This article is a transcript of a talk given at Shantivanam in April 1984. It was transcribed by the late Elizabeth Hayes, a Sangha member from Worthing. It was first published in the Sangha Newsletter December 2004
Today I would like to talk about the Church and I would like to begin with the quotation which I wrote in my book Marriage of East and West. From the Pastor of Hermas, the Shepherd of Hermas, a Christian writing in the 2nd century, where the writer has a vision where the church appears to him as an old woman. And he asks ‘why the old woman?@ and he is told, because she was from the beginning and for her the world was created. The church is from the beginning, for her the world was created. And this is how one wants to see the church, as the community of redeemed mankind, the community of the saints, the community of mankind fulfilling itself. And that is the basic vision that we want.
And then of course it has to work itself out in the history and it is very different, the way it works in history, but behind is this great vision of humanity united in God.
Humanity united in God is the church, and that leads to the second point. Karl Rahner, every human being has an openness to God, there in the depth of every person, this point of the spirit, where he is open to the transcendent, to the spirit. So in a genuine sense everyone is open to God, to the Transcendent and is called to this eternal life, to this divine life.. so there is an absolute universality in it. Incidentally it was brought out in the constitution on the church, the famous second chapter. The Constitution of the Church is one of the turning points of the Vatican Council. They were all prepared by the Roman Curia – they had their idea of church. And the first chapter, I think, on the mystery of the church is quite good, and the second chapter was to be on hierarchy of the church, pope, bishops, priests, people. And there was a great intervention from the bishops of central Europe, a great debate and the whole thing was changed. And the second chapter was introduced on the people of God. Instead of the pope and hierarchy you have the laity, the people of God, as constituting the church. And the point was made that to this people belong not only all Catholics, all Christians, but all people are called to the same end, which is divine, to be in union with God. So the whole of humanity is called to this fulfilment. And we must not let the historical conditioning blind us to the vision of the whole, the ultimate.
So there we have our basis, so when we come to the historical conditioning, we know from the very beginning human beings always organise themselves in community and in fact one must go beyond that and say that the earliest man was not aware of himself as individual, that is quite certain, he was aware of primary and essentially a member of a community and that is still true of tribal communities. It was true in India to a large extent, and is probably true in many communities in India today. You don’t think of yourself an individual but as a member of a group, a tribe or community or a caste, whatever. But furthermore he was not only aware of himself as a member of a community but also as a member of the cosmos, the cosmic whole. The earliest man was a part of nature, this is very important. He felt himself to be a part of the whole cosmic order. And this comes out in all the ancient myths and stories and the whole attitude to life you get among the American Indians today, this sense that you are the part of the great cosmic order, which is manifesting in the whole creation and in your own tribe, your own people, your own family and so on. So you are a part of the cosmic order, part of the human community, and it is all held together in the supreme mystery which is holding it all together. That is the basic view of life which you find among most primitive peoples. So they have this deep sense of community with nature and a community with one another and God is always envisaged in the terms of that community, in its experience. And every community, tribe or people has its own form of God. We were mentioning the forms of God but God himself is without form, but human beings need to express their understanding of the mystery in human terms, and therefore they form an image of God, namely of many Gods – Gods of the world around them, Gods of the tribe, and the people, and usually one supreme God, one supreme spirit who is lord of all.
So this conception of God always arises within the community and expresses itself in the language and the rituals. A tribe is held together by rituals and people today don’t understand ritual, through gesture. Language came in rather late (we believe that language began to develop seriously only about 5000 BC and language in the full sense probably considerably later). And so it is not through language but through signs, symbols, that man communicates and ritual is symbolic language. And then of course words are introduced into it and the words and the symbols expressed your relation to the world around you and to the human community and to the God you worship.
So all ancient religion grew up around ritual and myth, which is the symbolic language about the Gods, God’s creation, about the world. And the ritual and the myth hold the community together. Every child when be came of age was initiated into the myth and ritual and then became a member of your tribe, and you knew where you were in the universe, and that is why those communities had such stability, and they could go on for hundreds and thousands of years.
