Letters, Papers and Poems of John Clement Pfitzner

John Clement Pfitzner 1942 – 2013

For

Diana, Martin, David and Emily

Preface

John Pfitzner died unexpectedly on 29th January, 2013 at the age of 70 years. He had an unafraid and questioning mind which he exercised in the pursuit of truth, unbound by orthodoxy.  Gentle but always uncompromising, he left a legacy of clear thinking. He refused to be bogged down with feet of clay in the doctrines and dogmas of his upbringing but soared like an eagle into clear blue skies and conveyed the visions he saw to all those around him who were prepared to listen. His departure leaves a vacuum in the lives of his loved ones and also in the many other lives that were influenced by him and were able to share his vision.

I had had loose contact with John for many years – spasmodically during his 15 years at Hermannsburg but then more regularly during his ministry at North Adelaide Immanuel Church, where I was one of his parishioners. Then again we had contact during his time at Open Book when I consulted him on a publication. However, in 2006 our friendship really blossomed when his closest friend, Frank Altmann, suggested the three of us should have regular dinners together and share our journeys. In that year John began as editor at Era Publications and also self-published reminiscences of his father.

These collected documents follow the evolution of John’s spirituality as it changed direction from fundamentalism to enlightenment and free thinking. In the process he mentored similar changes in his close friends.

As well as our dinners we shared correspondence and these emails encapsulate John’s growing vibrant theological evolution which, I believe, will be of interest to many, and are the reason for them being here reproduced with the approval of his wife, Diana. All the material included here has been sent to me personally by John with the exception of his book reviews which he published regularly in the PC Network SA. Extracts from these have been included as appropriate and with the kind permission of PC Network SA. In addition, there are several extraneous documents included for clarification of their mention in John’s letters.

I must acknowledge with thanks the input of Dr Frank Altmann into this project. Frank was John Pfitzner’s closest friend and confidante and was also my closest friend and was the third member of our regular dinners. Alas, he also departed from us in 2017, and I must recognize his input into our gatherings and his inspiration which was an added impetus leading to this publication.

John Pfitzner is the central figure in this publication which is dedicated to his family. John’s life, to my mind, was an unfinished symphony and I found myself placed in a unique situation and with the responsibility to bring his refreshing ideas to the attention of those in whom these chords may happily strike a resonance. Indeed, everyone, whatever their persuasions, is invited to ponder the questions he raises. No doubt there will be many who prefer to retain their tried and tested faith, but even these readers would do well to acquaint themselves with the direction in which spirituality, and particularly Western Christian thought, is heading. Especially so does this apply to the lecture theatres of our religious institutions.

For convenience I have arranged these writings into years, 2006 to 2013 rather than chapters.

Ross Johnson,    May, 2013

YEAR 2006

It was towards the end of 2006 that the close connection between John, Frank Altmann and myself began to consolidate. Just before this occurred John had been asked to address Verdun Uniting Church on his journey.

Finding a faith for today

Talk at Verdun Uniting Church

Sunday 10 September 2006

Thanks for the invitation to speak at your service this morning.

I know this area quite well, having lived at Hahndorf for part of my childhood. I was born at Loxton, but when I was seven years old our family moved to Hahndorf, where my father was the pastor of St Paul’s Lutheran church. So I finished my primary schooling at St Michael’s School in Hahndorf and then did my first three years of secondary schooling at Oakbank Area School. My younger brother and I used to ride our bikes out this way sometimes, even climbing to the top of the Germantown Hill on occasions so that we could speed down.

I want to share with you today my own story about how, in recent years, I have moved away from what I now regard as a narrow, conservative form of Christian faith to a more open and exploratory form. I don’t regard my story as being particularly striking, and it’s certainly not unique – I know of quite a few others who have had a similar kind of faith journey. But I hope my story will be of interest to you and perhaps also helpful and encouraging.

I’m calling my talk ‘Finding a faith for today’. I use the word ‘finding’ to refer to my own experience of feeling that I have found such a faith but also to convey, with the present participle, that I see the search as a continuing one, one that involves continuing exploration and discovery. This is a different idea from the one I grew up with and was taught, where the teaching of the faith was more a matter of indoctrination, and once you had gone through a course of instruction (usually confirmation), you were regarded as someone who knew the faith, and now all you had to do was keep holding to what you had been taught. You weren’t encouraged to think or explore, or, if you did, only within very restricted boundaries.

I use the word ‘today’ to refer to a faith that fits with our present understanding of the world and our place within it, in contrast to the biblical world of more than two thousand years ago. I also use the word to refer to a faith that relates more to our present life then to some kind of afterlife. In both these respects the faith I have now is different from the faith I grew up with and was taught.

One of the books I read last year that helped me find a faith for today was a book called The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. It was written by two theologians, Marcus J Borg and N T Wright, who took turns presenting their contrasting ideas about various aspects of Jesus’ life and work. In the last chapter of the book, written by Borg, he explained that he wrote primarily for people for whom an older understanding of Christianity was no longer compelling, and he used five adjectives to summarise this older paradigm: it is literalistic, doctrinal, moralistic, exclusivistic, and afterlife orientated.

When I read this, I recognized that this described very accurately and concisely the kind of Christian faith I had grown up with. We tended to take the Bible literally, even though we prided ourselves on recognising that some parts (such as the creation accounts) were not to be understood in that way. There was such a strong stress on giving adherence to particular doctrines or teachings of the church. The question that is still asked of people being confirmed in my church or people being admitted to membership of the church, is: ‘Do you intend to remain faithful to the teaching of the church, as you have learnt it from the catechism?’ This form of the faith was moralistic in that there was a lot of talk about sin and a strong focus on personal morality. It was important not to offend God by not transgressing against God’s commandments. The emphasis was more on keeping oneself pure by not doing the wrong thing rather than on doing the right thing for people in need. This form of the faith was certainly exclusive.  The demarcation lines were clear between believers and unbelievers, the saved and the unsaved, those who were in and those who were out. In my church, new members are usually still formally accepted into membership and invited to participate in holy communion. The clear message is that others are not accepted and are not welcome to participate. And in this form of the faith salvation was understood completely in terms of an afterlife. The whole point of being a Christian was to ensure that you would go to heaven, and this was the main focus of your faith.

For most of my life I basically kept to this understanding of the faith, and I have been a faithful and loyal member and pastor of my church. However, looking back on my life from where I am now, I can see that all along there were things that made it difficult for me to fully commit to this kind of Christianity and that it was probably only a matter of time before some kind of radical change would take place.

Some years ago I became interested in the Myers-Briggs Personality Profiles. My own profile indicated that I am an intuitive person for whom imagination is important and who is disinclined to take a literalistic approach to anything. I am the kind of person for whom there is always going to be more questions than answers. This kind of personality isn’t suited to a kind of religion based on indoctrination and unquestioning acceptance of what is taught.

More recently I did another reputable psychological test designed to identify one’s signature strengths, and my dominant strengths turned out to be a curiosity about the world and an interest in learning. Again, these are characteristics that don’t sit well in relation to the kind of Christianity I was brought up with.

For a long time I’ve had a strong interest in human rights (I’ve been an active member of Amnesty International for twenty years) and in various cultural pursuits: reading, films, music, art and so on. The kind of Christianity I grew up with didn’t seem to have any kind of relationship with these kinds of things. They weren’t explicitly criticized or discouraged, but they were simply ignored as secular things, separate from the spiritual matters that the church was concerned about. These were the things I was passionate about, things that were important to me and that nurtured me, but I didn’t see them as having any connection with my faith. This made me feel that in many respects I wasn’t as Christian as I should be, that I was too secular in my outlook. There was a divide between my faith and other important aspects of my life. At the time, I tended to see this as a failing in me, but I now see it rather as a failing in the kind of faith I was brought up with.

Then particular issues arose in my church that put me more at odds with the church’s teaching and with the beliefs and attitudes of many fellow Christians. Two key examples were the issue of whether women should be allowed to be ordained for ministry in the church and whether or not homosexuality is against God’s will. At that time I began reading books by Bishop John Shelby Spong, and I went to hear him speak when he was here in Adelaide, and I found myself in strong agreement with his critique of large parts of the Christian church and particularly what he said about the evils of sexism and homophobia.[1]

As I started to question many of the beliefs and attitudes that belonged to the kind of Christianity I had grown up with and had been taught, I started to feel, some years ago, that I was losing my faith. I started to wonder if I could really call myself a Christian any more. I realise now that I had this feeling because the faith I’d grown up with was mainly about giving assent to certain doctrines. I felt I was losing my faith because I was coming to admit to myself that in many cases I no longer believed these teachings or was no longer sure they were true.

I remember discussing this on several occasions with my closest friend[2], a person who had also grown up in a conservative Lutheran tradition. I found myself saying to him that I felt the Christian story was always going to be important to me but that I now felt that faith was always going to be a struggle for me. One of the images I had in my mind at that time was that I was sliding towards the edge of faith and was in danger of falling off. Another image I had was just hanging on to the faith by the skin of my teeth.

This was a difficult time. I was losing the faith from yesterday and felt I was being left with nothing. I feel I could easily have ended up drifting away from the church completely, like many other people today. But then I was fortunate enough to start discovering a faith for today.

I was helped by several Christian writers, whose books I happened to come across in various ways. I’ve already mentioned Spong. The first book of his that I read was Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Then last year I read a book that had a profound effect on me: A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian D McLaren. This was followed by several books by Marcus J Borg, whom I’ve already mentioned: The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith; Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time; Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and the book I referred to earlier: The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, written jointly with N T Wright. And one more writer was Richard Holloway, who has written many books. The one I read was Doubts and Loves: What Is Left of Christianity.

I think it’s not too much to say that these writers and their books have changed my life. All of them recognize that the older form of Christianity no longer works for many people today, and they all present and commend a different kind of Christian faith, one that fits with the understanding of the world that we have today. Further than that, they suggest that the form of evangelicalism most of us grew up with is actually a narrow and distorted form of Christian faith and that there are quite different and far richer ways of understanding the faith that are truer to the biblical record and have stronger historical precedents.

I remember in particular how astonished I was while I was reading McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. I couldn’t believe that here was someone who was articulating that kinds of ideas and attitudes I had been groping towards, but instead of criticizing them, he was saying that this is where we need to be as Christians in today’s world. It gradually dawned on me that I wasn’t actually in danger of sliding off the edge of the faith as I thought. Instead, I was firmly grounded at the centre of the faith. It was my old faith, my faith of yesterday, that was actually on the edge, that was actually a kind of aberration.

So, this was how I found a faith for today. If I were to try to briefly describe some of the key aspects of this faith, I could do it by referring to Marcus Borg’s five characteristics of the older form of Christianity. The older form, Borg said, was literalistic. I no longer understand the Bible literally. I recognize that the biblical writers used narratives, and sometimes narratives about miraculous events, to convey the truths they had come to know. Whether or not something actually happened is not as important to me as what the story means. I take more seriously now the human origins of the Bible, and I understand much of what it says in a more metaphorical way. The older form was doctrinal. Doctrine is no longer as important to me as it once was. What is more important to me now is the relational aspect of Christian faith. Being a Christian is not so much a matter of giving assent to certain teachings but of being open to God, open to the divine, and being an intentional follower of Jesus. The older form was moralistic. Keeping a clean slate in God’s eyes is not as important to me now as being a person who reflects God’s compassion for those in need and shares God’s passion for justice in the world. The older form was exclusive. I’m no longer interested in trying to work out who’s in and who’s out, who’s acceptable and who’s not. Instead, I realize now that the gospel is inclusive of everyone, and I’m more concerned to try to live in a way that expresses that. The older form was afterlife oriented. I no longer see the primary focus of Christianity being about getting to heaven. Instead, I see this world and this present life as the place where God’s purposes for me and everyone else in the world are primarily being worked out.

At times the journey I’ve been on has been painful, but it has also been liberating. I used to worry that having doubts meant I was losing my faith, but I now recognize that doubt and uncertainty are normal in a healthy faith and can be a means to further growth. I often used to feel awkward and embarrassed about being a Christian, because there was so much about the faith as I knew it that seemed anti-intellectual, simplistic, narrow-minded and harsh, but now, with a more open and inclusive attitude, I feel good about calling myself a Christian and a follower of Jesus. I used to feel that my faith was disconnected from other things in my life that were important to me, but I now feel a much greater sense of integration between my faith and other aspects of my life, especially my interest in social justice issues and my cultural pursuits. I was brought up to think that one should just accept what one was taught, but I now recognize that searching, exploration and discovery are good aspects of an alive Christian spirituality. Instead of feeling that I am in danger of falling away from the faith, I now feel that my faith is firmly based and is growing.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to tell my story. It’s been of benefit to me to reflect on where I’ve come from and where I am today. I hope it’s been of interest to you.

John Pfitzner September, 2006

November, 2006

The year 2006 had been a year of life changing experiences in many ways for John. In his Christmas letter he mentioned briefly some of these experiences:

My first year at Era Publications as editor has been interesting and enjoyable.

I self-published my father’s reminiscences.

I wrote several articles and talks, the most significant being an article on human rights for Lutheran Theological Journal and an article on climate change for The Lutheran.

I was acting president of the SA Society of Editors for several months.

We’ve been encouraged and stimulated by contemporary writers who explore new ways of understanding and expressing Christian faith.

We’ve had stimulating new experiences of church and made new friends among people whose outlook is similar to ours.

In relation to our Book of the Year Awards, Diana and I are of one mind this year that nothing came close to Lionel Shriver’s, We Need to Talk About Kevin (winner of the Orange Prize) – authentic, intelligent, complex, compelling, funny, moving, heartbreakingly sad and somehow life-affirming.’

‘Best Film for the Year – Sophie Scholl: The Last Days.

December 6, 2006 

Ross

Great to hear from you. I was interested to hear about your trip to Tibet, Mount Everest and Bhutan and to see the terrific photos.

The church Diana and I have been going to (and will probably attend regularly in the new year) is Christ Church Uniting Church (I think in Wayville). It’s on King William Road, not far south from Greenhill road. I’m pleased you felt free to pass on a copy of my talk to Catherine. 

Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography is, I think, a very interesting book. John Dominic Crossan is a close friend of Marcus Borg’s (I’ve just read a book which they co-authored – ‘The Last Week’, a study of Mark’s account of the passion story.) Crossan grew up in a conservative Catholic family in Ireland, became a monk and a priest and, following his superiors’ orders, did a lot of academic study, which he was good at. Working in the USA, he eventually left the monastery and the priesthood and got married. Today he’s widely regarded as the top Jesus scholar in the world. He became well known after publishing a big book (an academic work that I’m reading at present) called The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. He was one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who study Jesus and who regularly share their ideas on which words of Jesus they consider to be authentic (actual words that he would have spoken in contrast to words put into his mouth). Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography is a shorter, simpler, more popular version of his earlier more academic work. I wouldn’t have described is as a difficult book, but Diana says she’s finding it a bit solid. Crossan uses a lot of information about the culture and history at the time of Jesus to shed light on the kind of person he was likely to have been and how we should understand what he said and did. I don’t see the study of Jesus as a historical person as dismissing or destroying as to how his followers viewed him or what the church has said about him, but I find it helpful to cut through the doctrinal overlays of many centuries to get a clearer view of what he was really on about. Asked by a reporter to sum up Jesus in a few seconds, Crossan is famous for saying, ‘Jesus was a peasant with an attitude’. At least, that’s how he was reported. What he actually said was a bit fuller.  ‘As a historian, I reconstruct the historical Jesus as a peasant with an attitude. As a Christian, I believe his attitude to be the attitude to be the attitude of God.’ I like that.

I recently read Crossan’s autobiography, a very engaging book called A Long Way from Tipperary: What a Former Irish Monk Discovered in His Search for the Truth. He finishes the book with this story. He was invited by Marianne and Marcus Borg (Borg’s wife is canon of an Episcopal cathedral) to give a lecture and take part in a weekend seminar. After the opening on the Friday night, he was signing books. As he finished signing one book, its owner said, ‘My pastor told me not to come here tonight because you are even to the left of Borg’. Crossan writes: ‘Give your pastor my best regards,’ I replied, ‘and tell him that is the good news. The bad news is that both Borg and Crossan are to the right of Jesus. And worse still, if he will recall Psalm 110 Jesus is to the right of God.’

Thanks for the news about John Sims. I didn’t know about his sickness.

Best Wishes

John

YEAR 2007 

January 19, 2007                 

Frank

The attached document is the first edition of a newsletter of the Progressive Christianity Network SA (PCNet), which I co-edited and in which I have a couple of articles. At a planning workshop of the network committee at the end of last year I volunteered to help edit the newsletter, which is a new idea for the group, I felt that a newsletter could provide good help, support and encouragement for people going through the process, as you and I did, of questioning the teachings we grew up with and trying to find a faith more relevant to the contemporary world and our own experience.

Sue (the other editor) and I are pretty pleased with how our first edition has turned out, and we’ve been receiving appreciative feedback. We intend to produce the newsletter every two months.

Originally, we asked someone else to write on the topic ‘Is Jesus God?’, but late in the piece she wasn’t able to do it. It was getting too late to ask someone else, so I thought I’d have a go. I’m quite happy with what I came up with. It’s made me wonder if perhaps I have a gift for presenting ideas in a clear and concise way.

For the workshop I was asked to prepare a few topics for possible informal discussion groups. The bloke who suggested I do this had envisaged maybe five or six topics, but I ended up producing a list of fifty questions that thinking Christians might be interested in. ‘Is Jesus God?’ was one of the questions on the list. In future editions of the newsletter we will probably tackle some of the other questions. The aim won’t be to give definitive answers or teaching but to suggest ways in which the question can be understood from a progressive Christianity viewpoint.

I sometimes can hardly believe where my recent journey has taken me. It wasn’t long ago that I surreptitiously and guiltily began reading Spong, and now I’m part of a group that will be sponsoring and promoting another visit by Spong in August (you’ll see the dates in the newsletter). He’ll be out here promoting a new book, Jesus for the Non- Religious.

It feels a bit scary having my name on the newsletter. The other editor said to me at one stage, ‘You realize this is a bit like coming out’. I’ve wondered what the LCA authorities would say if the newsletter got into their hands and they saw my name on it. But I don’t worry about this kind of thing any more.

