[Oe List ...] 11/09/17, Felton/Spong/Fox: A New Template for Religion: A Conversation with Michael Morwood, Part 3  - Worship, Prayer, & the Other Side of the Story; Spong revisited

Ellie Stock elliestock at aol.com
Thu Nov 9 07:07:36 PST 2017




A New Template for Religion:
A Conversation with Michael Morwood, Part 3  
Worship, Prayer, & the Other Side of the Story
Rev. David Felten

What follows in interview form is the final installment of three columns inspired by a presentation Michael Morwood offered at the Common Dreams Conference in Brisbane, Queensland, in 2016. In this final segment, Morwood offers a new perspective on worship and prayer – along with some concluding thoughts on religion in general and recommendations on a way forward.
David Felten: We’ve moved away from using the word “worship” in our local faith community, opting for words like “celebration” or “gathering” instead. The concept of “worship” has so much baggage: all those ancient formalities and royal protocols that don’t fit post-Enlightenment ways of thinking – yet people are somehow loathe to give it up.
Michael Morwood: Personally, I would stop using the word “worship,” too. The notion of “worship” belongs to an old paradigm, an outdated template for religion.
I was in Canada not long ago conducting a weekend for a progressive United Church community. The audience was very on-side with what I presented. At the end of the weekend, I asked some of the community leaders, “Why, with such a progressive community, do you have the large ‘WORSHIP HERE 10:00 am SUNDAY’ sign outside the church?” I was met with puzzled looks, as if to say, “Why wouldn’t we have this sign?”
So I asked some questions:
.....• Worship whom?
.....• For what reason?
.....• What do you imagine is at the other end of your worship? A deity taking notice? A deity taking some delight in homage being paid?
.....• Is your Sunday gathering for God’s sake?
.....• Where did this imagination come from?
I’d ask the same questions regarding “the Mass” and what Catholics imagine “Mass” is all about (but I don’t get invitations to Roman Catholic parishes these days!).
Overall, I prefer to use words like “liturgy” or “service” for a new template. The roots of the word “liturgy” (leit, people; ergon, work), means the “work of the people.” For me, this understanding of liturgy expands beyond ritual to mean participation in a sacred or divine action.
David Felten: So what’s the “work of the people” and the “divine action” you have in mind?
Michael Morwood: I think our primary task is to gather around the story of Jesus and seek to understand its full implications for all human interactions. Our challenge is to let it reveal to us the truth of who we are, to challenge us to commit ourselves to being the best possible human expressions of the Great Mystery, and to do this as faithfully and as courageously as Jesus did.
And none of this has anything to do with reception of a sacred object, with a priesthood with special powers, or being “fed” at an altar – it certainly has nothing to do with Jesus shedding his blood for the sins of the world. It has nothing to do with singing songs to or addressing prayers to a listening deity.
What it does include is:
.....• Remembrance of Jesus and of others who shared his vision
.....• Awareness of the presence/power within us
.....• Commitment to working for a better world.
David Felten: So, what about the songs we sing and our liturgical prayers? What about the efficacy of the prayers we offer in our faith-sharing groups?
Michael Morwood: What are we being asked to imagine when we ask God to listen? When we thank God? When we address God with personal pronouns? We know where this imagination comes from. The question is, how does this image resonate once the notion of a “God in the heavens” has been abandoned?
By all means, let us sing hymns and address prayers to “God” that suggest this
divine “being” is listening in and taking note. But, let us do so mindful that whatever words we use are metaphor and poetry. They’re not to be taken literally, but as a means of giving expression to longing, pain, gratitude, joy – all those movements our minds and hearts struggle to convey otherwise.
Then let us embrace one of the key challenges that faces us today: to shape
prayers (the hymns may take a lot longer!) that affirm a “presence” within and
among us. We need a growing collection of metaphors and images that help develop our awareness that this “presence” is not only here with us in the ordinariness of our everyday lives but challenges us to live out the best possible human expression of this “Great Mystery.”
David Felten: For as long as I can remember, one of my mentors, Bill Nelson, has advocated that we simply stop using the word “God” altogether. We need images that are free from so many centuries of the theistic and human-centric God that is “out there” somewhere. 

