Following on from one of our recent meetings, I thought this interview with Michael Morwood was quite helpful:-
David Felten: We’ve moved away from using the word “worship” in our local faith community, opting for words like “celebration” or “gathering” instead. The concept of “worship” has so much baggage: all those ancient formalities and royal protocols that don’t fit post-Enlightenment ways of thinking – yet people are somehow loathe to give it up.
Michael Morwood: Personally, I would stop using the word “worship,” too. The notion of “worship” belongs to an old paradigm, an outdated template for religion.
I was in Canada not long ago conducting a weekend for a progressive United Church community. The audience was very on-side with what I presented. At the end of the weekend, I asked some of the community leaders, “Why, with such a progressive community, do you have the large ‘WORSHIP HERE 10:00 am SUNDAY’ sign outside the church?” I was met with puzzled looks, as if to say, “Why wouldn’t we have this sign?”
So I asked some questions:
.....• Worship whom?
.....• For what reason?
.....• What do you imagine is at the other end of your worship? A deity taking notice? A deity taking some delight in homage being paid?
.....• Is your Sunday gathering for God’s sake?
.....• Where did this imagination come from?
I’d ask the same questions regarding “the Mass” and what Catholics imagine “Mass” is all about (but I don’t get invitations to Roman Catholic parishes these days!).
Overall, I prefer to use words like “liturgy” or “service” for a new template. The roots of the word “liturgy” (leit, people; ergon, work), means the “work of the people.” For me, this understanding of liturgy expands beyond ritual to mean participation in a sacred or divine action.
David Felten: So what’s the “work of the people” and the “divine action” you have in mind?
Michael Morwood: I think our primary task is to gather around the story of Jesus and seek to understand its full implications for all human interactions. Our challenge is to let it reveal to us the truth of who we are, to challenge us to commit ourselves to being the best possible human expressions of the Great Mystery, and to do this as faithfully and as courageously as Jesus did.
And none of this has anything to do with reception of a sacred object, with a priesthood with special powers, or being “fed” at an altar – it certainly has nothing to do with Jesus shedding his blood for the sins of the world. It has nothing to do with singing songs to or addressing prayers to a listening deity.
What it does include is:
.....• Remembrance of Jesus and of others who shared his vision
.....• Awareness of the presence/power within us
.....• Commitment to working for a better world.
David Felten: So, what about the songs we sing and our liturgical prayers? What about the efficacy of the prayers we offer in our faith-sharing groups?
Michael Morwood: What are we being asked to imagine when we ask God to listen? When we thank God? When we address God with personal pronouns? We know where this imagination comes from. The question is, how does this image resonate once the notion of a “God in the heavens” has been abandoned?
By all means, let us sing hymns and address prayers to “God” that suggest this
divine “being” is listening in and taking note. But, let us do so mindful that whatever words we use are metaphor and poetry. They’re not to be taken literally, but as a means of giving expression to longing, pain, gratitude, joy – all those movements our minds and hearts struggle to convey otherwise.
Then let us embrace one of the key challenges that faces us today: to shape
prayers (the hymns may take a lot longer!) that affirm a “presence” within and
among us. We need a growing collection of metaphors and images that help develop our awareness that this “presence” is not only here with us in the ordinariness of our everyday lives but challenges us to live out the best possible human expression of this “Great Mystery.”
David Felten: For as long as I can remember, one of my mentors, Bill Nelson, has advocated that we simply stop using the word “God” altogether. We need images that are free from so many centuries of the theistic and human-centric God that is “out there” somewhere.
Michael Morwood: Exactly! In practice, stop addressing prayers to “God.” Just stop doing it. If you still practice a traditional style of spoken prayer, all it takes is the determination to not begin as if you’re speaking to a theistic God. Try it and see what happens! I resolved to do this 15 years ago. It resulted in my book, Praying a New Story which Spirituality & Practice included in its list of “Best Spiritual Books” of 2004.
With regard to their own private prayer, many people ask me, “If I let go of the
idea of praying to “God,” how do I pray now?”
One way I think about it is remembering a Syrian monk known as “the golden speaker.” St John Damascene was born and raised in Damascus in the early 8th century, but he’s given the church words that have been carried down through the centuries: “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God.”
Today, if we substitute “great mystery” or “power” or other similar concepts for the word “God,” the definition still holds – understanding it to mean raising our minds and hearts to a presence here, all around us; in the depths of our being. So a key concept for any prayer becomes “awareness.” The goal of my personal prayer is to deepen my awareness, to be conscious of the reality that I embody this “great mystery” in human form.
It’s also important to acknowledge that my personal prayer is not for God’s sake. It is for my sake, it is meant to change me. Someone recently asked me, “Can prayer change the world?” and I said, “Of course! If prayer is intended to change us, then we can change the world.” Otherwise we become trapped in the religious cop-out version of prayer: “Let’s leave the fate of the world in God’s hands.”
