Posts Tagged ‘Social Gospel’


Ah parables. How best to reach an oral culture only kind of coming into written records. And those written records are tied more to the authorities, the wealthy than the collected masses, or as Marx would dub us the proletariat. The working classes. These are the classes that Jesus of Nazareth, Brother Jesus would emerge from. AN unwed mother married to a carpenter/labourer to literally save her from an unkindly street death. But he was one that got it, connected deeply to the source of all that is. Showing the way that we all could be connected into the source of Love.

It is the parable that touched into the deeper levels of the person, and allowed for the early followers of the Cosmic Christ in the flesh so diverse. Just think of it—outcasts, those with health issues, mental health concerns; sex trade workers, labourers, wealthy religious (in secret), Roman soldiers/officers and Zealots to name but a few. It was this type of parable that the social gospel movement in Canada tied into to get folks active for political and societal change. For example the story of Mouseland, with one of the most famous being Tommy Douglas, but also among the ranks Bible Bill Aberhart, Preston Manning, Joe Clark, Pierre Trudeau, J.S. Woodsworth, Agnes MacPhail (her image now gracing the $10 Canadian note), Paul Martin Jr., Rev. Bill Phipps, Elizabeth May, my own parents and grandparents,  to name but a few. But truly it is those driven by a deep conviction that we are created good, and as such we are to live out this ideal of justice, peace, faith, hope and love as laid out by Brother Jesus. So, I am sure there are many examples within your own world and life if you take but a moment to pause and ponder.

For it is in the parables that Brother Jesus lays out a path of self-discovery. A path that shows where we and our neighbours can be existing, but also at different phases in our lives where we have existed. For with planting soil changes over time, that which was not able to grow previous with the right tending and additions can become quite fertile.  This is the thrust found within the parable of the sower.

It is in most gospel texts that one would class as canonical, so if you wish to use this reflection with those texts, they can be found in the synoptic gospels in: Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:1-15. Though we will continue to use Levi’s Aquarian gospel from the early 1900’s as the newer wording may touch a different chord. In that text it is found in chapter 115, which you may read here for full context

As always, I invite you to get comfortable where you are sitting. It is a meditative lectio divina as you hear the parable three times, with different focus questions to see where the soil of your heart is at, and where it is being renewed.  Before you begin, write on a scrap of paper that which you need to leave in the hear and now that can distract you. Once written crumple up and throw into the recycle. Those distractions, busyness, weights of the heart can come back after, but here, now your full presence is asked for.

Take time to slow your breathing, deep breaths in of cosmic love, the dust that formed your very essence as good. Breathe out the chakra sludge that separates you from that goodness.

Feel the 21st century technological buzzing fade away. Feel the chair you are sitting on disappear, along with the walls of where you are. The time. Travel back. Feel the dust and fresh breeze untouched by the Industrial Revolution. Smell the sea air.  The smell of the crowds, intermingling. You are on the outskirts of the crowd. People had spoken about this teacher, this Jesus of Nazareth. Some called him a bastard child and/or insane. Others said he was a master teacher, one with a new way to truly transform things.

As you hear the story the first time, think of when your heart was like the rocky soil where messages/actions of love were easily carried away by others, like the birds. Sit with one memory, what has or has not changed in your life since then?

The first hearing:

