Quaker Universalist Conversations

“Do not be afraid”

Stephen Finlan (excerpt)

Stephan Finlan is pastor of Mathewson Street United Methodist Church, Providence, Rhode Island. He has taught theology at Fordham, Drew, Seton Hall, and Durham Universities. He is author of The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition (2008), Options on Atonement (2007), and Problems with Atonement (2005).

The Family Metaphor in Jesus' Teaching, Stephen Finlan The follow is an excerpt from The Family Metaphor in Jesus’ Teaching (2009; 2nd ed., 2013).

Here is the publisher’s summary of the book I am excerpting:

Jesus not only held up a child as an example of receptivity, but he defended actual children, warning against despising “one of these little ones.” Using current discussions of the “equal-regard family” and of the importance of “human fathering,” Stephen Finlan explores how the gospel entails a changed model of parenting and of marriage and a new approach to spiritual growth.

What caught my attention from the perspective of Quaker Universalism was this passage:

Why is it that religions seem to evolve so slowly, and to perpetuate so much superstition and hostility to other religions? It is partly the fact that religion is always deeply involved in the values and traditions of particular groups, and so with the defining of social boundaries and the rejection of out-groups and out-group characteristics, as a function of group survival. But there is more, having to do with the boundaries of human consciousness, which makes religion the arena for the deep, the delusional, the imaginary, and the uncertain.

Religion often explores the marginal, the outrageous, the horrifying, the unbearable, and the unreachable. But these explorations are not always healthy. They express everything that is in the religious heart: fear, imagination, desire for prestige, the quest for meaning, the impulse to escape, truth-hunger, moral insight, spiritual hope, intimations of immortality.

Religion is a storehouse of good and evil, of maturation and of failure to mature, of vision and of obsession. But the religious life of Jesus shows an instinct for moral unification and love, based on trust in the watchcare of the heavenly Father.

Carl Heinrich Bloch - Suffer the Children We see the sanity of Jesus in all his interactions with people, his impatience with pompous and unloving teachers, his outrage with hypocrites, and his gentleness with people who had been wounded by life, even if they were not ideal models of family life—the woman at the well (John 4:7-27), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), the blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52), the woman who anointed his feet (Luke 7:37-48).

Jesus’ revelation is not just his teachings, but his life of trust and familiarity with God, which led to a life with others that was devoid of fear and coercion. “Do not be afraid” was virtually the watchword of his religious life—a religion without psychopathology. (92-93)

And so it is.

Blessèd Be,
Michael


Image Source

“Suffer the Children,” from the Chapel at Frederiksborg Palace in Copenhagen, by Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Comments

What resonates for me in this excerpt is Finlan’s recognition of how dangerous using religion as a means for setting boundaries is:

  • "religion is always deeply involved in the values and traditions of particular groups, and so with the defining of social boundaries"
  • "[with] the boundaries of human consciousness, which makes religion the arena for the deep, the delusional, the imaginary, and the uncertain"
  • "[with] the marginal, the outrageous, the horrifying, the unbearable, and the unreachable"
  • "[with] everything that is in the religious heart: fear, imagination, desire for prestige, the quest for meaning, the impulse to escape, truth-hunger, moral insight, spiritual hope, intimations of immortality."
James P. Carse makes a powerful argument for reclaiming the term religion, contrasting it with the term believe system. The former is a living, boundaryless communion of fellow seekers. The latter is a human-made conceptual structure for defining boundaries.

See Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief (2008), and “Weeds," a three-part 2008 series of blog posts I wrote after reading this book.