Understandings by R. M. Carmichael Page 2

Understandings (page 2)

by Ralph Miller Carmichael
Advent 1992


Myth is the right word for stories of the origin of the universe, and the origin of evil. Such questions are only answered in stories, not by philosophy nor science, history nor psychology, The Babylonians told a story of a great flood; it was so bad, even the gods were scared and cowered like dogs. But in the Genesis story, God is in charge; He sends the flood for a moral purpose. These are profound stories in Genesis, including the origin of evil, our desire to play God (Tower of Babel), Cain’s “Am I my brother’s keeper?”. Regarding the two creation stories, the second (Gen. 2:4-25) is by far the older (ca 9th century BC). The first (Gen. 1:1-2:3), done by the priest-writers perhaps in the 5th century BC, is stately in style indeed; one should realize however that the intention was to underline Sabbath observance, enhancing its importance to the ultimate, by fixing it away back in God’s act of creation.

Myths are neither falsehoods nor fairy tales. They have become accepted as answers for some of the deepest questions of the human mind (again, often raised by a child). Their details may be proven quite inaccurate, like creation in six days. The Church’s doctrines are not assertions as to how God did something, but assertions that He did so. We have no theory as to how God created the universe; nor how God became man; nor how the bread and wine become “the Body and Blood of Christ (chemical analysis, of course, can detect no change). Our teachings are simply that these things have occurred (and do occur, regarding the Eucharist), thanks to the mysterious grace of God.

Every living religion has its mythology and its cultic practice. Christian mythology embraces the Jewish Creation stories and the Fall, the Incarnation stories of Jesus’ appearing, his Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming, and the final Consummation. According to Tillich, history shows that when people stop telling the myth and practicing the cult, the religion dies. Are we doing our part?

Idolatry & the Finality of Jesus

This section is derived directly from Jesus, going beyond and fulfilling the high insights of the Old Testament. Idolatry is so common that John Calvin said the human mind is a factory constantly engaged in the production of idols. We latch on to something important and exalt its importance up to the ultimate level of divinity. Like the Buffalo woman who drove her two daughters out of her home, because they had defiled her home by violating her moral code (which she believed had divine authority). Like the Pharisees who condemned Jesus for healing a sick person on the Sabbath Day. Like white supremacists, or America Firsters. Like Episcopalians who think only Anglicanism is the true Church (substitute virtually any other denomination). Like evangelists who cannot accept anyone who disagrees with their interpretation of the Bible. Like Christian fundamentalists who believe everybody else is going to hell. Like Moslem fundamentalists who believe everybody else is going to hell. Like disciples who see Paul Tillich as the final theological word—in spite of his denial that any system can be final. Like disciples of Adam Smith or Karl Marx who reject any modification of their views.

In simple definition, idolatry is the elevation of something finite to the status of the infinite. It is an exclusive and self-righteous attitude, which always produces disrespect and injustice (from put-downs to genocide). The symbol of the Cross means, amongst other things, that God alone is absolute, and absolutely nothing in all His Creation should ever be absolutised, neither Bible nor Koran, neither Pope nor Creeds, neither nation nor race, neither moral conviction nor scientific theory.

Then what are we to say of the faith that sees Jesus of Nazareth as “very God of very God?” It has to be acknowledged at once that all too few adherents and branches of the Church can show extensive periods of consistent non-violation of the implications of this faith. Here are suggestions of those implications:

