We see but the reflection of a riddle. 1 Cor:13

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spong Vs Hawking Vs Newton

My dad recently sent me a piece written by the now retired Bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong (JSS) responding to the new book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design.

I should state at the outset that I am not anti-Spong in general in fact I have been helped by some of his writing over the years (particularly Living in Sin and Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism although I can mark a divergence in our views from the publication of Why Christianity Must Change or Die).

I should also add that I have not had the opportunity to read The Grand Design so the quotes I use are extracted from a review of the book you can find here. What I offer below is a response to the article my dad sent me. It is an edited and clarified version of an email exchange between me and my dad. I offer it as a critique of JSS’s paper rather than a critique of JSS in general. You can read JSS’ paper here.

Dear Dad,

I do not find this piece from JSS helpful in the slightest. Not only do I believe he is overstating what Hawking and Mlodinow are saying, he is furthermore using his erroneous reading of their book to add credence to his previously stated beliefs. This is not good journalism or good theology.

I have drawn out a few quotes of particular concern.

“Theistic theology is not unlike the daily report of the weatherman, who informs us that the sun will rise and set at a particular moment each day, though we have known since the time of Copernicus in the 16th century that it is the earth's rotation on its axis as it journeys around the sun each year that creates the illusion of the sun itself rising and setting.”

JSS reveals the weakness of some of his position by way of this analogy. No one I know (and I would argue even the vast majority of “conservative” Christians) would suggest for a moment that our continued use of the nomenclature, ‘sunrise’ and ‘sunset’ denotes the Sun’s continual rotation around the Earth. However, these terms are still used and are still useful because they correctly describe our experience of the Sun even though we all know that it is in fact the Earth’s rotation that has caused the phenomenon.

By extension, much of our theological speak is the same. Granted there are large numbers of Christians who take the theological language of our tradition, the analogies, as literal or plain. But from my experience, most, when pushed, concede they are not sure of the ‘reality’, but the language helps us get closer to the truth. While I agree that the perpetuation of some analogies is a hindrance to truth and a stumbling-stone to non-believers, JSS is imprecise in his dismissal and as such, lays waste to all theistic analogies not just some. I would need to be convinced that every analogy is unhelpful, especially given that Jesus refers to God as Papa, one of the most profound and intimate names for God ever conjured. Where it is the case that ‘analogy’ has become ‘deity’, it is the failure of the church to educate its people rather than the failure of the analogy itself.

“What Stephen Hawking is saying is that no matter how sophisticated our theological understanding is, the idea of God as a supernatural being who started the universe, and who from time to time has intervened in miraculous ways in the affairs of the universe in general or of this world in particular, is no longer viable.”

This is JSS’ extension of what Hawking is saying. He has fallen into the same trap as the New Atheists who are championing Hawking and Mlodinow as the coffin bearers of belief in God. JSS has seized the opportunity to use the The Grand Design to give credence to his agenda. As I said, this is bad theology. It's what can be called 'correlationism' in that it begins with a popularly accepted truth and then works backward (correlates it) to validate a preconceived theological perspective. I'm all for the church being clear about the God we worship and the theology that inspires us, but I do not think using erroneous overstatements of 'the facts' (as the New Atheists are wont to do) is the way to do it. Our greatest witness has always and will always be love. Not because love is considered to be of value in our cultures and societies but because we believe in the God that is love. We can use all kinds of sympathetic 'earthly' analogies but we must always confess that we do not love because of these things, but because God is.

What Hawking and Mlodinow do say is "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist…It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going." They can make this claim because of M-Theory. M-Theory has been around for about fifteen years and is an attempt to synthesise/harmonise the five separate String Theories. Behind the claims of M-Theory is an assertion that our experienced universe is merely one of an infinite number of universes. There is matter and life and intelligence in ours by simple fact of the law of averages. M-Theory allows for the universe to spontaneously ‘bang’ – there is no need for a first cause.

M-Theory is pure mathematics at this stage, which is to say that it is unobservable (read, not yet proven). Hawking and Mlodinow concede themselves that if M-Theory can be confirmed by observation, "We will have found the grand design" (emphasis added). ‘The Grand Design’ by all reports is an attempt to elucidate M-Theory in a way that is comprehensible for lay people. M-Theory has been around since the 1990’s and String Theory began its development in the 1920’s, so all reports are suggesting there is nothing new in this ‘new book’ in terms of the physics they explain. While the book does make a brief reference to God, the claim that he may be driving another “nail into the coffin of theistic thinking” is to buy into the media hype and reactionary understanding of what it is Hawking and Mlodinow are saying.

