that a grown-up Christianity has to freely offer the world? There is so much treasure in our household that we could generously distribute. We hold within our Scripture an awareness of earth's sacredness that could more deeply serve today's environmental movements. We have inherited from Jesus a vision of nonviolence that could profoundly redirect our nations from conflict to peace. We have been taught practices of compassion for those who are poor and hungry and sick that could play a foundational role in the well-being of any society. There is no shortage of treasure in our household."
Some of what Philip writes will challenge traditional Christianity and those Christians who identify themselves as conservative or evangelical. But even they can find insight and direction here that can give new life to those branches of the faith, if they are willing to listen deeply.
(This book comes from Skylight Paths Publishing of Woodstock, Vt., which produces a wide variety of faith-based volumes. Skylight Paths will publish my own next book next summer. It will be The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith.)
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THE MESSAGE REPEATS, REPEATS, REPEATS. . .
In his Christmas message, Pope Francis called for peace in the Middle East and elsewhere. Oh, for the year when such a plea is unnecessary because there's already peace everywhere. Sigh.