Inkling Four: The Potential and Practice of Hospitality
by Sarah Cawdell
One of the more encouraging aspects, for me, of the Christian faith, is that we believe in a materialistic God. God created the world, we learn, from a place where there was only God before, and making space for that which is not God, the creator made
To God, matter matters – as Graham Kings has reminded us in one of his poems. Not only does matter matter, but God values it highly, and it would seem true that that which is made in the image of God is valued most highly by God. Though as we are the ones who write the stories, perhaps that is not so surprising.
However given the inevitable bias of our believing, we rejoice in God’s delight in the material, and have taken that delight as licence to explore the world, to develop what we have come to call our scientific knowledge. I know that there have been times when the church has, sure of its own beliefs, suppressed the development of knowledge of the universe, but I would still maintain that the basic positive attitude of the Christian faith towards the material universe has encouraged the development of science in the western world, and at such a time when the resources have been present to allow us to develop not only our knowledge, but the practical outworkings of that knowledge in development of industry and medicine, in education and most notably in recent years, in IT.
It is a matter for sorrow that in more recent years some scientists have seen fit to close their eyes to the possibilities offered by faith, and have abused science and theology in such a way as to drive a totally unnecessary wedge between the two. Beginning from the assumption that there is no need for God in the world is an easy way to write out the possibility of God; and God is humble, not insisting on a place in the scheme of things or forcing a way past stubborn mistrust of a false image of the divine. Such is the nature of a fallen humanity, and followers of the Way have not been without fault, allowing themselves to be drawn into a false debate, seeking an intellectual proof of the presence of one who cannot be confined by intellect, only reached towards.
However the point I am working towards, far too briefly for a proper engagement with the key issues, is the hospitality of this self-revealing God.
Not only does God draw back from filling all of space and time, to create another, but having created it God positively encourages the flourishing and development of the created order, and showers blessings, and the promise of blessings on humanity.
The overarching story of the people of God in the First Testament demonstrates the mercy and love of God, and God’s hospitality very nicely. We read in the story of Abram that moment where Abram welcomes God into his own home, making them comfortable with food and drink, and spending time in conversation. The promise of God is given then, that through Abraham all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. The story develops with the salvation of a people through the hospitality of another nation: Joseph is set in Egypt with wisdom, and experience to manage the famine so that there is enough for the survival not only of Egypt, but of other nations around, and most particularly Joseph’ own people. That hospitality turns sour as the generations pass, and the old stories are forgotten, or no longer counted as important. Moses is called, God shares his name, and in time reveals himself to all the people of Israel. A covenant is made, with expectations on both sides – if you keep my commandments you will be blessed, if you do not, you will reap the consequences of your actions. The people come into the Promised Land: a Land which is not their own, but is to be held in trust from God, for themselves and for their children. It is important that it is not hospitality but purity which drives the conquest of the Land, and the overthrow of the present inhabitants. From a theological understanding it is necessary to establish a pure place from which hospitality can be practised. There are clear boundaries in the practice of hospitality, which establish the proper activity of a home into which strangers are invited to share in, and sometimes to stretch the culture of that home.
So we hear of David Ford in Cambridge, alongside leaders in other faith traditions developing true dialogue between individuals and representatives of the people’s of the book, where all start from a firm belief in their own expression of worship, and of understanding the divine, but with openness of heart enrich their own faith by a deeper engagement with each other’s. This is a true display of the hospitality of God which allows conversation deep into the night, without a need to prove a point or score against the other.
The most pleasurable dinner parties may be those at which the conversation touches deep difference, and engages in robust discussion, but ends the evening over coffee and good brandy with mutual respect and an enlargement of the understanding of all present of the position of each other. The occasion where friends are safe enough with each other to open their differences as well as their similarities, and know that the relationship will not be harmed, but increased. These are occasions of the forming of community, reflecting the inner love of the Trinity which rejoices in difference, and finds unity in the uttermost self expression of each other.
A relationship which springs from a place of delight in exploration, of wonder at the mystery of the other, offers an enlargement of one’s own experience of the love of God, an entering into the overwhelming opportunity of encounter with the divine which every human engagement has the potential to mediate. We are fallen humanity, but not completely obliterating the divine nature whose image we are made in. Relentlessly the mercy of God offers life, love and self revelation through our relationships of hospitality with one another and the world in which we live.
Sarah Cawdell lives in Shropshire with her husband and three teenage children.