What they are offering is the same notion of ‘something from nothing’ that scientists have been keen to prove for centuries. I for one am not particularly compelled by this argument as it is predicated on being comfortable with the idea that ‘spontaneous creation’ is a satisfactory explanation for the existence of anything. The presence of an infinite number of universes does nothing to alleviate the persistent ‘need to know’ I feel; or my conviction that in the beginning – God. All Hawking and Mlodinow have done, is to reiterate the complexity of the known universe and our need to take seriously that complexity. If a “six-day-creationist” is unnerved by reading this book that’s all good and well, but I don’t think this rehash of existing scientific theories is going to be a nail in anyone’s coffin.

“We human beings then insist, it seems, on going one dreadful step further, and that comes when we turn our God definition into creeds, doctrines and dogmas and immediately invest these ideas with the claim of infallibility or inerrancy.”

As I have previously mentioned, I am all for a strong critique of impostor gods and idolatrous theologies, however, once again JSS overstates the idea. When in the Apostles and the Nicene creeds (the only creeds accepted across the entire Church) it states that God the Father created heaven and earth, it does not necessarily mean ‘with God’s own two enormous hands’ which seems to be the only way that JSS is able to interpret that phrase. While there is no doubt that some Christians read and confess this literal reading as true, most Christians around the world and across the ages would hold to its truth but not necessarily its literality as JSS would suggest.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the communication revolution, those creeds which would have only been part of the church's internal rites have become ‘definitions’ of faith beyond our control. Couple with that a tendency for people, religious or otherwise, to want to demarcate themselves for protection and power, the picture is not good. There is a need for the leadership of the Church to rethink how it is that we frame Christianity. In this I am in total agreement with JSS, but I believe it will need to be transformation not reformation that does it. Just look at the last five-hundred years of Christian history and tell me if the 'dissemination' of Christianity has lived up to the hope. Every time I think about the ultra-right-wing-conservatives in North America I get a chill down my spine. And yet, we can trace their existence back to Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others. The reformation was both a gift and a curse, the ramifications of which are still to be decided.

“Self-conscious human beings can escape our human limits, but only by analogy and pointers. There is clearly more to the idea of God than the human mind can ever understand, but we should have learned this by now, since this fact has been clear for centuries. Even St. Paul warned us that we now see only through "a glass darkly." The Fourth Gospel tells us that the Holy Spirit "will lead us into all truth," which seems to me to imply that none of us now possesses all truth. Yet in our pathetic human insecurity we still talk about an "inerrant Bible" and an "infallible Pope." If we recognize that ultimate truth is beyond our limits, how can we continue to describe anyone anywhere as either a "heretic" or an "infidel," to say nothing of proclaiming one to be an atheist?”

JSS exposes some of his real prejudices here. While it is most probably theism in general he is attacking, the kind of theism that leads one to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible or the infallibility of the Pope is of greatest concern. I am sympathetic to these concerns however, I would disagree with JSS that the recognition of the unattainable nature of the knowledge of God necessarily leads us to a position of insecurity and therefore protectionism.

What I would say is that, ‘the recognition of the unattainable nature of the knowledge of God’ can in fact lead us to true faithfulness as we are required to ‘know even though we do not understand’. I would also say that for Christians this ‘problem of God’s unknowability’ lies at the very heart of our understanding of the incarnation. Jesus reveals to us what is otherwise purely speculation.

“I saw a universe born in a physical explosion of matter that ultimately produced life, consciousness and self-consciousness; I am now convinced that matter carries within it the seeds of life. I see no dualism any longer between matter and life or between matter and spirit. I have also ceased to think of God theistically, that is, as a being — even a supernatural being. I think of God as the Source of life calling me to live, the Source of love, calling me to love, the ground of being calling me to be all that I can be. I think of God as the universal consciousness of which I am a part. All of these concepts are analogies, descriptions of our experience. They are not descriptions of God! I now see worship as the commitment to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that I can be. I see the mission of my faith not to be winning converts, but to be that of expanding life for all, enhancing love for all, increasing the being of all that renders every human prejudice as a violation of all that God means. I see the divine as the depth dimension of the human and thus as part of the human, not as the invasion of life by a being external to life.”