  1. And Jesus stood beside the sea and taught; the multitudes pressed close upon him and he went into a boat that was near by and put a little ways from shore, and then he spoke in parables; he said,
    Behold, a sower took his seed and went into his field to sow.
    3. With lavish hand he scattered forth the seed and some fell in the hardened paths that men had made,
    4. And soon were crushed beneath the feet of other men; and birds came down and carried all the seeds away.
    5. Some seed fell on rocky ground where there was little soil; they grew and soon the blades appeared and promised much;
    6. But then there was no depth of soil, no chance for nourishment, and in the heat of noonday sun they withered up and died.
    7. Some seed fell where thistles grew, and found no earth in which to grow and they were lost;
    8. But other seed found lodgement in the rich and tender soil and grew apace, and in the harvest it was found that some brought forth a hundred fold, some sixty fold, some thirty fold.
    9. They who have ears to hear may hear; they who hearts to understand may know.
    10. Now, his disciples were beside him in the boat, and Thomas asked, Why do you speak in parables?
    11. And Jesus said, My words, like every master’s words, are dual in their sense.
    12. To you who know the language of the soul, my words have meanings far too deep for other men to comprehend.
    13. The other sense of what I say is all the multitude can understand; these words are food for them; the inner thoughts are food for you.
    14. Let every one reach forth and take the food that he is ready to receive.
    15. And then he spoke that all might hear; he said, Hear you the meaning of the parable:
    16. Men hear my words and understand them not, and then the carnal self purloins the seed, and not a sign of spirit life appears.
    17. This is the seed that fell within the beaten paths of men.
    18. And others hear the words of life, and with a fiery zeal receive them all; they seem to comprehend the truth and promise well;
    19. But troubles come; discouragements arise; there is no depth of thought; their good intentions wither up and die.
    20. These are the seeds that fell in stony ground.
    21. And others hear the words of truth and seem to know their worth; but love of pleasure, reputation, wealth and fame fill all the soil; the seeds are nourished not and they are lost.
    22. These are the seeds that fell among the thistles and the thorns.
    23. But others hear the words of truth and comprehend them well; they sink down deep into their souls; they live the holy life and all the world is blest.
    24. These are the seeds that fell in fertile soil, that brought forth fruit abundantly.
    25. You men of Galilee, take heed to how you hear and how you cultivate your fields; for if you slight the offers of this day, the sower may not come to you again in this or in the age to come.

-Aquarian Gospel 115: 1-25

As you prepare for the second hearing. Think of the next step of life in self-discovery, within that inner battle of transfiguration. When have you been like the seed battling in the soil with the weeds to emerge and not taking hold? Let these memories move from your mind to your heart. Spend time with the root cause of rooting in the weeds instead of the seed of love? Are you ready to breathe out this sludge?

The second hearing:

  1. And Jesus stood beside the sea and taught; the multitudes pressed close upon him and he went into a boat that was near by and put a little ways from shore, and then he spoke in parables; he said,
    Behold, a sower took his seed and went into his field to sow.
    3. With lavish hand he scattered forth the seed and some fell in the hardened paths that men had made,
    4. And soon were crushed beneath the feet of other men; and birds came down and carried all the seeds away.
    5. Some seed fell on rocky ground where there was little soil; they grew and soon the blades appeared and promised much;
    6. But then there was no depth of soil, no chance for nourishment, and in the heat of noonday sun they withered up and died.
    7. Some seed fell where thistles grew, and found no earth in which to grow and they were lost;
    8. But other seed found lodgement in the rich and tender soil and grew apace, and in the harvest it was found that some brought forth a hundred fold, some sixty fold, some thirty fold.
    9. They who have ears to hear may hear; they who hearts to understand may know.
    10. Now, his disciples were beside him in the boat, and Thomas asked, Why do you speak in parables?
    11. And Jesus said, My words, like every master’s words, are dual in their sense.
    12. To you who know the language of the soul, my words have meanings far too deep for other men to comprehend.
    13. The other sense of what I say is all the multitude can understand; these words are food for them; the inner thoughts are food for you.
    14. Let every one reach forth and take the food that he is ready to receive.
    15. And then he spoke that all might hear; he said, Hear you the meaning of the parable:
    16. Men hear my words and understand them not, and then the carnal self purloins the seed, and not a sign of spirit life appears.
    17. This is the seed that fell within the beaten paths of men.
    18. And others hear the words of life, and with a fiery zeal receive them all; they seem to comprehend the truth and promise well;
    19. But troubles come; discouragements arise; there is no depth of thought; their good intentions wither up and die.
    20. These are the seeds that fell in stony ground.
    21. And others hear the words of truth and seem to know their worth; but love of pleasure, reputation, wealth and fame fill all the soil; the seeds are nourished not and they are lost.
    22. These are the seeds that fell among the thistles and the thorns.
    23. But others hear the words of truth and comprehend them well; they sink down deep into their souls; they live the holy life and all the world is blest.
    24. These are the seeds that fell in fertile soil, that brought forth fruit abundantly.
    25. You men of Galilee, take heed to how you hear and how you cultivate your fields; for if you slight the offers of this day, the sower may not come to you again in this or in the age to come.

-Aquarian Gospel 115: 1-25

Prepare yourself for the last hearing. When soil is fertile for the seed to take hold. Is there a time of remembrance in your life, your very soul energy that you can remember this? Even in the journeys that go to and fro where we exist mostly in rocks and weeds, there are glimmers of this or long lived life in the nourished soil. Take hold of the memories. Spend time going deeper into them to the core spark/stardust that is the ember of the Cosmic Christ within.