Would you like to have your name on the email list to receive future copies of the newsletter? The newsletter tells you how to do this.

I thought John Read[3] and Ross Johnson might be interested in also seeing the newsletter and possibly getting on the email list. Can you send me their email addresses.  Otherwise, if you like, you can forward the newsletter to them. Also feel free to send the newsletter to anyone else you think might be interested.

You might be interested to come to Norm Habel’s talk at the PCNet’s Friday Forum on 16 February. The main article on the first page of the newsletter has information about it.

Another thought I’ve had is that you might be interested in writing a review of Spong’s The Sins of Scripture for the newsletter. It would need to be short – a brief description of the contents and what you appreciated about it.

Diana’s had a couple of meetings with Stella to talk French.

Cheers for now,

John                             

January 2007

Extract from PC Network SA Vol I Issue I January 2007

Living the questions ‘Is Jesus God?’   John Pfitzner

Most Christian churches teach that Jesus is ‘true man and true God’. For many this belief is a fundamental test of orthodoxy. It is also a necessary part of their understanding of the death of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin.

However, many Christians don’t find this teaching convincing any more. They find it more honest and helpful to see Jesus as a human being like all other human beings, without supernatural qualities or powers, but someone who was clearly extraordinary. They are likely to agree with Albert Nolan, a South African Jesus scholar, who says, ‘Jesus is a much underrated man. To deprive him of his humanity is to deprive him of his greatness’ (quoted by Borg in The Heart of Christianity, p 83).

Modern scholarship has established that Jesus didn’t claim to be and almost certainly didn’t think of himself as being divine. The gospel accounts that depict Jesus as having supernatural knowledge and power are now understood as reflecting the post Easter faith of the early Christian communities about the significance of Jesus for their life.

After Jesus’ death his followers experienced him as a continuing living Spirit-presence in their lives. They saw him, both before and after Easter, as revealing and embodying in a decisive way what God is like. This left them to develop ways of speaking about Jesus as someone whose whole life was ‘of God’ and who therefore could be seen as ‘divine’.

Some find Marcus Borg’s distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus helpful. Borg says:

Was the pre-Easter Jesus divine? No. But he was, according to those who followed him, one who knew the Spirit of God and one in whom they experienced the presence of the Spirit. Is the post-Easter Jesus divine? Yes – the post-Easter Jesus of Christian doctrine is divine. (The God We Never Knew pp. 91-2)

In relation to this question, Michael Morwood, the Australian Catholic scholar, says:

Jesus will still be for us who are Christian the one who uniquely reveals what God is like. We will continue to believe and to proclaim that this human person incarnated God as best a human person could do so, but we will not give him a ‘divine nature’ which the rest of us do not possess … We will, however, joyfully call him ‘divine’ and our rejoicing will reflect our belief that the very same Spirit of divine Love that moved in him moves in all of us. (Is Jesus God?, p. 85)

… and in the same issue John Pfitzner wrote a book review:

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography

John Dominic Crossanis the person who was famously reported as describing Jesus as ‘a peasant with an attitude’. According to his autobiography (A Long Way from Tipperary), his actual words were: ‘As a historian, I reconstruct the historical Jesus as a peasant with an attitude. As a Christian, I believe his attitude to be the attitude of God’ (p176).

Marcus J Borg has described Crossan as ‘arguably the premier Jesus scholar in the world today’ (The God We Never Knew, p.105). Crossan came to public notice following the publication in 1991 of his The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. This book, written for an academic readership, received attention in the secular media and for six months was among the top ten religious bestsellers in Publishers Weekly, reaching the number one position in June 1992. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994) is a condensed

version of The Historical Jesus and is written for a non-academic general readership.

A particular danger in reconstructing the life of Jesus is to portray him in terms of one’s own preconceptions. In this regard, Crossan’s methodology is of interest. It involves the use of three ‘vectors’, all of which must intersect at the same point for any of them to be correct: cross-cultural anthropology, Greco-Roman and especially Jewish history, and literary and textual considerations.

Crossan uses cross-cultural studies to create a detailed picture of Mediterranean society at the time of Jesus, especially in relation to the lower classes, which don’t usually feature in historical accounts. This enables him to postulate what Jesus could and could not have been. He says, for example, that ‘if we are tempted to describe Jesus as a literate middle-class carpenter, cross-cultural anthropology reminds us that there was no middle class in ancient societies and that peasants are usually illiterate; so how could Jesus become what never existed at his time?’ (p xii).

Crossan’s handling of literary and textual issues is based on the understanding that the four gospels of the New Testament are neither histories nor biographies but deliberate theological interpretations of Jesus. Given the many layers of development and interpretation in the ancient texts, Crossan follows two basic strategies: he focuses on the earliest stratum of the tradition (on materials he dates to the period between 30 and 60 CE), and he never builds on anything that has only a single independent attestation.

Crossan’s summary of Jesus’ life at the end of the book is that ‘the historical Jesus was a peasant Jewish Cynic’ (you need to read the book to find out about the Cynics, the hippies of the Greco-Roman world). He worked among the houses and hamlets of Lower Galilee.

His strategy … was the combination of free healing and common eating, a religious and economic egalitarianism that negated alike and at once the hierarchical and patronal      normalcies of Jewish religion and Roman power. Miracle and parable, healing and eating were calculated contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another.

The book is full of fascinating insights. It takes readers behind the accounts in the canonical gospels and presents a vivid and persuasive portrait of Jesus as a historical person, in many respects different from how he has traditionally been understood.

Crossan concludes with a brief observation about the importance and value of trying to reconstruct and understand what the original Jesus movement was about.

March 11, 2007

The following is an address delivered to Christ Church, Wayville by John on the occasion of John and Diana joining the congregation:

I’ve brought a book with me today that played a part in our coming here to Christ Church. It’s known to some of you. It’s The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg.

I read this book in October 2005, and it made a huge impression on me. One evening, when I was getting towards the end of the book, I came to the chapter where Borg talks about what he calls ‘practice’, the various practices that are helpful and important in following the Christian way and living the Christian life. And I said to Diana, ‘Listen to this’, and this is the paragraph I read out to her.

          Practices: Formation and Nourishment

Being part of a church: In my judgement, the single most important practice is to be part of a congregation that nourishes you even as it stretches you. Some of you are already involved in such a   church. But if you are not involved in any church or are part of one   that leaves you hungry and unsatisfied, find one that nurtures and deepens your Christian journey. Find one that makes your heart glad, so that you can wake up on Sunday morning filled with the anticipation of the psalmist: ‘I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord”.’  Choosing a church is not primarily about feeling good, of course, but church is meant to nourish us, not to make us angry or leave us bored. If your church gives you a headache, it may be time to change. (pp 193-4)

This paragraph really jumped out at us. It seemed as if Borg was talking directly to our situation. For quite a long time – maybe a couple of years – we had been thinking and talking about whether we should look for a new church family. (At that time we weren’t contemplating stepping outside our own church tradition.) But there wasn’t any obvious place we could think of for us to go to, so we hadn’t got around to doing anything about it. I also had always been a bit suspicious and critical of people who shopped around for a church that suited them. I had the attitude that one should go to the nearest congregation (in one’s denomination), stick with it through thick and thin and make the best of it. But what Borg had said made a big impact, and we started to think that we needed to begin seriously looking for a new church to go to.

It still took us a couple of months to act, but eventually, in January last year, we decided to do something radical. We said, ‘Let’s go and check out that congregation that Cynthia and Eric Spurr have got involved in and that they speak about so enthusiastically when we occasionally run into them’. So we plucked up courage one Sunday morning and came here.

I still have clear memories of that service. Sean was away, and the service was led by Keith Smith. It was the Sunday in Epiphany when we commemorate the baptism of Jesus, and the chairs were in a circle with the baptism font in the middle. Keith spoke about the meaning of baptism. As part of the service he also interviewed Ashley Byrne about his experience of having been baptized and what his baptism has meant to him. I was interested recently to find that Ashley also has a clear recollection of that service as the first one we attended here.

That service, and the general ethos of the congregation, made a positive impression on us. I remember that we kept talking about it for the rest of the day. We soon came back again, bringing Joyce with us this time. We then decided that we would come once a month, so that at least once every few weeks we could have our spirits lifted and feel we were receiving some good spiritual nourishment. And then, as the year progressed, we could see that we were being led more and more to make this congregation our spiritual home.

What we’ve found here at Christ Church is a congregation like the one Borg describes and encourages his readers to look for. We have found this congregation (to use his expression) ‘To be one that nourishes us even as it stretches us, and one that nurtures and deepens our Christian journey’. We have found it to be a congregation that makes our heart glad so that we can wake on Sunday morning filled with anticipation. That’s why we’ve kept coming here and why we’ve decided to make this congregation our home.

For me, the changes involved in our coming here haven’t always been easy. I recognize that there may also be some heartache involved for some of my relatives and some of my other friends, who may find it hard to understand and accept where my journey has brought me. But I have a strong sense of gratitude that we found our way here to Christ Church, and I feel strongly that at this time this is the right place for me to be.

Thanks for your welcome, not only the official welcome here today but also the welcome and acceptance we have experienced from the first time we came. I hope that as time goes by I can also make a helpful contribution to the life and work of this community.

Extract from the PC Network Newsletter, July, 2007

Book Review by John Pfitzner; Jesus for the Non-Religious, John Shelby Spong

This new book by Spong shows that he has lost none of the passion, fearlessness and scholarly rigour that have made his previous books so helpful to those who no longer find traditional church teachings convincing and are seeking a new kind of Christian faith that fits with their modern world view.

Spong’s focus here is on Jesus. His aim is to free the person of Jesus from a literal reading of the gospel accounts and from the smothering creeds and dogmas of the church and to present a picture of him that has meaning and relevance for us today.

He says:

I find myself unable to believe literally the supernatural thing said about Jesus in the Bible and reiterated in Christian history, yet I am still drawn deeply and expectantly into the         Jesus experience. If this tension is one that any of my readers have felt or engaged, then perhaps I can be an asset, or a companion with you on your own journey. (p 13)

In Part 1, ‘Separating the Human Jesus from the Myth’, Spong sets about dismantling the literal understanding of the gospel stories about Jesus. He sees this as a necessary clearing of the ground before a more accurate, realistic and relevant picture of Jesus can emerge. In turn he deals with Jesus’ birth, his parents, the twelve disciples, the miracle stories, his crucifixion and his resurrection and ascension. He shows how, in most cases, the stories do not reflect historical reality and are not meant to be taken literally. He keeps emphasising that what is important are not the stories themselves, which are expressed in the concepts and world view of the time, but the experience of Jesus they are meant to convey.

In Part 2, ‘The Original Images of Jesus’, Spong explores the concepts and images the first followers of Jesus developed to try to comprehend and give expression to their experience of him. He shows how, in doing this, they turned to their Jewish heritage – their scriptures and their liturgies. The gospel accounts that resulted from this activity are not literal accounts of what actually happened but are explanations of what Jesus’ followers believed they had experienced through him. Spong suggests that, just as those first followers interpreted their experience of Jesus in terms of their Jewish heritage and world view, we now need to interpret him in terms of our present situation and how we understand the world today.

In the last part of the book, ‘Jesus for the Non- Religious’, Spong develops a picture of Jesus that has greater meaning and relevance for us today and is more true to the biblical accounts than the way he is portrayed in the church’s creedal statements and dogmas. He presents Jesus as the breaker of boundaries: tribal boundaries, prejudice and stereotypes and religious boundaries. This Jesus calls us to step beyond our constricting security barriers and ‘to share with all people the life-giving power of love that always enhances human life’ (p 246).

In this connection Spong argues that we need to separate Jesus from the theistic understanding of God as a ‘person’ above and beyond our world, which is still the view of most Christians today. This understanding of God, he says, is not only no longer tenable in today’s world but is also the source of much prejudice, selfhatred and destructive religious anger directed towards others.

It is also in this section that Spong examines what it means to say that Jesus is divine. As the book’s sub-title indicates, (‘Recovering the Divine at the Heart of the Human’), he sees Jesus’ divinity not as something that is separate from his humanity but something that is revealed as part of his full humanity. Jesus was not divine because he was a human life into whom the external God had entered … he was and is divine because his humanity and his consciousness were so whole and so complete that the meaning of God could flow through him. (p 275)

In a final chapter Spong examines the meaning of the cross of Christ. He rejects the traditional teaching of Jesus as the sacrifice required by God to pay for the sins of humanity. Instead, he sees the cross as a ‘portrait of the love of God … a symbol of a God presence that calls us to live, to love and to be’ (pp 289–90). Jesus for the Non-Religious demonstrates why Spong is a bestselling author and an important writer for progressive Christians. On the basis of a non-literal reading of the Bible and a nondogmatic understanding of Christianity, the book presents a vivid and compelling picture of a fully human Jesus in whom God can be encountered and who still today can evoke in us a deep and steadfast commitment.

The September 17, 2007 issue of  The Lutheran published an editorial which struck a chord with many ‘church alumni’ Lutherans:

Linda Macqueen- Editor

Some of you have been asking if I am going to run a story about Spong. I’m not, because I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to him. At the same time I can hardly ignore the fact that arguably the most controversial clergyman in the world today has just completed a speaking tour of Australia.

American bishop John Shelby Spong, prolific speaker and writer, was invited to Australia by Anglican primate, Phillip Aspinall, and promptly banned from speaking in the Anglican churches of the Sydney diocese by its archbishop, Peter Jensen. Depending on where you sit on the Christian continuum, Spong can be either a hero or a heretic. Hence the controversy that follows him like his own shadow.

In a nutshell, Spong argues that miracles such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus never actually happened; they are myths designed to teach us deeper truths. If the church insists on interpreting them literally, it will lose both the seekers it wishes to reach and thinking Christians already in the fold. According to Spong, interpreting these stories as literal events misses the whole point. The point, he says, is what the stories mean: what do they mean in the life of the church and the individual Christian? If we don’t make this transition from literal to metaphorical, Christianity will die.

So, what are we to do with Spong? The easy thing to do is to dismiss him as irrelevant or transient. Trouble is, he’s neither. He is clearly relevant to a lot of people, and unlike Dawkins, whose primary audience is fellow atheists, Spong attracts far more Christian followers than non- Christian. And he wouldn’t be publishing his 20- somethingth book if the others hadn’t been gobbled up. He is most certainly not irrelevant.

Nor is he transient. He started getting noticed in 1991 when he published Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Sixteen years and about twelve books later, he’s showing no sign of flagging. Besides, there will be plenty of Spong protégés to replace him once he’s gone. That being the case, maybe we ought to pull our head out from beneath the covers and have a good hard look at all of this – that is, if we don’t want Spong to move in with us while we are sleeping. 

As a rule, though church leaders warn us to steer clear of him, and you can understand why. He is a hardened, sophisticated and fearless writer; he’s terribly persuasive. Our leaders want to protect us from spiritual injury that he might inflict on us. That’s understandable. They also might be wanting to protect themselves from all the hard questions that we’re likely to have after contact with Spong. That’s understandable too.

On the other hand, isn’t it Lutheran to check things out? What do we have to fear? If what we profess is the truth, then it will stand any test, including the Spong test. If what we profess isn’t the truth, or if bits of it need re-modeling, then we need to be bold enough to face that squarely. Either way, we have nothing to lose.

If Spong were discussing the rights or wrongs of wearing hats in church, we could easily dismiss him as a harmless eccentric. But he’s striking at the heart of Christianity.  Why is he apparently hitting the mark with many Christians of traditional upbringing? These sorts of people are not likely to abandon the teachings that have been their stronghold and go down the Spong path without good reasons. What is it about them, about Spong, about traditional Christian teaching that is behind it all?

Spong’s influence looks like it is here to stay, or at least be here for a good while. He is producing Spongettes by the thousands, and, unlike the followers of Dawkins, his disciples are well and truly among us. It might be wise to find out what is going on, and why.

I felt this editorial merited the following response:

September 21, 2007

Letter to the Editor

I read with interest and admiration your balanced editorial in The Lutheran of September 17 regarding Bishop Spong. It is clear that you are well informed with his writings and the response these have engendered among thinking Christians who search for the historical Jesus. Nothing new in this first century quest of course, pursued by such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Boenhoffer and even should I say, by the Jewish historian Josephus who was in charge of the revolt in Galilee in the First Roman – Jewish war in 67 C.E. and then later adopted by the Roman General Vespasian. Even Vatican II under John XXIII had a short- lived flirtation with the allowance of yesterday’s faith to interact with today’s learning. For the clergy to attempt to protect an intelligent laity of the 21st Century smacks of paternalism and will always be counterproductive. By coincidence your article on p. 23 of the same issue quotes comments attributed to Craig Joppich on this very topic.

If nothing else Spong’s writings provide an interesting synopsis of Christian scholarship and research of the last two hundred years extending across all faiths.  I would agree with your editorial that he cannot just be dismissed as being ‘irrelevant and transient.’ Nor do I believe he merits the label of heretic.

I believe the church has now reached a stage of sufficient maturity to run the story you reject and air such a debate. After all if we are confident that the church’s doctrines and beliefs are sound then there is nothing to fear by exposing it to new ideas, quite the contrary. We are not the poorly educated laity of 1850.

                                                                   Ross Johnson

John’s response was welcome and encouraging:

October 27, 2007

Ross,

I’m just writing to let you know how much I appreciated your letter about Spong in The Lutheran. I was pleased that someone in our church had the courage to present a positive assessment of Spong and was able to express it in such an articulate and well-reasoned way. There will be many people, in addition to me, who would have been hesitant about expressing their views publicly but will have been gratified and encouraged by your letter. I’ve become aware that there are more people in our church out there than we might sometimes think who are secret readers and admirers of people like Spong. They think deeply about matters of faith and are not content to hold on to an immature faith, accepted on someone’s authority that no longer fits with their view of reality. For these people someone like Spong is, in many cases, a real lifesaver in terms of them being able to retain a meaningful Christian faith and a connection to the church. That’s what Spong and other writers have been for me. The progressive Christianity path can be a lonely one, and that’s why support and encouragement from others on the journey is important. With your letter you will have provided that kind of support and encouragement for many people. You may also have prompted some people to confront their doubts and perhaps to think more deeply and positively about other ways of being Christian from the ways they were taught and grew up with.