Michael Morwood: Exactly! In practice, stop addressing prayers to “God.” Just stop doing it. If you still practice a traditional style of spoken prayer, all it takes is the determination to not begin as if you’re speaking to a theistic God. Try it and see what happens! I resolved to do this 15 years ago. It resulted in my book, Praying a New Story which Spirituality & Practice included in its list of “Best Spiritual Books” of 2004.
With regard to their own private prayer, many people ask me, “If I let go of the
idea of praying to “God,” how do I pray now?”
One way I think about it is remembering a Syrian monk known as “the golden speaker.” St John Damascene was born and raised in Damascus in the early 8th century, but he’s given the church words that have been carried down through the centuries: “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God.”
Today, if we substitute “great mystery” or “power” or other similar concepts for the word “God,” the definition still holds – understanding it to mean raising our minds and hearts to a presence here, all around us; in the depths of our being. So a key concept for any prayer becomes “awareness.” The goal of my personal prayer is to deepen my awareness, to be conscious of the reality that I embody this “great mystery” in human form.
It’s also important to acknowledge that my personal prayer is not for God’s sake. It is for my sake, it is meant to change me. Someone recently asked me, “Can prayer change the world?” and I said, “Of course! If prayer is intended to change us, then we can change the world.” Otherwise we become trapped in the religious cop-out version of prayer: “Let’s leave the fate of the world in God’s hands.”
I think Jesus had the same conviction about personal prayer. It’s what motivated his ministry to “the crowd.” He wanted people to become aware of the power and the presence within them and use it to change the world. That was his dream.
What a pity that this fundamental stance of Jesus has been buried beneath a layer of prayer asking God to “deliver us from evil.” That’s not God’s task; it’s our task.
David Felten: Well that should give the proponents of conventional Christianity heartburn. The Church has thrived for centuries convincing people that they are but loathsome sinners and depraved worms, incapable of any good without Jesus vouching for them. It sounds like your new paradigm puts some pretty high expectations on us lowly humans.
Michael Morwood: The major shift in my theological thinking and prayer life in the past 25 years has stemmed from a growing – and a completely new – appreciation of what it means to be human. Much of my appreciation is grounded in the scientific story of our origins in stardust and the four billion years of atoms undergoing transformation after transformation until the 60 trillion atoms that are Michael Morwood enable me tell the story of who and what we really are.
Now that’s a truly remarkable story. But what I find just as remarkable is to have discovered that throughout human history the other side of this story – without the great scientific story we have today to back it up – has made itself known. Call it “enlightenment”; call it whatever you will, but there has been this constant awareness, insight, revelation – in both religious and non-religious people – of an awareness of a power, an awesome reality beyond our imagination, within and among us, a presence that binds together everyone and everything.
Rumi, the great Muslim scholar, teacher, and poet said it well 800 years ago,

“You are the fearless guardian of Divine Light,
so come, return to the root of the root of your own soul…”.
“Why are you so enchanted by this world
when a mine of gold lies within you?
Open your eyes and come,
return to the root of the root of your own soul.”

Here is the proper focus for religion, today and in the future. Here is where religion can get beyond dogmatism, thought control, the disregard for common decency, and claims of exclusive access to the divine. Jesus is not alone in urging men and women to “return to the root of the root of your own soul” and use what is discovered there to create a profoundly better human community.
And here is why the “Christ” religion needs to change its thinking about Jesus so dramatically: Jesus is not and was not a god-figure essentially different from the rest of us because only he could gain access to God’s dwelling place. Rather, he presents a movement, a presence, a reality – a great mystery – that is within every woman, man, and child. That is the good news that needs to be proclaimed and acted upon.
David Felten: So what’s next? Can the Church – can we – actually change our thinking? 
Michael Morwood: Thirty years ago I wrote that if I were to recommend one book for Catholics to read, it would be Karl Rahner’s The Shape of the Church to Come, written in 1974. Rahner is regarded as one of the greatest Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century – and while much of his writing is too academic for the people I had in mind, this book is a gem from such an academic.
Rahner wrote:

“Our present situation is one of transition … to a Church made up of those who have struggled against their environment in order to reach a personally clear and explicitly responsible decision of faith. This will be the Church of the future or there will be no Church at all.”
“It seems to me that the courage to abandon positions no longer tenable means asking modestly, realistically, and insistently, whether it is always possible to take with us on this march in to the Church’s future all the fine fellows whose out of date mentality is opposed to a march into an unknown future … we shall also estrange, shock, and scandalize not a few who feel at home only in the Church as they have been accustomed to see it in the past.”

And, he writes,

“If we are honest we must admit that we are to a terrifying extent a spiritually lifeless Church.”