The Third Hearing:

  1. And Jesus stood beside the sea and taught; the multitudes pressed close upon him and he went into a boat that was near by and put a little ways from shore, and then he spoke in parables; he said,
    Behold, a sower took his seed and went into his field to sow.
    3. With lavish hand he scattered forth the seed and some fell in the hardened paths that men had made,
    4. And soon were crushed beneath the feet of other men; and birds came down and carried all the seeds away.
    5. Some seed fell on rocky ground where there was little soil; they grew and soon the blades appeared and promised much;
    6. But then there was no depth of soil, no chance for nourishment, and in the heat of noonday sun they withered up and died.
    7. Some seed fell where thistles grew, and found no earth in which to grow and they were lost;
    8. But other seed found lodgement in the rich and tender soil and grew apace, and in the harvest it was found that some brought forth a hundred fold, some sixty fold, some thirty fold.
    9. They who have ears to hear may hear; they who hearts to understand may know.
    10. Now, his disciples were beside him in the boat, and Thomas asked, Why do you speak in parables?
    11. And Jesus said, My words, like every master’s words, are dual in their sense.
    12. To you who know the language of the soul, my words have meanings far too deep for other men to comprehend.
    13. The other sense of what I say is all the multitude can understand; these words are food for them; the inner thoughts are food for you.
    14. Let every one reach forth and take the food that he is ready to receive.
    15. And then he spoke that all might hear; he said, Hear you the meaning of the parable:
    16. Men hear my words and understand them not, and then the carnal self purloins the seed, and not a sign of spirit life appears.
    17. This is the seed that fell within the beaten paths of men.
    18. And others hear the words of life, and with a fiery zeal receive them all; they seem to comprehend the truth and promise well;
    19. But troubles come; discouragements arise; there is no depth of thought; their good intentions wither up and die.
    20. These are the seeds that fell in stony ground.
    21. And others hear the words of truth and seem to know their worth; but love of pleasure, reputation, wealth and fame fill all the soil; the seeds are nourished not and they are lost.
    22. These are the seeds that fell among the thistles and the thorns.
    23. But others hear the words of truth and comprehend them well; they sink down deep into their souls; they live the holy life and all the world is blest.
    24. These are the seeds that fell in fertile soil, that brought forth fruit abundantly.
    25. You men of Galilee, take heed to how you hear and how you cultivate your fields; for if you slight the offers of this day, the sower may not come to you again in this or in the age to come.

-Aquarian Gospel 115: 1-25

 

Are you willing to take hold of that ember and fan it?

Are you able to live from that spark into and out of the divine?

When you are ready with that spark. Visualizing it moving through each of the seven chakras to firmly root in the opening/awakening crown chakra. Breath in deeply the love of all, breathe out the love of all. Feel the fresh air fade away. The breeze on your face stop. The noise of the crowds. You are the fertile soil the Master Sower has found.

Hold to this truth.

As you move forward through time.

As your room reforms around you.

Your chair.

Your breath slowly returns to normal.

Your eyes re-open.

Your very essence awakens.

Are you willing to truly live as the Master Sower has sowed you?

What are you going to do today to step into your destiny of love?


Sacrament:

a religious ceremony or act of the Christian Church that is regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace, in particular.

For any pilgrim, it is the ceremony that is the outward reflection of our inward journey. Throughout Christendom there has been a sacrament of penance/confession. That is admitting when one has done wrong and seeking unity again with God. But this is a simpler understanding of what it has morphed into, now the sacrament of reconciliation. For this is a deeper understanding of holy relationships that permeate everything. The interconnection of the Holy Mystery in all, with all and through all. For Christians, it is the Holy Spirit, for others the creative force.

This is what ego, greed (pick your word for that which removes you from the flow, and allows “other” to create division) disrupts. It is the time of deep inward reflection, to be able to understand pain we have inflicted, or pain that has been inflicted, wrong done to us, or wrongs we have done to others, the list can go on and on.

Yet the piece of the sacrament that we have learned from our brothers and sisters around the world, is that the story needs to be told. It needs to be out there, and then we need to decide to move forward from that in a new beginning.

            My Father used to say,

Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.

-Desmond Tutu

The moment when you can move from shouting matches, to actual discourse, dialogue, debate and argument is the moment you are no longer seeing one another as other but as equals in discussion…once seen as equals, you can move forward.