I keep reading lots of interesting books with a progressive Christianity focus. I hope to review some of them in coming editions of the Progressive Christianity Network newsletter.

I hope we can catch up sometime. It’s always good to talk with you and share ideas and experiences.

Best wishes

John Pfitzner

November, 2007,  Christmas letter

… I’m leaving on December 9 for a month-long trip to India with a group of people from Queensland and SA. Part of our costs involves sponsoring a student at the Grihini school in Kodaikanal. We will be there for five days, taking part in the school’s 20th-anniversary celebrations. The school is for impoverished Dalit women, aged 13 to 23. In a one-year course the students become literate, learn skills to help them improve their lot in life and learn about their rights. Many Grahini graduates not only become self-sufficient but also become leaders in their village communities, campaigning for proper recognition, equality and better provision of services. [Dalit is a designation for a group of people traditionally regarded as untouchable.]

I turned 65 this year but am continuing in my three-day-a-week editing job at Era publications which I enjoy …  

YEAR 2008

February 1, 2008

Ross,

About a week ago I was told by Frank Altmann that you had resigned from the North Adelaide congregation. I presume this information is correct. My heart immediately went out to you, because I know what a significant and difficult thing this is to do. Diana and I did something similar when we severed our relationship with Pasadena Lutheran Church, without revealing that we intended to make Christ Church at Wayville our new spiritual home. I am also aware that this action can produce not only feelings of sadness and loneliness in yourself but can also produce heartache for those who are dear to you. But when I heard of what you had done, I also felt admiration for your courage to act on the basis of your convictions. As Diana commented to me, once you embark on the progressive journey there can be no turning back. The old formulas and the previous certainties just don’t work anymore. You then have to decide if you will continue in the old patterns, in spite of the sense of dislocation and lack of congruence, or whether you will break out in some new direction. The latter can be liberating and exciting, but there is usually also pain involved.

I would be interested to hear about where you are in your spiritual journey, if you wanted to talk about it.

Are you getting the Progressive Christianity Newsletter? The first edition for the year, which is about to come out contains my personal story, which you might find interesting.

I continue to find my journey exciting, especially as I continue to discover stimulating writers who are exploring new ways of being a Christian in today’s world. But there is often a sense of sadness about the lack of understanding of my situation from other members of my family and also a sense of loss in relation to the tight Lutheran family I used to belong to but now feel somewhat alienated from. I’m fortunate to have a few other people I can openly share my experiences with.

I’ve been surprised in recent times to discover quite a few other Lutherans, some in prominent positions in the church, who are on similar journeys of exploration to us – people who have had their minds opened and the faith they grew up with challenged by reading people such as Spong and Borg. It’s a shame that they have to surreptitiously seek out someone like me to talk to and don’t feel that their church allows them to undertake this journey openly. I sense that in some cases they appreciate finding a pastor of the church (even if I’m not working as a pastor) who understands and accepts where they are and with whom they can talk about their new understanding in an open and honest way.

I suspect that you may be going through a difficult time, but I hope you also have a sense of assurance about the path you have chosen and are also aware that you have plenty of supportive companions on your journey.

Best Wishes

John

In the PC Network Newsletter of February, 2008, a book review by John was included:

The Dishonest Church:  Author, Jack Good

The Title of this refreshing and illuminating book indicates the book’s essential message.  In most mainline churches, church leaders are not being honest with their people. Most of these leaders, through their theological education and training, have become acquainted with the results of modern scholarship and have acquired a faith very different from the faith they grew up with. However, for various reasons, ‘they refuse to share with those who occupy church pews anything other than the same tired dogma they themselves learned as children’ (p  7).

This dishonesty is damaging to individual church members, who are encouraged to regress to the lowest stages of cognitive development and faith development and are prevented from progressing to a more mature and intellectually satisfying faith. It is also damaging to the church, because people who no longer want to ‘be affronted by a worldview they and the majority of literate humanity have long since abandoned’ (p 55) keep being lost to the church. Many clergy who find the dishonesty stressful are also lost.

The author argues not only that the progressive approach is a valid form of Christianity but that this approach is necessary if mainline Christianity is to survive. He says:

I am convinced that an honest approach to faith,  far from being an attack on religious tradition, is the only way to preserve that tradition … At its best, faith invites its adherents to be seekers … Faith is at its weakest when it treats dogma as if it were an ancient fortress that must be defended at all costs. (p 7)

The author suggests that fear is the main reason for church leaders’ lack of honesty with their people. They are afraid people will react negatively if asked to embrace a mature faith. They also fear that exposing the human roots of our religious tradition and exposing the Bible to probing examination will cause the tradition and the Bible to lose their power. In addition, clergy are often distrustful of lay people and their ability to think deeply and responsibly about religious questions. There may also be an unconscious desire, in some cases, to retain power and authority over the laity.

Sometimes leaders of mainline churches look enviously at charismatic and fundamentalistic churches that appear to be growing and feel that the secret to retaining members or to grow the church is to become more conservative. Jack Good challenges this thinking. He maintains that the people who are leaving mainline churches are not usually going to conservative churches. The conservative churches attract people who are looking for clear-cut answers to everything (Good calls them ‘chaos-intolerant’ people). The people who are leaving the mainline churches are usually thinking people who are not content with simplistic answers and are ready to explore deeper issues in a way that fits their understanding of how the world works (‘chaos tolerant people’). Unfortunately, for many of these people, ‘the church has lost the ability to think’ (quote from John Cobb, p 57).

The author makes use of his own experience as a pastor with more than forty years’ experience to show how it is possible to introduce people to new ways of thinking without having to wage a campaign against outworn beliefs. Being honest about the human context of scripture and creeds may be painful for people in the short term, but it encourages personal growth and is freeing in the long term.

In a chapter about the present-day ferment in theology as ‘creative thinkers pour their best efforts into the search for an understanding of God that is mature and has roots in the tradition’, the author laments that ‘this ferment is either withheld from the congregation or is described as a threat to be avoided’. He continues, ‘What a marvellous opportunity is being missed! Congregations could be invited into the most exciting search occurring in religious circles’ (p 180).

In the final chapter, entitled ‘Signs of Hope’, the author singles out for particular commendation the Westar Institute (incorporating the Jesus

Seminar), the Centre for Progressive Christianity, and an organisation called Process and Faith, which promotes a movement called process theology.

The author concludes that many pastors ‘are fearful of disturbing a single chaos-intolerant member of their shrinking congregations’ and ‘tend to become walking repositories of a dysfunctional faith, believing one way in the secret places of their hearts while openly reinforcing their congregations in a quite different way of believing’. But he notes with hope:

Across the Christian map courageous people, both lay and professional, are insisting that the church stop playing safe and begin to take whatever risks are involved in playing honest. (pp 241–2)

April, 2008

It was in the month of April, 2008, that John composed a poem about his good friend and fellow editor, David Schubert, terminally ill with cancer of the pancreas. David was also a good friend of the author, having taught his children mathematics at Concordia and later acted as editor for his first book. It was David who suggested the title, Sentenced to Cross the Raging Sea, a line from a poem composed by a convict and included in the text.

John wrote this tribute for David, but the words could equally well be for John, also a skilled editor.

Editor

He’s the go-between

Like an impartial negotiator,

a skilled interpreter,

he uses his diplomatic skills

and knowledge of language

to aid communication.

He polishes words, when they are opaque,

making them clear and transparent.

He repairs damaged text with invisible mending,

dresses purple prose in dignified black.

He jettisons jargon and clears away clichés.

He tidies up disheveled grammar,

straightens out twisted syntax,

brings disorderly word order into line.

He teaches sentences to enunciate clearly.

He helps documents

get their facts right,

quote accurately,

present their arguments cogently,

tell a good story.

He rounds up unruly comas,

calms overly excited exclamation marks,

makes unnecessary capitals capitulate.

He insists that punctuation be punctilious.

Seeing the author receive applause,

he feels rewarded.

John Pfitzner April, 2008

In the July, 2008 issue of PCN John reviewed several publications of the Jesus Seminar

The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (1997), Robert W Funk and Roy W Hoover.

The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? (1998) Robert W Funk.

These two books present the results of the first two major projects in the Jesus Seminar’s new quest for the historical Jesus.

Through rigorous assessment and comparison of the original texts, the scholars associated with the Seminar have tried to reach a consensus about which of the words and deeds attributed to Jesus are likely to go back to Jesus himself and which are more likely to reflect the faith of the early Christians. The books present not only the findings of the scholars but also the methodology and rationale behind their decisions. The books also contain lively new translations of the gospel accounts designed to reflect for our own time the kind of impact the original material would have had on its hearers.

The books outline a portrait of Jesus that is fresh and stimulating and in many respects different from the Jesus that most of us grew up with on the basis of a literal reading of the New Testament gospels.

Jesus Reconsidered: Scholarship in the Public Eye, Jesus Seminar   Guides,  Vol 1 (2007), ed. Burnard Brandon Scott.    

Listening to the Parables of Jesus, Jesus Seminar Guides, Vol 2 (2007), ed.  Edward F Beutner.

Finding the Historical Jesus: Rules of Evidence. Jesus Seminar Guides, Vol 3 (2008), ed. Bernard Brandon Scott.

From its beginning in 1985, the Jesus Seminar has been committed to carrying out its work in the public arena, being open about its methods and making the results of its studies available also to non-academics. These three books, the first in a continuing series of study guides, contribute to this aim. They are short (not much more than a hundred pages) and consist of essays by various writers.  There are also questions for discussion.

The first in the series explains the origin of the Jesus Seminar, it aims and the ways in which it has gone about its work. The second looks at the findings of the Seminar in relation to Jesus’ parables, which are seen as providing the best insight into the kind of person Jesus was and what his ministry involved. The third looks in greater detail at the methodology the Seminar developed and adopted in relation to its work.

In language accessible to the general reader, the books present a fascinating insight into how this particular group of scholars have carried out their work. They also show how the Jesus Seminar operates on the basis of different assumptions and produces different outcomes from those of more conservative scholars.

The Once and Future Jesus, (2000), The Jesus Seminar

The Once and Future Faith (2001), The Jesus Seminar

The Future of Christian Tradition (2007), The Jesus Seminar, ed. Robert J. Miller

In recent years the Jesus Seminar has sponsored and arranged several conferences to consider the future of the Christian faith in the light of modern biblical scholarship and changing world views. These three books contain the papers presented at these conferences. Each volume has contributions from some of today’s most prominent progressive Christian thinkers, including Robert Funk, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Lloyd Geering, Walker Wink, Karen Armstrong, Brandon Scott, Don Cupitt and Richard Holloway. The Once and Future Jesus has nine articles, The Once and Future Faith has ten and The Future of the Christian Tradition has 18.

Common to the contributions in these books is the understanding that the traditional authority structures of the church have largely collapsed together with much of the doctrinal framework that previously supported the church’s life and message. The writers tend to agree that a new reformation of the church is required if Christianity is to remain a meaningful spiritual force in today’s world, and they make insightful and stimulating suggestions about the possible nature and direction of such a reformation.

Reviewer: John Pfitzner

In the September issue of PC Network John wrote an article:

Does the Doctrine of Original Sin have any Relevance for Progressive Christians?

For many progressive Christians the doctrine of original sin is a major reason for rejecting traditional conservative Christianity. For them the idea that every person is born in sin and is therefore under God’s condemnation is a kind of psychological and spiritual abuse that they find abhorrent and are glad to be free of.  Most are therefore likely to feel they have no further use for the concept.

However, American theologian Delwin Brown, in his book What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? suggests that the concept, in reinterpreted form, can help us see ourselves more clearly and what we have to battle with in trying to live more humanely.

He points out that we are born into a culture and society that has a history. In the course of that history various givens have been laid down, layer by layer, and the values and attitudes that belong to these inherited structures become part of our world and our individual being from the very start of our existence. These givens can include such things as racism, sexism, classism, ageism, heterosexism, speciesism, materialism, consumerism and egotism.

Brown points out that these are not merely external influences; they also become internalised, ‘easily and pleasantly ingested rather like our mother’s milk’ (p 80). They can become a normal and comfortable presence in our life.

Brown summarises his view of original sin in this way:

The doctrine of ‘original sin’ is not a denial of human goodness, and   it is not about sex. It is about the layers of evil … structured into our existence. We begin our lives in the midst of these.

Christian tradition ‘suspects’ that we rather happily acquiesce to the evil structures in which we find ourselves. Our failings build into unjust and self-serving structures … and we find them to be quite comfortable. (p 82)

How this influence in our life can be overcome is, of course, another story.

December, 2008

John’s Christmas letter of 2008 was notable for his evolving enthusiasm and skill in writing poetry.

For me (John) this has been the year of writing poetry. Almost continuously (as work commitments and other activities have allowed) I’ve been thinking about themes for poems or working on poems. It’s been a surprise to find I can do this and to discover how much enjoyment I get from it, even though it’s hard work and time – consuming. At the beginning of the year, during the coffee break at a Poet’s Corner, a friend asked if I wrote poetry, and I said that although I’d written lots of topical songs and limericks I didn’t write real poetry. But something about the presentation by the guest poet that evening (Jude Aquilina) stimulated me to have a go, and I’ve kept writing ever since. I’ve been encouraged at times by more experienced poets and then also when one of my poems received a commendation award in the annual Max Harris Poetry Award, a national competition run by UniSA. When I first started writing I thought,’ Why am I doing this? No-one’s ever going to read it’. But some of the poems have had quite a large audience already – emailed to friends, published in newsletters, read to various groups of people – and it has given me a lot of pleasure to find the poems, in many cases, connecting with people’s own experiences.

This wouldn’t have happened except for our church community, which plays a nurturing and enriching role in our lives. Poet’s Corner is part of its program, as is also its annual artist in residence. Last year’s artist, painter Doug Purnell, stimulated me to take up sketching, and a small group of us have continued to meet from time to time on a Sunday afternoon to do sketching. This year’s artist, Rob Pattenden, led us in a program of creative improvised body movement and vocalizing.

People I haven’t seen for a while sometimes ask me what it’s like to be retired, and I tell them I’m not retired yet. I’m still working three days a week as copy editor at Era Publications, where I’ve just completed my third year. I have another regular job I do from home: proofreading Seasons of the Spirit material, interdenominational church curriculum material published by Woodlake Publishing in Canada. Other activities include being on the committee of the SA Society of Editors and being on the committee of the Progressive Christianity Network in SA (I co-edit the newsletter and write most of the book reviews.)

Sad events during the year were the death of a sister-in-law Wendy Pfitzner and the death of David Schubert, close friend from student days at Adelaide Uni and fellow editor and work colleague at Openbook Publishers. A happy event was the wedding of brother-in-law Ted Prenzler and Alice Zimmerman.

December 29, 2008

Ross

Our church sketching group is simply a small group (four to six people) that meets somewhere to do a couple of hours of sketching. We don’t have anyone there (a more professional artist) to guide, advise or instruct us. Some members of the group were attending a life-drawing class during the year. This group arose after our artist-in-residence week towards the end of last year, when we had Doug Purnell with us, an artist/minister from Sydney. You’d be very welcome to join us, if you wanted to. We’re pretty laid back. We each do our own thing, and there’s no sense of competition. This year we were meeting irregularly, but at our last meeting we agreed to meet on a particular Sunday each month in 2009 – but I can’t remember which Sunday! I’ll have to find out and let you know.

I’ll attach some material that might interest you about one of my recent poems. I showed the poem, called ‘Recognition’, to our son Martin’s father-in-law, Jeff Ayles. Jeff isn’t into poetry, but he’s an ex-army man who is now the historian for the 10th Battalion. After reading the poem, he asked if I could supply him with some background information about my relative Carl Kindler, who is mentioned in the poem, and about how I came to write the poem and became interested in him. I gave this information (in the attached document) to Jeff a couple of days ago.

Congratulations on your new book.

I’d like to catch up with you sometime, for a coffee or a meal. I’m not very good at taking the initiative or organising something (unlike Frank), so feel free to do it yourself. My days off are Wednesday and Friday. I’m starting to think about whether I should retire completely so I have more time for things like writing, progressive Christianity, friends, but at present I feel I need the structure of having a job to go to, and I enjoy the work.

John

Private Johann Carl Kindler, 10th Battalion AIF

(by John Pfitzner)

In December 2008 I wrote the following poem which makes reference to Johann Carl Kindler (he was called by his second name, Carl), who was killed in action in France in World War I.

Recognition

On the straight Roman road

from Bapaume to Albert

we drive through

World War I battlefields –

flattened farmland under an open sky

that provides no comfort or cover,

the horrific history

told in memorials

and the too-many cemeteries

populated by twenty year olds.

We pull off the road

at the windmill memorial

outside Pozieres,

highest point of the Somme battlefield,

key to German defences

taken by AIF troops 4 August 1916

at the cost of 23,000 casualties,

Australians falling on this ridge

more thickly than on any other

battlefield of the war.

A car pulls up.

There’s no flag,

no kangaroo,

nothing to indicate where they’re from.

But when they get out

I say straightaway,

‘They’re Australians.’

What is the alchemy

of light and landscape,

language and legend

that moulds our identity

and shapes our loyalty

so that we recognise each other

but cannot discern

the young Germans

who opposed them?

And if my grandfather’s cousin,

Private Johann Carl Kindler,

10th Battalion AIF,

German-speaking Lutheran-

who lies in a small cemetery

near Armentieres,

killed in action by a German shell

20 April 1916 aged 24 –

had stood out of uniform

alongside the German

who fired the shell,

could I have recognised

who was German

and who was Australian?

John Pfitzner December 2008

The poem began as a reflection about an experience at the windmill at Pozieres in 1987, where I recognized some other travellers as fellow Australians. In writing the poem I was thinking about national identity and the fact that I, as a person of pure German ancestry, identified only with the Australian troops who fought on the Somme battlefields and had no feelings of affinity at all with the German troops.