This is one of the clearest definitions of Christian panentheism (verging on pantheism) I have ever read. I'm not trying to use panentheism here in a pejorative sense (I am after all a little sympathetic to panentheism), but it is merely another way of articulating an experience of the divine. I would however, like JSS to own up to his panentheism. It seems a little disingenuous to be happy to use labels for others while assuming no label to help define his position. JSS rightly says however, it is an analogy. But as such, what JSS is saying is that he prefers his analogy to others. This is perfectly valid. I sense, however, that he is not always open about its analogous status as he cannot seem to abide that, for other people, other analogies work better. Yes, we need to guard against idolatry and impostor gods, but he is essentially saying that unless you work within his analogies (or ones he sanctions) you are not talking about his god.

My problem with panentheism as ‘the only valid analogy for God’ is bound up in the fact that we most profoundly experience God in a relational sense (albeit a strange relationship). Panentheism does not leave much room for relating to God in this way. In effect, it reduces God to the immanent and leaves no room for the transcendent. I experience God in both immanent and transcendent ways, so I am not willing to throw my full weight behind panentheism. Interestingly, JSS also talks about “transcendence”, “otherness” and “heightened consciousness”, although he is very careful to say that these 'experiences' point to, and inform our God language. I would be interested to push him further on the issue.

It sounds like he is saying that we have these experiences but we should not give them too much credence when it comes to then articulating the God behind them. He walks a fine epistemological line here. Either our experiences of God do point to the true nature of God (albeit hidden in a riddle) or quite simply, we have no direct experience of God. This is one of those great postmodern philosophical quandaries. The way out of the impasse for Christian people, has always been the revelation of God in Jesus as I have previously mentioned, and the centrality of community – the fact that we do not relate to God on our own but in community. The Church then, has always been the litmus test of theology, revelational and transcendence. However, the Church is broken, fragile and it would seem is very susceptible to the exploitative elements of human nature. This is a problem that will not go away. The only solution I can see is to enter into continual, honest dialogue with one another about faith and theology.

“The human being lives in the wonder of self-consciousness and perceives thereby the wonder of life itself. God is not external to that. I open my eyes every day to the wonder of life, the power of love, the mystery of being and I call that experience God.”

This does leave me wondering: if this is true, and God is so apparent in the world around us, why are so many people oblivious to God? Why is there so much hatred and destruction in the world? Why is the Good News so counter-cultural and so often, counter-intuitive? Why is there a need for Jesus, or is there in fact, no need? And so on. These are always the problems ‘natural theologies’ must answer. I find I am more compelled by the inherent otherness of God – we can witness God’s presence all around us if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, but those are the eyes and ears of faith. I am faithful to God through Christ Jesus because I have recognised in him the very ‘source of life’, the ‘source of love’, and the ‘ground of being’ itself. Upon recognising God revealed in Jesus, I can now see God all around me. I guess in the end, my confession is that I do not identify as a theist, I am a Christian.



Cf. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard MlodinowHawking and Mlodinow's new theory is about life, the universe and everything – except God. By Robin McKie, The Observer, Sunday 12 September 2010.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Paradox of Religion

"Let us not forget that in the Ancient World, and particularly in Ancient Rome, people of faith, the devotees of the invisible and unnamable God, both Jews and Christians, were regarded as atheists - justifiably so in terms of the then concept of religion: religion as a cult of state-recognized gods. When the Christians of the first centuries were asked by those around them what it was they were bringing: a new religion, a new philosophy or a new school of gnosis, they had no categorical reply. Yes, it was a new path to wisdom, but it was not a Gnostic sect. It was something like a philosophy, but a 'philosophia Christi', since gnosis and philosophy being 'wisdom of this world' were regarded by Paul the Apostle as folly. Moreover the term 'religion' -- i.e. a public cult in the understanding of those days -- was also initially accepted with reservations by Christians as a description of their 'way' and regarded as at best an analogous term; for them it was 'vera religio' in contrast with all that had been regarded as religion up to then. Throughout the Middle Ages Christians preferred the word fides -- faith (articula fidei, mysteria fidei, etc.) and used it more frequently than the expression religio." Tomáš Halík
Tomáš Halík was brought to my attention over at Faith and Theology. I have subsequently spent a little time at Halik's website reading his available essays. I am drawn to his heavily European philosophical sensibility and Catholic pragmatism. The above quote feeds into a continuing conversation around the nature and role of religion.