Overall, Rahner lamented the failure of the Church to address the life experience and questions of the faithful. And along with this failure, he said we fail to proclaim Jesus “vigorously.” We neglect, he wrote, to start with “the experience of Jesus” and we talk about Jesus and God “without any real vitality.”
Rahner’s words inspired me 30 years ago when I was naïve enough to think that institutional Roman Catholicism could and would change. The ensuing 30 years have taken me on a journey I could never have envisioned – not in my wildest dreams! I’m not so naïve now, but his words still inspire me to work for a more relevant, dynamic, realistic faith or spirituality, faithful to what Jesus really believed and was ready to die for.
Theologically, I think we’re living through the greatest theological challenges the “Christ” religion has ever experienced: the old template, used for the past two thousand years, is hopelessly outdated.
At the same time, I believe this new template offers a way ahead for humanity – the opportunity for vitality, for engagement with peoples’ lives and questions, for engagement with the exciting scientific knowledge we have on hand, for wonder and appreciation for being human, and a way to bring the message of Jesus – and other men and women of spiritual insight – to a world that is in desperate need of a new template to heal the harm and divisions caused by religion.
I love working with this new template. It has proven to generate just the kind of excitement and challenge that opens up the possibilities and dreams that a vital future demands of us.
— Rev. David Felten with Michael Morwood
About Michael Morwood
With over 40 years’ experience as a sought-after retreat leader and educator, Michael Morwood is well known around the world. Bishop John Shelby Spong writes: “Michael Morwood…is raising the right and obvious questions that all Christians must face. He provides fresh and perceptive possibilities for a modern and relevant faith.” With a dozen books to his name (two of which were banned before he resigned from the Catholic priesthood), Morwood brings an extensive background in spirituality to what he sees as the urgent need to reshape Christian thinking for a new millennium.
Be sure to visit Michael Morwood’s website by clicking HERE.
~ Rev. David Felten
About the Author
David Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions”.
A co-founder of the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and also a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, David is an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large. David is active in the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church and tries to stay connected to his roots as a musician. You’ll find him playing saxophones in a variety of settings, including appearances with the Fountain Hills Saxophone Quartet.
David and his wife Laura, an administrator for a large Arizona public school district, live in Phoenix with their three often adorable children.
Read the essay online here.

Question & Answer
Roland from Sydney, writes:

How can the clergy educate its members into contemporary theology and attract back the church alumni without alienating the aging conservatives that finance the local church?

Answer: By Rev. Matthew Fox

Dear Roland,
Thank you for your question. I think it is a very big one as it poses many issues of real importance such as the relationship between generations that is often problematic but especially in our time since we have one foot still in the modern era (most of our institutions are still there including the Reformation churches) and another foot in the postmodern era (where so many young people are located and where pre-modern wisdom is welcomed, not shunned as during modern times).
Science and Education also find themselves in this ‘in between’ place today. The British Scientist Rupert Sheldrake told me recently that at Oxford and Cambridge today there is a huge gulf between the professor class and the students specifically around the topic of religion or spirituality. Most professors surrendered all interest in religion generations ago but today’s students are eager to learn more about it.
I have written about the difference between modern and postmodern consciousness at the end of my short book on A New Reformation. You might find some food for thought there. It is, I think, imperative for the survival of our species that we learn anew to develop intergenerational wisdom. This means elders must wake up to their calling as elders and must learn to sit down and listen to the younger generation. The benefit will be mutual I am sure.
It also means that it is past time to establish rites of passage for elders to assist elders to wake up to their responsibilities. Our secular culture likes to put elders out to pasture after they have passed the age of peak consumer capitalism and are “retired.” I insist however that we retire the obscene word “retirement” and replace it with “refirement.” What we are talking about here—recovering true eldership—could constitute a whole new example of refirement in our churches.
In our book on Occupy Spirituality Adam Bucko (who worked for 15 very fruitful years with young adults living on the streets of NYC) and myself interviewed many young adults (ages 21-33) and one of the questions we asked was about elders in their lives. 98% said: “We want elders but can’t find them…..And the few we do find talk too much.” Elders have to get off the golf course and out of their couches and/or playing the stock market and make themselves available to young people. The young today are facing issues of climate change and eco-destruction and gross have/have not discrepancies that are unprecedented. A moral and survival imperative exists to radically change education, religion, politics, economics, art, farming and energy resourcing on this planet. We need all the wisdom they can get. The young and old can and need to put their heads and hearts together in this search for wisdom.
In an elder rite of passage ceremony that Creation Spirituality Communities conducted a year ago the young adults assisted in creating it. Of course the young also need rites of passage (and confirmation, I’m sorry to report, rarely cuts the mustard).
Our Cosmic Masses, going on now for over 23 years, have proven very valuable for bringing young and old together in a post-modern form for celebrating Liturgy, one that incorporates post-modern art forms (and pre-modern ones) including dance, dj, vj, rap and more. It is not enough that elder worshippers are “at home” or “comfortable” with their (modern) forms of worship that are pre-packaged in Liturgical books. Jesus never said “Blessed are the comfortable” (neither did the Buddha).
The question is this: How will future generations—including their grandchildren and great grandchildren—pray? It will not be from merely reading from books and sitting in pews and daring the preacher to keep them awake—that is all very modern because the modern age emerged with the invention of the printing press. It must include the body; the senses; beauty; and grieving together. Yes, there is much to grieve as well as to give birth to.
Our new Order of the Sacred Earth, which launches this month, is another effort to bring old and young together around a new (and ancient) vision of spirituality in practice. The book’s subtitle is “Intergenerational Love in Action.” You might check it out on line as well.
Best wishes in lighting the fire,
Rev. Matthew Fox