YEAR 2009

The first half of 2009 found the author immersed in controversial exchanges with Lutheran Church dignitaries during the course of which it became clear that further exchanges would be futile. The author shared these exchanges with John and the exchanges are included here as John’s comments give insight into the chasm between two widely differing world views. The recipient of this letter, a retired lecturer from the Lutheran Seminary, is not identified.

February 17, 2009

Dear Pastor

Thank you for lending me C.S. Lewis’s ‘Miracles’ which I have read over the last couple of days. I had read other books of his, ‘Plain Christianity’, and ‘The Meaning of Pain’ some years ago. He was, of course, a giant of English literature together with having regular BBC broadcasts after the war or perhaps during WWII. Added to this were his childrens’ books and of course the film of his life which we enjoyed.

Quite frankly his approach to the subject both from the theological and philosophical view point left me less than convinced. He explained it as being a prelude to anyone exploring ‘the historical Jesus’ which he deliberately avoids (as he concedes he is not an historian) and which has been the basis of my interest over the last couple of years.

Far be it from me to enter into any debate with you, also a theological giant among scholars. NEVERTHELESS I should explain my great interest in the subject and I have closely followed the progress of the Jesus Seminar over the last few years. This group from the Westar Institute in the US compromises some one hundred Christian Scholars from all denominations and with diverse backgrounds. They have a proportion of about 50/50 Protestant/ Catholic mix, the occasional Jew and the occasional Southern Baptist (although the latter don’t last long!) and have been working together for almost 25 years. They make public their methodology, all their findings, all their disagreements and also publicise all outside criticisms of their work.

I suspect that all modern Christian scholarship is aired at the Seminary; I sincerely hope so. Sadly but probably understandably it never seems to reach the pulpit or any Lutheran publications.

I do appreciate your continuing interest and friendship and wish you best of health and happiness. Sadie will return the book as soon as possible.

With my very best wishes, Ross

P.S. Please feel free to share this letter with whomsoever you wish.

February 20, 2009

John had interesting and informed comments on this exchange.

John,

Thanks for the helpful feedback on my letter and CS Lewis, very encouraging. April 3 is unfortunately the first Crows match at AAMI which reveals my true religion doesn’t it.

I really enjoy your poetry. Keep it up at the expense of reading as it is so creative and, like painting, needs constant practice.

I have in mind coffee or lunch and will organize it in the not too-distant future.

Regards, Ross

PS. Our two trips to Russia have ignited a passion for Russian history and I know you are an avid reader. Last night I was reading Natasha’s Dance, a brilliant and very readable historic overview of all things Russian. Amazingly the author described the religious journeys of Pushkin, Chekov, Doestoevsky and Tolstoy in the late 1800s. They all felt much the same as WE do after struggling with the Russian Orthodox Church doctrine and dogma all their individual lives – it was an amazing read. So, there’s nothing new. It may not be your cup of tea but, if you are interested, I will photocopy that segment and send it to you as the book itself is 600+ pages. In fact, I shall send it to you whatever you say!

March 28, 2009

Ross,

          Thanks for sending me the excerpt from the book on Russia by Figes, which I really enjoyed reading. I read up a bit more about the book on the internet. It has had outstanding reviews.

A few years ago I went through the exercise, with a friend, of listing the novels that had made the biggest impression on us over a lifetime of reading. Of the forty ‘best’ novels on my list, War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov were at number 1 and 2. I’m not someone who generally favours the work of earlier generations (eg Dickens, Austen, etc.) – I prefer more contemporary work – but I’ve always maintained that, for me, War and Peace is the greatest novel ever written (how you can actually judge something like that, I don’t know). I read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky when I was still at Immanuel College (Leaving or Leavings Honours). I think I won a prize of some kind, and I remember going to the old Lutheran Book Depot in North Adelaide and choosing War and Peace and the Brothers Karamazov. I don’t remember if I knew something about them or whether I chose them because there wasn’t much else to choose from. But both books completely knocked me over. I’ve re-read War and Peace at least two more times, and I think I re-read The Brothers once, but a long time ago. I sometimes think about reading it again and wonder if it would still impress me as it did when I first read it. Afterwards I read other books by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (I think all their major works). I haven’t read some of the others mentioned in the Figes chapter (eg Gogol) but am a bit familiar with some of Chekhov’s work. I read a big biography of Tolstoy some time ago. I also read Solzhenitsyn (spelling?), Pasternak (Dr Zhivago) and others.

So, over the years I’ve been fascinated with Russia and Russian history and literature. I would like to have travelled there. Whether that will ever happen I don’t know. I’d be interested to talk to you about the trips you’ve done and see any photos you might have taken.

Thanks again for sending the material.

John

April 20, 2009

The author’s exchanges with well-known Lutheran identities continued. Here again, unidentified.

Dear Pastor,

Thank you for sending Know Why You Believe for my perusal. I am very familiar with the material in the book and in fact picked up several errors as you did, eg ‘Many of the Pauline letters are even earlier than some of the Gospels.’  Paul died around CE 62-4 and Mark’s Gospel, the first, was written around the time of the destruction of the Temple so clearly the writer should have written, ‘The Pauline letters all predate the Gospels’. I note the book was first published in 1967, 40 years ago, and Christian Scholarship, as you know, has made tremendous strides, particularly in the last 20 years.

One of my absorbing and exciting interests over the last couple of years has been researching the history of the 1st and 2nd centuries particularly in relation to Jesus. This Quest for the Historical Jesus is a path well-trodden (as I set out in my letter to The Lutheran October, 2007) by such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, Dietrich Boenhoffer, and even encouraged by Vatican II under John XXIII. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947) and the Nag Hammadi Codices (1945) the seeds of renewed interest in The Quest for the Historical Jesus were sown in the latter half of the 20th century. All this you know but it needs to preface my remarks.

My whole professional training has been directed towards critical thinking, analysing facts to fit into diagnoses and acting accordingly with strict honesty and integrity as lives have depended on the process. I have adopted the same methods in this case and the results have been startling and exciting.

My decision to leave North Adelaide was not taken lightly. For some years I have been frustrated by the insular position adopted by the Lutheran Church which seems unwilling or unable to take on board any new concepts. Christian scholarship, methodology and research have made giant strides in the last 20 years but this has all been ignored from the pulpit. Whether the writings of such scholars as Marcus Borg, NT Wright or John Dominic Crossan (Catholic) or the proceedings of the Jesus Seminar (Westar’s Series) are recommended reading in the Seminary I do not know. The material produced I find absorbing and enlightening and I am far more at peace with myself and my maker. My integrity demands of me a much deeper insight into the real pre-Easter Jesus than the stereotyped one presented by the institutionalised church. Truth to me is far, far more important than passive acceptance of centuries of tradition and entrenched doctrine much of which has been shown to be misguided and no longer persuasive but sadly perpetuated because it seems no-one is courageous enough to admit that the emperor has no clothes.

You may be surprised to learn that my disquiet is shared by a number of dignitaries holding paid positions in the church but who understandably need to remain anonymous.

In order to give you a greater understanding of my position and the reasons behind it I have decided to loan you a couple of short books by Marcus Borg and with whose position I find myself in complete agreement. I expect you to reject this position but nevertheless I humbly suggest you persevere if only to acquaint yourself with a differing and widespread movement that is challenging the mainstream church.

Having stated the above I must add that I appreciate your interest in my welfare but as you can see I have moved on to what I find is a more acceptable understanding of Jesus’ life on earth.

I am happy for you to share this letter with whomsoever you may wish in order to clear up any misunderstanding which has arisen with my leaving North Adelaide as I admit I have been remiss in not putting my position earlier. I would be particularly pleased if it were to be published in The Mustard Seed[4] as my many good friends may feel I have deserted them after 30 years or so.

                   My kindest regards, Ross

April 21, 2008

Dear Ross,

A couple of terrific books I read recently (I don’t think I’ve told you this before) were The First Christmas and The First Paul both by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The first is a detailed examination of the Christmas stories and the second is an examination of Paul and his writings. The two books are follow-ups to their earlier The Last Week, their examination of the passion stories.

In the Jesus Seminar Guide Series, I recently read The Resurrection of Jesus, which I found to be the most enlightening book on the resurrection that I’ve read (and I’ve read a fair bit). It’s a 128-page paperback, a collection of essays by Jesus seminar scholars. I could lend you these books if you were interested.

I’ve given notice to my boss at Era Publications that I’ve decided to retire from my three-days-a-week job there. I’m staying on until they find a replacement. I’m continuing with another proofreading job I do from home. I’m hoping the greater freedom will give me more time to catch up with friends, and maybe will allow us to get together occasionally for a chat over coffee or lunch.

Best Wishes

John

In May, 2008 I recorded one of my final communication with pastors of the church.

Dear Pastors,

Thank you for your letter. I found your enclosure from CS Lewis hard to cotton on to initially but at second reading I did. Yes. It focused on my arguments so nothing is new. He seems to be a favourite as I had one of your colleagues sent me his book on Miracles. This short essay, I regret, from my perspective, I found convoluted and subjective without much hard substance. At the end of the day and in my humble opinion I don’t think God is much interested in man-made doctrines and dogmas or ‘how many angels can fit on the end of a pin’. I find I have moved on from a narrow, exclusive belief to a far more encompassing inclusive belief which accepts the potential spirituality of everyone and accepts the God Presence in Islam, Judaism, and even Buddhism, although some of the practices of the last named in Tibet and Bhutan I find questionable.

Yes, I do have and have read a large portion of Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI but, as you would expect, empathise more with that large group of Catholics who welcomed the breath of fresh air introduced into Vatican II by John XXIII only to be subsequently snuffed out. My favourite Catholic author is John Dominic Crossan.

Thank you very much for your visit which I found encouraging and enlightening, and especially for your forbearance and patience in hearing out my ‘bizarre’ theology without interruption. Your philosophy of helping individuals on their personal spiritual journeys I found particularly commendable. I did ring John Pfitzner and he spoke highly of your participation (with him) in Don Lindner’s funeral service which I was sorry to have missed. He would enjoy your company at lunch and I shall arrange something down the track and let you know.

With regard to North Adelaide, I appreciated your comment on the tolerance of wide-ranging views which may be held there. However, on deeper reflection I feel my presence would be hypocritical, even disruptive, and make your ministry that much more difficult. Certainly, from the point I have reached in my journey there is no going back. Maybe the odd lunch will keep communications open.

Thank you both for your concern regarding my welfare.

Kindest Regards, Ross

 June 2009

John officiated at Don Lindner’s funeral. Don, Magarey Medallist and one of South Australia’s most celebrated footballers, died on the dance floor. John wrote the following celebratory poem a few months later.

The Magarey Medallist’s Funeral

When he collapses on the dance floor

on New Year’s Eve, still fit at 73,

it’s as if he’s been blindsided,

flattened by a hip-and-shoulder

he turned straight into.

In the crowd at his funeral,

players from his era

catch up with one another,

the renewed contact stirring

muscle memory of the spring of

grass under sprigged boots,

stored energy in taut bodies,

skills sharpened by hours of

top-speed training on cold

winter nights under lights –

a time when they expressed

themselves most eloquently

in the power and grace of

physical feats of improvised brilliance:

the well-directed palm

the pinpoint pass,

the saving spoil,

the critical tackle,

the hugged chest mark,

the blind turn out of trouble,

the look-away handpass,

the timed fly and fingertip grab.

He is given a good send-off

with suitably appreciative tributes.

And as he’s wheeled from the chapel

(his boots and no. 1 jumper on the coffin)

down the aisle, flanked by fans

as if running out for his last game,

the people acknowledge him –

the rangy centre half forward

remembered for his high flying and

long arcing drop kicks –

by standing and applauding.

John Pfitzner June 2009

In the June, 2009 edition of the PC Network Newsletter John had the following book review.

The Resurrection of Jesus: a Sourcebook.  Editor: Bernard Brandon Scott

This small paperback (128 pages), pages), provides an excellent summary of how modern critical scholarship understands the resurrection of Jesus. It explains how belief in the resurrection originated and developed and what this belief meant for early Christians and can mean for us today. It shows that the concept of resurrection was understood originally in symbolic and metaphorical terms and not as involving the physical return to life of a person who had died. In this regard the book takes issue with the fundamentalistic understanding of the resurrection, which it sees as a gross and harmful distortion of the message of Easter.

Like other Jesus Seminar Guides, the book is a collection of essays by various scholars. As a ‘sourcebook’, the book seeks to provide reader ‘with the texts and discussions of those texts’ so that they ‘can come to an informed opinion concerning the emergence of the Christian view of resurrection in the first two centuries’ (p. 1).

In the first chapter, Robert W Funk presents all the relevant resurrection texts in chronological order. This exercise is crucial to what follows in the rest of the book, because it shows how the concept of resurrection and the resurrection stories developed and expanded over time.

Chapter 2 presents a summary of the voting of members of the Jesus Seminar in relation to the resurrection texts. The almost unanimous view of modern critical scholars is that ‘claims of Jesus’ resurrection are statements of faith, not reports of an historical event or events’ (p 48).

In chapter 3, ‘Brand X Easters’, Robert M Price presents accounts from the Greco-Roman world that parallel the resurrection accounts in the gospels. While not suggesting a necessary link between the two, Price shows that in the surrounding culture of that time, early Christians had available to them a great variety of models for understanding their experience of Jesus and giving literary expression to it.

In chapter 4, ‘Resurrection Texts in the Gospel of Peter’, Arthur J Dewey looks at an ancient text from outside the New Testament that some scholars regard as being earlier than the other gospels, and he shows how it sheds light on the way in which the resurrection tradition developed. He traces the concept of resurrection back to its roots in the martyr tradition of Judaism.

For many readers, the last three chapters will perhaps be of greatest interest. In chapter 5, ‘Was Jesus’ Resurrection an Historical Event?’, Roy W Hoover tackles head-on the insistence of fundamentalists on the historical reality of the resurrection. He shows that it was not the appearances of Jesus that created faith in his followers; instead, the faith came first and was then supported by the appearances (in whatever form they took). The author argues persuasively that the assumption of the literalists that the resurrection was historical and physical is not supported by a careful reading of the early accounts.

The last two chapters are by Thomas Sheehan. In chapter 6, ‘The Resurrection: An Obstacle to Faith?’, he shows how the concept of resurrection was only one among many ways in which the early Christians proclaimed the Easter victory of Jesus. The earliest language believers used was not ‘resurrection’ but ‘exaltation’ to glory directly from the cross at the moment when Jesus died.

In the last chapter, ‘How Did Easter Originally Happen?’, Sheehan presents a plausible reconstruction of how the belief in Jesus’ resurrection originated. He says, ‘Probably the earliest way that Simon [Peter] put into words his renewed faith in God’s kingdom was to say that God had “glorified” his servant (Acts 3:13), that he had “exalted” him to his right hand (2:23)…’ (pp 111–12).

‘No ancient Christians were asked to believe what they knew was not true,’ says Roy W Hoover. ‘No modern Christians should be asked to do so either’ (p 89). This book shows that belief in a physical resuscitation of a dead body has never been what a living faith in Jesus’ Easter victory is about. What the resurrection narratives proclaim is the faith of the followers of Jesus that ‘Rome had not triumphed over Jesus in the crucifixion, but that God had vindicated him. Everything else…is elaboration’ (p 6).

Reviewer: John Pfitzner

Another review by John followed in the September issue of the same newsletter. The author found this particular book outstanding and it is highly recommended.

PC Network September, 2009

When Faith Meets Reason: Religion Scholars Reflect on Their Spiritual Journeys. Edited by Charles W. Hedrick.

I love this book! It offers a unique window

Into the thoughts, the struggles and conclusions

Of highly educated people as they ‘wrestle with

Their angel of faith’…

                                                                             Fred Plummer

                                      The Centre for Progressive Christianity, USA.

In 2005 Charles Hedrick, the editor of this collection of essays, invited scholars who are members of the Jesus Seminar to ‘describe how they went about making religious meaning for themselves in the modern world’ (p xviii). What he was looking for from contributors was a personal statement, written for the general public, about the relationship between their faith and their scholarship and where they were now in their thinking and beliefs. Of the contributions he received, thirteen are presented in this book.

Religious scholars who make use of modern critical methods often keep their personal faith separate from their scholarly work. In some cases this is because their career can be jeopardised if their views are seen to be at odds with orthodox Christianity or the confessions and creeds of their particular faith tradition. In other cases they are like other questioning Christians in being unable to answer for themselves certain basic questions of faith.

In this volume, however, the contributors have been prepared to speak openly and honestly about where they have come to in their spiritual journey: how they have struggled with questions of faith, how their views have changed over time, and how they have accommodated faith and reason in a way that provides meaning and purpose for them in their life. The result is a collection of stories that readers who are on their own spiritual quest will find engrossing, insightful and encouraging.

A particular aspect of these accounts is that the authors are educated people who bring many years of scholarly study and reflection to their stories and an ability to express their thoughts and ideas in articulate and creative ways.

Most of the contributors grew up in conservative Christian environments, but for all of them the traditional church dogmas are often no longer meaningful or compelling. James M Robinson explains that where creeds and dogmas no longer resonate with people now, it’s usually because the world in which the creeds were formulated is no longer the world we inhabit today.

Christians today should no more be expected to ‘believe’ the creeds formulated in terms of the Neo-Platonic intellectual climate of Late Antiquity than they are expected to ‘believe’ the rest of the culture of that day… It is not that we do not ‘believe’ the dogmas – rather, we do not think in the thought world that produced those dogmas. (p 64)

In having to rethink what they believe and what it means for them to be a Christian, the contributors have all moved away from Christian orthodoxy to a greater or lesser extent. In this respect they would see themselves returning to the situation in the first three centuries of the Common Era when there were many different ways of understanding the significance of Jesus and many different views of what it meant to be a Christian.

Many of the contributors have come to view their life, as a Christian, primarily as a matter of following Jesus, which is perhaps to be expected from people who are members of the Jesus Seminar.

