Endings and Beginnings

by Jennie Hurd

For Methodists, August is traditionally a month for moving. Ministers move to new circuits and new expressions of ministry; circuits receive new presbyters and deacons. There are goodbyes and hellos, goings and comings, endings and new beginnings as one connexional year draws towards its conclusion and another is soon to commence. We find ourselves in a liminal time, crossing the threshold between familiar experiences, people and places as we enter into the as yet unfamiliar and uncertain. While this can be uncomfortable and even traumatic, it is not an unusual place for human beings: to be human is to experience liminality as our lives transition daily through times of ending and beginning. This may be as simple and as natural as night falling, the day ending and a new one dawning, or it may be one of life’s more cataclysmic events – moving house, starting a new job, getting married, giving birth, experiencing bereavement and death.

 

For the Christian especially, perhaps, endings and new beginnings are profoundly important. Central to our faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which, by what appeared to be the complete destruction of a life of love, hope and goodness, made possible the promise of new life for all. Jesus’ death was an ending which bore within it new beginnings, and those of us who try to follow him may stake our lives on this. This death and resurrection, or ending which bears a beginning, is reflected in our practice of repentance and forgiveness. Daily, we seek to die to sin and to be “alive to God in Christ Jesus”[1], making many endings and new beginnings in this way as our life of discipleship goes on. Moreover, in the dying to sin and being alive in Christ, we have sure and certain hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrection and newness of life in our own death. For the Christian, even a time of such apparent utter and complete finality, termination and ending has within it the promise of a new beginning, however difficult that may be to grasp in the midst of tragedy and sorrow. With God in Christ, there is no time of ending that does not contain within it the assured hope of a new beginning.

 

A philosophical and theological understanding that reflects this is Grace Jantzen’s notion of natality. Drawing on the work of political thinker Hannah Arendt, and others, Jantzen (Professor of Religion, Culture and Gender at Manchester University 1996-2006) developed a concept characterised by beauty, creativity, newness, flourishing and birth. It responds to concepts of mortality, finality and ending by declaring that the new is always possible, fresh beginnings are always available and nothing and no one has to stay the same. Beginning with Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion[2]  and through her intended multi-volume project Death and the Displacement of Beauty[3], Jantzen’s exposition of natality is wide-ranging.  It has been drawn on for theologies as diverse as those of disability and impairment[4], women’s priesthood[5] and girls’ faith development[6]. In Foundations of Violence[7], Jantzen describes natality’s four main features as being embodiment, engenderment, relationality and hope. Although natality’s espoused concern is with times of new beginning, there are resonances here for Christian understandings of times of ending as well. At such times, it is hope, experienced through our physical, engendered bodies, which comes to us through our relationships with God, others, creation and the self. Natality, the theological and philosophical notion par excellence of new beginnings, speaks to us also at times when aspects of life are apparently closing down, drawing to a conclusion and crossing a threshold to where it seems they will be no more.

 

Some of the ministers who are moving this August will be going to serve church communities that are facing times of ending. Chapel closures are a reality of our contemporary situation, like it or not. Does a concept such as natality have something to say and a pastoral value to offer to a congregation in such a situation? Can it be drawn on to develop a theology of church closure that nevertheless contains within it an understanding to be lived which will give hope for new beginnings in the future? If, as Elaine Graham asserts, all theology is essentially practical theology[8], there is an urgent calling to put our thinking to work.

[1] Romans 6: 11, NRSV

[2] Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999

[3] London: Routledge, 2004, 2009, 2010

[4] Grey, Mary 2009, ‘Natality and Flourishing in Contexts of Disability and Impairment’ in Graham, Elaine L (ed.) Grace Jantzen: Redeeming the Present, Farnham: Ashgate: 197-211

[5] Green, Ali 2009, A Theology of Women’s Priesthood, London: SPCK

[6] Phillips, Anne 2011, The Faith of Girls: Children’s Spirituality and Transition to Adulthood, Farnham, Ashgate

[7] London: Routledge, 2004

[8] 2009, Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty, London, Mowbray: xvii

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2 thoughts on “Endings and Beginnings”

  1. Thank you, Jenny, for this reflection. It is both stimulating and intriguing. Natality sounds
    like it captures imminent and ever-present possibility in life and in death, something we see at many places in the biblical narrative and something we need to translate into everyday experiences. It reminds me of the notion of God recreating each new day.

    I would like to know more about how the four main features work. (I guess I will have to read the books!)

    My question about mapping natality directly onto a Christian understanding of death and resurrection is: does the idea of the new being always possible undermines the notion that death (Jesus’s death) has a finality about which needs to be faced before resurrection can occur? Is this explored in the writing?

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  2. Interesting to reflect on the binary nature we put on the concepts of death and resurrection, endings and beginnings, light and dark. And how these binaries are caught up in our understanding of time as linear, first one thing happens and then another – first I am born and then I die, first I mess up and then I am forgiven, first I stop doing this before I start to do that. I wonder about the liminal space also being a timeless space, where we both die and live, both inhabit darkness and light, both inhabit chaotic anomie and re-creation within a timeless fissure of being. A place where Christ is crucified again and again, and yet mysteriously born and re-born.That, chaos could remain destructive and creative without contradiction and the possibility of re-birth, natality, resurrection, is never cancelled out by forces that remain continually present but are not polarities. And if all theology is practical theology – then all this happens not only in a philosophical concept but in the mess of the everyday, where the God of death cracks open the timeless places of re-birth, even in the chaos of life’s muddle. Now for tea! Barbara

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