Last week I attended a Retreat Quiet Day at the Society of Mary and Martha, Sheldon, near Bovey Tracey. The speaker was Martyn Goss, Director, Council for Church & Society at the Diocese of Exeter. He explored the nature of our fragmented society, and raised some searching questions. I have his permission to post his talks here. This is his introduction and first session and I will post the other 3 sessions over the next few days.
ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT ‘TOGETHERNESS’
Martyn Goss Sheldon Quiet Day 27th November 2015
When I first started to learn New Testament Greek many years ago, I was immediately struck by the frequency that semi-colons appear in the texts. Then I discovered that in Ancient Greek the semi-colon is actually a question mark. The gospel stories are punctuated by hundreds of questions: Who do they say that I am? Who has sinned? Whose portrait is on the coin? Haven’t you heard this or haven’t you read that? And so on….
It was only many years later that I learned that the asking of questions is especially linked to a tradition of enquiry that we now know as Rabbinic Judaism, but in Jesus’ day was known as Pharisaism. A continual questioning of the Law and a seeking to reinterpret it for his day was an integral part of the religious context which shaped Jesus’ life and those of others of his day.
So it is perhaps not surprising that he participates in this process by asking questions, and answering questions with further questions.
My point for today, is that we need to rediscover this tradition of asking questions of ourselves and others. Is this not central to how we grow and develop as human beings – challenging, probing, seeking, pondering? The big spiritual questions are often cited as ‘Who Am I?’; ‘What is the purpose of my life?’; ‘Where am I going?’; ‘Why does God create life?’
“It is not good for a human being to be alone”, comments God in Genesis 2 before creating Eve, the first woman and source of life. And so God completes the Creation in a web of togetherness. All is inter-related and interconnected because it is sacred and holy. The scientific energies of electro-magnetism and gravitational force work collectively to contribute to the evolution of life on the planet. Animals and plants develop and interact with each other through survival processes of mutualism and cooperation. The Trinity is described as community of three persons interpenetrating one another as a set of perfect relationships.
For me these, and many more examples, point that the purposes of God are not fracture or division, or brokenness or fragmentation, but a completeness – the Shalom which I wish to call ‘togetherness’.
So my hopes for this Quiet Day are to encourage us to reflect on four particular questions relating to Togetherness which I shall pose at the end of each session.
Many years ago I found myself talking about my work at a URC meeting and in response to somebody ensuring of what I did, I replied I did a lot of “networking”. On the other side of the room an 85 year old farmer stated “I don’t know about networking, but I loves to come to meet different people and have meaningful and important conversations”!!
Both of us were saying in our own ways that we need to make connections and we do this through relations with others. However, in our contemporary society we live increasingly in what the philosopher Jeremy Bentham called a ‘society of strangers’. Our sense of community and communion have been eroded and endangered. The economics of today’s world encourage us to live as so-called ‘happy individuals’ with no connection with others except in financial terms as traders or consumers. We compete rather than cooperate; we treat our neighbours with distrust; we fear the unfamiliar; we are threatened as we retreat into our gated communities or close our front doors to a hostile world outside.
Rowan Williams calls this ‘disassociation’, pointing out that we tend to associate ourselves with small circles of like-minded people. We are losing our deeper community of place (town), our community of history (family) and replace them with a narrow community of interest – if indeed any community at all.
Furthermore, we have become disconnected from the Earth. We are out of touch with the rhythms of life, the stars, the seed time and the harvest. We protect ourselves totally from the elements – rain, wind, cold and heat. Our clocks are digital not seasonal; and our view of time is short not eternal.
And because we are not in touch with others or Nature we can also lose touch with God, who is revealed in the human condition and through the natural world. If we are not careful our attitude to the divine, and to worship and to prayer can become extensions of our consumer addictiveness. We choose a denomination or congregation as we might a brand of soap or a supermarket chain. Yet are not God and prayer and worship there to challenge us in our comfort as well as to comfort us when facing challenges?
Commodification, consumerism, overcrowding, speed, instant gratification, celebrity lifestyles, basement bargains. These are hardly, in my view, fruits of the spirit! They are symptoms of a society out of touch with its roots and its connections. In biblical terms we may call this ‘idolatry’ – a world whose priorities are imbalanced and whose energies are distorted. This is an excessively materialistic culture in which our possessions can possess us.
But as people of faith, we draw on different, hopefully deeper wells and sources of togetherness. We know that it is in common unity that we become more completely human, sustained and supported by relationships of love and supportive one of another.
Let us re-establish connections and re-build community. Let us rediscover our histories and re-tell our stories. God is within and around us, shaping us towards re-connecting and re-newal.
So the first question I leave for you to explore and reflect on is this:
WHO OR WHAT DO I MOST PROFOUNDLY LOVE?
Why? What does this mean? How does this help me to connect?