Jesus may have come that we ‘may have life and life in all its fullness’ (John 10.10b) but Christians frequently do a good job of seeking scarcity and restriction instead! Contemplating the sorry state of religion in many places it is not hard to see some common threads of resistance to Christ’s gospel of Abundance. It is a major reason for the rejection of Christianity among many. For the Church as a whole often clings so powerfully to prioritising reflection on death and sin above life and empowerment. This is particularly disastrous and objectionable for those, like LGBTI+ people, who have been held captive for so long by deathly categories of thought and sinful oppression. Rightly they seek life, and life in all its fullness. Asking for bread from churches however all too often results only in gifts of stone. In some ways individual Christians, and the Church in general, can often therefore appear like Ophelia in Bob Dylan’s famous ‘Desolation Row’:
Ophelia, she's 'neath the window for her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah's great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row...
The core issue is not specific aspects or (in)actions of Christians but a deep historically constructed approach to life and faith as a whole. Despite the life-centred teaching and actions of Jesus and the great prophetic and wisdom traditions, many Christians have long been in thrall to emphasising sin and death. Much has to do with the world pessimism of the later Roman civilisation in which Christianity first developed. This vitiated more healthy Hebraic and Christ-like attitudes to the body and the world. Later centuries wrought more damage. In the West, this is notably so with the late medieval and Reformation period which were powerfully concerned with morbid themes, in the wake of the Black Death and other horrendous ravages of the times. Sadly, whilst that era produced important contributions, continued over-valuation of such death-and-sin laden theology does the Church and wider world few favours. Of course sin and death are significant but what is their true place? As the great 19th century Anglican theologian and Christian Socialist F.D.Maurice put it, too often theology focuses disastrously on the Fall as the centre of Christian theology, rather than the God of all Grace.
If we genuinely seek Christ’s abundance – ‘life in all its fullness’ – we need to develop theologies, spiritualities and ethics of flourishing. This was the heart of the thinking of Grace Jantzen, professor of religion, culture and gender at Manchester University from 1996 until her death from cancer at the age of 57. A Canadian, a Quaker, a mystic, a feminist and a lesbian, she engaged intelligently with the very best of contemporary philosophy and articulated a way of re-imagining life and spirit which continues to offer hope and substance for today. Her most famous books included Julian of Norwich: Mystic and Theologian and Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion. In both can be seen her emphasis on ‘natality’ and ‘flourishing’, rather than the ‘mortality’ and ‘finitude’ characteristic of much death-dealing tradition. For she saw that our inherited emphases on violence and death comes at the expense of the physical body in the present. This leads inevitably to a denigration of the senses, sexuality and sensuality, and postpones deep human yearning for mystical connection beyond the here and now. To know God’s abundance in contrast is to think, feel and live abundantly now.
(also published in Pipeline (June 2018), the magazine of the Wellspring Community in Australia)
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.