On the other hand once that myth and ritual are disturbed they simply disintegrate (that is what is happening in Africa today). It is a tragic scene. A great friend who knew Africa extremely well and he was saying that all African tradition was based on tribal religion and within that you were perfectly safe. You knew where you were in the whole world around you (in the world of the Gods and spirits), your ancestors, family, tribe, chief, etc). But once you get out of your tribal religion into the cities everything disintegrates, there is nothing left. Psychologically they are completely disintegrated.
So all ancient religion grew up on that way and this is the way and the lasted for hundreds and thousands of years. There are tribes in India today and elsewhere which are still living in the same myth and ritual which has come down from 1000’s of years in the past. And then of course you move from tribal religion to the wider religion and this took place very late – about 2000 years BC – It is when the cities begin to appear. It is all very recent – Babylonia, Syrian, Egypt, cities begin to appear with larger groups of people, and there you get a sort of pantheon. All the tribes bring their religions to the city, and you get different Gods and Goddesses and you get a whole pantheon created. And that is how Hinduism developed. The Aryan invaders came into India in the second millennium and bought with them Sanskrit culture and mythology and the yagna (sacrifice) ritual and they settled here and then they began to integrate the different tribal people and religious communities of India. As they spread south all the different communities were brought in and those were the origins of the castes, largely Hinduism is simply integrated different tribal religions and with their Gods, their rituals and their myths and they were all integrated into this cast system of Hinduism. Take for instance Murugan, he is the great God of Tamil Nadu. He is a young boy, a beautiful figure, and he was simply a tribal god in Tamil Nadu and he is made into a son of Shiva, so he is called Subramaniam. Or take Ayappan in Kerala. There is this famous pilgrimage – 3 million people went last year – Saharisimala – and he was obviously simply a tribal god in Kerala, gradually he is taken into the Hindu pantheon and now he is part of the whole system. So it’s a marvellous way in which they have integrated all these different Gods. That is why Hinduism is divided into all these castes. Of course there are other sources of castes, maybe due to trade or other practice but religion was one of the greater ones. So then you begin to form these wider communities and Hinduism is really held together by caste. That is its great problem. It has no central community. As a Hindu you have to belong to a caste. All your ritual, myth or God (ritual particularly) come in through your caste, and that is how you become a Hindu. We have given the name Hinduism but it is a conglomeration of particular ways of caste and so on.
On the other hand now the newer religions, tend to construct a community. Buddhism is the best example. Buddha broke away from Hinduism, from caste, ritual and myth, the whole system, and formed his now community based on the eight-fold path and the four noble truths, and he formed the Sangha. You need a core community in a religion. Tribal people have it in the tribe, Hinduism in the caste, the Buddha made it in the monks and Buddhism is a monastic religion. And so the core community of Buddhism is always the monks. And then In Islam, Mohammed created this religion with a very simple ritual. He has got the four things – simple belief in one God, Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet, and then prayers five times a day – simple and short but very effective prayer. Thirdly the fast, once a year for a month, and finally the pilgrimage. It is very simply constructed and has a tremendous sense of brotherhood. It is total equality in Islam, and its one thing that gets over caste in India. Christians all keep up the caste but the Muslims get rid of it with their sense of brotherhood.
Now we come round to the Hebrews. They were originally an Aramaic tribe. Your father was a wandering Aramerie (Abraham) and one of these Aramaic tribes were wandering around in the Middle East and finally settled down in Palestine. They had their own God, the ‘El’ to begin with and eventually the name ‘Yahweh’ under Moses, and their law, the 10 commandments which were elaborated into the whole code of conduct and their ritual and the Torah gives you the God, the Law and the ritual, and they constitute your religion. And that made Israel into a community, a congregation. So this is very important, that religion is normally structured as a community.
Today we don’t think like that, Most people say religion is my own and it was like that for two or three centuries. It was never heard of before. It depends on the whole organisation of today of course, but in the past it could never be and therefore every religion had its own structure of community. So Israel grows up with that structure and in the course of time centres on Jerusalem and on the temple of Jerusalem. Israel was originally a group of tribes, they came up out of Egypt and now they think that they are a very loose group of tribes who come together into Palestine and gradually organised themselves there with a centre and that is how the God of Yahweh became the God of the 12 tribes. They believed in the one God that is why they were violently against any other God who split the whole people.
