The Rev. Alan Jones
is Dean of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, California. Born
in England, Alan was educated there and at General Theological Seminary
in New York City, where he later founded the Center for Christian
Spirituality. Dr. Jones is a well-known writer and skilled storyteller.
Among his books on Christian spirituality are Passion for Pilgrimage,
Soul Making, and Sacrifice & Delight: Spirituality for
Ministry. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast
date noted above.]
In the beginning, before there were any beginnings and endings, there
was no place that was not already God! And we call this unimaginable
openness, “Ain Soph” – Being-without end. Then came the urge
to give life to our world and to us. But there was no place that was not
already God. So “Ain Soph” breathed in to make room, like a
father steps back so his child will walk to him. Into the emptiness
“Ain Soph” set vessels and began to fill them with divine
light, as a mother places bowls in which to pour her delicious soup. As
the light poured forth, a perfect world was being created! Think of it!
A world without greed and cruelty and violence! But then, something
happened. The bowls shattered. No one knows why. Perhaps the bowls were
too frail? Perhaps the light too intense? Perhaps “Ain Soph”
was learning. After all, no one makes perfect the first time. And with
the shattering of the bowls, divine sparks flew everywhere! Some rushing
back to “Ain Soph,” some falling, falling, trapped in the
broken shards to become our world, and us.
Though this is hard to believe, the perfect world is all around us,
but broken into jagged pieces, like a puzzle thrown to the floor, the
picture lost, each piece without meaning, until someone puts them back
together again. We are that someone. There is no one else. We are the
ones who can find the broken pieces, remember how they fit together and
rejoin them. This is the repairing of the world — the mending of
creation. In every moment, with every act, we can heal our world and us.
We are all holy sparks dulled by separation. But when we meet, and talk
and eat and make love, when we work and play and disagree with holiness
in our eyes, seeing “Ain Soph” everywhere, then our brokenness
will end, and our bowls will be strong enough to hold the light, and our
light will be gentle enough to fill the bowls. As we repair the world
together, we will learn that there is no place that is not God!
This generous and open-hearted God is not as alive and well in our
world as one might think. What we call “God” is sometimes
little more than a makeshift idol of our fears and prejudices. In fact,
the word “God” has a tortuous history! It is a revelation and
a threat to some people that the idea of God has changed over time. We
find it difficult to understand that the statement, `I believe in God’
has no “objective” meaning. It only means something in
context, when proclaimed by a particular community. Consequently there
is no one unchanging idea contained in the word “God”;
instead, the word can mean all sorts of things — some of which are
contradictory or even mutually exclusive. When one conception of God has
ceased to have meaning or relevance, it has been discarded and replaced
by a new theology. Many believers deny this vehemently. For them belief
is about timeless truths. True belief never changes or develops but
affirms that Abraham, Moses, and all the people of the Bible experienced
their God in exactly the same way as we do today.
The good news is that the Great Religious Traditions are beginning to
listen to one another. Is there a great Planetary Story emerging which
is truly inclusive and which treats the earth as sacred? Is the human
race in labor with a new version of its purpose and destiny? Or is it
the same old story of division and hatred? If we are going to survive
and flourish, we need to listen to one another’s stories over and over
again so that God can speak to us in new ways. Out of that mutual
listening might come belief in a God in whose name it would be
impossible to hate and kill.
God is invoked for all sorts of ungodly purposes. The question is
which God and who’s included in the story? Racists claim to be godly
people. White Supremacists think that God is on their side. Some have
wanted to designate the United States a “Christian Nation.” A
few people in Arizona (and some in Idaho and Wyoming) think that being
Christian and that standing up for “family values” means being
racist and anti-Semitic. No wonder some secular humanists treat religion
with indifference or contempt.
We would be better off without such stories. Better atheism than
belief in such a God. This raises the question of the nature of
religious story-telling and the kind of society it seeks to nurture. Can
we imagine a shared and inclusive story that honors yet transcends our
Often I want to shout, “Before you talk to me about God, I want
to know who’s excluded and who’s included, who’s in and who’s out.”
Sometimes I find it difficult to trust people who talk a lot about God
because I cannot bring up the question of “God” in any
meaningful way without telling the story about the formation of a
trustworthy and reliable community. I don’t want so much a “shelter
from the storm,” so much as a community where everyone has a place
and not just any place, but an honored one.