I was asked today what I think religion offers the world and I have to admit that I balked. Religion is not ultimately what I am about even though I am a minister of religion, work as a chaplain for an established denomination of a major religion and indeed count myself among the baptized members of the Christian religion. The thing is that when pressed, religion for me is the language of faith but is not necessarily the same thing as faith.

The problem is that religion at its worst, so often confuses and distorts our attempts to discern what is good and true. It allows people to become ghettoised and bigoted. It impinges on liberty and reduces the horizon of creativity. It has an uncanny knack of breeding resentment, hatred and fear of those that are different. Worst of all, it allows us to complacently believe we know and therefore own God.

Of course, at its best religion allows us to distill our experiences of the world and clarify what is primary and truthful. It promotes a selfless concern for others, particularly the most vulnerable. It offers therapy and catharsis for all the things that make numb, wound and deny, and inspires the most ecstatic expressions of humanity. It seeks to overcome the barriers we place between us. Best of all, it has proven a faithful way to draw nearer to God.

Religion is a paradox. It is both the very best and the very worst of what human beings are. What I wonder is whether we can do without religion or whether we necessarily persevere with it in spite of its inherent weakness. I wonder whether a religionless faith is possible.

As mentioned above, the early church understood itself in altogether different terms than the religious experience of the day. What does 'vera religio' (true religion) even look like? I am reminded of Paul's letter to the Romans where, after establishing the foundation of Christian faith, he commends the Romans to therefore present their bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is their reasonable worship. He then goes on to spell out what this offering means:
"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
This is no establishment of religiosity but a clear commendation to a way of living - a way of being.

What continually strikes me is that instead of the religious expression of faith being the formative and sustaining stuff that allows faithful people to live in this way, religion has become the main attraction. It is a form of superficiality not dissimilar to judging someone by their appearance instead of seeking to uncover the truth of the person behind the veneer. Not that all religiosity is veneer, but it is the outward form of what ultimately is an inward reality that transforms and constitutes a new being.

Monday, August 30, 2010

How Pullman's Golden Compass May Point to God

I have just finished reading Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. It is a fantasy/science fiction series based loosely around John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' which tells of "the Fall" of humanity. I was interested in reading them because I had heard that it was 'good atheist literature', and as I have many dealings with thoughtful and intelligent atheists I thought it would serve me well.

I had of course, also heard some of the disquiet and controversy surrounding Pullman and his work from the Christian quarter, including and most notably the negative reaction to the film adaptation of 'The Golden Compass' (based on the first novel 'The Northern Lights'). I was interested to discover for myself the cause of the concern and to understand the nature of Pullman's offence.

Firstly, I would say that the books are pitched at a teenage/young adult audience and as such, they are easy to read and very entertaining. Pullman has done a good job of creating fantastical worlds that intrigue and delight. His characters, while not overly complex, are sufficiently interesting and developed to keep the reader engaged. Apart from a few loose-ends and narrative leaps, I was very satisfied with the trilogy as a whole.

In terms of the substance, I've got to say that I was really very impressed. His theology is quite sophisticated and not at all the dangerous heresy I'd been led to believe it would be. His critique is waged largely at tyrannical religiosity and impostor theology, a critique which I am very sympathetic towards.

While the 'church' of Pullman's universe/s resembles more the megalomaniacal Catholicism of the middle-ages than anything I or most modern people would want to affirm as "the Church", his critique is still well-founded and an important one. The 'Magisterium' as it is called, is fearful and power-hungry to the point of wanting to quash any scientific/creative advancement or perceived threat from outside. This is obviously a gross overstatement of the reality of our current experience of Christianity and in this way is somewhat of a 'straw man'. Clearly visible in this quote from Pullman:
"The religious impulse – which includes the sense of awe and mystery we feel when we look at the universe, the urge to find a meaning and a purpose in our lives, our sense of moral kinship with other human beings – is part of being human, and I value it. I'd be a damn fool not to.

But organised religion is quite another thing. The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god (and they're all invisible, because they don't exist) – and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it.