This is the sacramental challenge that lays heavy on my heart. For I do much work with folks throughout their lives to speak the truth of their story, and then to reconcile to move forward. Then there are moments when I am too stubborn to do the same.

Yet the Creator knows those moments, and enjoys laughter. It is in these moments that outward acts begin forcing inward change. I do not know where it will lead or what it means. Am I in a hurry to once again become a member? No.

But the last several weeks being back in a United Church of Canada congregation has become a sacramental act of reconciliation for me. My story has been told, it is out there for the universe to know. Now, it is time of contemplative action, letting my kids wonder in Wonder Kids, and rest in a chair during the service with the wife. Am I ready to move forward?

1401836884-desmond-tutu-forgivness-wisdom-quotes

The new beginning has been laid before me.

The soul sludge is burning off.

Moments of laughter.

A social gospel congregation?

Yes, it is easy to rest in the labels of other, but at our core we part of the family of humanity on a journey to make our little corner of this world better.

Sometimes, it is simply easier to release that which may be holding us back on the journey towards the heart of the sacred, and the sacred heart that exists within us.

And yes, sometimes, that which we thought had been put to rest and released, was not and it takes literally stepping across a new threshold to reveal the light that burns off the darkness.

Now the question that remains when reconciliation work is working…

What is next?
What is the new beginning?

For, that is yet to come…

and blessedly undecided…

yet will be chosen with a refreshed heart, mind and soul.


A non-Western-centric view of the spread of Christianity shows the tree branching out from the roots in the Middle East (Judaism), into a trunk that is Orthodox, to branches of many different flavours (i.e. Coptic, Mormon, Jehovah Witness to name but a few), from the Roman Catholic branch breaks out Protestantism, and then subdivides from there (Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, and on we go, then those break down more into the more esoteric-metaphysics movements such as New Thought, Christian Science to the spiritual-aesthetic ala Unitarian-Universalist).

As well off R.C.’s comes the religious life.

That is the beginning of the tree of Christendom. Yet there is two prevalent branches that happened in the Western World that is a thrown into the mix as overarching branches, especially in the microcosm that is North America, and more specifically the Untied States of America and Canada, that has back benched some shaping of national identity: Prosperity and Social gospels.

Now these may look at first blush as new movements starting late 19th-early 20th century.  BUT they are not, they actually can be found in the very root system of the tree. A cursory contextual-anthropological reading of the Hebrew Bible books of Judges-Prophets shows both systems at play.

  • Prosperity Gospel- Those who are in tune with God, and are blessed will thrive and grow in riches.
  • Social Gospel- A community centered movement to care for all of God’s children (widow, orphans, aliens, etc.) in a just world.

What would usually happen is that the blessed nation would get off track in the social gospel end, embracing the prosperity above all, thus creating the cycle of deserving/undeserving of blessing, and a judge or prophet would interject to get them back on track. The wisdom books tried to show the cycles of life detached from this ideal of prosperity being blessed, with the best example being the use of the Satan character to challenge the devout Job to show that bad things happen to good people, and it is what happens in the midst and how the community responds that matters. Are we a Job or his friends that scatter?

It is this dichotomy that can be seen within the religious movements that have shaped social policy in both Canada and the USA.  The official writing of the social gospel came from a writer in New York named Rauschenbush.  In later 20th century in America the movement would latch onto the idea of Red Letter Christians, in Latin America it would become Liberation Theology, still other dubbed theology of the margins would also crop up that would fall into the broad category of Social Gospel.

The Religious Right though would take the strong road of prosperity, and one just needs to look at how the social system of the U.S.A. has been developed, and barriers created to see that outcome. Especially in the battle for something as simple as universal health care, and acceptance of refugees. It underlies the drive of the meta-story of America of coming in to independently achieve the American dream.

In Canada, the Social Gospel really took root in church basements sprouting out labour movements, suffragists, and tied strongly into socialism which brought about politically Progressive Party, Labour Party, eventually convalescing into the CCF federally whose ideas so shook the status quo that it forced the two major parties to shift their focus onto just society, and yes labour rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights and universal health care.  It underlies the Canadian story of working together in a mosaic to create a home for the world.  Highlighted by such stalwarts as J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, William Aberhart, Pierre Trudeau, the Famous Five and many others who should be named openly…and I would say continues with many most notably, Elizabeth May.

