Many years ago now I listened to the renowned pastor, Juan Carlos Ortiz, who’s church had experienced spiritual awakening in Buenos Aires in 1969, speaking of God as a father who, coming home from work one day, played with his children at the level of their maturity – fun games with his youngest child and tennis with a teenage son. This was, I suspect, the first time I had heard of Abba (1) represented as a father acting towards his children at different levels of their maturity, theological understanding or lack thereof.
In recent weeks I have been researching spiritual awakening here on my home Island and in Eastern Canada, particularly Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. During these movements it becomes very clear that God worked through the uneducated, university graduates, those with letters after their name and those who discounted such, as well as housewives, farmers and simple folk – even those we would regard today as having severe learning difficulties. He also worked through Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics and some of no denominational attachments whatsoever.
Sometimes we can be guilty of boxing God in to out own restrictive theologies – and even of telling God who he can and cannot work with and through. Surely this is gross arrogance on our part. Many also believe that God will only work in spiritual renewal through those who are theologically orthodox and correct. The proof of this is seen in the priority we place on theological correctness and adherence to denominational standards. At one level I can sympathise with this, as we are all encouraged to seek the truth – but if we place theological correctness above and in exclusion to matters of the heart, a passion for God and the desire for the good and blessing of others, we have gone too far (IMHO).
In recent days I personally have been rebuked because of my own narrow mindedness (and I did not consider myself as such of course). This related primarily to those I had considered ‘narrow’ or ‘insular’ in their own outlook. However, I did not recognise the fact that most had been brought up within such an atmosphere, and have, for reasons it is not my place to judge, never moved on from their restrictive upbringing and positions of their childhood denominations or church grouping.
On the other hand I have been struck by the fact that the Apostle Paul himself, previously from a very insular and restrictive religious tradition, went on to recognise the Epicurean philosophers of Athens (who believed that pleasure was the main thing in life) and and Stoic philosophers of the same city (who believed virtue to be the main aim), as children of the Creator God (Acts 17:28). However, that is not to say he joined either group – his revelation of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Creator God was, for them, a step too far.
And, to a greater or lesser extent this issue persists today within the wider fold of Christendom in respect of other world religions. It is also the nub of the issue for many within the church today. While we should accept one another in love, which is our duty and delight, those who have received a deeper revelation of some particular aspect or another simply cannot always join fully with those who may hold to what they may consider as a lesser one. This does not mean that God is any the less involved with such or that we are not to love, respect and accept one another as our Abba does (Matthew 5:44-46).
In this regard often my tradition has much to learn from others. In 1832 Prince Edward Island, Canada for instance, it was noted, after he had given generous hospitality to Baptist travellers, that the man concerned was – ‘Bishop MacEachern, a kindly and broad-minded Roman Catholic prelate, known among all classes and creeds for his Christian courtesy and unstinted hospitality.’ In fact when, in these early years, there were no Protestant clergy in some remote parts of PEI, MacEachern graciously ‘sprinkled or christened’ the infants of Protestant parents. (2)
The issue so often, it seems to me, is that a purely rationalistic faith based on objective knowledge and centred in the intellect alone along with the need for certainty over everything else (and there is a lot of that about), fails at so many levels – especially when it comes to inclusivity. As something of an aside here, we also see that when such reason is questioned by doubt, faith anchored in reason alone can fail and shipwreck result. The opposite, faith based exclusively in the emotions, can also be problematic – but, to be honest, one much less common in my culture. In truth this matter, ‘excessive heart or excessive head’, as one has described it, has plagued Christianity for most of its existence.
However, where we find a balance between the head and the heart, a healthy emotion, openness to the Spirit, heartfelt compassion and a true embodiment of the Divine image, which is our calling as Christians, our hearts will be open to all Abba’s Children. We will meet them where they are – not where we might think they ought be – and that includes the equivalent, in our generation, of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of Paul’s day.
- ‘Abba’ is the defining term for father in the Aramaic language, spoken by Jesus and Paul as an intimate term to characterise their personal relationships with God. It is also a term of reverence for bishops and patriarchs within the Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian churches.
- Angus Bernard MacEachern was born in Kinlochmoidart, Lochaber, Scotland. He was the son of Hugh Bàn MacEachern and Mary MacDonald. He became a protégé of Bishop Hugh MacDonald, vicar apostolic of the Highland District for the underground Catholic Church in Scotland, and, when his family emigrated to Prince Edward Island in 1772, 13-year-old Angus stayed behind to study for the Roman Catholic priesthood at the clandestine minor seminary at Buorblach near Morar. MacEachern arrived on Prince Edward Island in 1790 as a young missionary, joining his emigrant family. Fr. MacEachern, who would later be recognised as firmly placing Catholic roots in the colony as well as throughout the Maritimes, travelled endlessly in the area as a priest. He was fluent in English, French, and Gaelic, therefore permitting him to minister to a variety of different cultures in the region. (Information from Wikipedia)