Practical Theology

[The words of this sonnet are printed below.]

It’s bad enough that the majority of people I know have given up on the church, but it feels much worse when they think that I am a defender of the church that they disdain.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin was the chaplain at Yale when he became famous for his courageous words and actions as a leader of the Civil Rights and Peace Movements.  Bill welcomed conversations with students who were turning away from the church.  He would ask them to tell him about the God they didn’t believe in anymore—usually an old white man on the throne who was hateful, wrathful and vengeful toward any who displeased him or failed to believe in him.  Then Bill would surprise them by telling them he didn’t believe in that God either.

And neither do I.  Nor do I see the purpose of the church or the Christian spiritual path as being about believing in Christ.  The purpose is to be Christ, not believe in him.  The purpose is to cultivate in us the same Spirit-filled heart and mind that moved him to love and serve and sacrifice to create the realm of God on earth, meaning a society founded on the principles of universal oneness, of unconditional compassion, mercy and love, of the Golden Rule, applied to governments and the marketplace as much as to individuals.

The spiritual path or Way of Christ that I teach is about personal transformation and world transformation, in both cases evolving toward the ideal that Christ taught and represented.  This ideal is the same that every major positive religion and philosophy teaches.  You can see the social ideal laid out beautifully in the Global Ethic of the Parliament of the World’s Religions that representatives of dozens of spiritual traditions have endorsed.

What we need to believe is that transformation comes through the higher power and sacred Way that an authentic spiritual path guides us to follow.  The path’s first principle is that we need to surrender the will of our ego and allow the Spirit to lead it.  This is the hardest part of the path.  It requires a daily, moment by moment life-long practice.

I teach in the contemplative Christian tradition. I use three ancient Greek words to describe the path of personal transformation that leads to having the heart and mind of Christ and being one with God and all creation. The words are kenosis, metanoia and agape.

Kenosis means to self-empty—to surrender the ego’s will and its compulsive obsessions.  Metanoia flows out of kenosis—it means to expand our consciousness beyond our ego’s and our culture’s limited, dualistic, materialistic level.  Agape flows out of metanoia—it means to become a living force of the kind of unbounded, unselfish love that God is.

Our calling is not to work for our individual salvation to get into heaven, but to work for the transformation of the entire creation into the realm of God on earth.  This means that social, economic and environmental justice is as much at the core as prayer—a path of both action and contemplation.

The reason I am a United Church of Christ pastor is that I find collected resources and wisdom in the church to help accomplish personal and global transformation.  I find this particular contemplative path effective at connecting us to the guidance, power and comfort of the Spirit that created the universe and that flows through it still.  I find invaluable words, music and models of living that are the treasures of the three thousand year old Judeo-Christian tradition.

I see in this tradition the hope of creating a sustainable, harmonious society that can lead us out of the social, economic and environmental nightmare we have created.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared this hope in the “revolution of values” and “radical restructuring of society” that the Hebrew prophets and Jesus and many since then have called us to undertake.

Admittedly, I have to filter out much of what Christianity has become.  The church gives plenty of good reasons for people to feel disgusted with it.  (Read this article from NPR about the racist and pro-slavery strain in the church as only one of countless examples.)  Not all the scriptures appear to be inspired by the Spirit that I know and love.  I have to interpret heavily in places and ignore others entirely, as Jesus and Paul did in their day.

Imperfections notwithstanding, it remains an extremely valuable path, far better than no tradition, and when the church is full of people who are full of this love, there is no greater comfort, joy and hope than what we feel in such a beloved community.  We experience the ideal realm that we are striving to create.  That kind of church is the most practical tool we have for transformation.

Practical Theology

This is just one of many ancient stories,
and of them all, the hardest to believe,
containing not just stars and angel glories
and miracles that followers achieve,
but God as man and man as God on earth
and God as three and three as one Godhead,
immaculate conception, virgin birth,
a tortured rebel rising from the dead.
So why not let these follies fade and die?
Because though some have twisted it for gain
the story’s core calls every age to try
to stop the greed of Eve and pride of Cain
that rise up in new forms, more deadly still,
and let Christ’s humble love inspire our will.

copyright 2020 Thomas Cary Kinder

2 thoughts on “Practical Theology

  1. “the story’s core” – key phrase, for sure… and Christ’s humble love which is also part of the core

    “core” of an apple contains the seeds, and your sonnet and your prose contain worthy seeds for all of us to plant

    I appreciate your prose here even more than your verse… so timely to address alienation from the Church, as with your uplift of Coffin, and your summary of kenosis, metanoia, and agape, and how they follow each other, how it all relates to the key social implications of the gospel.

    Thanks, Tom


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