An aside of experience, is during the rise of the social gospel movement, the movement created a “Christian Flag” to rally behind in protests showing the lie the oppressive forces of the day chasing prosperity no matter the human cost stating it was “Christian” and “ordained by God”. The movement shook the establishment and walked with all to craft a different story.

Years ago in Arizona I was witness to a very fundamentalist church saying a pledge to the Christian flag. It was driven as a pledge with the underlying beliefs that they were to out breed the other religions. It was said as a pledge to support shooting the illegals crossing the boarder as the Gospel of Christ proclaimed. The rallying cry was used for exclusion to ensure their own prosperity would continue. I almost did not get out alive pointing out the history of this artifact and what it was meant for, the fact I was an “ill-informed” Canadian in their mind is probably what saved my life.

That is a small story that shows what happens in the extremes of forgetting who our neighbour is and what it means to love our neighbour and ourselves as we love our God. A very linked triangle that shows all pieces need to be in place for healthy self and society from a faith perspective.

The question in the dichotomous and dogmatic world we live in is one right or wrong? That is dependent upon one’s point of view. Yet is it worth being prosperous, if it means leaving behind many in poverty and pain where they need to decide on simple matters like food/heat or rent? Setting a broken limb of a child or homelessness?

There is shift’s happening, and yes, the prosperity mind set is taking root in the world, but should it? What is the counter? What changes if all move forward healthy and prosperous? What if, as has become a movement in our schools we move from ME to WE not just locally, but hold to our roots and truly live it?

You see, this is the underlying narratives within our nations, though not founded on “Christian principles” as many want us to believe, the stories crafted the narratives of expectations of the people. Now we are in a time when the narratives have allowed hate in some circles to over shadow love in the pursuit of money…

So, what choice will you make for yourself, your family, your community?

If you state you are of faith, what will you choose, prosperity or social gospel?

Individualism or community good?

To end, it is a question asked by Rev. James Shaver Woodsworth, when he was the superintendent of the Winnipeg Mission that was the open doors for the immigrants and refugees to populate the prairies. It shaped his view, his founding of the labour church, his stance against the money-making war machine, and eventually to surrendering his vocation. It is a simple question for you to answer:

Who is my Neighbour?


It appears as a mundane question, but it is not a broad scope question, but rather to a narrow cultural attache I ask it. It is directed at the Western Christian Empire, that is learning humility through such humblings as the end of colonialism; multi-culturalism; human rights spread out well equally among humans if you will. To name but a few, but there is still the hangar ons, and at least in mass media there is the appearance that the “Religious Right”- those fundamentalist ideologues are easier at replenishing their vocal ranks than the progressive Christian-Historical Jesus-Liberation Theology-Social Gospel-Creation Spirituality-Wisdom school types.

Most notably I could be a prime case example as to why, simply after years of fighting, simply deciding screw this, and moving into a more universalist setting for spiritual growth. Yet, like those who speak of losing their spirituality as inherent to their culture, their is something about us muckety-mucks who harken back to the United Kingdom for our ancestry that has something tied into Christendom.

But as John Dominic Crossan wrote in his 2014 work How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian we are not biblians, rather our name implies a tie to the humble labourer born in scandal and under threat of death, who for his non-violent resistance would be put to death (yes it was non-violent, as in the same work Crossan apptly points out if there was a threat of violence from Jesus’ crew they all would have been crucified).

Their is something about this master teacher that simply resonates in the soul. A Cosmic Christ that connects us all through the Holy Breath (cosmic dust) that gave us all life. Yet with knowing that it is love that we live in and out of, their is a deeper resonance to bring this lens to the stories that are apart of our journey. Those we told around campfires before the expansion of the labourer’s story, and those that are told after, but in the midst is a love of the story of the simple Jewish labourer that radically loved, and shook the empire to its core. So scared the powers that be they attempted to silence it by murdering him. Yet those that no one saw as people, the women, discovered through love the truth, that what made Brother Jesus such a lover of all, existed within us all, and stepping into and out of the tomb the darkness held no power over them to proclaim that love of self, Creator and others, all interconnected.

Or as another progressive voice, who recently suffered a stroke, Bishop John Shelby Spong has relayed that resonates, “I am a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply. But I also recognize that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence,”

Yes the story has been abused, power has been co-opted, and the book has blood on its covers. But that is not the story of Brother Jesus and the group, it is not the story of those who truly walk in the wisdom of old.

