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St John's Gospel provides an example of how a fresh interpretation of Christianity can rejuvenate and spread the faith. Something similar is required today, writes Ian Harris.
The tourist destination of Ephesus in southwestern Turkey, in ancient times a thriving Greek port and cultural centre but now a historic ruin, holds a special place in the Christian story.
For one thing, the young Christian community there received a letter attributed to the apostle Paul that found a place in the Christian Bible (though it was almost certainly written by someone else).
For another, it is the legendary burial place of Jesus' mother, Mary (though that is contested).
Surpassing both of those, tradition has it that this is where John's gospel was written about AD90 to AD100, a work of monumental importance in the life of the Church.
For John took a Jewish understanding of the life and death, teaching and example of Jesus, and transposed it into a Greek thought-world for people whose culture was Greek - much as a composer might write a variation on a musical theme to give it a fresh perspective and new depth.
In this way, John's gospel marked a major shift in the way the story of Jesus was interpreted in the Church's first century, and played a huge part in Christianity's spread beyond its Jewish origins.
Nineteen centuries later, something like that needs to happen again. That is because over the past 200 years, a secular understanding of the world and everything in it has taken root in the Western world.
Knowledge has expanded exponentially in every field. A global consciousness is developing as people become aware of each other and our dependence on a finite planet. Old world views are being pushed to the margins as a new era in world history opens up. These are tectonic shifts and, unfortunately, the churches have been slow to adapt.
Instead, at official level, they have dug into conserve doctrines and practices forged centuries ago for a vastly different world.
Realising that, a group came together in Wellington in 1990 to explore new ways of understanding and expressing Christian faith in New Zealand in the increasingly secular world of New Zealand in the new millennium.
Leading scholars and theologians have been pioneering the way for decades.
Participants wanted to hear what they were saying, and consider what their insights might mean for life and faith today. It became clear that the changes in understanding and perspective were both basic and here to stay.
It follows that a transposition from one world view to another, paralleling that of John at Ephesus, is essential if the Christian heritage is ever going to cut the mustard in a secular world.
Hence the group was named "Ephesus".
The 30 to 40 participants, clergy and lay, meet fortnightly in an open circle that fosters an atmosphere that is open, questioning, supportive and sharing.
About half of them have a current association with a church, while others do not; but all agree that the agenda is worth working on together.
No creedal test is applied: the emphasis is rather on honesty, creativity, wholeness and the sense of community that can arise when people commit to each other in an open-ended exploration of faith issues.
Ephesus takes for granted that we are secular people living in a secular culture: it has no interest in cultivating supernaturalism in any form.
Everyone is free to think of God and express that understanding in their own way, if at all.
So members do theology together, looking for connections between faith and, variously, culture, social issues, science, spirituality, psychology and ethics.
They acknowledge different "ways of knowing" - intellectual, emotional, intuitive, meditative, mythical and mystical. It's a tallish order, but Ephesus has persisted in its quest for 21 years, and is still going strong.
Participants not only listen and discuss; they pause from time to time to take part in sessions designed to express their evolving understanding of faith - celebrating a high point in the Christian year, for example, or a season, or a theme, in ways that bring together secular and faith understandings.
Such sessions are very much the work of the people, both in preparation and participation, so Ephesus calls them "liturgies", deriving from a Greek word meaning "work of the people".
Those liturgies are an integral part of rethinking the core Christian experience in modern culture, and of expressing it without assuming a theistic concept of God.
Might some of that be a pointer to a viable future for Christian faith? Who knows? But for Ephesus in Wellington (there are also groups in Timaru and on the Kapiti Coast), it works.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.