I think Jesus had the same conviction about personal prayer. It’s what motivated his ministry to “the crowd.” He wanted people to become aware of the power and the presence within them and use it to change the world. That was his dream.
What a pity that this fundamental stance of Jesus has been buried beneath a layer of prayer asking God to “deliver us from evil.” That’s not God’s task; it’s our task.
David Felten: Well that should give the proponents of conventional Christianity heartburn. The Church has thrived for centuries convincing people that they are but loathsome sinners and depraved worms, incapable of any good without Jesus vouching for them. It sounds like your new paradigm puts some pretty high expectations on us lowly humans.
Michael Morwood: The major shift in my theological thinking and prayer life in the past 25 years has stemmed from a growing – and a completely new – appreciation of what it means to be human. Much of my appreciation is grounded in the scientific story of our origins in stardust and the four billion years of atoms undergoing transformation after transformation until the 60 trillion atoms that are Michael Morwood enable me tell the story of who and what we really are.
Now that’s a truly remarkable story. But what I find just as remarkable is to have discovered that throughout human history the other side of this story – without the great scientific story we have today to back it up – has made itself known. Call it “enlightenment”; call it whatever you will, but there has been this constant awareness, insight, revelation – in both religious and non-religious people – of an awareness of a power, an awesome reality beyond our imagination, within and among us, a presence that binds together everyone and everything.
Rumi, the great Muslim scholar, teacher, and poet said it well 800 years ago,
“You are the fearless guardian of Divine Light,
so come, return to the root of the root of your own soul…”.
“Why are you so enchanted by this world
when a mine of gold lies within you?
Open your eyes and come,
return to the root of the root of your own soul.”
Here is the proper focus for religion, today and in the future. Here is where religion can get beyond dogmatism, thought control, the disregard for common decency, and claims of exclusive access to the divine. Jesus is not alone in urging men and women to “return to the root of the root of your own soul” and use what is discovered there to create a profoundly better human community.
And here is why the “Christ” religion needs to change its thinking about Jesus so dramatically: Jesus is not and was not a god-figure essentially different from the rest of us because only he could gain access to God’s dwelling place. Rather, he presents a movement, a presence, a reality – a great mystery – that is within every woman, man, and child. That is the good news that needs to be proclaimed and acted upon.
David Felten: So what’s next? Can the Church – can we – actually change our thinking?
Michael Morwood: Thirty years ago I wrote that if I were to recommend one book for Catholics to read, it would be Karl Rahner’s The Shape of the Church to Come, written in 1974. Rahner is regarded as one of the greatest Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century – and while much of his writing is too academic for the people I had in mind, this book is a gem from such an academic.
“Our present situation is one of transition … to a Church made up of those who have struggled against their environment in order to reach a personally clear and explicitly responsible decision of faith. This will be the Church of the future or there will be no Church at all.”
“It seems to me that the courage to abandon positions no longer tenable means asking modestly, realistically, and insistently, whether it is always possible to take with us on this march in to the Church’s future all the fine fellows whose out of date mentality is opposed to a march into an unknown future … we shall also estrange, shock, and scandalize not a few who feel at home only in the Church as they have been accustomed to see it in the past.”
And, he writes,
“If we are honest we must admit that we are to a terrifying extent a spiritually lifeless Church.”
Overall, Rahner lamented the failure of the Church to address the life experience and questions of the faithful. And along with this failure, he said we fail to proclaim Jesus “vigorously.” We neglect, he wrote, to start with “the experience of Jesus” and we talk about Jesus and God “without any real vitality.”
Rahner’s words inspired me 30 years ago when I was naïve enough to think that institutional Roman Catholicism could and would change. The ensuing 30 years have taken me on a journey I could never have envisioned – not in my wildest dreams! I’m not so naïve now, but his words still inspire me to work for a more relevant, dynamic, realistic faith or spirituality, faithful to what Jesus really believed and was ready to die for.
Theologically, I think we’re living through the greatest theological challenges the “Christ” religion has ever experienced: the old template, used for the past two thousand years, is hopelessly outdated.
At the same time, I believe this new template offers a way ahead for humanity – the opportunity for vitality, for engagement with peoples’ lives and questions, for engagement with the exciting scientific knowledge we have on hand, for wonder and appreciation for being human, and a way to bring the message of Jesus – and other men and women of spiritual insight – to a world that is in desperate need of a new template to heal the harm and divisions caused by religion.
I love working with this new template. It has proven to generate just the kind of excitement and challenge that opens up the possibilities and dreams that a vital future demands of us.
— Rev. David Felten with Michael Morwood