Archive for June, 2017

Pentecost 4A, 2017 Matthew 10:40-42

Alive In Our Pictures Of God’

In 1926, the English/American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote these words: “Today there is but one religious dogma in debate:  What do you mean by ‘God’…”  (Quoted in Pittenger 1982:1). This morning we have heard two Lectionary stories. One, about Abraham, from the Hebrew scriptures. And one, about Jesus, from the experiences of the Jesus Movement. Both stories have within them images or pictures, of God. There is the image of God as a great and all-controlling power manifested in the unusual and the extraordinary. And there is the image of God as known in acts of compassion and love, present and active in human interaction.

These are of course, summary statements that are an over-simplification. They are also not meant to be seen as set one over against the other as if one is ‘good’ or ‘right’ and the other ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. However I want to suggest that to a modern progressive mind, one story, one picture, does seem to be repugnant.

Uniting Church Minister Bruce Prewer talks about the story of Abraham and the near slaying of Isaac, and says; ‘I can still remember (my Sunday school teacher’s) picture book from which she read the story…  That scene was the stuff from which nightmares are constructed.  It troubled me greatly.  I was left with the question; Would my father kill me if God asked him to?

‘One evening, after dinner when his father was sitting in his favourite chair, and Bruce was sitting on his dad’s knee, he plucked up the courage to ask his father if he would be like Abraham if God asked him.  Looking back Bruce now feels for his father who was totally unprepared for that question.  Torn between his desire to uphold the Bible and his love for Bruce, his father made a mess of answering his child.

Bruce reflects; ‘I did not know the word prevaricate then, but that is what he did.  I took his response as a grim warning.  It did not do much to alleviate nightmares’  (Prewer.www site 2002).

If I asked you to describe how you picture God now today, I wonder what you might say? If you think about the almighty, all powerful, always seeing, vengeful God that we read about your picture might just be almost too intimate, too threatening to share. Or perhaps some of you might push those images away and replace them with Jesus as the shepherd, or the gentle one, or the reflective one, Or maybe some of you may feel you have little pictures or images to share. I want to suggest that if you can’t find and image that works for you then you might still be in the process of moving away from what you have taken for granted for most of your life, taken for granted that the most central events reported in the Bible really happened. I am not saying that you are caught in fundamentalism but perhaps it might be a kind of ‘natural’ or ‘soft’ literalism. I am not suggesting that your thinking is stuck in Sunday School images, nor am I suggesting that you are avoiding change and an alternative approach but I am suggesting that we are struggling with the extremes of difference. We choose to be either fundamental, traditional, liberal or radical when it comes to our models of belief. All of us can be very suspicious of another’s picture of God especially when they do not match our own sense of ‘theological correctness’. Yet, we inherently know that the way we understand or picture God is very important.

They are important not because we are religious and need our pictures of God but rather because they are in danger of not being alive within us, shaping our approach to life. Sure, we can replace them with rugby, racing and beer but if we do we will remain passive consumers of a second-hand culturally immature faith, a faith of our Sunday School years. We will become the ‘couch potatoes of the spiritual world’ as Katharine Henderson described it.

When we read the scripture we see that both Abraham (if he was indeed ‘historical’) and Jesus, were alive with pictures of God. And their pictures of God are shaped, indeed, edited, in the stories we read in the Bible. Many of us can admit to reading these biblical stories as one who sees the Bible as a human product… Stories told as a response by these two ancient communities to their experience of God or the Sacred. That’s what makes us liberal or non-fundamentalist. Or as one scholar of the biblical tradition puts it; it contains their stories of God, their perceptions of God’s character and will, their prayers to and praise of God, their perceptions of the human condition and the paths of deliverance, their religious and ethical practices, and their understanding of what faithfulness to God involves’ (Borg 2001:22-23).

Out of all of this I think I am suggesting that God has an image problem. Or at least much of the church has a problem with the way it speaks about God. Both in the pictures it holds on to and the way in which it responds to these different images. In a digital, visual culture that we find ourselves in today this is even more crucial.