  …can I still call myself a Christian? Yes. How can that be? Here is my answer. I believe in Jesus’ teachings and I attempt to follow them. (Glenna S Jackson, p 5)

 I have come to conceive of my personal and professional    odyssey simply as ‘following Jesus’. (Charles W Hedrick, p15)

In the course of my academic life, I have moved from neo-orthodoxy to a new form of existentialism (that is, immanence) that in church circles I call ‘Jesus following’. (David Galston, p 113)

Although there are common themes, each story is very different from the others. Some writers tell their story in an autobiographical way in terms of significant turning-points in their life. Others present their personal views in a more systematic way. Some tell their story in relation to their academic work, others make little reference to their work as a scholar.

In his story, David Galston says, ‘Integrity requires consonance between what I believe and what I think I know’ (p 112). The personal faith stories in this book, in which the authors reveal their search for integrity in their lives as Christians, provide stimulating insights and encouragement for readers on a similar search for integrity in their own lives.

Reviewer: John Pfitzner

Available from Amazon and Pauline Books

In December, 2009 John sent me a copy of his latest poem and those of us who have developed a cosmic evolutionary worldview, like the author, will find it overpowering. It is a landmark poem, in the author’s view, of the developing maturity and self-confidence of John in his evolving poetic style.

Deus absconditus

Ascending skywards

seemed a good move.

From above the clouds

I reached down –

with unlimited power-

to whip the storms,

shake the earth,

take sides.

I was disturbed

by Copernicus et al,

who moved Earth

from the centre and then,

with their telescopes,

pushed me out

beyond the solar system,

among the stars.

The Hubble, showing Andromeda to be

a separate galaxy

outside the Milky Way,

thrust me into

intergalactic space,

where I was

kept on the run

to the far reaches

of the universe,

back to the big bang,

where I tried to squeeze

into the first nanoseconds

but found there’s

nowhere to hide

in a singularity.

I had no choice;

I returned to earth.

And I’m happy here,

back where I began,

in the place where

myth and metaphor meet,

having power

only to persuade,

lodging on the edge

of the liminal,

in the place of possibility,

at the point of connection,

hidden in

the flow,

the process,

the becoming.

John Pfitzner

December 2009

YEAR 2010

January 24, 2010

Dear John,

Haven’t been in touch for a while as we have been at Goolwa with family on and off over January. We were planning to organise another triumverate meal around this time but may need to put it on hold for a month or two as I have a small challenge for the next month or so in the way of radiotherapy.

My family history of prostate cancer is strong and as anticipated these genes have come to the surface with all sixteen prostate biopsies revealing aggressive cancer with some extension beyond the prostatic capsule. So I have to pause for a month or two for hormone therapy and radiotherapy which hopefully will regain control although not cure.

Interestingly, Pastor X rang last week for coffee which I accepted. We had a good hour and a half chat but I had to question his agenda at the start, ? counselling for me which I didn’t need, ? in deference to his parishioner Sadie or ? continuing interest in finding out more about journeys beyond the Lutheran Church. To my great discredit I enjoyed catching him momentarily off guard as he admitted to a combination of all three!

We had a good chat and in the end I think there was more counselling from me to him but I have grown to like the guy more since I departed from his flock and think we have more to offer him than vice versa! He did make one interesting comment, namely that the orthodox screws are currently being applied by the Lutheran hierarchy even more than usual.

For my part I am pretty relaxed and accepting about my predicament – a pleasant surprise – but treatment is usually effective for some years. Will probably start daily radiotherapy in the next week or two and lasting for six weeks or so, with some side effects in the latter half, so will let you know down the track John when it would be a good time for our next dinner.

Hope your Christmas went well, ours did. Best wishes to Diana and yourself.

Ross.

January 27, 2010

Ross,

I was very sorry indeed to hear about your prostate cancer. I particularly didn’t like the sound of ‘aggressive’ and ‘ extension beyond the prostate capsule’. I certainly hope the treatment will be effective in halting the progress of the disease and allowing you many more years of good quality living. We have a friend who has been on hormone treatment for quite a few years now with little effect on his sense of wellbeing and his lifestyle. However, I’m aware that people’s individual circumstances can vary a lot and that one person’s experience is not necessarily the same as someone else’s. Nevertheless, I hope his experience is yours too.

I appreciate your letting me know about your illness. I’m aware that sometimes people are hesitant about letting others know when they have an illness or are going through hard times, and I’m not sure what I’d do in those circumstances. However, I think it can somehow be a good support at times like these to know that friends are aware of the situation and have strong feelings of care and concern. To me this is what prayer is – not a pleading for divine intervention, but the deep and heartfelt expression of concern for one another and a relationship of mutual support and care. I would be pleased to hear from time to time how your treatment is going and how you are getting on. And I hope the time will come when we can get together again, also with Frank if he can make it.

Last week I attended a four-day workshop run by InterPlay, which involves many kinds of improvised movement and improvised voice activities. It can be quite liberating as you become less inhibited and find yourself spontaneously involved in creating things (movements or sounds) that are quite beautiful. The idea is not overly religious. One of the activities we did, which sounds crazy but which I enjoyed, was speaking gibberish – using made-up sounds as if one was speaking an actual language. It can be fun. At the end of the workshop we were in pairs and were invited to give each other a blessing in gibberish. It was a light-hearted exercise but it also turned into something quite serious and moving, because it was clear that when we spoke we really were trying to express our strong feelings of affection and goodwill towards each other. I actually felt very eloquent and articulate as I intoned my blessing, it made me realise that the important thing in a blessing is the relationship between the people involved, the human interaction, and not the invoking of some deity or the use of some religious formula.

I’m still writing poetry. I’m heading off soon to a meeting of the board of Friendly Street Poets that I joined at the end of last year.

I’ve just finished reading Gretta Vosper’s book With or Without God. She will be visiting Adelaide, sponsored by PC Net in April I think. She’s chair of the Centre of Progressive Christianity in Canada.

I hope we can keep in touch

Best Wishes

John

In the February, 2010 PC Newsletter John wrote a book review on a book by Gretta Vosper, founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity. Gretta visited Adelaide in April. 2010 and delivered a number of stirring, unapologetic, hard-hitting addresses in Melbourne and Adelaide.

Book Review; With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What We Believe. Gretta Vosper

In this book the author describes herself, in passing, as ‘a radically progressive Protestant’ (p 324). What makes her radical is her challenge to progressive Christians to take more seriously the implications of what they believe and to be more creative and courageous in putting these beliefs into practice. For example, if we no longer believe in a supernatural interventionist God, shouldn’t we speak and act, individually and corporately, in ways that clearly reflect this, instead of retaining language that reflects a theistic worldview?

The Christian church, Vosper suggests, is perhaps the only institution in the world that tends to hold on to previous insights and teachings at the same time as new insights emerge. Scientists, by contrast, might be interested in what came before but don’t feel the need to keep reaffirming previous paradigms. The time has come, Vosper says, for the church to ‘let go of the beliefs and traditions to which we’ve had to tip our hats and curtsy in the past but which can no longer prevail in our contemporary world’ (p 12). Vosper argues that the kind of Christianity needed for the wellbeing of people and our world today is one based on values rather than doctrines. The church, she says,

must shift from its time-bound biblical and doctrinal base to a broader base of timeless, life-enhancing values – a base that would include all peoples of the world who embrace humanitarian and ecologically sound ideals… (p 5)

In the early church, the values of love, forgiveness, and compassion drove the work and lives of those known as Christians. This is a legacy of the church, and it must once again become the agenda by which it chooses to live. Not what we believe. (p 99)

Vosper understands that change is painful, especially in the area of people’s religious beliefs and practices, and although she advocates radical change she also stresses that it must be introduced carefully and sensitively. A particular strength of her book is that it is written by someone who not only has scholarly credentials but is pastor of a church where she has had experience in putting into practice what she advocates.

The four essentials that Vosper identifies for necessary change to occur are an open mind, passion, creativity, and intellectual rigour. Other qualities that are also important are honesty, courage, respect, and balance.

In chapter 5, Vosper outlines the key areas of progressive understanding that need to be recognised and expressed: the Bible as a human document, God as a human concept, Jesus as a human being, prayer as heart-to-heart communication, and rituals as life-to-life events.

For Vosper, being a Christian involves doing whatever it takes to bind her ‘to a life lived in a radically ethical way’ (p 197). The principles under-lying such radical ethical living are, in her view, the crux of the Christian faith when it is stripped of the authoritative power of its doctrines, symbols, rituals and sacred objects, and she finds these principles shared with other faith traditions and many non-religious systems of thought.     

Vosper describes the task of the church in the postmodern world as being

to identify that which is holy, to uphold those values that would preserve it, and to challenge us to live according to them in a way that ensures that holiness remains in our lives and in our world. (pp 280–81)

A particularly interesting and helpful part of the book is the Appendix, in which the author presents a ‘toolbox’ of suggestions and examples of how the various parts of a worship service might be creatively reworked to give expression to progressive ideas and ideals.

This passionate, carefully argued book is accessible to the general reader, but some of its ideas may be challenging and confronting even for some who are well advanced on the progressive journey. Vosper sees progressive Christians as being ‘in the midst of a great experiment’ to see whether non-theistic religious gatherings can thrive and survive (p 356). She describes the progressive task as follows:

We who move beyond the traditional boundaries of Christianity are often thought of as not believing in anything. But beyond the beliefs that have divided us for millennia are beliefs that challenge us to hallow all that life is. It is our responsibility to seek these beliefs out, share them with one another, embrace them, and try to live by them. (p 313)

Reviewer: John Pfitzner

In September, 2010, we three met for a meal and a chat and John followed it up with this letter.

Frank and Ross

Attached are the two poems I spoke about the other night that you might find interesting.

Frank, if you’re thinking of coming down sometime to meet up with Jane and Bruce and to come to Christ Church, you may or may not want to consider coming on 3 October, since our minister has asked me to take the service that Sunday.

Thanks for another stimulating evening over a good meal the other night.

Cheers, John

A Plea

Dear God,

complicate my world

make my thoughts subtle

give me nuanced perspectives 

disturb my settled ways

deprive me of easy solutions

demolish my glib explanations

disrupt my black-and-white vision

keep me from being right

starve me of ready-made beliefs

upset my certainties

hide from me the truth

increase my doubt

banish me from the tribe

force me to fend for myself

send me on perilous journeys

put obstacles in my way

provide me with questions not answers

puzzle me with paradox

remain hidden from me

leave me wondering

John Pfitzner   August, 2008

Sinfulness

worse than being naughty

not as bad as criminality

located in churches not court rooms

smelling of incense and sanctity

linked symbiotically

with righteousness

inherited at conception

but needing to be taught

not so much about doing wrong

as being wrong

permanently impure

perpetually imperfect

never good enough

personal transgression

rather than societal injustice

a dishonouring of the deity

requiring humble contrition

awareness of unworthiness

lifelong dependence

on the dispensers of salvation

John Pfitzner September 2010

September 17, 2010

Frank Altmann made a skilful and insightful parody on the first poem ‘A Plea’, and sent the following:

Ross,

Agree with your comments re John’s poems – thought you might like a copy of my response to ‘The Plea’ – fortunately John was not offended at the parody, and saw the funny side.

The Fundamentalist’s Response

Dear God,

Simplify my world

Make my thoughts pure

Give me clear-cut perspectives

Re-enforce my settled ways.

Present me easy solutions

Confirm my iron-clad explanations

Blinker my black and white vision

Keep me from being wrong

Gorge me with ready-made beliefs

Re-enforce my certitude

Reveal to me the only truth

Increase my untried conviction

Welcome me to the comfort of the tribe

Save me from fending for myself

Keep me on safe paths

Remove obstacles from my way.

Answer my questions with your righteousness

Enlighten me with the only true message

Remain open to me, but through your Word alone

And above all, never let me waver

From the secure indoctrinated faith

Inculcated by my fore-fathers

Frank Altmann

In October, 2010, John sent two more poems in which I believe his skill reached further heights:

Original sin

Chemical analysis

will reveal nothing noxious

in the skin of an untouchable;

the poison lies elsewhere.

And the convict stain,

deemed to be inedible,

resided always only

in the minds of the privileged.

Others may detect

an inherited stigma in your soul-

don’t accept the diagnosis.

Don’t sew the star,

don’t wear the scarlet letter.

March proudly

as a member of the human race

with all its glories, and its flaws.

Assert your right

to err in your own way,

puzzle your own path through the maze.

Trash the sackcloth,

don this multi-coloured robe.

Look at you!

See how beautiful you are!

John Pfitzner October 2010

This second poem ‘One day’is particularly poignant as it is the one chosen by John’s family to inscribe on his tombstone at Centennial Park. It epitomizes his credo.

One Day

One day you finally knew

what you’d suspected

that no-one was keeping score

and you didn’t have to get ten out of ten

You finally knew that truth

is not a butterfly you can pin

no inscriptions etched in stone

but a stirring in the blood

You finally knew that

not all the blanks have to be filled

that some threads

can be left loose

You finally knew that

boundaries blur

colours bleed and you don’t

have to stay inside the lines

One day you finally knew

that the door was open

you could step outside

and nothing was final

John Pfitzner October 2010

YEAR 2011

January 6, 2011

Frank and Ross,

I thought you might like to share with me my delight at being informed by letter today that I was the winner of the 30th-anniversary Studio Poetry Award, a competition I entered towards the end of last year. Included with the letter was the prize money, a cheque for the princely sum of fifty dollars. (Fortunately, I’m not relying on poetry to earn a living.)

A copy of the winning poem is attached. It’s based on a visit Diana and I made to Auschwitz in 1987. The poem will be published in the next edition of Studio in the near future.

Studio, which is subtitled A Journal for Christian Writing, is a national journal that publishes mainly poetry, run by a bloke called Paul Grover in Albury NSW. I’ve had several poems previously published in the journal and was joint runner-up in a previous Studio poetry competition.

Periods of self-doubt seem to be common among poets (perhaps writers in general), so this kind of recognition for one’s work is encouraging.

Best Wishes for the New Year.

John

Leaving

Etty Hillesum 1914- 43

Crammed in the cattle car,

being transported to Poland,

a single bucket for their piss and shit,

her family members in another wagon.

she scribbles a postcard,

reaches for the gap in the planks

and throws it from the moving train,

taking this chance to get word out.

And found by farmers and posted,

it’s delivered in Amsterdam,

where friends read, ‘We left the camp

singing, Father and Mother

firmly and calmly, Mischa, too’-

proving the failure, among

faces filled with fear and fatigue,

of the cold program

to divest them of their humanity;

and these, her last written words,

wind-borne, almost lost,

continue still today to breathe,

while the demagogue’s speeches,

seemingly invincible then

and thrilling millions,

today are ash.

John Pfitzner December 2010

January 18, 2011

Ross,

It seems to me a most amazing achievement that someone who is not a professional in the business could make a violin. It looks stunning! It looks like the real deal! It looks like it would produce beautiful music – in the right hands. I’d love to hear more about how you got into this and how you go about it. You’ve been a bit modest. You’ve probably spoken about it, but if so you did it pretty quietly or I wasn’t paying proper attention. I’d love to see the real thing, not just a picture. Could you bring it next time we meet? Is this the first one you’ve ever made? Are you making more? To craft a beautiful artifact like that, it seems to me, takes someone with a deep artistic temperament. I can also imagine that it’s an activity that is deeply nourishing to one’s spirit, one’s inner being, just like religion is for others.

On Sunday Diana and I went to Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where my brother Vic’s fiftieth anniversary of ordination was being observed.  It was an interesting experience for us, after an absence of several years, to experience again the full-on liturgical, high-church Lutheran communion liturgy. It didn’t tempt us to return.

I hope this year is rich and fulfilling for you and that we can catch up soon.

John

February 25, 2011

Frank and Ross,

Thanks for another stimulating and enjoyable get-together last night.

I’m sending the attached brochure, which might be of interest to you. I’ve been involved, as the PCNet rep and chair of the planning committee, in helping plan the visit of Bruce Sanguin in the first weekend in April. I read his book ‘Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos’ a couple of years ago and liked it. I re-read it recently in order to write a review of it for the PCNet newsletter, which will be coming shortly. His ideas about the presence of the divine in the ongoing unfolding of the universe is perhaps similar to your ideas, Ross, and perhaps yours too, Frank. I think he’ll be a stimulating bloke to listen to.

Norm Habel has arranged for Sanguin and his wife and for some of us who have been on the planning committee to spend a couple of days at Norm’s place on Kangaroo Island at the end of March, which should be a good opportunity to get to know Sanguin more personally.

Perhaps I’ll also attach my review of Sanguin’s book.

Best Wishes,

John

Enclosure of Book Review.

Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity, Bruce Sanguin (paperback, 288 pages)

Progressive Christians typically seek a faith that fits with a 21st-century scientific worldview and also tend to have a keen ecological consciousness. Both these concerns are central to this book.

The author, who is a minister of the United Church of Canada in Vancouver, weaves aspects of his own personal story into the dialogue he creates between the story of the universe given by the sciences and the Judeo-Christian narrative of the Bible. For a person who is neither a professional scientist nor an academic theologian he shows an outstanding grasp of essential aspects of present-day cosmology, biology and quantum physics and also current developments in biblical scholarship. The result is a book, written in a lively and lucid way, which challenges us, as human beings, to new ways of seeing our place in the cosmos and, as Christians, new ways of being church in today’s world.

Our present ecological crisis is a motivating influence for Sanguin. He sees this as the preeminent challenge for our time, requiring of us, as human beings, that we see ourselves as a connected part of the rest of creation, not separate from it, and that we change from dominating and exploiting the natural world to fitting in with it. He says, ‘If Jesus were conducting his ministry in today’s world, I believe his circle of concern would include the ecological crisis facing our planet (p168).

In the first half of the book (Part 1) Sanguin focuses on creation as a sacred text alongside the other sacred text for us as Christians, the Bible. Acknowledging his indebtedness to Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry he presents readers with a vision of the universe as the product of 14 billion years of evolution and a source of divine wisdom. He says, ‘The story of the universe, the story of evolution, is our story. It is not just happening “out there” ’ ; (p 123). He guides readers through the eight epochs of the universe’s evolution from the first fraction of a second of the big bang to the creation of heavy elements in exploding supernovas, the emergence of life and, eventually, the birth of consciousness. He presents this as an exciting story that can reawaken a sense of wonder in us and can re-enchant our world.

