We have all come across caricatures of Christianity. The Rev IM Jolly, Rikki Fulton’s hilarious creation, appeared on TV some years ago and was, well, pretty miserable. When we think Christian living is like that, and we can sometimes believe the extreme is commonplace, we’re thinking inside the box. We’re basing things on our own experience and, though it’s funny, it doesn’t inspire us.
Recently published in English translation is the physicist Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. He has written elsewhere that the problem between science and religion is that science allows people to explore and push boundaries, but religion requires people to believe certain truth claims. Having to accept the truth of things you can’t check, he argues, hems people in and makes us think ‘inside the box’.
I’m not sure either of those ideas says quite enough. Not all Christians are as square as IM Jolly; and the essence of Christian faith is a living relationship with God, not the requirement to believe the unbelievable.
Another image in the spirit of James Bond: the rifling inside the bore of a gun. The spiral shape does constrain the bullet, making it spin. But it also permits freedom for, once it has left the barrel, the spinning motion helps the bullet to fly straight. This may be a more helpful image of Christian faith: constraint which enables greater freedom and the possibility of straighter, further progress.
Rovelli speaks about our developing understanding of the universe:
“It is part of our nature to love and to be honest. It is part of our nature to long to know more, and to continue to learn. Our knowledge of the world continues to grow.”
“There are frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes. Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world. And it’s breathtaking.” Rovelli, 2015, p.79
I want to offer the suggestion that faith is not so different. Faith which is built on relating to a holy God whose nature is love and faith which which honestly seeks to discover more about God’s will and ways for humankind in the world has to be a faith which keeps on growing and developing. The combination of constraint and creative freedom enables and supports greater development than either imprisonment or an entirely permissive context.
There much beauty in discovering more about ourselves made in the image of God and living in the presence of God. There might be some constraints. We might be turned round in a different direction. Opportunities may be made available to us – and possibly costly to pursue.
God does not want to box in those he has made, love, for freedom but to enable them to live fully and generously in his creation. That is something which faith has known for many centuries. So let’s turn to the prophet Zechariah for more insight.
Zechariah 2:1-5, 10-13
Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand. I asked, ‘Where are you going?’
He answered me, ‘To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.’
While the angel who was speaking to me was leaving, another angel came to meet him and said to him: ‘Run, tell that young man, “Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,” declares the Lord, “and I will be its glory within.”
‘Shout and be glad, Daughter Zion. For I am coming, and I will live among you,’ declares the Lord. ‘Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land and will again choose Jerusalem. Be still before the Lord, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.’
The prophets often speak in pictures and Zechariah here follows that pattern. A man goes out to discover how big is the ideal city of God, and discovers that it can’t be measured. There is no box! The man lived in a time when all towns and cities had walls for protection; but this ideal Jerusalem is a city without walls, open to the world and welcoming all who want to come in. God, though, will be both around and within the city. God’s fiery presence as it is described here will surround and engulf his people not that they might be consumed, but rather energised for life, shining as a beacon to the world and having no fear.
We need to remember that Zechariah is speaking to a small and hard-pressed group who had recently returned from a seventy-year exile in Babylon; they knew what it was to be held captive and oppressed. So this image of presence, power and brilliance must have been little less than revolutionary when first heard. It must have astonished them, and made their hearts glad.
The recently returned remnant of Israel (the ‘daughter of Zion’) shout for joy because God is present among his people. These people do not see God as something for them to possess exclusively, nor do they see God as a set of unbelievable principles to swallow. Both would be thinking in the box.
Instead, faith for them is exploring what it means for them to experience God within and among them – and others. As they do that, they discover that they become a welcoming and reverent people of faith. Thinking out the box leads them to live outside it, too. They will welcome those from many lands who join them. ‘The kingdom of God, which has until now been restricted to Israel, will be spread out and glorified by the reception of all the nations which are seeking God.’ (Keil+Delitzsch vol.10 p.249). There’s no hint of racial tension or superiority, for if God is king among them they are citizens together.
They will revere God, for they will understand their identity through their relationship to God who is with them. They recognise that once they were not God’s people, but by God’s grace they have become his people. As they understand more deeply what has happened, they become a people of worship, in the stillness revering the God who is at work even in their midst, their glory within.
True for them; true for us.
Depending on how you understand it, faith can either close down your options or it can expand your horizons. The invitation of Jesus, to whom some of Zechariah’s words are later attributed, is ‘Come and see’. There is a right order of things, where coming close to Jesus, belonging among his people, exploring, seeing, trusting and becoming committed to him and his ways seems to fit well.
And this cannot simply be an individual thing, nor something static. A city is never inhabited by one person but is always a society; and our faith is not something we possess ourselves but needs to be shared, nurtured and grown among others. And it cannot be only for the faithful and the like-minded, for Zechariah’s vision is of a city without walls. For us, that might be a Church without walls, much less concerned about our organisation and much more focused on discovering the life of God in the world and engaging there, right where God is.
Some people say science leaves them cold; others feel the same way about religion; and yet more find little of interest in either. I want to point you to faith of this sort: a living and developing relation with God, with the other inhabitants of this planet, and with the Earth itself. What we really believe and are committed to forms the foundation for the manner of our living. If there is the real possibility of relation with God – and why should there not be in such a vast and unknown universe? – this should enlarge hearts and minds, both ours and others’.
That may be part of what Jesus called ‘Life in all its abundance’. It is offered to us freely to receive, to explore and enjoy; and it all centres around a God active and at work in this world. See by faith, and live, and grow.