But the ability to communicate that outwards. The love, the joy, that this story bonds one too…those that know and lives this are aging, and the questions remains…whom shall continue?


It is quite unique, Robert Fulghum once said that his church was the bookstore. Pause and think before you throw words like Heresy around. What is our sacred scriptures (regardless of the religion you have taken on)…they are collections of stories to inspire, to teach, etc… what is a book store or better yet a library? The same collection.  It is a universal scripture where there are things to feed everyone’s soul, spirit, emotional, physical, mental states…

So why is story so powerful regardless of the form it comes in? Because whether it is someone else’s story or something that aids our own story…it is a way to bring us into a deeper known/unknown communion with the Holy Mystery and to grow that divine mysterious spark a bit brighter within us as well.

This is the power of story, simply put today take time to walk around your local library or bookstore and simply be. Maybe you will find what you need to spark your own connection with the Holy Mystery.


Mary Mother Of Jesus Vector Illustration

Mary Mother Of Jesus Vector Illustration (Photo credit: Vectorportal)

Dear Friend,

It seems within the church there are two schools on Mary of Nazareth, either over veneration or total ignoring. This is not the case for this beautiful young woman of God. Her story is one of liberation, freedom, and living in such a counter cultural way that her world changed as she bore the Christ-Child.

My retreat offering is simply: She Said Yes: Mary for the 21st Century

It is best in the format of a Friday Evening, Saturday morning/afternoon; but can be adapted to several evenings, or Sunday afternoons as the church needs.

The Sessions which are also interspersed with spiritual practices to aid in the formation and growth of participants:

1) The History of Mary of Nazareth

2) The multiple church doctrines of Mary

3) Extra-biblical legacy of Mary

4) Biblical story of Mary

5) Our Yes: Who is Mary for us today?

What’s the cost?

Coming alongside your congregation for the time. A space where tables can be set up for participants to speak in a round. The church making available tea, coffee, juices & water throughout as well as healthy snacks and lunch on the Saturday. As well as an honorarium for myself (I am setting aside my normal $1-1500 retreat leader fee so any church can have this experience for whatever they can afford).

My last two urban retreats book quickly, but the books are still available (Pilgrimage to the Heart of the Sacred, The Bard’s Spirit: Shakespeare‘s Social Gospel).

I look forward to hearing from your church, and coming alongside for a weekend of discovery.

For booking contact: tyragan@ymail.com


English: Resurrection of Christ

English: Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Introduction

Strong’s (1903) Systematic Theology: A compendium designed for the use of theological students within its three volumes more than lives up to the turn of phrase compendium. This writer not being a strong proponent of systematic, but rather a more holistic interdisciplinary methodology finds Strong’s exhaustive meta-narrative/analysis. He is a thorough compiler that presents an almost three thousand page tomb on the Western understanding of theology and how this discipline was grown. One step at a time, unfortunately it is not truly an exhaustive focus as it does have the Western Church bias, ignoring half the world of theology, which would fit the Orthodox/Coptic style of theology which is more mystic than systematic.

Strong as with most of his contemporaries in systematic at the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century attempt to bring the modern scientific movement into the fold of Christianity and more importantly into what they try and sell as the “hard” science of theology. What Strong produced was a pre-1903 encyclopedia of biased and slanted understanding of the sciences, social sciences and liberal arts that propped up his own understanding of the faith.

109 years on is this compendium still relevant in light of the move towards more integral, missional, intentional, emergent and wisdom systems of theology that tend to take a holistic perspective not only of the person, but the community and the story of the church? As one reads through Strong’s 1903 compendium the answer to the previous question more and more becomes no, as Strong shows his out datedness for the contemporary context of the Body of Christ.

Summary

Strong has built a meta-journey for the systematic theologian in the Western world. Page 2 illuminates that the only revealer of God is Christ Jesus. He then goes on to point out that both philosophy and science are good servants of Christ unless they rule out the Son of God (Strong, 4).  This is the baseline established as the compendium launches forward.

Revival is crucial for the life of churches as without it they will become secularized, missions will die out, and in a Revelations reference the candlestick will be removed (Strong, 5). This is the driving force that opens up the three volumes before the reader. It is within the homiletical nature of the book that Strong hopes to communicate the passion of systematic (p.6) for the truth that will move believers that the Trinity is an antidote to the false doctrine which has and presently threatens the church (Strong, 5).