With this new story of where we have come from and how we are related to the whole of the rest of creation, we need, Sanguin argues, a new way of understanding the divine and how the divine is at work in the evolutionary process. ‘An evolutionary God’, Sanguin says,

would need to be immanent in the process of evolution, not as a controlling presence but as the cosmic urge to self-transcendence. This God would be the hidden wholeness, the non-coercive intelligence nudging hydrogen and helium molecules to organize into galaxies; galaxies to birth solar systems; and cells to cluster together in formations of increasing elegance, beauty, and diversity. (p 121) [5]

In the second half of the book (Part 2) Sanguin emerges with the sacred text of scripture, bringing into dialogue the two sacred narratives: the narrative of nature and the narrative of the Bible. He shows how the great biblical metanarratives can be read in a cosmic context. He also examines the teachings of Jesus from an ecological perspective.

Towards the end of the book, Sanguin examines at some length the biblical concept of Sophia (Wisdom) as the means of God’s creative activity in the world and shows how the early Christians linked the Sophia concept with Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we Christians need to be in tune with the divine wisdom hidden deep within the created world and in Christ.

In the book’s final chapter, Sanguin suggests various disciplines for Christians to practise in order to counter the false ideologies of today’s world (eg domination, consumerism) and to act in ways that show respect and care for our planet.

Sanguin says:

We have at our disposal a new understanding of the universe, but we operate out of an old one. The work of integrating this new story represents a fundamental challenge to our theological and liturgical models. (pp 28-9)

In the book he himself has a made an engaging and stimulating start towards meeting this challenge.

Reviewer ; John Pfitzner

February 28, 2011

John,

Yes it was a great night and I am still chewing over your bold declaration of the possibility you may be an atheist!! But then I considered perhaps you mean as I have stated in my essay Intimations… that ‘I also am an A-theist or non theist in so far as I do not believe in many of the doctrines and dogmas served up (most) but still adhere to belief in a Spirit behind the creation. And so it goes on…’  

I am very disappointed that I shall be in Melbourne on April 1 for my brother-in-law’s 80th birthday – it sounds stimulating. I am just on my way to buy the last copy of Sanguin’s book at Pauline Books – the Catholic bookstore with catholic tastes. Your review wetted my appetite.

Best Wishes

Ross

March 2, 2011

Ross

‘Christian atheist’ was a term used by a couple of contributors to the book ‘When Faith Meets Reason’ (I think that was the title: I can’t find my copy), in which biblical scholars, mainly members of the Jesus Seminar, told the stories of their own faith journeys. The phrase struck a chord with me, and I felt that how they described their own situations, as ‘followers of Jesus’, fitted where I felt I was.

I guess I tend to take things to a logical extreme. If I don’t believe there’s a being out there who controls everything and answers prayers, why should I believe in some other kind of force or power or spiritual entity? In both cases, it seems to me, it’s a matter of a personal belief that could never be tested or for which there could never be any definitive evidence. In the end it’s still just a matter of what one chooses to believe. Given my present world view, based on what modern science is telling us, I just can’t conceive of something outside of or beyond what we call the natural world, and I don’t feel the need to posit such an entity. There are, of course, great scientific mysteries, but I don’t feel the need to fill that mystery with some kind of divine being. That’s why I say I’m an atheist.

Nevertheless, I haven’t entirely given up God-talk or ways of thinking that include using terms such as ‘mystery’, ‘the divine’, ‘the sacred’, ‘spirit’ or even ‘God’. But I understand them all as metaphors, figures of speech, attempts to express values and concepts that are deeply meaningful for us as human beings.

I would agree with what Lloyd Geering (who wrote a book called Christianity without God says in Coming Back to Earth:

‘God is a symbolic word that originated in ancient mythology. We use it to refer to whatever concerns us in an ultimate way…

Even Martin Luther was aware of this, for he said,

faith and God have inevitable connection. Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.’

Don Cupitt put it this way:

‘God is the mythical embodiment of all that one is concerned with in the spiritual life.’

Similarly, Godon Kaufman says,

‘The symbol of God claims to represent to us a focus for orientation which will bring true fulfillment and meaning to human life. It sums up, unifies, and represents in a personification what are taken to be the highest and most indispensable human ideals and values.’

Thus, if we continue to speak of God, we are pointing to the values, goals, and aspirations that motivate us to follow the path of faith.

For me Christianity is not so much about whether or not one believes in God but, as the name implies, is more about one’s attitude to Christ. As a follower of Jesus, I’m interested in what he taught and what he embodied in his life. I’m interested in the kind of God he represented, a God of compassion, acceptance, inclusivity and justice for all. ‘God’ is for me, then, a word that represents these kinds of values and behaviour.

I say all this, not to convert you to my way of thinking (you must stay true to your own vision of reality), but simply to try to clarify what my thinking is, because I had the impressions that my self-designation as a Christian atheist was puzzling to you, if not a bit shocking. These are complicated issues, and it’s difficult to give expression to them accurately and concisely.

Best Wishes,  

John

In the May, 2011 PC Network Newsletter John wrote the following Book Review

Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle: Author Pamela Eisenbaum

Someone seeing the title of this book might be excused for thinking it’s the work of a maverick scholar with a crackpot theory. However, the book is a serious piece of biblical scholarship by a reputable theologian who is at the forefront of a radical re-evaluation of Paul, underway for a couple of decades, that is being called the ‘new perspective’ on Paul. The author acknowledges that she is building on the work of other scholars but sees herself as taking it further.

Pamela Eisenbaum is associate professor of biblical studies and Christian origins at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. She is an expert on early Christianity and, as a practising Jew teaching in a Christian seminary, has a unique perspective on the origins of Christianity.

Eisenbaum’s claim, which she argues powerfully and persuasively, is that Paul has been seriously misunderstood throughout most of Christian history. In particular, she maintains that the doctrine of justification by faith, as developed by Augustine and then Luther, and largely accepted by all churches as Paul’s central message and the heart of the Christian gospel, involves a misreading of Paul.

Paul’s so-called conversion experience, Eisenbaum claims, was not a conversion from one religion to another, from Judaism to Christianity (Christianity as a separate religion didn’t yet exist at that time). She maintains that Paul never repudiated his Jewish identity. Even after his encounter with the risen Christ, he remained a devout Jew. His conversion, Eisenbaum says, is better understood as a call by God to a particular ministry, as an apostle to the Gentiles, similar to the call of the Hebrew prophets.

According to Eisenbaum, a crucial key to understanding Paul is to recognise that in his letters he is addressing Gentile Christians. It is within this context that Paul’s negative statements about the law (Torah) are to be understood. For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection were a clear indication that the end-times were near, and this made it urgent that the Gentiles be brought to know the true God (Israel’s God) in order to escape God’s judgment. Previously, the way for Gentiles to be ‘saved’ was for them to become Jewish, that is, to come under the law (Torah). But at this critical time in history, Paul sees that a new way for Gentiles to come to God has been opened up by the death of Jesus. Just as Jews have had the privilege of being made right with God through Torah, now Gentiles have the privilege of being made right with God because of Jesus.

Eisenbaum explains how the phrase traditionally translated ‘faith in Christ’ is more properly translated as the ‘faithfulness of Christ’, a reading being adopted more widely by biblical scholars. It is Christ’s faithfulness to God in going to the cross that opens the way to God for Gentiles, not their faith in Christ.

The book requires concentration from the reader because of the author’s close reading of texts and careful analysis of the evidence. It also requires patience, since the author takes time to build her case. She spends early chapters discussing the nature of Judaism in Paul’s time, refuting the Christian view of it as a ‘religion of works’ and showing that it was not as exclusive and intolerant as Christians assume. Since Paul was a Pharisee, she also examines what is known about Pharisees, showing that they were more flexible in their attitude to the Torah’s requirements than is usually thought.

Readers of this book will find it difficult to view Paul in the same way as before. Most of their fundamental assumptions about him and his message will be challenged. But they will also find a Paul freed of the doctrinal burden that later generations of Christians have put on him, and a Paul who is more recognisable as a person and whose message makes more sense. For progressive Christians in particular, this makes this book exciting.

Readers with an interest in this book might also be interested in The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning by scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar. The book presents new translations (The Scholars Version) of Paul’s letters, together with introductory and explanatory material. It reflects a similar understanding of Paul and his message to that of Eisenbaum.

Reviewer: John Pfitzner

On July 8, 2011 John sent the following note:

Frank and Ross.

Attached are two poems. ‘Leaving’ is the one our minister used at church on Good Friday. The other one ‘Lucky’ is the one about Graeme Marshall, which Frank has already seen. [John had, in fact, already sent us ‘Leaving’.]

Leaving

Etty Hillesum 1914- 43

Crammed in the cattle car,

being transported to Poland,

a single bucket for their piss and shit,

her family members in another wagon.

she scribbles a postcard,

reaches for the gap in the planks

and throws it from the moving train,

taking this chance to get word out.

And found by farmer and posted,

it’s delivered in Amsterdam,

where friends read, ‘We left the camp

singing, Father and Mother

firmly and calmly, Mischa, too’-

proving the failure, among

faces filled with fear and fatigue,

of the cold program

to divest them of their humanity;

and these, her last written words,

wind- borne, almost lost,

continue still today to breathe,

while the demagogue’s speeches,

seemingly invincible then

and thrilling millions,

today are ash.

John Pfitzner December 2010

Lucky

For Graeme Marshall, dealer in Aboriginal art

I’m lucky to catch you.

On impulse, time rich,

I drop in to your gallery,

hoping for a yarn,

not having seen you for years.

At first, I seem to have missed you,

but I spend time with the paintings –

dramatic documents that

map myth, create country,

sung into being by artists

in desert communities

you’ve nurtured and learnt from.

Then, from the back of the shop,

I see you coming in

out of the summer heat –

but not sure, at first, if it’s you,

the solid, dependable body

others have leaned on

now leaning on a stick,

unbalanced, unsteady.

Brain tumour, you tell me.

A year of intensive treatment,

two major operations.

And now yesterday’s verdict,

from the latest scans,

that the growth has spread.

Nothing more they can do.

A matter of months, maybe weeks.

And it’s clear to me that

how you’ve lived your sixty years

has prepared you for this:

the honesty, the absence of pretence-

no counterfeit notes in your wallet –

a self-knowledge that has freed you

to be generously self-giving,

a life created on a large canvas,

with the bold and assured brushstrokes,

the truthfulness and depth

of a Maringka Baker painting,

the colours humming with vitality,

the richly patterned story

whispering secrets of a far

but familiar country.

And I see that you are ready for

this final journey into the desert –

from which there will be no return –

where everything superfluous

is dispensed with,

the outer layer shed,

leaving the essence to dissolve

into the light-drenched air

and the vast accepting earth.

And as I inwardly grieve about

how cruel life can be,

what a shocking hand you’ve been dealt,

I hear you speak, with your

usual conviction and passion,

no hint of anger, regret, self-pity,

of  your outrageous good fortune in life,

how you see yourself as

the luckiest person alive.

John Pfitzner February 2010

July 11, 2011

Frank and Ross,

I received an invitation to the Adelaide University Blacks football dinner to honour Tony Clarkson and have been thinking I’d go, even though I’m not keen on reunions, since I played in the same team as Tony for a couple of years when he was captain of the A1 team. I’m waiting to see if Diana will come with me, but I feel she won’t be keen to come, since she won’t know anybody. If one, or both of you decide to come, I’d enjoy your company.

John

In the September, 2011 Newsletter of PC Net was a review by John of another book by Marcus J. Borg:

Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost their Meaning and Power – and How They can be Restored.

In this book Marcus Borg turns his attention to the language of Christianity, which he sees as being in a state of crisis. The problem exists not only among the increasing number of people who have had little or no contact with Christianity but also among Christians themselves. Sometimes, Borg says, the problem is diminishment, the reduction of rich and multiple meanings to one particular meaning. At other times it is a matter of distortion of the original meaning.

Borg suggests two main reasons for this. The first is what he calls the ‘literalisation’ of biblical and Christian language, whereby people assume that the most faithful way to understand Christian terms is as literal and absolute representations of the inerrant revelation of God. The second is the common and widely shared framework within which biblical and Christian language is most often understood, what Borg calls ‘the heaven-and-hell framework’.

Borg identifies four central elements in the heaven-and-hell framework: the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus’s dying for our sins, and believing. For many Christians what Christianity is fundamentally about can be summarised as: Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven, if we believe in him. This frame-work, Borg says, ‘is like a black hole that sucks the meaning of Christian language into it, changing and distorting it’. He goes on to say:

The meaning of Christian language within the heaven-and-hell framework of conventional Christianity has become a problem for many. For some, it renders much of Christian language opaque and deprives it of its richness. For others, the issue is more than deprivation; Christian language has become an obstacle, an intellectual stumbling block, sometimes so large that taking Christianity seriously becomes very difficult. (pp 16–17)

Borg points out that literalism, based on an understanding of the Bible as the infallible and inerrant word of God, is a relatively recent development in the history of Christianity. In its place he proposes a ‘historical-metaphorical approach’, which involves taking into account the original historical context of the text and looking for meanings beyond the merely factual. He says:

Biblical and Christian language is rich. It needs to be redeemed from its cultural captivity to literalism. When understood literally and absolutely, it becomes incredible. For many, Christian faith becomes believing in the literal and absolute truth of statements that you otherwise wouldn’t take seriously. But is that what being Christian is? (pp 32–33)

The bulk of the book is made up of twenty-two relatively short chapters, in each of which Borg examines a particular Christian term or concept, such as salvation, God, the death of Jesus, Easter, believing and faith, mercy, righteousness, sin, forgiveness and repentance, born again and heaven. Some chapters are on subjects such as John 3:16, the only way, the creeds and the Trinity, the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Prayer. In every case he shows how, to a greater or lesser degree, the concept is commonly distorted or diminished in meaning, and he takes readers back to the original biblical meaning and shows how this makes the term more relevant and helpful for our lives today.

In the book’s conclusion Borg writes about the importance of how we understand Christian language, since what is at stake is how we understand Christianity itself. He contrasts two visions of Christianity, one that emphasises the next world and what we must believe and do in order to get there, and the other emphasising God’s passion for the transformation of this world. The latter, he says, takes seriously the ancient meanings of Christian language in its original context. By contrast, heaven-and-hell Christianity, which arose when Christianity became allied with the dominant culture, ‘domesticates – indeed, commonly eliminates – the political passion of the Bible’ (p 234).

In the introduction Borg suggests that his book might be seen as a ‘Christian primer’. Its purpose, he says, is ‘to help us to read, hear, and inwardly digest Christian language without preconceived understandings getting in the way. It is about learning to read and hear the language of our faith again’ (p 3). In this sense the book, written in his usual clear and simple style, is indeed not only a pleasure to read but also a good primer for progressive Christians.

Reviewer: John Pfitzner (2011, HarperOne. 248 pages)

November 3, 2011

Frank and Ross

I was thrilled on Tuesday night, at the regular monthly meeting of Friendly Street Poets, to hear that I was the winner of a competition that will result in a poetry manuscript of mine being published in the New Year. Each year, in its publishing program, Friendly Street publishes a book in its New Poets series (next year’s will be New Poets 17) that features manuscripts from three poets who haven’t previously had a collection of their work published. The three poets are chosen by an independent judge who judges the entries anonymously, ie the entrants don’t know who the judge is and the judge doesn’t know the identity of the entrants. This year there were 15 entrants, with some highly regarded poets among them. I was relaxed about the result, quite ready to accept that the work of others might be of higher quality than mine and that they would be chosen ahead of me. Two years ago I had entered this competition and had been a runner-up. People who know me and my work thought that this year I had a good chance of being selected. It was a pleasant surprise for me to not only be chosen in the final three but for the judge to say that I was her first choice and to recommend that my manuscript appear first in the book. There will be an initial launch of the book at Writers Week in March, with a more substantial launch probably on the 12 or 13 of April – I’ll let you know the details to come in due course. The judge was Kate Deller-Evans, a Flinders Uni academic and respected poet. I’ve got to know her in recent years, but Diana has known her for much longer, having looked after her small children some years ago at the Flinders Uni child care centre. Kate had a great affection for Diana and admired her for her child-care skills. When Kate learnt the names of the authors of the manuscripts she had awarded, she was delighted to find that all three of us were people she knew. One of the other three, Rachael Mead, is a younger up-and-coming poet who is making a name for herself, and I’m pleased to be in the same book with her. The other winner is a bloke who hasn’t been involved with Friendly Street, and I don’t know him at all, although, of course, we started to get to know each other on Tuesday night. He read some poems later in the evening, and they made a good impression. My manuscript is called ‘Fence Music’, which is the title of one of the poems in the collection.

On the same night, I received a Poem of the Month award for a poem I’d read the previous month (October), the first time this has happened for me in the three years I’ve been regularly going to Friendly Street. Perhaps 50 to 60 poems are read each month. As a winner of Poem of the Month you get a certificate, and the poem gets a prominent place on the Friendly Street website for the following month.

Cheers

John

November 15, 2011

Frank and Ross,

In the attached document I’m sending you a copy of a brief talk I gave on Saturday about what I understand some of the key characteristics of progressive Christianity to be. I thought it might be of interest to you. The PC Net occasion was a gathering of about 40 representatives from progressive communities (churches or groups within churches), and also some individuals, from across the state, to establish contact between groups, provide support and encouragement, and to explore how PCNet can continue to be of help to them. It turned out to be a good day. We kept the presentations short, and most of the time was spent with people in groups getting to know each other and sharing ideas.

Frank, I was pleased to see that you liked Borg’s book Speaking Christian.

Both of you might like to think about attending the official farewell service for our minister, Sean Gilbert, on Sunday, 11th December, 10.00 am. I’m one of the people planning the service, and I think it would be a fitting acknowledgement of what Sean has given to this community over 16 years and a fitting farewell. We plan to do some unusual and creative things. He’s not actually finishing until the end of the year (Christmas time).

I’m looking forward to catching up again on 8 December.

John  

What is progressive Christianity?