As Americans, we each have two identities: our ethnic one and our
inclusive American one. We always have at least two stories going on at
once. There’s bound to be conflict and tension among us, which is
wonderful when recognized, destructive when not. We need to appreciate
how our stories come across to others. Do we know how hostile and
exclusive they sound? If we don’t use our imagination to think through
how we come across to others, we close ourselves off, not from others
but from our deepest selves. Not only America but the whole human family
need a shared story.
Our language about God gets polluted when we insist on treating
“God” as an idea to prove a point, or to exclude whole classes
of people. A merciful God gets lost when we abandon our stories in all
their fullness and strangeness. We become quarrelsome. We fight over
“ideas” instead of jointly listening to the playful themes of
“stories.” Without stories, we have no arena where we can
adjudicate our conflicts in a creative way. A story gives us an
opportunity to listen and to make room for each other.
What is the alternative? The secular solutions offer no hope.
Secularism has no room for the sacred, and we need to live in a sacred
space to stay human. We need those among us who are willing to utter the
sacred words. The trouble is that the sacred words themselves have been
debased to serve base interests. The prophetic mission of the Church is
often tied to specific political agendas. And this is deadly. When we
identify with a particular program we, in effect, excommunicate those
who disagree with us.
We are good at spotting ways in which we exclude with regard to race
and gender, but not so good when it comes to political opinions. The New
Christian right is just as bad as the liberals. It advocates a crusade
to change American society with highly specific programs, about which
there is no shadow of doubt. We suffer from the disease of
God-is-on-our-sidism. The sociologist, Peter Berger, points out that God
is co-opted by both sides: “God is `for’ tuition tax credits; God
is `against’ them. God is `for’ the MX missile; God is `against’ it. God
is pro-life; God is pro-choice.” We subscribe to rival orthodoxies
in which there are no ambiguities, no areas of uncertainty. We do not
listen to one another. There is no community of trust, no saving word
binding us together, no God worth believing in, no tale to tell.
That is why a substantial percentage of the population, while wanting
to believe in someone or something, doesn’t want to “belong”
to an organization, still less to a denomination. They want a
do-it-yourself religion. Better to be one’s own minister, telling one’s
own private story in one’s own private religion, than be subject to the
craziness of some religious leader. The consumerist approach to
spirituality is understandable, but it makes belief in God very
difficult since the word “God” becomes merely a buzz word for
good feelings about one’s self and bad feelings about the people we
don’t like. “God” is part of the paraphernalia of the religion
industry. Ministers are in the business of market research, looking for
better ways to package and sell their particular brand of
Are there, then, certain guidelines for our story-telling? The first
thing is to learn to “listen.” Secondly, we have to be in
constant conversation with each other about our various stories. Our
stories have power and for them to be truly alive, we must be free to
question them, to collide with them, to argue over their true meaning
and to struggle with others about where they might be leading us.
Thirdly, in order for us to listen to each other and enter into
conversation about our shared stories, I must be able to trust you and
you to trust me.
So, let me end, as I began, by telling you a story about God.
Once upon a time there was a holy rabbi who was granted a vision of
the Last Judgment. He found himself in a courtroom. There before him was
a table. On it were the scales of justice. There were also two doors and
both of them were open. Through one he could see the light of Paradise,
through the other the darkness of Hell. It was the Day of Judgment and
the human race was on trial.
The defense counsel entered the courtroom carrying a little bundle of
good deeds under his arm. It had not been a great year for good deeds!
Next, the chief prosecutor came in with two assistants. Each of them
carried an enormous sack of sins. They were bent over with their sheer
weight. Dropping their sacks before the scales of justice, they took a
deep breath, and went back for more. “This isn’t even a tenth of
it,” they said as they dragged in more sacks. The defense counsel,
whose tiny bundle of good deeds was beginning to look pathetic next to
the great pile of sins sitting on the floor, buried his head in his
hands and sighed.