One is grateful for one’s faith, but does not feel superior in the sight of God to any others.
One rejoices in one’s salvation, peace, and freedom. One looks out upon the world with love and acceptance. One is not naive about “casting pearls before swine” (i.e. one has a sense of timing because so often listeners are not ready to hear). One realizes there are times to he “wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove”. But one is afraid of nothing.
One does not live by a rigid code, but is free to do what does not harm nor deceive. One enjoys life, both in serious depth and in light-hearted fun.
One loves beauty, music, art, literature, languages, gardening, interior decorating….
One seeks God’s guidance as to what responsibilities to accept, including what career to pursue, and then works at it diligently, wholeheartedly, gladly.
One is not afraid of truth, whatever its source. One assumes that other religions and cultures have some grasp of truth, perhaps a rich grasp, perhaps with insights that have escaped us, yet almost surely to be in need of modification in terms of the Christian revelation (e.g., the absence of a serious view of history in Buddhism; the caste system in Hinduism).
One is concerned for human suffering, in any part of the globe. Especially one is concerned where large numbers of people are victimized by our social institutions – governments, economic systems, health care systems, educational systems, etc.
One is ecumenical, seeking the reunion of the Church. One prays for the World Council of Churches; for relations with Roman Catholics; also for interfaith understanding. One is supportive of all such efforts in one’s own community. One seeks improvement in one’s own denomination and parish.
One supports internationalism, seeking the global unity of the human family.
One accepts responsibility for the use of power and authority, while recognizing that “all power belongs to God.” One uses it for the good of others, not for personal advantage over others.
One recognizes that one’s faith is received from the Church (perhaps via a parent), and so one supports the Church wholeheartedly (not uncritically), and seeks to share the Good News with others.
One attends Church and receives communion, in order to keep in touch (this can be taken almost literally, if one is praying for total sincerity) with Jesus. It is sacramentally real, not physically.

In short, one can believe without arrogance that we have the absolute and final revelation of God in Jesus as the Christ. He is the one exception to the general truth that raising anything finite to divine status is idolatry; the Jews rightly considered it the ultimate blasphemy for a human being to claim to be God. But Jesus of Nazareth did not claim divinity for himself (though such claims are put in his mouth, especially in the Gospel of John). He did not claim to be the Christ. He offered his life, and gave it in death. This finite “clue” is self-negating. Therefore the slightest trace of arrogance on our part would amount to a betrayal of the attitudes of love and outreach and reconciliation that are received from him. One loves, and does not have superiority or enmity. Genuine Christians are ambassadors of reconciliation (II Cor. 5:18-20) in the home and worldwide, at any cost; but also defenders of the oppressed.

For us Jesus is not one of many religious geniuses; he is not “the greatest of teachers”. He is more. All others are judged in the light of him. He is our criterion for truth and for ethics. He is our criterion for God the Father, and for the Spirit that is holy and true. The Church has always insisted that this is not just one more religion. Rather, God has come amongst us, in the fullness of His character, changing us, redeeming His whole Creation, commissioning us to carry the Good News to all nations.

The Good News

Jesus calls upon us, repeatedly, to surrender all personal ambition and desire and dreams, and to offer ourselves without reservation in the service of God. He challenged the rich young ruler to give up all his wealth; when the fellow walked away, that is when Jesus commented that it is almost impossible for a rich person to be what God wants us to be. We allow ourselves to become attached to things in this finite world – our property, our family, our social standing, our health and comfort, our ideas. Jesus insists those attachments must be yielded, or we shall never know God nor truth, our world nor ourselves. We remain enslaved, vulnerable, threatened, and doomed to perish.

The heart of the matter is not what we literally do, about discarding wealth, etc. Rather, it is our attitude. Would I be willing to part with all this, if God wanted me to? The prayer is like this: “O God, I offer You all that I have, all that I am or hope to be. Please use me, my whole life, in Your service.” He guides us to decisions in the usual ways, through our thoughts and values, through those of other people found in literature or conversation, through the Bible, especially the picture of Jesus in the Gospels.

When I finally made my surrender and said yes to Jesus, I was immediately delivered from the deep darkness of knowing that science had no answer for me. I had allowed God to reveal Himself to me. It was a life-changing experience, filling me with security, peace, knowing I was accepted, that I had a life-purpose, and that nothing in life or death would terminate this oneness with the Father. (I was told fellows rooming on my floor at McGill asked, “What’s happened to Ralph?” I didn’t know it was visible! The first flush wore off long since.)


Our knowledge of God, our communion with Him, is not an intellectual achievement. When I entered college, I believed it would be, and was deeply disillusioned in my fourth year of that five-year course to realize it was beyond the grasp of the human mind.