The next great reform under Deuteronomy in the time of Isaiah, in the 7th century, was that only worship could be made in Jerusalem at the Temple. Before this they offered sacrifice in the hills in Samaria, but when you come to the time of Hosea then the temple in Jerusalem is the only place where you came worship Yahweh. So the religion was centred on the one God, Yahweh , one place, Jerusalem where he can be worshipped and one ritual and priesthood. Everything is organised, and all this is normal. We don’t realise this but human beings until recently were such an odd people. We are the most odd people that ever existed really – that is 20thcentury man, and before that everyone belonged to the community.
So Israel has its law, its people, its temple, its worship, its one God. Then we must always remember that at the heart of Israel there was always the belief that this one God, Yahweh, although he was the God of Israel, the tribal God to begin with, he was only ruling over Israel and its own territory, gradually under the prophets, this one God was seen to be the god of the whole creation. One creator of the world, the lord, the one judge, a wonderful conception of the one supreme God involved with the prophets and the belief was held that eventually all people would come to serve Yahweh. You get it in the 2nd chapter of Isaiahm, where it says, “In the last days it will come to pass, that all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem. Let us go to the mountain of the Lord, he will give us his law and we will obey his words”. So the vision was that Yahweh who had established his Kingdom is Israel and was worshipped and all the nations of the world would flow into it. Great vision of the Gentiles. So you got in the prophets of Israel the vision of a universal religion. And Islam owes a lot to that. Mohammed had the same vision, and was probably profoundly influenced by the Bible. He probably read the Bible, it was not certain that he could read at all. But there were many Christians and many Jews in Arabia and he was in constant contact with them, and the Quran is full of references to the Jewish and Christian beliefs. Jesus and Mary play and important part in the Quran, and still more Moses, Noah, Abraham and all the prophets. So you get this one supreme God and this universal religion conceived by the prophets.
And that is the world into which Jesus comes. The world of the one supreme God and with its worship in Jerusalem and its law given by Yahweh and this is where the great crisis came in Christianity. Jesus came up against this because the idea was that eventually all the nations would come to serve God, but by the time of Jesus the trouble was this. After the exile in the 6th century. Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians, the king and the people were taken captive and then the returned again to rebuild the temple, but they never reconstituted the kingship again. They were under oppressive regimes, first the Babylonians, then the Persians, the Greeks and finally the Romans. So they were fighting for their religion all this time and the one thing that held them together was the worship of Yahweh, the temple and the synagogue which grew up in the exile (the meeting together on Saturday to read the law and the prophets and to share together). The synagogue became the centre after the exile when they were no longer centred in Jerusalem. So you get this religion centred on Yahweh, with the temple, the synagogue, and strict obedience to the law, rejecting all contamination with others nations. That was the problem, that Israel narrowed itself very much at that time. For Jews to associate with a Gentile was to become impure (just as for a Brahmin in India) and these are the same principles at work. It is a ritual purity. Why untouchability is so strong in India is because of ritual purity. You become impure. A ritual is a sacred rite and to perform it one has to eliminate all that is profane and not sacred. All rites are like that. You make a sacred place and within that sacred space you make your offerings and the whole thing becomes holy, consecrated to God. You are keeping out all the hostile influences, the negative forces, And then certain people become holy because they are consecrated to God in a particular way, and then other people become holy because they are doing things contrary to this. And so you get the idea of ritual purity. The kitchen for instance is a place for ritual purity for a Hindu – the food must be pure and so on – and no stranger may come into the kitchen to defile the good.
I always tell this story – I think it is a true one. There was a marriage feast and they were preparing the good and all the women were working and it was nearly completed (Indian marriages have huge feasts). There was a foreigner who was visiting the family and he did not know anything about the rules and he put his foot in the kitchen and all the food had to be scrapped being all polluted now and they had to start all over again. They were very strict about ritual purity.
The Jews had the same. If the Jew came into close contact with a Gentile. He had to go and wash himself and purify himself – just as a Brahmin. He has regularly to wash himself, purify himself. And if a Brahmin went abroad to mix with foreigners he had to have a special ritual to purify himself when he came back. The reason for all this is to keep your holy people, your sacred structures, a holy place, a holy way of life. And if you allow these things to come in they disintegrate – as with the African tribes
So Israel had the same structure but it was terribly limiting by the time of Jesus. He was faced with this religion of the one God worshipped only in Jerusalem and confined to the Jews and he tried to break this bondage. All though the gospel you see this constant conflict with the Pharisees, the religious people. They separated themselves from the Gentiles to observe the law more strictly. They were very good people, they tried to observe the law and be faithful to Yahweh, and to keep others out. And Jesus came to open this to others and again and again he goes against all their ideals. He is constantly going against the reituals and legal prescriptions of Israel.