That is the religion I hate, and I'm happy to be known as its enemy."

However, what is interesting in the sense that the Magisterium is willing to deny 'truth' for the sake of maintaining its power and existence, is the ways in which this is true of the church. And not just the right wing of the church. Can we say that we are seekers of 'Truth', or must we concede that arrogance has led us to believe we possess the 'Truth' and must protect it at all costs? This goes to the very heart of God's missional activity in Jesus. Jesus is the revealer of the truth of God - the very light of creation shining in the darkness of our fear and death. And yet, Christianity in its institutional brokenness, so often witnesses to the very religious arrogance Jesus stood against time and time again. So, while I do not believe there are great conspiratorial movements in the Church, seeking out and destroying threats to her existence, I do find so often, the institution gets in the way of the gospel.

The major focus of the series however, is around the idea of 'Dust'. Dust is described as a sub-atomic particle which for all intents and purposes, is conscious, produces consciousness and is generated by consciousness. It is the creative spark of the universe if you like. The universe is permeated with this Dust and the universe is dependent on it for its ongoing survival. While the explanation of the origin of Dust is dubious at best (the bi-product of the first 'Fall' in Genesis), its presence and power in the universe are very positive. The Magisterium is inherently fearful of Dust and its affects on human beings (independent thinking, creativity and so on which are deemed antithetical to the subjugation they require), however, it is clear that Dust functions as a sort of Divine presence saturating the cosmos.

In this way, it is very much akin to notions of the Spirit. I have often been seduced into heady excursions dreaming about the edges of quantum-physics as it describes an interconnection and interdependence I recognise as divine. I see Dust in a similar way, and find it much more relevant to my theological musing than any notion of a personified god. Dust eludes to a divine presence that is ever-present and ever-purposeful but not in the sense of a supernatural voyeur . St Paul describes it well when he says:

"The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is God served by human hands, as though God needed anything, since God gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and God allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For “In God we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,“For we too are God's offspring.” Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now God commands all people everywhere to repent..."

This is a theological movement away from impostor gods of our creation towards a notion of God that is subtle yet profound. Not the deistic god literally in the clouds, out there. Nor the gods of idolatry, small and confined. This God is in all, before all, for all and with all. So intimately related to us that we should be called Children of God. Pullman's Dust picks up some of this sense of 'intimate divinity' and certainly is couched over and against the impostor God 'The Authority' (who is actually merely an angel anyway) of the Magisterium.

Another interesting element, is the differentiation made between 'The Kingdom of Heaven', and the establishment of a 'Republic of Heaven'. The Kingdom of Heaven is written off as it is merely an extension of an impostor god and that god's tyrannical church. In its place Pullman offers the Republic of Heaven. Speaking in an interview, Pullman explains it this way:
"[The republic of heaven] stands for a sense of community. It stands for joy. It stands for a sense that the universe and we together, have a common meaning and a common destiny, and a purpose. It stands for connectedness between these things. All these things are so important, so fundamental to what keeps me alive that I don't want to be without them. I don't want to do without heaven, but I can no longer believe in a kingdom of heaven, so there must be a republic of heaven of which we are free and equal citizens - and it's our duty to promote and preserve this."

Apart from a consistent sense of self-determination in Pullman's picture, I find his image of the Republic of Heaven quite consistent with my own ideas and I would suggest the Biblical picture as well. What is crucial to Pullman, is that it is possible right now, it is urgent and earthy as apposed to future oriented, out of our hands and otherworldly. I have often stressed the 'realised' nature of God's Kingdom and I find the otherworldly understanding deeply unhelpful and misleading.

This isn't to deny the continuing brokenness of the world and the persistent need for salvation/liberation/healing/wholeness which points to the 'not yet' reality of the Kingdom. But I do want to stress the importance for me of the apocalyptic finality of the cross. For me, we can either choose to live as if Jesus reveals the very nature of God or we can live as if that Truth is yet to be revealed. Do we live as Citizens of Heaven as Paul says, or as continuing Citizens of Rome? Or in another voice, do we live as people of the Spirit, or as people of the flesh? Even if our glimpse of God in Jesus is only partial, we are to live as if in seeing Jesus, we have seen God, in the hope that one day, all will see. Pullman's Dust challenges us religious folk to take seriously our love for God's good creation, particularly when our 'faith' allows us to ignore injustice, misuse our responsibility and deny our connection with the universe. Either we are part of it, inseparable and witnesses to God's beauty and creativity wherever we look, or we are merely interlopers en route to our true place in the sky.