Strong holds to the belief throughout that theology is science (27) and that its aim is to discover (28).  Theology holds a threefold purpose (29-30):

  1. Existence of God who has relations to the universe.
  2. In the capacity of the human mind for knowing God and certain of these relations.
  3. Provision of means by which God is brought into actual contact with the mind, or in other words, in the provision of revelation.

This science of discovery with its threefold purpose is the underpinning of the journey through systematic history to prove that each and every “orthodox” doctrine is true, while those that do not fit Strong’s systematic pattern are cast aside as heresy.

The question though is does this systematic process hold water today?

Interpretation

By equating theology to science, in the historical context it is obvious Strong is attempting to discredit evolution unless it allows for the incarnate Word. Yet what is really happening is that by equating theology to science Strong is hamstringing the art that is theology by confining it to a didactic method that is incomprehensible for the purpose.

The purpose of theology should be to understand the heart of God more for the believer, as noted in Canate’s (2012) Interdisciplinary Method in Christian Theology? In search of a working proposal opens up the third millennium context where this narrow of a focus does not hold sway. Correction, should not hold sway, unfortunately there is still a strong drive to not allow for Godly advancement in theology due to the unwavering belief that our understanding of God does not change.

This is the trap that systematic done encyclopedic has upon the Body of Christ. It lends itself to the once proven, never need to think about again dogma or the old chestnut of “the Bible says it, that’s it” usually applied to some belief that may never have been found in the Bible, or that has never been thought about since some thinker of the Fourth century CE came up with the theory that has then been indoctrinated in believers since.

This is the fallacy of theology as a science, for it lends itself to a method that must be reproducible. Regardless of time and space a believer should come to a doctrine, and be able to reproduce the systematic to come to the exact same conclusion just as one working out the solution of a physics formula. Unfortunately our God does not exist within a systematic box as the history of the Christianities proves by how often there is a reformation or restoration to the Heart of Christ.

Whether it was the “official” historical Reformation of the 1500’s, or the Great Renewals, the Great Schism; the Avalon Captivity (of the Papacy); the rise of the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Dominicans, the Social Gospel, or Liberation Theology each one shares in kind a move beyond simple systematic to a practical and pragmatic theology lived out from the heart of the Gospel story.

Which is the soul that is missing from Strong’s threefold possibility of theology (29-30):

  1. Existence of God who has relations to the universe.
  2. In the capacity of the human mind for knowing God and certain of these relations.
  3. Provision of means by which God is brought into actual contact with the mind, or in other words, in the provision of revelation.

How do these threefold possibilities hold up 109 years later? Let’s take them apart point by point:

 

  1. Existence of God who has relations to the universe.

Yes God has relations to the universe, but it is more than simply relations. From a wisdom theological perspective it is a mutual existence within one another. One where God rests inside Her creation and the creation rests within Him. A perspective that infuses all with the sacred, and rises up the ideal of coexisting as the caretaker of creation, both male and female created and bearing God’s image, infused with the life of breath, not just a “relation”.

  1. The capacity of the human mind for knowing God and certain of these relations.

At first read this second fold appears to be stating that humans can know relations of God, the unfortunate piece is that it does not hold to a holistic viewpoint of the human experience with God. Not a mind/soul/emotion/body of knowing God, but rather a platonic dualism where the mind can know but it is disconnected from that which is deemed “evil” thank to St. Augustine in the body and the transmission of original sin.

  1. Provision of means by which God is brought into actual contact with the mind, or in other words, in the provision of revelation.

Again, the final fold reveals an unwillingness to see that revelation from God is more than just a mind activity. It is a whole person contact that moves one into the revelation of God for them, but then takes it one step further as Revelations shows with sharing with the seven churches, or Acts 15 with the Jerusalem council. The revelation is holistic for the person, which is then taken into the community and shared, verified and lived out. Practical theology.

A strong example of this is found in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 10, more specifically here:

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching                                    the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and                                   wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a                               trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet                                coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were                            all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then                               he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By                     no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or                                       unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time,                                                         “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”16 This happened                         three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

                                17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision                           that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They                                     were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.

(Acts 10:9-17, New Revised Standard Version).

The key points this revelation from God shows is that it is not only a “mind” thing, but rather God opens up Peter’s life and experience, the revelation of the gospel to the gentiles is centered on a bodily need of hunger, and then moves to a challenging emotional situation as Peter begins to argue with God about what is clean and unclean, the reason though takes hold in the mind that he is essentially arguing with the creator of everything, but it finally rests in verses 15-16 where God uses the holy three repetitions to point out that he needs to get up, kill and eat for what God has made clean no one can call profane (unclean).