John Pfitzner November 2011

One of the characteristics of what is known as progressive Christianity is the acknowledging that each person’s faith journey is unique and that people are all at different places on the journey and cannot be expected to all conform to a particular belief system or particular way of living out and expressing their Christian faith, and this leads to an acceptance and valuing of each individual’s personal story.

My own background was in the Lutheran Church, which here in Australia is very conservative. My father was a pastor, and I followed in his footsteps by also being ordained. I worked as a pastor at Murray Bridge, Hermannsburg NT (an Aboriginal community, where I learnt the local language) and North Adelaide. I then changed career by working at Openbook Publishers, Adelaide, as publishing editor and then ERA Publications as copyeditor.

About ten years ago, I found myself becoming bold enough to acknowledge that I was questioning many of the Christian doctrines I’d grown up with and had been taught, and I felt I was in danger of losing my faith. But I came across a couple of books that introduced me to new ways of viewing Christianity and what it means to be a Christian: Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity.

About the same time my wife and I found our way to Christ Church Uniting, Wayville, which put me in touch with an organisation I wasn’t previously familiar with, the Progressive Christianity Network SA (PCNet). PCNet became important to me as I ventured further along the progressive pathway, providing support and encouragement from people on the same journey and stimulation and pointers from progressive writers and speakers. I was invited to join the committee some years ago, and a year ago I became chair of the committee.

There is some debate, among progressive Christians themselves, about the appropriateness of the term ‘progressive Christianity’. The word ‘progressive’ has simply arisen as a way of referring to a particular form of Christianity, and it continues to be used in the absence of any other term that has gained widespread support.

The word ‘progressive’ has the word ’progress’ in it, which suggests some kind of forward movement. Also in other areas besides religion, ‘progressive’ tends to be seen as the opposite of ‘conservative’. Christians with a more conservative outlook tend to focus on faithfully preserving the traditions of the past, their religious heritage. People with a more progressive outlook tend to see the need for the tradition to keep evolving in response to changes in the world. In a book entitled The Dishonest Church, its author, Jack Good, speaks of those who are ‘chaos intolerant’ (conservative people who don’t like change) and those who are ‘chaos tolerant’ (people who welcome change). Progressives are chaos tolerant people. They are comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and unanswered questions.

I would describe progressive Christians as generally being people who are open to new ideas, who are adventurous and exploratory in their thinking. In many cases they are disillusioned with the more traditional, orthodox forms of church, whose doctrines, in many cases, they no longer find convincing and helpful. They tend to be people who are looking for a way of being Christian that fits with their 21st-century worldview.

One of the summary descriptions of progressive Christianity that I find most helpful is in Hal Taussig’s book A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots. The book resulted from a year-long study that Taussig made of a large number of progressive congregations across the USA, involving all denominations, large and small congregations, congregations in cities and in rural areas. These lively congregations varied greatly in regard to character and primary focus, but Taussig nevertheless identified five characteristics that tended to be common to them all: spiritual vitality, intellectual integrity, transgressing gender boundaries, vitality without superiority, and justice and ecology.

The spiritual vitality of these congregations results from worship activities that are creative, innovative and participatory and that make use of the arts. These communities place great emphasis on creating an environment in which people can develop an authentic spirituality. Taussig contrasts the deeply involving and spiritually nourishing forms of worship in these churches with what he calls the ‘sleepwalking liturgies’ of some traditional mainline churches.

Taussig’s second characteristic is ‘intellectual integrity’. Progressive Christians are not content to unquestioningly accept things on authority. They don’t want to be required to give assent to doctrines that conflict with their worldview. When they come to church, they don’t want to have to leave their brains at the door. They want a form of Christian belief and practice to which they can give their wholehearted intellectual assent; they want it to make sense. And so they tend to be people who ask questions and are open to new ways of understanding and expressing what it means to be Christian. They also tend to be people who have more questions than answers, but who are comfortable with this. If asked to say what they believe, they are inclined to say, ‘This is what I believe today. Ask me again tomorrow, and the answer might be different.’

Taussig’s third characteristic of progressive congregations he describes as ‘transgressing gender boundaries’. Progressive Christian communities tend to have been strongly influenced by feminism and feminist theology and by a new understanding of homosexuality and new attitudes towards people of a wide range of sexual orientation: gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons. For progressive Christians, opposition to misogynist attitudes and homophobia and the promotion of full equality of women and gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people in the life and leadership of the church are not peripheral issues but are central. Progressives recognize that it can sometimes be a difficult process, within themselves and within society, to change deeply conditioned attitudes and behaviour in these areas, but this is something they are committed to.

Taussig’s fourth characteristic, ‘vitality without superiority’, mainly refers to the attitude taken by progressive Christians to people of other faiths or people of no faith.  Progressive Christians don’t try to downplay or denigrate their own religious identity, even though some are sometimes uncomfortable about labelling themselves as Christian. They acknowledge that their own religious practice is based in Christianity. But, unlike many Christians, they don’t claim a unique status for Christianity as the only true religion or the only means of salvation. They not only tend to have a tolerant attitude toward other religions but also are actively interested in learning from them.

Finally, Taussig notes that progressive Christians tend to have a particularly strong interest in matters of social justice and ecology. This is in contrast with more conservative forms of Christianity that tend to focus on areas of personal morality, often especially sexual morality.

Marcus Borg is an American theologian whose writings are significant for many progressive Christians, and in his books he speaks of progressive Christianity as a new paradigm in contrast to the earlier paradigm of traditional orthodox Christian belief. In The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, written in collaboration with a more conservative scholar, N T Wright, Borg uses five adjectives to describe the earlier paradigm: literalistic, doctrinal, moralistic, exclusivistic, and afterlife oriented (p 231). We can get an understanding of the newer paradigm (which Borg also refers to as progressive Christianity) by seeing how it differs from what is expressed in these five adjectives.

Progressive Christianity is not strongly doctrinal in nature. Instead of seeing correct doctrines as being at the centre of Christianity, it focuses more on developing an authentic spirituality and in being open to multiple ways of understanding and expressing what it means to be Christian.

Instead of being moralistic, primarily interested in personal morality and overcoming sinfulness, progressive Christianity, as we have seen, is more interested in issues of social justice and ecology.

As we have seen, progressive Christianity is not exclusivistic; it does not see Christianity as having an absolute truth and as being the only true religion. It is inclusive of all people, irrespective of their faith or lack of faith, their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

And instead of being focused on the afterlife, progressive Christianity keeps its focus very much on this life, on finding and working for ‘salvation’ (peace and justice) here and now, for oneself but also especially for society and the whole world.

In regard to PCNet and its place within the broader movement of progressive Christianity, I simply mention here what is on the PCNetSA website: ww.pcnetsa.org

The progressive Christianity Network of South Australia:

  • is a fluid forum of people where there is no formal membership but a sense of community, mutual respect and acceptance
  • is drawn largely from various strands of the Christian heritage
  • welcomes people from other traditions and approaches to faith and meaning
  • provides encouragement and support; a safe place for people to explore questions and alternatives
  • is linked informally with kindred groups and organizations nationally and internationally

OUR ORIGINS

The impetus form the Progressive Christianity Network of South Australia arose out a visit to Adelaide by Bishop John Shelby Spong in June 2001. PCNetSA operates under auspices of the Effective Living Centre which is located at Christ Church Uniting Church in Wayville, an inner city suburb of Adelaide.

Since formation, PCNetSA has continued to explore fresh ideas and contemporary faith issues, with regular forums, study groups and visiting speakers, some from overseas.

We recognize that theologians, scholars and others have been engaged in study, research and discussion about so-called ‘progressive’ ideas within Christianity for many years. This scholarship and freedom of thought was not widely available in the past. However, it now provides us all with rich and varied resources.

John Pfitzner November 2011

John’s Christmas letter, December, 2011   

                                                                                       4 English Avenue, Clovelly Park SA 5042

Poetry continues to be an important part of my life. I’m involved with Friendly Street Poets, Poetica (a poetry writing group), and Poets Corner at the Effective Living Centre. In April we launched Sorcerers and Soothsayers, the Friendly Street anthology I co-edited with Tracey Korsten last year. At present I’m part of a national team putting together the first anthology of work by members of Australian Poetry, the new national body that came into existence earlier this year. In the new year I will have my first collection of poetry published, together with two other poets in the same volume, in New Poets 17, part of a Friendly Street series for poets who haven’t previously had a collection of their work published. Out of the 15 entries in this year’s competition, my manuscript, Fence Music, was placed first by the judge, Kate Deller-Evans. The book (published by Wakefield Press) will have an initial launch at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March and a more substantial launch in early April.

Diana, sometimes with my involvement, has spent a lot of time this year helping to look after our three grandchildren: Lachlan (four) and the twins Thomas and William (two and a half). She has continued with her French classes this year. She also provides a lot of help to her 92-year-old mother, Joyce McCrea.

Our church community at Christ Church, Wayville, with its creative, participatory services and other activities, continues to be important for us. A highlight in October was having Julie Perrin, a storyteller from Melbourne, as artist in residence for a week. We’re sad our minister, Sean Gilbert, is leaving us at the end of the year. This year I’ve been chair of the Progressive Christianity Network (SA).

In May we flew to Sydney for Emily’s graduation ceremony: Master of Labour Law and Relations from the University of Sydney. Other trips, together with other people, have been to Kangaroo island, the River Murray (houseboat), Flinders Ranges, and Port Victoria on Yorke Peninsula.

Our favourite novels for this year, chosen from a long list, include the following for Diana – The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks, The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht, Home, Marilynne Robinson, and State of Wonder, Ann Parchett; for me – Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks,The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, Ransom, David Malouf, The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht, and Hand Me Down World, Lloyd Jones.

Some of the films we particularly enjoyed this year, including a couple from last December, were The King’s Speech, Sarah’s Key, Fair game, Rabbit Hole, Incendies, Of Gods and Men, and Midnight in Paris, and the documentaries Mrs Carey’s Concert, Senna, and Pina.

We send our best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

With Love, John and Diana.

YEAR 2012

In the March, 2012 PCNet Newsletter was a book review by John:

Christianity after Religion; The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening:  Diana Butler Bass

In this illuminating and lucid book, Diana Butler Bass takes readers on a helpful and hopeful journey through the often chaotic and confusing landscape of present-day Christianity in America, but also in other parts of the world. As the book’s subtitle indicates, her claim is that the church, as an expression of traditional institutionalised religion, is coming to an end. The ‘old-time religion’ is finished and cannot be recovered. But this is not a reason for regret or despair, because emerging at the same time is what she calls ‘a new spiritual awakening’.

Conventional religion is failing and a new form of faith, which some call ‘spirituality’ and can also be called religio, is being born. This is a new spiritual awakening … part of a complex web of spiritual renewal throughout the world, which is in the process of reshaping most religions by emphasizing relationships, practices, and experience that connects people to a deeper awareness of self, to their neighbours in global community, and to God. (p 259)

Awakenings begin, Butler Bass says, when old systems break down and people lose faith in conventional beliefs, practices and organisations, and they are times of cultural revitalisation involving a basic restructuring of institutions and redefinitions of social goals.

After an introductory chapter, the book’s contents are arranged in three parts. Part I, ‘The End of Religion’ (three chapters), uses polling data, surveys, statistics and Butler Bass’s own research to outline the breakdown of religion, especially in the past decade. Part II, ‘A New Vision’ (four chapters), proposes that the search for a new vision is well under way in the form of a faith that is experiential. Part III, ‘Awakening’ (two chapters), turns towards what is happening now and what can happen in the future as the awakening moves from vision to practice.

In the book’s first section, Butler Bass investigates the growing phenomenon of people identifying themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’. She suggests that rather than ‘spirituality’ being seen as something vague and meaningless, as some view it, it can be seen as both a considered critique of institutional religion and a longing for meaningful connection.

She says:

As the old gods (and the institutions that preached, preserved, and protected the old gods) lose credibility, people begin to cast about for new gods – and new stories, new paths, and new understandings to make sense of their new realities. (p 68)

In the second part of the book, Butler Bass looks in turn at the three basic elements of religious faith – believing (what do I believe?), practising (how should I act?), and belonging (who am I?) – and shows how all three are being understood differently now from how they were in the past. Believing is being seen in terms of experience rather than adherence to doctrines. There is a new stress on the cultivation of devotional and ethical practices that are life-giving and fulfilling. And people are involved in a new quest for belonging in terms that are relational and communal.

In the last section, Butler Bass explains how the conservative backlash that has occurred during the eighties and nineties is evidence of the strength of the new awakening. The conservative resurgence slowed the changes that began in the 1960s and ’70s but has not halted them. The conservative forces, which at one time were growing and were seen as the upholders of authentic Christianity, are also now in steep decline.

Butler Bass’s analysis is well-founded, clear and persuasive. She writes in a lively and engaging way, making use of personal anecdotes, which makes the book a delight to read.

In the last chapter the author suggests practical ways in which Christians can respond constructively to the new developments taking place. She concludes by saying:

This awakening will not be the last in human history, but it is our awakening. It is up to us to move with the Spirit instead of against it, to participate in making our world more humane, just, and loving. (p 269)

Reviewer: John Pfitzner (HarperOne, 2012, hardcover, 293 pages)

April 24,  2012

Ross and Sadie

I’m writing to invite you to the launch of New Poets 17, in which my first collection of poems, ‘Fence Music’ has been published (Wakefield Press and Friendly Street Poets).

The launch will be on Saturday 19 May, 6:00pm for 6:30pm start, at The Box Factory, 59 Regent Street South Adelaide (between Halifax Street and Carrington Street). There will be wine (and other drinks) and a good array of finger food.

The book is being launched by Mike Ladd, distinguished poet, and producer and presenter of ‘Poetica’, the weekly poetry program on ABC Radio National.

I’d be delighted if you could come.

Best Wishes

John

July 4, 2012

Ross and Sadie,

I’m writing to invite you to my 70th birthday party:

          Saturday18 August from 7.00 pm

          Christ Church (Uniting Church), 26 King William Road, Wayville

          Whistler wines (Barossa Valley) and soft drinks

          Finger food

          Music by the Zephyr String Quartet

          Poetry lucky dip

          No presents thanks

          RSVP this email address, or phone 82765173

August 9, 2012

Frank and Ross,

Thanks for the birthday meal you shouted me last night. For me it was a splendid introduction to the birthday celebratory period and as stimulating a get-together as ever.

Attached is the poem which was awarded Friendly Street Poem of the Month for July. Others who have read or heard the poem have been unsure about the meaning of ‘louche’. My Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘sinister; disreputable; devious’. For me it has connotations of ‘dirty old man’. It’s a French word that, according to the dictionary, means ‘cross-eyed’.

Best wishes to you both – wise spiritual advisers and trusty companions with me on the journey.

John

The Auslan interpreter at Writers’ Week

I’m paying more attention to her

than to the celebrity writer being

interviewed on the outdoor stage,

as she effects a kind of incarnation,

makes the word become flesh,

the precision and elegance of her gestures

like those of an artist giving a performance,

a virtuoso pianist or dancer,

seated high on a stool to be clearly seen,

her black clothing a sightscreen

for her fair-skinned hands,

the translation following

the spoken words closely enough

for some signs to be recognized –

‘ah, that’s how they say it –’

seeming to handle with ease

the pair’s improvised discussion

of sometimes complex concepts,

and when the word ‘louche’ is used

and for a moment I fear her ability

to convey this uncommon word,

I feel like applauding when I see

and her tongue loll from

the corner of her mouth.

John Pfitzner June 2012

August 20, 2012

Ross,

What a thrill it was for me to unwrap your present and find Batavia.  I have a feeling we talked about it at one of our meals, and I seem to recall that you’ve read it yourself and that you were impressed by it. It’s a book I’ve been interested in since I read one or two reviews of it when it appeared. I really enjoy this kind of history writing, and I’m looking forward to reading it. Thank you for the gift. It was very kind of you.

You and Frank obviously did a good job of livening up the party, because everyone seems to have enjoyed themselves. I enjoyed it too. There were times when Diana and I wondered if we could pull it off, but we were thrilled with the outcome. As you know, I was a bit concerned about whether I’d done the right thing in engaging the string quarter, but it seems to have been a big hit, at least with all the people I’ve heard from.

I was interested in your comments about theism and deism and your attraction to the latter. I’m sorry about the joke I attempted after you had spoken about this, which could have sounded as if I was belittling what you had said. What I was really wanting to do was convey to Sean and Christine how much I appreciate and feel I have benefited from my friendship with you and Frank.

I thought one of the highlights of the nights, which still cracks me up, was Norm talking on his mobile in the middle of my speech as if he was on his own on a footpath somewhere. 

Today in the post I received from Amazon a book called Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity by David M Felton and Jeff Proctor-Murphy. I’m not sure if it will tell me a lot I don’t know, but it’s well written and looks like a good summary of progressive Christian ideas and approaches.

Thanks again for your gift. I appreciate and value highly our friendship. May it long continue.

Best Wishes

John

November 16, 2012

This letter the author sent to a retired lecturer from the Seminary in response to a communication from him. As with past communications along these lines I felt comfortable using John’s editorial/ censoring skills to avoid any offence and his reply follows this letter.

Dear Pastor

Re: Extract from Professor Hans Schwarz: Responsible faith, page 102

Thank you for the above written by a theological giant of the Lutheran Church with many writings to his name relating to the church and science. I found it interesting in many parts. The reference to Bruno was fascinating to me as I have just read Morris West’s last book (which I can’t now find!) devoted to the life of just that man. Of interest Morris West died just before he completely finished the book. Also, Spinoza, who was one of Einstein’s heroes.

The Professor’s bit on theism and deism does not use the accepted meanings of these two terms I believe, although the terms were more in usage in the 19th century. Other quotes he sees fit to include, ‘pantheism is only a euphemism for atheism’, seems to me, with all respect, a nonsense.

Nevertheless, I found the article interesting but with much of it I would disagree, as you would imagine. You perhaps do not realise just how far I have moved on from what you would call ‘the true faith’. ‘Sad’, I hear you say, but I am doggedly sticking to the tenet that ‘unafraid and questioning minds are essential in the pursuit of truth’. Surprisingly my spiritual life has launched itself into unimaginable realms since I have loosed myself from former rigid shackles.