While Pullman is using imagery and metaphor (and I think all conversations about God ultimately descend into poetry), the underlying truism remains: we make ourselves idols and call them 'God' and then we defend our gods with all our might, all the time remaining closed to the truth and beauty all around us.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Yeah, But What Does It Mean?

"It is indeed unfortunate that the question of the truth of talk about God should be handled as a question apart by a special faculty, and, while we have to recognise that such a course is unavoidable in practice, we cannot find any final reasons to justify it. Only theological arrogance could argue the point on other than practical grounds. Within the sphere of the Church philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, or pedagogics, whether individually or in conjunction, might well take up the task of measuring the Church's talk about God by its being as the Church, thus making a special theology superfluous. Theology does not in fact possess special keys to special doors. Nor does it control a basis of knowledge which might not find actualisation in other sciences. Nor does it know an object of enquiry necessarily concealed from other sciences. Only by failing to recognise the actualisation of revelation, the possibility of grace and therefore its own nature, could it possibly make any such claim." KB CD Vol.I1

I have been thinking about the purpose of theology. Not the meaning of the word, but the purpose of theology in the life of the faithful and indeed the life of the world. How is it we speak so much and so often about God and God's work and yet seem further from truth now than ever? How is it we spend so much time and thought deciphering the ramblings of professional theologians, and still fail to grow in even insignificant ways towards knowledge of God?

Now I can hear some of you already, rushing to respond with claims about the unknowability of God and the limitations of our creaturely wisdom and so on. And I want to affirm these things as truisms. However, I can't help but feel impatient - deeply and profoundly impatient - as my whole being longs to wholly know God.

If it were true that God is simply some kind of supernatural being off there somewhere in heaven, necessarily aloof from all creation, then i could perhaps be satisfied to be graced with only a portion of vision/wisdom/understanding of God. But God is not simply this (or indeed, this at all). God is immanent as well as transcendent; incarnate and particular as well as universal; profoundly present as well as wholly other. So why can't we access God?

Of course Jesus is the revealer and "to know Jesus is to know God," but even Jesus, the particular, seems so obscured and elusive. So much of our time in the church is spent either squabbling over our definitions or interpretations of Jesus, or else, allowing the multiple images to be simultaneously spoken creating a diffuse, amorphous image of Jesus as helpful and connected to us as a Google search.

The phrase, "to know Jesus is to know God," is only meaningful if Jesus is someone we can know. As disciples have discovered since the early church, to follow Jesus is to know Jesus. I wonder then, whether our theology has any meaning at all, so long as it is not empowering/inspiring us to follow on the Way.

If, as Barth suggests, theology is by its nature the 'actualisation of revelation' and wholly dependent on grace, perhaps the purpose of theology is to articulate (actualise in word and action) the revelation of God in Jesus and indeed, the saving grace in which we find life. That is to say, theology as discipleship but never theology without discipleship. Theology then serves as a dialectic between the faithful following of the disciple and the complex and often chaotic, seemingly Godless world.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are All Semantic Distinctions Just Semantics?

When i suggested in the subtitle that this blog would be variations on a theme, I hadn't intended to simply blog about the one topic using different words. However, I'm going to try to expand my thinking on the first post both as a follow up to my first post and in response to those who have commented (for whom I am truly grateful) and a number of conversations I have had in the last few days.

There has been concerns/critique expressed in regards to the way in which the suggested reorienting our focus from our own personal love to the love of God seems to abdicate responsibility or understate the role/place of the individual as a loving entity. In effect, I seem to be downplaying the agency of human beings in favour of a kind of human-vessel through which the love of God can flow/be known/become manifest. This is true insofar as I am wanting to suggest that "pure" love is of God and is God and as such, we cannot manufacture or contrive this love as if we were its origin. We can however, open ourselves up to God/love and by so doing, allow ourselves to become 'lovers'. We do this in all sorts of ways from the seemingly mundane to the seemingly life-altering. This is essentially a humbling before God ('dying to self' or however else you want to express it or whichever other Biblical allusion you choose to favour).

