by Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 67 - Oct 2017
The theme of the July Signs of the Times was leadership. I like to think that leadership is having vision and being prepared to go into the unknown in its pursuit, inviting others to come too.
Christian leadership in particular should be remote from any ego-satisfying exercise of power. It should not treat others as dependent units but as fellow pioneers. It should be like ‘kindling a flame of sacred love’, as the well-known Charles Wesley hymn puts it.
Leadership involves being prepared to jettison what gets in the way of pursuing the vision. Yet the initiatives it attempts should not involve any desire to destroy, but emerge from an immensely positive sense of what is ultimately important, and how this might realistically be achieved.
For the Christian, what is this vision? Having just sung in an inspirational performance of The Dream of Gerontius, my mind is geared towards thinking about the last things - what really matters in the end. Newman's profound text and Elgar's sublime music exercise tremendous spiritual power in focusing on the sheer love of God and the sense of unworthiness which genuine lovers of God are likely to experience when they come into God’s presence. ‘Take me away, that the sooner I may rise’ is what Gerontius cries at that moment.
I think this puts our earthly concerns into a proper perspective - not unimportant but not ultimate.
Prayers with the priest on Earth helped Gerontius, but what mattered was the integrity of Gerontius’ love for God without concern for himself. As Newman put it, so-called saints whose religiosity sprang ‘from sordid aims and not from love’ were claimed by the demons as ‘their property’. Property suggests the thing-like nature of those self-absorbed and conditioned by inner and outer forces playing upon them. Perhaps the symbolism of demons and hell indicates literal non-existence after death. If so, the materialist may be right that there is no life after death: there isn’t for those who refuse spiritual development on earth; such people can be wholly understood in molecular terms which science can uncover.
The wider perspective enables us to ask some radical questions. What is the place of institutionalism in supporting faith in God? Do many, perhaps most, religious people regard eternal salvation as dependent on being a confirmed member of a group such that anyone who isn't cannot have love for God? If so, people are likely to get over-concerned about the possibility of change if they are conservatively-minded, or over-passionate for change if liberally-minded. Both take institutionalism too seriously.
Of course, the Church and the Bible have been crucial in the spread of Christianity. But if Christianity has for so many people, religious or not, come to stand for something with hard edges that excludes those who can’t get on with the various beliefs and practices of sub-groups within it, then we need to ask just how helpful any longer such a generalisation as ‘Christianity’ is. If we try to adopt a real over-view, we might be able to perceive that most of the divisions between people, whether in separate religions or in attachment to ideologies, are caused by cultural factors. Obviously, a child brought up as a Hindu or a Muslim in India will have a different lifestyle and outlook from one brought up as a Christian or an atheist in Britain. Such arbitrary divisions may be completely explainable in scientific terms.
This is quite different from the search for understanding and personhood which is at the heart of what it means to be human. Here the interest is not in what divides but in what is held in common. If God exists, we should expect to find intimations of a sense of the divine, however dimly, everywhere. Is that not what we do find? Who will deny that people of integrity and goodwill who seek truth and goodness are to be found within all traditions?
So, the test of Christian leadership is to keep the vision alive and sit relatively lightly regarding actual beliefs and practices. According to the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus indicated that eternal salvation depends not on being institutionally correct, but on learning to love others as God loves them. Therefore both religious and non-religious can here come together as they frequently do in everyday life, in ordinary acts of kindness, in concern for justice, in involvement in trying to create a better world, etc.
What therefore should Christian leaders specifically contribute? Why is following Jesus important? The crisis in the West today suggests one reason. We revere democracy as perhaps the least dangerous form of government because at its heart lies a sense of the importance of every human-being regardless of race, gender, age, wealth, talents etc. Historically the source of this insight was in the teaching of Jesus. The Greek concept of democracy was highly exclusive, banning women and slaves. It was the slow but persistent impact of Christian teaching, incubated over long centuries, that eventually, against immense odds, changed overall thinking.