It is with considerable misgivings that I enclose an essay I wrote last year (for my own interest)[6], but as you have shown such a concern for my welfare, which I appreciate by the way, I have over-ridden my reticence and am sending you a print anyway. Most certainly you will disagree with most of it so I suggest you put it in the bin when finished (if perchance you get that far!!). At least it will explain my position as a member of the ‘church alumni’ and you will see just how far I have strayed.

One other reason that persuades me is that I believe the Church should make itself aware of contemporary Christian scholarship and loosen its stance on being so rigid on doctrine and dogma particularly in the delivery of sermons. I doubt that I heard any fresh ideas in a sermon in the 50 years I attended – a harsh statement I know but regrettably true. I know I did hear rumblings among the attending clergy in North Adelaide after a sermon that was not quite absolute dinky die Lutheran doctrine!

One final observation. You do pursue lost souls with a terrier-like determination – a characteristic which I have heard (from good authority) that you demonstrated in your youth as a rover on the football field! The church at large should applaud you!

With my very best wishes,

Ross

November 19, 2012

Ross

I don’t see that the letter should cause offence. There is nothing in it that is nasty or discourteous. On the contrary, you are polite and appreciative of what he has offered you, and you finish with a touch of humour. It’s true that you are frank and honest in presenting your views and indicating where you differ or take issue with material you received from him, but this is better than being evasive in order to spare his feelings, and, especially for an academic, who presumably is used to the cut and thrust of intellectual debate, an honest expression of opinion should be welcome rather than something to take offence at.

I think it’s good that you feel secure in your views and convictions to engage with him in this way. Good on you!

Looking forward to meeting up with you and Frank on the 29th.

Best Wishes,

John

November 30, 2012

Frank and Ross

I look forward to our times together over good food and wine and always come away refreshed. Thanks for another stimulating evening.

Attached are two poems. ‘My Father’s Hands’ and ‘Pointless’.

My Father’s hands

People shaking hands with him

found their hands had shrunk

but felt his clasp like

a fleecy coat against the cold,

a promise that all would be well,

When we were small,

we threw ourselves, fearless,

from the cupboard’s height

into those safety-net hands.

A farm boy, he grew tall

on cream, butter, bacon, mutton,

developed photos late at night,

learnt piano from Professor Hopf

and won the local talent quest.

His schooling finished,

he worked the paddocks with teams of horses,

sewed and lumped wheat bags,

almost lost his hand

caught in the wheel of a cart,

could have bled to death

gored in the thigh by a Jersey bull.

Then, in his twenties

he left the farm he was due to inherit,

studied, became a pastor,

sowing the seed, feeding the flock,

reaping fields ripe for harvest,

and at the end of each service

lifting his hands over the congregation

to pronounce the benediction –

          The Lord bless you and keep you…

          make his face shine on you…

          lift up his countenance upon you…

          give you peace –

returning the people to their weekday lives

blessed, in good hands.

John Pfitzner, October, 2012

I could not help but feel that I sowed the seeds for this poem as it followed a conversation between John and me when I reminisced about the times when I was a parishioner of Carl Pfitzner, and when he held up his hands for the blessing at the end of each service I observed how massive they were, ‘The hands of a farmer and a ruckman’.  

Pointless

for Graham, who is mad on sport

but sees no use for poetry.

You’re right, there’s no point

to poetry. It’s as useless

as a Michael Clarke cover drive

with a dancing foot work,

body balanced, head steady,

weight gliding to the front foot,

the almost lazy sweep of the bat,

the perfect timing and rhythm,

the flow of the follow-through,

the seemingly effortless elegance,

which changes nothing, adds nothing

to the sum of human knowledge,

rights no wrongs, cures no diseases,

provides no food for the starving,

as pointless as a poem

with language that dances down the pitch,

gives itself room and launches

its outrageous idea, its subtle,

observation high over midwicket

and into the members stand

with perfect timing, rhythm and

seemingly effortless eloquence.

John Pfitzner, October 2011

This Christmas letter was to be my last communication with John, so it is included unedited.

Christmas letter from John and Diana, December, 2012

Writing poetry has continued to be an important part of my life (John’s) this year, and a particular thrill was to have one of my poems selected for inclusion in The Best Australian Poems 2012 (edited by John Tranter, published by Black Inc.). Earlier in the year, my first collection, Fence music was published in Friendly Street’s New Poets 17 (Wakefield Press),with a preliminary launch at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March and a more lavish launch, by Mike Ladd, in May. One of my mini-poems was accepted for the public art project Signs ofLife in Bowen Street,organised by Mike Ladd, involving the installation of poems and artwork in Bowen Street in the city. More recently the poems and artwork appeared in an attractive booklet. In June and July I took part in readings in the Art Gallery of South Australia in connection with the exhibition South Australia Illustrated: Colonial Painting in the Land of Promise,reading two of my poems. In October I was winner of the masters’ division of the Open Your Mind poetry competition in connection with Mental Health Week. The prize is to have one’s winning poem incorporated in a painting by local artist Sue Morizzi. This is the second time I’ve been a winner in this competition.

 In November I took part in a reading in St Bartholomew’s Church, Norwood, in connection with a project, organized by Aiden Coleman and Tom Sullivan, in which they invited people to write poems about the stained glass windows in the church. One of the two poems I read at the event was included in a published selection called Light and Glorie. In July we drove to Melbourne   where I read some of my work at the Eltham New Voices festival. This year, for the fourth successive year, I will have poems included in the annual Friendly Street Poets anthology. I regularly read at Friendly Street Poets events and am an active member of my poetry writing group (Poetica) and the poetry appreciation group at the Effective Living Centre (Poets Corner).

This year Diana’s 93-year-old mother, Joyce McCrea, needing a higher level of care, shifted to St Louis Nursing Home, Parkside. Diana visits her regularly and helps her in many ways. Like many grandparents, we help in looking after grandchildren – Lachlan (5) and the twins Thomas and William (3½) – and we get a lot of pleasure from this. Diana contributes a lot more in this regard than I do. Diana has continued with WEA French lessons this year. Our church community continues to be important to us, and I’m a member of the Church Council and the effective Living Centre Management Committee. I’m also chair of the Progressive Christianity Network of South Australia and editor of the network’s newsletter, for which I usually contribute a book review.

Our son Martin and his wife Sue recently completed the building of a two-storey holiday house in Goolwa. We look forward to spending some time with them there after Christmas.

We were delighted when our son David and Cathy Hayles recently announces their engagement. They plan to marry in the latter part of next year.

Our daughter Emily, living in Sydney, began a new job this year as Principal Advisor in the Capability section of the NSW government’s Public Service Commission.

For those of you who are interested, here are our best books (novels) and films for the year: My best books, in the order in which they were read: Autumn Lain,  Alex Miller; Sarah Thornhill, Kate Grenville; Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain; All That I Am, Anna Funder (winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Award); Bring Up the Bodies, Hillary mantel (winner of this year’s Booker Prize: Canada, Richard Ford; Flight Behaviour, Barbara Kingsolver. If I had to pick a winner, it would probably be the idiosynchratic Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which is a very funny but a deadly serious indictment of our tendency to glorify war. But before you rush out to buy it, be warned that it’s about a group of US soldiers back from Iraq whose main preoccupations are booze and sex.

Diana’s best books (the top five listed in order of preference): All That I Am, Anna Funder; Abide With Me, Elizabeth Strout; Autumn Laing, Alex Miller; The Red Queen, Margaret Drabble; Five Bells, Gail Jones; The Cellist in Sarajevo, Stephen Galloway; Foal’s Bread, Gillian Mears; The Dove Keepers, Alice Hoffman; Addition, Toni Jordan; Sarah Thornhill, Kate Grenville.

Some of the films that Diana particularly liked this year were: Trishna; Margin Call; Elena; A Royal Affair; Margaret; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Your Sister’s Sister; Argo. To which I’d add A Separation; The Sessions; Melancholia (a strange film that many couldn’t stand but which I found beautiful and haunting).

We send you our love and best wishes for Christmas and the New Year.

John and Diana

 YEAR 2013

January 28, 2013

Ross,

A phone message a few minutes ago told that our great friend John Pfitzner had died in his sleep overnight. I feel devastated, but it’s helpful to tell those who will understand before they find out elsewhere.

Frank

John was an enthusiastic member of  Poetica which he mentioned in his correspondence. One of the things that Poetica do each month is set ‘homework’ – a poem-writing challenge. The last homework for 2012 was to write a poem beginning with the first line ‘When Death comes …’

This is the last poem John wrote for Poetica. The irony of life.

When Death Comes

1.

When death comes,

like a tradesman turning up at the door,

apologising for not giving advance notice,

or perhaps for having kept me waiting,

I want to greet him as someone I’ve got to know over the years,

whose sometimes crude methods I haven’t always approved of,

but whose crucial role in my life I’ve come to appreciate –

without his work over eons,

higher life forms couldn’t have evolved

and I would never have been born.

I don’t want to make things hard for him;

he’ll be flat out, with bigger jobs to attend to

than disposing of me.

2.

when death comes

like a transcontinental train pulling in to the station –

which I’ll board without any carry-on luggage

I want to sit with my back to the engine,

watching the receding scenery,

enjoying the view before the darkness of the tunnel.

I don’t want to waste any time

speculating about possible destinations.

3.

When death comes,

like removalists parking their van in the street,

come to take everything away,

I want to have already given a fond farewell to

a lifetime of acquisitions,

happy to entrust them to others,

knowing that not all will be loved and kept.

I don’t want to find, when everything else is gone,

that my innermost cupboard is bare,

swept clean of the ability

to be astonished, to be moved, to be human.

John Pfitzner, October, 2012

March 6, 2013

Frank Altmann, one of our triumvirate, composed this tribute to John.

John Pfitzner – a personal tribute

When my great friend died suddenly I was immobilized with grief to the extent that I could not muster any coherent response. Now the tears have dried I will attempt to pen a tribute, in essence by listing some of the many things I learnt from him.

I achieved such rapport with John that in discussions with him, I often felt I was talking to myself, and at the same time receiving a second opinion on my innermost thoughts.

These things I have learnt,

  • that the English language is a unique means of communication, which we should cherish and develop.
  • that scholarship, intellectual integrity, and knowledge are of prime importance in a secular world which values fame and fortune.
  • to push oneself to the limit physically is a unique experience, and if shared in a team effort, can be exhilarating. With the proviso that after the match is over we realize that we were only big boys playing little boys’ games.
  • art, music, theatre, films, literature, and poetry are not just cultural pleasures, but can be sources of inspiration.
  • to stand in awe at the wonders of Nature, science and the cosmos can have a spiritual dimension.
  • that despite my fundamentalist upbringing, I should not feel guilty at expressing  doubt or ignorance, or to change my mind in the light      of new-found knowledge.
  • that a childhood indoctrination is not a true life-long belief, and to admit one does not have all the answers is not a sin, but a challenge to explore and formulate a personal faith for today.
  • that the most precious asset in life is the trust, acceptance, and respect of a fellow human being in a bond termed friendship.

Frank Altmann

One final poem from John:

A Modest God

At the grand Canyon,

souvenir plaques

extol god’s creation

and invite us to marvel

at the work of his hands. ’

Next day, down from

the heights, in the

broken-down country

left to the Indians, I ask

‘Isn’t this god’s creation too?’

Don’t sell me a god

of grand gestures,

an attention seeker

craving recognition,

showing off to tourists.

Give me a modest god

of subtle artistry,

hidden in the hard country,

ready to rough it

with the rest of us.

John Pfitzner July, 2008

Epilogue

All too infrequently does one come across a fellow traveller in life whose influence is profound enough to change one’s paradigm of thinking.  Usually it is a teacher at school in one’s formative years. Occasionally it occurs later as one is being taught his or her trade or profession. Rarely does a change occur in the evening of one’s life.  

The author is greatly indebted to John’s influence in guiding his worldview towards a more expansive and inclusive cosmic evolutionary way of thinking. Our meals together over the several years we met, were themselves evolutionary, as we explored new ideas and different ways of thinking. We were able to express fresh ideas without any hint of embarrassment and received instant feedback on these ideas – a rare and precious experience for each of us.

Good things in life must be savored and embraced as all too soon the moment passes, all too often never to be recaptured.

Frank Altmann and the author mourn John’s passing but his legacy in our lives will never be erased.

A Tribute

How’ve you been JP?

Things aren’t the same since you left,

So quick it was,

No time to say goodbye,

Caught us unawares;

You being so young,

So strong, so healthy,

So much more to offer.

The day went off well – sort of,

Not how you would want,

Lots of ‘In the name of …’

As you were wont to say.

Many spoke about your life,

But the essence went unspoken –

Your struggles, your triumphs,

The important things that made you.

No-one now to push the frontiers,

No-one to blaze a trail,

We thought of one or two

But they all came up short;

Your vision was way ahead,

Further than we dared to think,

Truth, unbound by orthodoxy,

An unafraid and questioning mind.

Gentle, uncompromising,

Refusing to be bogged down

With feet of clay, in the doctrines

And dogmas of your upbringing,

Soaring like an eagle

Into clear uncharted skies,

Giving visions to those around you –

Those prepared to listen.

Your life an unfinished symphony,

With refreshing chords, resonant

Among those of many persuasions;

Those without a doctrinaire bent,

Those honest in the pursuit of truth.

Our worldview changes,

Cosmos and evolution

Enter our spiritual world.

Your headstone looks a treat;

A poem is etched,

‘One Day’ – one of your best –

‘One day you finally knew’…

Spring is in the air,

It’s been a cold winter,

The buds are swelling,

The odd blossom bursting …

Are you happy now?

I somehow think you are.

The cycle moves on,

We play our small roles.

We thought to set

The record straight,

But on second thoughts,

You wouldn’t want it.

                             Ross Johnson, August, 2014

Bibliography

Bass, Diana Butler, Christianity after Religion, Weekly Religion Bookline, 2013.

Beutner, Edward F., ed., Listening to the Parables of Jesus, Jesus Seminar Guides, Vol 2, (2007).

Borg, Marcus and Wright N.T., The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions           HarperCollins Publishers Inc N.Y. 2007.

Borg, Marcus, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Zondervan Publisher, 2009.

Borg, Marcus, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, HarperCollins   Religious, US, 2002.

Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power, HarperOne, 2014.

Borg, Marcus, The God We Never Knew, Harper Collins, 1998.

Borg, Marcus, The Heart of Christianity, HarperCollins, US, 2004

Borg, Marcus, with Crossan, JD., The First Christmas, Harper Collins, 2009.

Borg, Marcus, with Crossan, JD., The First Paul, Harper Collins, 2010.

Borg, Marcus, with Crossan, JD., The Last Week, HarperCollins Publishers, 2007,

Borg, Marcus, with N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, Harper Collins, US, 2004.

Brown, Delwin, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? Seabury Books, 2004.

Crossan, John Dominic, A Long Way from Tipperary, HarperOne SanFrancisco, 2001.

Crossan, John Dominic, Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography, Harper One, 2009, HarperCollins, 2007. 

Eisenbaum, Pamela, Paul was not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle, HarperOne, 2010.

Felton, David M. and Proctor-Murphy, Jeff, Living the Question: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, HarperOne, 2012.

Funk, Robert W. and Hoover, Roy W., The Five Gospels:What Did Jesus Really Say?  Harper Collins, 1993.

Funk, Robert, The Acts of Jesus:What Did Jesus Really Do? Harper Collins, 1998.

Funk, Robert, The Once and Future Faith; The Jesus Seminar , Polebridge Press, 2000.

Funk, Robert, The Once and Future Jesus; The Jesus Seminar , Polebridge Press, 2000.

Geering, Lloyd, Christianity Without God, Bridget Williams Books, 2015.

Good, Jack, The Dishonest Church, Rising Star Press, 2003. 

Hedrick, Charles W., ed., When Faith Meets Reason, Polebridge Press, 2005.

Holloway, Richard, Doubts and Loves; What is Left of Christianity, Cannongate Books, 2005.

McLaren, Brian D., A Generous Orthodoxy, Zondervan Publisher, 2009.

Miller, Robert J., ed.,The Future of the Christian Tradition, The JesusSeminar, Polebridge Press, 2007.

Pope Benedict  XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Doubleday  Publishers, 2007.

Sanguin, Bruce, Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2007.

Scott, Bernard Brandon, ed., The Resurrection of Jesus: a Sourcebook, Polebridge press, 2008.

Scott, Burnard Brandon, ed., Finding the Historical Jesus: Rules of Evidence. Jesus Seminar Guides, Vol 3, (2008).   

Scott, Burnard Brandon, ed., Jesus Reconsidered: Scholarship in the Public Eye, Jesus Seminar Guides,Vol 1 (2007).

Spong, J.B., Jesus for the Non-Religious, HarperCollins, N.Y., 2008.

Spong, J.B., Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Harper Collins, US., 1993.

Spong, J.B., The Sins of the Scripture, HarperOne, 2006.

Spong, J.B., Why Christianity Must Change or Die, HarperCollins Publishers Inc. N.Y., 1999.

Taussig, Hal, A new Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots, Polebridge Press, 2008.

Vosper, Gretta, With or without God; Why the way We Live is more Important than What We Believe, HarperCollins, 2009.

Footnotes


[1] The author bumped into John at Bishop JB Spong’s talk at Wesley Church in Kent Town.

        ‘What are you doing here, Ross’ he exclaimed, ‘Don’t you know this guy is a heretic!’

[2] Frank Altmann. Frank recalls these lengthy discussions at a Chinese restaurant in Hahndorf following a  late afternoon round of golf. On several occasions the owner asked them to leave, as they close at midnight. He also recalls that considering his expertise in marking, palming and generally controlling a football, John was a relatively poor golfer. ‘In a perverse way this didn’t worry me – it made him human!’ said Frank.

[3] A close friend of Frank and former school teacher at Murray Bridge. He claims that he subscribed to the PC Newsletter solely to read John’s book reviews.

[4] The Mustard Seed – Immanuel Church Newsletter. Needless to say the letter was never published!

[5] Read this riveting passage again. ‘Panentheism’ incorporates this concept, as does much Hindu thought!   Ed.

[6] Entitled A Working man’s Credo.

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