In the gospel of Like there is the account of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth when he says, ‘there were many widows in the time of Elija but it was the widow in the time of …..that Eliza was sent and there were many lepers in Jerusalem at the time of Eliza but it was Naman the Syrian that Eliza was sent. In other words Elija and Eliza, the prophets went to non-Jews. And they were so furious with him that they wanted to kill him, because he was trying to tell them that these foreigners and people were as good as they were and so they wanted to throw him down from the cliff.
In the story of the good Samaritan, you see, the Samaritab was a person who was separated from orthodox Judaism, like a Protestant to a Roman Catholic. He was a very hated person and no Jew would go through Samaria. It was taboo for him altogether. And Jesus went and talked to this Samaritan woman. He tells this story of a man down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he was set upon my robbers and lay by the wayside. A priest went by and passed on without looking at him, and then a Levite went by and he passed on and finally a Samaritan, one of these hated foreigners came and took hold of him , dressed his wounds and provided for him. So he is trying to open religion first to the Samaritans, then to the Gentiles, and the whole of humanity. That is where the break with Judaism came. It was tragic. Israel was indeed intended for all humanity.
But Jesus found it impossible to work within those limits and tried to open the religion to the whole of humanity (to the Samaritan and the Gentiles) and freedom from the law. It was a very difficult problem. The law was given originally to Moses, came down through the centuries and was all intended to help people to serve God, and it has its value like that. People who need rules and regulations make themselves into a people. You want to be a people living together in harmony, so you have got to have a rule and law to guide you. And so it served its purpose. But also law always tends to construct you and bind you and that is the danger of it. And that is what happened to Israel. It became more binding and constructing and eventually the church had to make that very difficult decision to be free from the law. It only came when the Gentiles came into the church. St Peter and the first apostles they go on keeping the law; they went on worshiping in Jerusalem, going to the synagogues. Only when the Gentiles came in came the question – had the Gentiles to be circumcised to keep the law of Moses. Or was it sufficient simply to believe in Christ. The whole of St Paul’s life was fighting for that principle. In the letter to the Galatians when a group of Jewish Christians wanted to insist on keeping the law, then you have left Christ, going on keeping the law then you are not Christians). So it was a tremendous fight to keep free from the bondage of Judaism at that time, but don’t forget there were tremendous deep values in Judaism which remain to this day and the Jew still lived by the deep principles of truth which are in the whole Old Testament and Hebrew religion, but at that time and place it had become very rigid and made it very difficult.
So Jesus had to break with these and the Christian Church, to break with this bondage with the law and set people free.
Now did Jesus found a church? In a sense yes. Because as I said, there was this congregation of Israel and there doesn’t seem any doubt that he saw himself as the Messiah, the King of the new Israel. And in those words to Peter, “thou art Peter on an this rock I will build by kwahaho – Aramaic for the congregation of Israel. He was constituting a new Israel with 12 apostles representing the 12 tribes. That is undoubtedly symbolic. We know very little about the apostles apart from the legends that grew up about them, but symbolically they represented the new Israel. So Jesus certainly intended to free Israel from the bondage of the law, to open their religion to the whole of humanity and to constitute a structure. It was to be an organisation. So it is very certain that Jesus himself founded this congregation that emerged with Peter and that is what we see at Pentecost. After the resurrection Jesus ascends and the spirit descends upon the Church. Because, as I said, Jesus is the new Adam who reconciles mankind with God and transcends the present world of time and space and then he sends the spirit at Pentecost and the church is constituted by this congregation of people upon whom the spirit descends at Pentecost. At firs it is a small ground and then 200, 3000 gather together. That constitutes the visible church.