What I am trying to emphasise is the proper procession of love. We do not create in ourselves the "pure" love of God and thus join ourselves to God. But conversely, through our joining with God (loving as Jesus loved, that is to say, following him/trusting in him/believing in him) we reveal in ourselves that which is at the heart of our creation already: that is, God/love. Hence, it is true that when we love, we come to abide in God and God in us. Not in the sense that we have an equal share in the creative/love generating process, only in the sense that what is fundamentally true of us all inwardly, has been allowed to become manifest in us outwardly.

This is semantics I am sure, but it is a semantic shift that is also paradigmatic. For as long as we understand ourselves to be somehow creating/generating love within ourselves we risk falling into idolatry where we place ourselves as an equal 'eternal' partner in the relationship we have with God(or at least as eternal as God). We also put the onus on ourselves to be 'the loving ones' so that when we fail to love as Jesus loved, it is our fault, our failure, our weakness. This is the fuel for guilt and hopelessness (which was the main concern of my first post.

To avoid this idolatry (and the accompanying pitfalls), I suggest what is required is to approach love as truly 'other' while still confessing it as the very heart of our createdness and indeed our true humanity. This is to say, love is 'truly other' but is also wholly and intimately knowable. This 'knowing' of love is the participating in/revealing in ourselves and to others/atonement that all life is journeying towards and all life is created for. This 'knowing' is a gift not an achievement; grace not work.

Our experience and the Biblical witness suggests that while we are created for love, we continue to live in contradiction of that created truth. Thus we live as though love were an option among many, or as if love, though attainable, is beyond us most of the time. To trust that God (the source and power of life, among other things) is love, is to affirm that at the most fundamental level of creaturely existence, love is. Love then, is not beyond us, but the very truth of us. To trust in love is to trust in the truth.

Of course it follows that grace/faith without an expression in your life as love towards others is dead/empty/noise. But what is crucial in all this for me, is that God is the object of my striving. Not only the love of God for me in some abstract sense, but the love of God for me, and others, expressed in and through my life in concrete ways. Thus the love that is God's gift of creation, is made 'mine' insofar as it is revealed/known through me.

Friday, June 18, 2010

How the Love of God Avoids Debilitating Guilt

I figure it is about time I add some content to my blog.

I have had a number of people express to me in recent weeks the unreasonableness of Christ's call on our lives. I preached recently on Luke chapter 6 and have been reflecting on it since. "Love your enemies" is simply too hard for your average, non-saintly Christian. People are asking for a loophole or escape clause from the tough teachings of Jesus.

The problem I find, is that people (including myself most of the time) are expecting that we will have the capacity to love as God loves; that we are called to a love that is wholly unattainable for mortal human beings. However, what we find in the Biblical witness is a call first and foremost to faith.

What I realise for the first time (others have no doubt known this for centuries) is that it is precisely because what is revealed to us as unreasonable is the very love of God, that we too can love in this way.

Let me explain what I mean. God's very nature, as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, is love. And not just any love, but agapeic love: the love that is gratuitous, unconditional and self-giving. This is the love which necessarily loves enemies, does good to those who hate, blesses those who curse and prays for those who abuse (Luke 6:27-28).

What appears to be a 'new Law' of love; and one unachievable by most, is in fact simply a further affirmation of the God of life. God is all this and more, and loves in this way, all of the time (even when we are judged by God it is within this revealed mode of grace). What this means, is that while we may look at those we detest and struggle to love them and forgive them, and inevitably feel guilty for our inability to do so, God is already loving them with grace and forgiveness. God can do no other.

If we can relinquish the need to generate this love for ourselves, and instead trust (have faith in) the God of love already present and active, then, and only then, will we bear the fruit of that love in ourselves. When we encounter the unlovable, it is not our Christian responsibility to make ourselves love beyond human capacity, for if we could love in that way there would be no need for God, it is our Christian confession that God is love and therefore what we find impossible is already a reality in God.

In this way, the love Christians bear is not our love reflecting the love of God in Jesus, but the love of God manifest in us as we give ourselves away in faith. God is already loving the world, we are called to participate through faith in that love. This may seem only a simple semantic shift, but what occurs in this shift is an orientation away from our limitations and fears towards the one from whom all life, and love, proceeds.

I don't know if this is a helpful shift for others, but for me it has been a liberating one, freeing me to offer myself boldly in faith.

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