New Pentecost

There is a new Pentecost. Or maybe it should be called a "renewed" Pentecost : an affirmation that the Mystery we call "God" is actively present in all places, in all people, at all times, and a recognition that our world desperately needs religious belief that connects people into trusting and compassionate relationships rather than religious belief that divides and breeds fear and suspicion.

A New Pentecost.

One of the first things Christians learn about God at an early age is that God is everywhere. This concept is fundamental to Christian belief about God: God, the sustainer of all that exists, has to be everywhere. Everything exists in God. We live and move and have our being in God. There can be no outside of God.

If we Christians, with the advantage of two thousand years of hindsight, were to view the original experience of Pentecost from this perspective, there is little doubt our understanding of "salvation" would change radically.

In the perspective of an everywhere God, Pentecost would become a vital part of the story of a creative, energizing Presence at work on this planet for billions of years in upheaval, in disintegration, in the emergence of life, and, very late on the scene, in the emergence of the human species and its development. The human story, in the Christian telling of it, would be the story of God's Spirit coming to visibility in and through what it had to work with. It would be the story of the Spirit present everywhere, in all people, in the development of cultures, in differing religious notions and understandings of human connectedness with the Beyond. It would be the story of human ignorance as well as the story of developing knowledge. It would be the story of human nobility and the pursuit of goodness and meaning. It would also be the story of the human capacity to allow some primitive instincts to pervert decent human behaviour.

Jesus' role in this story would not be as someone who wins God's Presence for us and thereby "saves" us. Rather, it would be more faithful to the earliest Gospels, presentation of him - as someone who urges us, as he urged people in his preaching, to open our eyes and minds to the reality of this Presence in our everyday human interactions. We believe that he allowed the Spirit of God to come to expression in him as fully as a human person could. His life demonstrates for us what happens when a human person does this.

Pentecost, in the perspective of an everywhere God, becomes an Aha! moment for the initial followers of Jesus. These men and women reflected on Jesus' life, his teaching, his death and the fact that death was not the end of him. They remembered him as someone who totally opened himself to allowing the Spirit of God to move in his life. They saw that the Spirit of God had been at work in all he said and did. Only through contemplating the Jesus they knew, did the wonderful insight about the human condition dawn on them - that all human beings bring God's presence to visibility. They realized that this is what life and connectedness with God and with one another is all about! Jesus revealed to us who we really are - a life form giving God a wonderful way of coming to expression! All the time this Spirit of God has been with us and we were too blind or too distracted or too badly taught to recognize this Presence in us! Jesus opened our eyes and our minds! Now we understand! We, too, are bearers of the Spirit of God. We have to give expression to this in the way we relate with one another just as Jesus did for us.

This early Christian insight was truly catholic. It recognized that every human person who lives in love lives in God and God lives in them. Here, in this belief, people of every race, colour, nation or culture could find common ground. Here, humanity could find its true meaning and purpose. Here, humanity could find the motivation to work together for the betterment of the human species and for the care of the planet. This enlightenment could be ritualized in sacramental form - in Baptism and Eucharist. Let us stand up and be counted! Let us be "temples of God's Holy Spirit"!

What a profound breakthrough this understanding of the Pentecost experience could have been in human history! We can only imagine what two thousand years of a religion driven by this understanding of human connectedness with God and the sacred bonding among all people might have accomplished.

Unfortunately, the Christian community overlooked this wonderful vision of human life in favour of a story telling us that every person on this planet is born into a state of separation from God. The Christian religion eventually enshrined and institutionalized a theological schema of exile, separation, election, favour, dependence on clerical powers, indulgences and distance from God.

The experience of many Christians today reflects this unfortunate emphasis in traditional Christian thinking. They remember being taught that God is everywhere and they firmly believe this. Yet, they also remember that the focus in their Christian education was almost exclusively on a quite different understanding of God, what could be described as the "elsewhere" God. This is the concept of God used in Christian tradition to interpret Jesus' role as "saviour".

Most Christians learned that this God lived in heaven. He looked down over them. He kept a record of their good deeds and their bad deeds. This God chose, he legislated, he intervened when his original plan for the human species was thwarted, he sent his Son from an elsewhere place to earth and when the Son returned to him he sent his Spirit down upon his Son's followers in spectacular fashion. Liturgical language and imagery, immersed in the concept of an elsewhere God, conditioned many Christians to believe they were "exiles" from God, "pilgrims" on a journey to where God really lived - in heaven. Many Christians die wondering or anxious about whether they will "go" to where God really lives.

Today we know the elsewhere God is a human construct. There is no such Deity residing somewhere else overseeing his creation, let alone planning how to set things right. That concept of God belongs to a primitive, dualistic understanding of our universe. This is not to say we now know who or what God is. We can never assert that. But we can ensure that our language and imagery about God today are not so outmoded as to be unbelievable. Today's youth have generally abandoned the elsewhere notion of God and the traditional story of salvation that accompanies it. And they are not alone. There is a groundswell of faithful adult Christians looking for a believable re-articulation of their faith as they find themselves rejecting key aspects of the story of salvation in which their faith was nurtured. Many people are finding that the images and language of the Church's liturgy take them back to a stage of faith and a religious worldview from which they have irrevocably moved.

The shift in which we find ourselves today is resisted by institutional religion. This is understandable because institutional leaderships fears a loss of identity and membership if the theology that underpins its unique identity in the world is undermined or rejected. But the Spirit is moving. There is a new Pentecost. Or maybe it should be called a "renewed" Pentecost - an affirmation that the Mystery we call "God" is actively present in all places, in all people, at all times, and a recognition that our world desperately needs religious belief that connects people into trusting and compassionate relationships rather than religious belief that divides and breeds fear and suspicion.

Michael Morwood is an Australian adult educator who includes among his books Tomorrow's Catholic, Is Jesus God? Finding Our Faith and Praying a New Story.

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