Read and share online here
About the Author
Matthew Fox holds a doctorate in spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris and has authored 32 books on spirituality and contemporary culture that have been translated into 60 languages. Fox has devoted 45 years to developing and teaching the tradition of Creation Spirituality and in doing so has reinvented forms of education and worship. His work is inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions and has awakened millions to the much neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West. He has helped to rediscover Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas. Among his books are Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the FleshTransforming Evil in Soul and Society, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved and Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest
A new school, adopting the pedagogy Fox created and practiced for over 35 years, is opening in Boulder, Colorado this September.  Called the Fox Institute for Creation Spirituality it is being run by graduates of his doctoral program and will offer MA, D Min and Doctor of Spirituality degrees.  See www.foxinstitute-cs.org
Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited
The Bible, Corporal Punishment and Human Guilt - Part 6

If God is not a punishing and rescuing deity, then who or what is God? If the biblical explanation of the source of evil is no longer operative, then from where does evil come? What is its origin? Can the way evil is viewed be changed or transformed? Can we human beings escape our need to view ourselves negatively, which is the interior situation that makes the punishing God necessary? If the task of the Christian faith is not about rescuing and restoring the fallen sinner, then what is the task of this religious system? If behavior control is not the Church's primary social agenda, then so much of the way we portray the content of the Christian faith simply falls away. Can Christianity survive without its doctrines of Atonement, and Incarnation, both of which hang on the sin and rescue themes? Is there any other way to see the divine presence of God in the life of Jesus other than to view Jesus as the incarnate sinless one who entered from the realm of heaven into the arena of the fall to pay the price God required for our sins and thus to rescue us from that fall? Can we dismiss once and for all the ancient Christian symbol of Jesus as a blood offering, a human sacrifice required by God?
I believe that we can and must. This riddance will furthermore, cut the ground out from under the manner in which violence has been justified on the basis of this religious system. It is thus a reformation eagerly to be sought.
The deconstruction begins by recognizing that the story, which opens the Bible, is not an accurate interpreter of life as we know it. It is a bad, false and inoperative myth. There never was a time, either literally or metaphorically, when there was a perfect and finished creation. That was an inaccurate idea that has helped to develop a guilt producing, dependency seeking, neurotic religion.
Whatever else we know about creation, we are now certain that it is an evolving and still incomplete process. So there was no perfect beginning, no Garden of Eden and no first man and woman. We have evolved. We have not fallen from perfection. 'Original Sin' must go! With it goes the superstructure of doctrine, dogma, and theology. The psalmist was wrong. We were not created a little lower than the angels. Rather, we have evolved into a status that is just a little higher than the apes.
It is a vastly different perspective. There is an enormous contrast between whether we are fallen creatures or incomplete creatures. Our humanity is not fallen, it is incomplete. The fact is we do not yet know what it means to be human since that is a status we have not yet fully achieved. What human life needs is not to be saved it is to be called and empowered to enter a new being. The idea that Jesus had to pay the price of our sinfulness becomes an idea that is bankrupt. When that idea collapses, so do all of those violent, controlling and guilt producing tactics that are so deeply part of traditional Christianity.
The dominos begin to topple. Baptism, understood as the sacramental act to wash from the baby the stain of that original fall, becomes inoperative. The Eucharist, developed as a liturgical act to reenact the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross that paid the price of our sinfulness, becomes empty of meaning. Those disciplinary tactics, from not sparing the rod with our children to the use of shame, guilt and fear to control the behavior of childlike adults, become violations of our life. They apply the wrong therapy to the wrong diagnosis. The uses of afterlife symbols to motivate behavior, by promising either eternal reward or eternal punishment, lose their credibility. When the plug is pulled on the definition of human life as something infected by the sin of the fall, then the whole superstructure of Christian doctrine is revealed as a human control system. That is when we will recognize that Christianity will either change or die!