Our knowledge of God, our communion with Him, is not a moral achievement. Following my conversion late in my fourth year, I was led to believe that it would be, and it was up to me. Such teaching can only drive a conscientious person to despair. My second conversion was made necessary by the weak theology applied to the first one. This demonstrates the power of ideas, and the damage to people that bad theology can inflict. No one should pooh-pooh theology; every person has theological ideas, even if he or she protests otherwise.

Our knowledge of God, our communion with Him, is the gift of His grace. This is the Biblical message; it is the witness of all truly converted and mature persons. (Read “Amazing Grace”, written by the former captain of a slave-ship.) We speak of the Divine Initiative, because we have received the gift of newness of life. It is God Who gives us our faith; and it is God Who sustains us in our faith. He does this in all sorts of ways, through all kinds of experiences on our part. But this is a shared faith with countless other people; the Gospel song, “In the Garden”, is utterly wrong in declaring that what the singer enjoys in the garden, “None other shall ever know.” Such a description does not fit the Christian experience, though it may be a unique moment for the individual.

We have been initiated into a group faith, which was here before us. The principal way in which the group is held together in communion with God is the Eucharist, the Sacrament of bread and wine. Some rationalistic Christians try to explain that nothing happens to the bread and wine in the sacrament, and that they are just tokens of Christ’s universal presence. I think the Eucharist actually means much more than that to the congregations who receive this watered-down teaching.

On the other hand, the Roman Church has taken the course of supernatural rationalism, trying to explain (“transubstantiation”) how the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Our Anglican Communion takes what I believe is the right course, of insisting that the sacrament is beyond explaining, just as God is, but that the powerful, saving Spirit of God does indeed reach His people via this sacrament, which Jesus gave to His Church. Our bodies are united with his Body; our blood with his Blood; our spirits with his Spirit.

It is significant that he so identified himself with the basic nourishments of humans. This is the only form of worship he gave us, and we believe it is right that the sacrament be offered to every congregation every Sunday. Of course, it is intended only for baptized Christians. Sunday morning worship is not the time for evangelistic outreach to non-Christians; it is a celebration of the Christian community, and the principal occasion for the strengthening of our faith (with not only the proclamation of the Good News, but with educational sermons touching on God’s work in past history, and the “implications” for today, such as listed above).

In Spite Of

We know what happened to Jesus. It was not done by people who meant evil. They regarded themselves as the defenders of all that is holy. (Of course! It was ever thus! We found this again early in the Vietnam War.) Organized religion at its finest condemned him. Civil law at its finest failed to protect him. He warned his followers the same might well happen to them.

We do not expect history to progress until the whole globe is a peaceful fellowship. Yet it is significant, when the United Nations feel they must respond to abuse and suffering in Somalia. It is quite in contrast to policies throughout past history. Nonetheless, so long as human life survives on this planet, some people will cause trouble, and many people will have needs, sometimes desperate.

The Christian Faith does not see history as circular, meaningless, getting nowhere. We see history as straight-line, highly meaningful and purposeful, beginning (in its faith-interpretation) with the Exodus. God reveals Himself through history (not through spectacular thunderbolts and earthquakes); He is the God of history. With the advent of Jesus as the Christ, a new reality has appeared within human history, a man in whom there appears no contradiction as over against God Himself, though this man lived under the same conditions of existence, as do we. In him the Kingdom of God has appeared amongst us and within us, introducing newness of life, a new way of being.

The Kingdom of God stands now and always in imperative and judgment over the affairs of this world. The Church is not identical with the Kingdom, since it is subject to all human fallacies. And yet the Church bears witness to the Kingdom. The Church is the bearer of the meaning of history. The Church knows that the history of our own time cannot be truly understood and properly served, except in the light of the Kingdom of Love. This is true, in spite of all the foibles and errors and stupidities and sinful motives that must always distort the life of men and women, including Christian men and women. Thus we make a general confession in the course of every service of worship. The Church knows Sin. Its secret depths were exposed on Calvary.

Our sense of responsibility for the ongoing history of our own era, in the service of the Kingdom of God, is the highest of all the qualities that distinguish the human being from other creatures. (continued)

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