But I think we must make that distinction, that Jesus comes as the Messiah, the Son of Man, who is to reconcile humanity with God. In him and through him the whole humanity is united with the course, the father. It becomes one body in him. Now St Paul had that very profound conception that the church is the body of Christ and it occurs in several of the letters to the Corinthians, Romans, where he compares the church to a body with many members. I think that it is one of the most profound concepts of a human society. It forms an organic whole. That is what we understand society to be today. Each is a member is like a cell or organ in the body – he is a member of the whole. As he says, “the eye can’t saya to the ears I don’t need you or the foot can’t say to the hand”. So each member has his place in the body and all are united in one organic whole. That is St Paul’s vision of the church, and Jesus himself uses the illustration of the vine, “I am the vine, you are the branches”. It is an extremely similar vision of organic unity.
I think we can say that the concept that Jesus founded, of the New Israel, is to be an organic whole. This brings us to another point that Israel and most ancient people had this profound sense of solidarity. Ancient man felt himself primarily has belonging to a community and to the cosmic whole and in Israel this was extremely strong. The word Israel originally the name of Jacob and the people are called after Jacob, but in a sense all the people are one with Jacob; the founder of the race is one with the whole race. It is the solidarity and they had this sense of so-operate personality. It was extremely strong in the ancient world, you felt yourself to be part of a whole represented by some person. That was the value of the king as I mentioned earlier. He represented the people all were held together in the unity of the king. So Israel had that sense that they were all members of Jacob. It comes in the Psalms very much, e.g. 129 “Out of the depths I cry to the Oh Lord hear my voice”. It sounds like an ordinary individual prayer but it ends up “He will redeem Israel in all its iniquities”. He speaks as an individual but also in the name of the whole community.
And the same is the suffering servant of Isaiah. He seems quite definitely to be an individual person. He’s chosen by God, “I called thee from the womb…” and so on, but suddenly he turns into Israel, the community. So always the individual and the community are seen as inter-related and as one ultimately – and the same applies to mankind.
The deepest idea that St Paul brings out is that mankind is one in Adam (Adam in Hebrew means man), and all men are included in that man. When man sins, that Adam, that, an, is divided, disintegrated. St Augustine days – “His limbs were scattered over the earth”. And then Christ comes to reintegrate that Adam, to draw all the scattered limbs together, to restore humanity, the new man. As St Paul says, – “He broke down the wall of partition which existed in the temple between the Jews and the Gentiles. He broke down the wall of partition making the two into one new man.
That is the idea of incarnation, to restore humanity to its original unity to make the new Adam, the new man. And Jesus came precisely to do that and this core community is intended to be the nucleus of this new humanity where man is re-integrated and restored to unity with God. And so both aspects have to be kept in mind – the universality of the church from the beginning. I said every human being is open to this spirit, grace of God and is related to God in some way and through all these tribal communities, through all the larger communities, the Buddhist Sangha or the Muslim brother hood, and in Judaism you see a nucleus is formed which is intended to be a centre of the re-integration of humanity. And when Jesus came to restore Israel to that centre, to the function in which humanity can be re-integrated with God to form this new humanity, like an organic whole. Of all being inter-related. So that is the vision of the whole we need to have.
But then it comes again into history, when you get this little community at Pentecost and it has to struggle its way through the secular world and all sorts of things happen to it on its journey and its not a very edifying history and in many parts we have to accept that. But all the saints through all this journey through history and all its ups and downs, this idea remains. Always this idea of a mystical body and unity of mankind restored in mankind. This unity of God lies behind the whole.
The way it actually develops is important. Jesus lays the foundation, the new congregation of Israel, the new Israel, the apostles and Peter and I think we can say he initiated the sacraments – baptism and the Eucharist. In other words a ritual. There is no religion without a ritual and undoubtedly John the Baptist was baptising Jesus himself was baptised and it does seem that he gave the apostles this mission to baptise. First thing they do after Pentecost when the people say, -“What shall we do?”, they say . –“To be baptised in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. So they are all baptised into the new life, the new congregation of Israel, the new humanity. Secondly he gave the Eucharist. The night before he died he assembles the disciples together and celebrates this meal. It was a sacred meal; it may have been a Passover, the most sacred of all, or it may have been one of the ritual meals that were regularly celebrated in which you took bread and wine, and you blessed the bread and the wine and shared it together. And he took the bread and wine and gave it this unique significance, “this is my body, this is my blood”. So its does seem that he left the church with a structure of 12 apostles, with the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. You have got your ritual, your doctrine and your community united in that way, and that is the nucleus of the church really.