But just outside the door to Paradise someone was listening. It was
Levi Yitzhak of blessed memory, the rabbi of Berditshev. When he was on
earth, he had sworn that not even in death would he forget the plight of
struggling humanity. When he heard the sigh of the defense counsel, he
decided to slip into the court room. Seeing the tiny bundle of good
deeds next to the huge sacks of sins, he didn’t take long to size up the
situation. He decided on a plan of action. He waited until there was a
recess. Left alone in the court room, he began to drag the sacks of
sins, one at a time, to the door leading to Hell. It took all his
strength and a great deal of time to throw them in one by one. He was
almost finished — in fact he was holding the very last sack — when the
prosecutors and the defense counsel returned. Rabbi Yitzhak was caught
red-handed. He did not deny what he had done. How could he? He had
thrown away the sins so that the good deeds would outweigh the bad.
Since the court was bound to uphold the law, the chief prosecutor
demanded justice. “It is written that a thief shall be sold for his
theft. Let Levi Yitzhak be sold at auction right now in this court room!
Let’s see if anyone will bid for him.”
By now the demons from hell and the angels from heaven had heard all
the commotion in the court room and they came to watch the two parties
lined up beside the scales of justice. The bidding began. Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob threw their good deeds onto the scales and the
Matriarchs added theirs. In, fact all of the righteous contributed what
they could. But the dark forces were able to gather up unnumbered sins
stored in the deep places of the earth. The scale on their side went
down and down and down. Rabbi Yitzhak was doomed. His crime had been to
throw away the sins of the world so that we could be forgiven. “I
buy them!” said the chief prosecutor, and dragged him to the door
leading to the great darkness.
Just then, above the court room, from the Throne of Glory itself,
came a voice. “I buy him!” There was a great silence. And God
spoke, “I buy him. Heaven and Earth are mine, and I give them all
for Levi Yitzhak — Levi who would have me forgive my children.”
I pray that it is this God who is worshipped under various names and
in various ways by the godly in this land and in every land.
Interviewed by Lydia Talbot
Alan, you are a spectacular story teller.
Alan Jones: They
are great stories.
Unfortunately, the story of the Christian faith is often misperceived,
distorted and maligned. How is it in today’s culture that people can
discern the difference between a shallow theology and a larger one that
you talk about?
I think a lot of it has to do with the approach to, for example, the
Creed. When I was growing up, a monk who influenced me greatly changed
my whole view of what the Creed is by saying, “You know, they are
the chapter headings of a love story. If you look at each segment of the
Creed, instead of seeing it as an explanation or some difficult pill to
swallow, you see it as the chapter heading for a tremendous story about
how madly in love with the world God is.”
As you were growing up in England, what was that journey for you?
Well, it was a great journey in England. I was born in 1940 during the
Second World War. My mother came from a family of thirteen children. We
weren’t church goers, but I was sent to Sunday School and I gave my
heart to Jesus when I was seven. The Anglican Church in England in those
days had such a variety of beliefs and possibilities that it was as if
you could go through the whole ecumenical movement without leaving the
Church of England. I have evangelical roots on the one hand and have
what I call catholic sensibility, on the other. I got all that from my
experience in England. I started with evangelical roots; I ended up in a
monastic Anglican seminary in the north of England. From there, I won a
scholarship to finish seminary in New York City. In 1964 when I first
came here, I just fell in love with the United States. So, that’s how I
You are not only in love with the United States and with the
spirituality that you transmit, you are doing exciting things in San
Francisco at Grace Cathedral, with the performing arts and music. Tell a
little bit about how you are going to approach the fiftieth anniversary
of the United Nations.
Well, that is exciting. We have been asked by the United Nations
Fiftieth Committee to have an inter-faith service on Sunday, June 25,
1995, the 26th of June being the fiftieth anniversary. Lots of things
are going to be coming to San Francisco for that event and, of course,
there will be other events later on in New York City. We want to draw
the inter-faith community to celebrate their traditions and ask
questions about how can we become one human family. There is so much to
divide us, so much polarization.
The arts and music become a vehicle. One human family — you have a
passionate concern for the future of that human family.
I hope we can be brought together by music and by story telling and by
compassion because there is so much to divide us. We need an overarching
vision that will bring us back together again as a human family.
And an interfaith inclusivity.
That is right, with tolerance and compassion.
How we look at God no matter how defined.
Jones: That’s right.
Thank you so much for this visit.
wow. good storyteller indeed.