If change is to be adopted, it has to be so total and so radical, that many will call it impossible. It would be easier they will say to build an entirely new religious system than it would be to seek to reform anything this totally. They may be right, but I am not yet convinced of that. The Christianity of the catacombs in the first century of the Church's life could never have envisioned its future being capable of producing either Christendom or its dominating cathedrals. Yet the Christians of the 13th century looked back and saw as their ancestors the Christians of the Catacombs. Our task is thus not to build tomorrow's church. That is something into which we have to live a day at a time. Our task is rather to face the need for radical change and take the first step necessary to erect a totally new foundation. That step, I believe, comes in the acknowledgement of our evolutionary origins and dismissing any suggestion that sin, inadequacy and guilt are the definitions with which we were born. We must also rid ourselves simultaneously of the idea that the world was created for human beings, or that the planet earth is somehow different or special in the universe. Anthropocentrism is a product of a pre-evolutionary mind set. We human beings are simply the self-conscious form of life that has emerged out of the evolutionary soup. We are kin to both the apes and the cabbages. Homo sapiens were not made to dominate the world, but to enrich it by living out our role in a radically interdependent world. We might be a dead end in the evolutionary process, like the dinosaur, destined for extinction. But we also might be the bridge to a brilliant future that none of us can yet imagine. Our task is first simply to be what we are, and then to adapt and finally to be a link to that emerging new being. That is quite different from the role generally assigned to human beings in the ongoing story of our religious teachings.
Whence then comes this evil that we see it every day? It rises not from a fall, mythical or otherwise, but from the incompleteness of the evolutionary process. It is not appropriate then to wallow in our inadequacy or to accept as our due being denigrated by religion or having our behavior controlled or our guilt expanded. What we need is the power to take the next step into a new and more complete humanity, to transcend our limits, to walk beyond our insecure humanity. We need to face the trauma of self-consciousness, the self-centeredness of that hysterical struggle for survival that leads to the erection of security systems, which finally destroy our emerging humanity. We need to see the evil things we do to one another as the result of our incompleteness. This evil cannot be controlled by threats or by discipline, parental or divine. Security can never finally be built on violence. To be 'saved' does not mean to be rescued. It means to be empowered to be something we have not yet been able to be.
Is there any role for Jesus in this new vision of reality? Does the Christian story finally die in this ditch? I do not think so. Jesus emerges rather as a symbol for a humanity that is not defined as fallen or sinful. It is a humanity that is portrayed as so whole, so complete; it is experienced as God infused. Jesus cannot be a divine visitor from the heavenly realm. As John A. T. Robinson argued some fifty years ago, Jesus cannot be "A cuckoo inserted into the nest of humanity." He was created out of the gene pool of humanity. Our doorway into divinity must be found on this path, since there is no other. We are beginning to understand that divinity is a human concept that can only be found in humanity. I see in Jesus one so radically human and free, so whole and complete that the power of life, the force of the Universe that I call God, becomes visible and operative in him and through him. It is a new way to travel theologically. It has been built on a new premise about the origins of life itself. It leads me ultimately back to that original assertion on which later theology would be built: somehow, in some way, through some means, God was in Christ and that this God presence can still be met in the depths of our humanity.
Incarnational and Trinitarian doctrines were necessitated in traditional Christianity by the premise of the fall. God alone could overcome the fall. Jesus, perceived as the rescuer, had to be divine since he accomplished this task. When the fall is dismissed, traditional Christology cannot help but go with it and a new Christianity must emerge, as a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past. It will be based on the call to wholeness, the power of love and the enhancement of being. That is obviously not all that can be said on this subject, but it is as far as space allows me to go in this column.
I am content now only to expose the negativity in the terrible texts that have for so long fed the neurotic human need to justify both suffering and violence as our due, as something earned by the fall into sin over which we had no control.
There is surely a better way than this to love God with one's heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. There is also surely a better way to speak of Christ as the "human face of God," in whom we meet the source of life, the source of love and the ground of being. That is the Christ I seek and that is the Christ to whom I am still powerfully drawn.
~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published July 21, 2004


5-Day Intensive:
The Reinvention of Work with Matthew Fox

Matthew Fox leads the 5-day intensive, “The Reinvention of Work,” at the Fox Institute for Creation Spirituality in Boulder, CO - November 13th - 17th. 

The readings and discussions and occasional guests who have reworked their professions will examine these important questions: How do we infiltrate our work worlds with values that inspire sustainability? We will call on teachings from various spiritual traditions for their wisdom on work, its meaning and deeper purposes.

Click here for more information/registration




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