Now everything beyond that is a historical development and its very important to see that that the papacy, the episcopacy and priesthood all developed in the second century. There is no papacy in the 1st century, and there is no episcopacy in the proper sense. The church came into the Graeco-Roman world and it had to organise itself and quite spontaneously these new functions appear in the church. In the second century we have priests but there are no priests in the New Testament; there were presbyters, elders, and they administered the church and gradually they were seen as priests. So by the second century you have a hierarchy; each church has its bishop, clergy and its people and is celebrating baptism and Eucharist and that constituted the church. All these churches were related to one another – they were organically related and felt themselves to be part of a community. Your local church was related to the other, Ephesus and Corinth, Phillippa, Rome and all the churches have a common bond in the baptism and in the Eucharist. St Paul has a beautiful expression of what the church was where he says, “There is one Lord, one faith, one God in Father and all”. And that really constituted the church. The belief in the one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith in him, one baptism, one initiation into him and one God in Father in all. This was the nucleus of the church and now this unity of the different churches in the second century already began to find its centre in Rome. And you have this very interesting text of St Aromeus, He is a most interesting father of the second century, he was Asian from Asia-Minor who became a bishop in Gaul and who was in very close touch with the bishop in Rome. So he was a very central figure and was a great theologian of that time. And he had a very interesting text where he says, “By that time there were many interesting churches growing up in opposition and you didn’t know which was the right church, and that is where the doctrine evolved. If you want to know where the true church is you must find the churches which can trace their descent from the apostles, and he mentions Corinth from St Paul and Ephesus. He sayd that if you want to be quite sure go to the church in Rome, that was founded by the apostles Peter and Paul, not Peter alone but Peter and Paul. And then he says that in that church, because of its greater origin it is necessary that every church should, agree with that church or should come together. It is clear that from the second century Christians converged on Rome as the centre of the empire and also the church of Peter and Paul, and in that the true faith is always preserved. So that is how the centrality of Rome developed and after that it grew according to historical circumstances.. And that must happen if you are going to have a church in this world, or any organisation it will follow the pattern of the world around, and one need not be disturbed by that. But on the other hand we don’t need to cling to all the outer forms and structures which the church evolved in the second century.
The Church is guided by the holy spirit. The holy spirit is always present in the church, but it is also conditioned by human, historical circumstances. And we have reached a time today when this whole structure of Western Christendom is no longer adequate. Asia has no part in this western church. Not even 1 per cent of Asian is Christian and Asian will never become Christian as long as the Christian church remains a western structure.
I think one of the turning points of the church is now when it can free itself just as Israel had to free itself from the bondage of the law and open herself to humanity.
The church has to free herself from the limitations of the organisation, doctrines and the sacramental system and open herself to the whole wisdom of the east. That is the future of the church, yet remaining true to the essential teaching, the essential organisation which is present in the New Testament.
It is just as essentially Christian and true but maybe different in its structures. Asia would be different structures of the church that Europe would be, but here will still are living these western structures.
So that is how I see the hope of the church, that it will open itself to the East and now a new expression of Christian faith and worship based on the New Testament and equally true to it but expressing itself in the language, the symbols, the culture of all the forms of eastern life and eastern thought. The same would apply to a large extent to Africa of course. There is a great movement in Africa, African liturgies are evolving and African churches are very vital and so on.
So new movements are taking place everywhere and there is no doubt we are emerging into a new world.
As I say, we must keep the vision of the reality of the church that is behind all this historical development. There is this movement towards reuniting humanity into one body, one organic whole through the power of the holy spirit, uniting through Jesus with the Supreme God, supreme reality – that is the destiny of humanity as a whole which embraces all these movements. Tribal religion and every kind of religion will only be seen as it is on the last day when we go beyond time and space and the whole fullness in revealed. Within that context is the historical development from Jerusalem, Pentecost, and through the Roman Empire and then Europe and America and now perhaps emerging into Asia. This is all part of the historical development, but behind it is the essential truth of the gospel and of the church herself which is not limited by any of these structures or forms which have developed in the course of time.