Rediscovering Paradise as a potent metaphorI just got back from a weekend at Rowe Camp & Conference Center in the Berkshires were I was privileged to spend the entire weekend listening and talking with a group of fellow seekers and Rebecca Parker, cutting-edge theologian on the Early Christians, as she shared the research that she and Rita Nakashima Brock did on "Saving Paradise: How Christianity traded love of this world for crucifixion and empire." This is ground-breaking scholarship that has implications for all denominations and faiths that share the early Christians as part of their heritage. Without getting into the fascinating historical record that Parker and Brock lay out in this must-read book (which is now available in paperback), I want to share some my thoughts on what elements of this new paradigm emergent Christians, progressive Christians, Universalists, and others might consider useful when planning worship and ritual.
LIVING FULLY IN THE HERE AND NOW:
- PARADISE (p. 409 SP): "We can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth. Generosity, nonviolence, and care for one another are the pathways into transformed awareness. Knowing that paradise is here and now is a gift that comes to those who practice the ethics of paradise. This way of living is not Utopian. It does not spring simply from the imagination of a better world but from a profound embrace of this world. It does not begin with knowledge or hope. It begins with love.... Paradise can be experienced as spiritual illumination of the heart, mind, and senses felt in moments of religious ecstasy, and it can be known in ordinary life lived with reverence and responsibility.... Paradise is not a place free from suffering or conflict, but it is a place in which Spirit is present and love is possible...."
ON BEAUTY AND THE PURPOSE OF THE AESTHETIC:
Rumi: "Let the Beauty we know become the good we do."
Elaine Scarry: "Beauty comes to us as a gift and leaves us ready to do great good."
The human body was sacred and to be cherished. Christ's incarnation reveals that "God has humanity the way the sun has rays... God has become human and humanity has been deified." But not in a single person. Any particular man is limited.. the gift was given to all, equally. It took a whole community to reflect the image of God. (SP p. 177)
Art conveyed divine power to early Christians in ways we have trouble understanding today as we are inundated with images and sensory overload. Worship was a time to come into sacred space and be moved by the presence of mystery and the divine and, hopefully, be changed by the encounter.
THE VALUE OF RITUAL:
- Early Christian Baptism: required great preparation: moral discernment, intellectual acuity, and control of the body. The ritual involved bathing naked, then turning west to face down Evil and temptation, then turning East toward Good and taking the vows of citizenship into Paradise. Water was a cleansing but also life-giving medium, ritually applied to all senses, hearing, sight, taste, smell, touch, to affirm the body as an integral partner with the spirit and mind in developing one as a lover of Beauty and a defender of Justice.
- The Eucharist: NOT as a ritual reenactment of Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion but rather as a Feast of Abundant Life hosted by the risen Christ. Images of the risen Christ represented resistance to oppression and empire to the early Christians. The story told at the Eucharist is NOT the story of the betrayal and death of Jesus, nor was it the Passover story of the Seder, but rather, the Creation story.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY / CHURCH:
- It is in community that we can find life-affirming rituals through which we can experience opening to the spirit, transformation, a nurturing aesthetic which then translates into activism and a collective restoration of paradise. MLK's Social Gospel focused on engaging with life in the here and now rather than salvation in as afterlife. Through witness and visionary leadership, churches can provide the moral compass so sorely needed in the world today. We need to fan the "Fire of Commitment" but we can only sustain that effort if we have in our collective tool bag a shared awareness of the preciousness of life and the irreplaceable sanctity of THIS Earth.
There is way more in this paradigm than what I have outline here, but these elements I pulled out because I think they translate directly into useful symbols, metaphors, and concepts that can guide us into powerful, transformational worship. In the next post we can explore ideas that Diane and I have already used as well as new offerings and links to more people's work in the area that might help in creating the sacred space needed to feel the presence of the Divine.