The three repetitions also reminds the hearer/reader of another time Peter had to experience statements three times, and this was the three fold questioning by the resurrected Christ to become the minister of the flock. Christ, the ultimate holistic revelation of God’s Word, as the Word became flesh. A revelation that was truly more than just to the mind of the world. Christ is the revelation that is still living and breathing, and for God to be truly revealed it must not only sink into one’s mind but make the eighteen inch move to their heart. This is where systematic, and this compendium fall short because it reduces the knowing of God into nothing more than an academic exercise to prove God and disprove everything else.

How does Strong contradict himself up to this point? Simple, he holds to the idea of revelation to the mind, yet points out that scripture (Word of God) is the chief Christian revelation (70). The hang up though is that the scripture in our Bibles’ is but one form of the Word of God, the true Word of God is the Cosmic Christ, and that removes the revelation to simply the mind as noted above.

While Strong holds that theology is a rational necessity (52) it is more than that. Theology is the seeking of God by any believer as they move from being simply a believer to being a disciple and eventually within community to discerning their vocational call. This call is where the theology and even religion move from the theoretical, to as Strong stipulates, to the useful it becomes practical for the believer (Strong, 65).

There are some highlights within the compendium that one should be aware of. Due to its exhaustive nature it does eventually show a balanced relation to the systematic understanding of faith. Strong does place theologians and philosophers as complimentary in the exercise of understanding the science that is theology.

Strong does step out of the early 20th century mindset in volume two of this work as he walks through the doctrine of angels to prove that it is through a systematic understanding of this doctrine that one realizes this universe is simply a piece of reality (Strong, 133). The challenge however is that this statement points to a broader understanding/experience of the Holy Mystery, but one that is not to be grasped outside the box of only knowing God mentally.

Which then contradicts what happens within the third volume where Strong exegetes church structure from the writings of the New (Christian) Testament. The conclusion being that the Law of the church should simply be the will of Christ (Strong, 225). Unfortunately Christ is a whole person/community experience, not just of the mind so using this as the benchmark for the governance of the church it tears apart the earlier systematic established in his threefold possibilities.

This contradiction of the threefold possibilities of theology takes us back to the first volume where Strong reflects on the ancient Creeds of the church that these are not declarations of faith, but rather responses to ongoing heresies of their time (Strong, 57). Historically it may or may not be accurate (as the victors or survivors write history) to state that these Creeds were denials of ongoing heresy. Since most emerged from Ecumenical Councils (Nicene) or allegedly written by Bishops (Athanasius) it can lend credence to this viewpoint. However, the functionality of these documents since their writing has been more catechumenal than heretical battling. What does that mean? These creeds (and ones written later by other denominations to be used alongside or in place of) are now used as teaching tools to open up the dialogue with new believers during the discipleship process. They are used in response to the Great Commission to go forth and make disciples; they are used to form the personal and communal promises during the rites of passage sacraments. The Creeds (ancient and modern) are made highly practical tools to aid the discipling of the Body of Christ as they enter into the lived revelation of God.

Conclusion

It is rare that a compendium so thorough of the western systematic theology throughout time could be viewed so harshly. The view does not come from whether or not this compendium may prove a useful tool, or to whether or not systematic theology in its proper time and place had not been a useful tool. The unfortunate part is even though our world is growing, changing, and adapting. Even though our understanding of how to come to scripture is changing there is still this belief in equipping the next wave of “professionals” within the church that a solid understanding of systematic is the way to produce a vital ministry.

Systematic theology while useful, is not still useful in the context of the shrinking world into a global village, the information explosion, and the deeper understanding of what it means to be human. For it is within the revelation of the image of God/Christ, that we truly experience God. Within the wisdom theology that has been long suppressed, that it becomes evident that all is sacred and we need to become open in this process to living the sacred.

 

Reference

Canate, F. (2012) Interdisciplinary Method in Christian Theology? In search of a working             proposal retrieved from            https://ntsmoodle.com/mod/resource/view.php?inpopup=true&id=281 24   November 2012.

Strong, A.H. (1903). Systematic Theology: A Compendium designed for the use of           theological students retrieved from        https://ntsmoodle.com/mod/resource/view.php?inpopup=true&id=108 27             November 2012.