The traditional way of speaking about God has for so long been about a God above and beyond us. And who for the most part, simply sits as a threatening presence to reward or punish us for the way we have lived. The prevailing thing that comes to mind when God is mentioned is about something up there, out there in charge making things happen. Even if we have to do some mental gymnastics to deal with a God who lets bad things happen to good people. It is easier to just move on and not deal with the intellectual problems. It is also thought that we generally believe in that kind of God, often sung about in traditional hymns and contemporary choruses, that has many people today rejecting the church. The challenge of this is that the problem is not just theirs.  It is ours.

As Morwood and Spong and Borg and many others have claimed, we need to rethink our image, our picture, of God. Even those pictures of God that have sentimental significance for us from childhood days and happier times. And on that note, I want to borrow from a sermon by Rex Hunt where he talks about a couple of most unlikely theologians. Both feature in Alice Walker’s book (and later the film), The Colour Purple

The first theologian is called Celie.  She says: ‘When I found out that God was white and a man I lost interest.’ Celie is not alone in her thinking. As long as traditional Christianity emphasizes a white, male puppeteer God who favours the privileged, then many people will continue to lose interest. This comment is borne out here in our own congregation where more than one young person has said that they come to our community because we understand their struggle for a God that they can picture and image in their living. While this may be seen to be patting ourselves on the back it is a significant affirmation.

God is but one of the names given to the mysterious ‘Source’ of life so what sense does it make to limit the imagery to imagery that limits our imagination of this mystery or, what sense does it make not to search for a God who is God for us. And it seems that in our time this imagery needs to reflect that God is in all and all is in God. A God that reflects what we believe. This imagery needs to reflect and invite one to understand and value that which is interconnected, interdependent, dynamic, holistic.  Serendipitous creativity, perhaps?

The second theologian Rex notes is called Shug.  She says: ‘One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it came to me: that I was a part of everything, not separate at all.  I knew that if I cut a tree my arm would bleed.  And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house.  I knew just what it was.  In fact when it happens you can’t miss it… ‘I think it annoys God if you walk by colour purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it…  People think pleasing God is all God cares about.  But any fool living in the world can see it’s always trying to please us back…’ Maybe our imagery need to reflect this co-creative, present, relational God

Rex suggests that Celie and Shug, as theologians, have found the immanency or the present-ness of God in the midst of ordinary daily events. Not as a person. Nor as a supernatural, intervening, celestial being. But as that creativity within us and within all life which makes it possible for us to love, to act compassionately, to offer even a cup of water…  in a style after Jesus.

To conclude my proposition today I think this call to rethink is a challenge to see difference differently. To see it as a challenge to move on, to think again and to create images that work today, to get past the debate about the negatives that difference evokes, not to deny them but rather to see them as contributions to shaping our own pictures of what God is for us. The question of Abraham’s motives and action, Bruce’s question of his father need to be asked because they are the sorts of questions that encourage us to make this kind of shift in our seeing and thinking and talking. It is the kind of God-talk that may help us think again about God, and how we can help others to a new picture of God.

Notes: Borg, M. Reading the Bible Again For The First Time. Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Pittenger, W. N. Picturing God. London. SCM Press, 1982.


Pentecost 3A, 2017 Matthew 10: 24-39

Wellbeing Is More Than Economic ‘Security’

Matthew the storyteller tells us a lot about his own particular community and how they worked and lived and created a sense of community to keep God’s dream and immanency or present-ness alive among them. And he does this is various ways. In Matthew we hear the story of the sending out of the apostles with the invitation to acquire and embrace new habits of seeing, and new habits of being. And we see that as far as we can make out, or guess, that ‘sending out’ was to be shaped by the broad gospel context of compassion. Com-passion. Feeling with. From the very depths of their person.

As all the biblical storytellers remind us, as they collected the fragments of sayings remembered by the early Jesus movement: Jesus’ own experiences with the marginalised and fragmented world of peasant villagers, had moved him in his ‘guts’, his ‘gizzards’, another way of saying this deep place of motivation is to say that he was moved in his ‘womb’, his very place of emergent being.

In the book ‘The Historical Jesus Goes To Church’, Bessler -Northcutt suggest that Com-passion, feeling with, is about helping those same peasant families and workers to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the taxation, farming policies, and religious purity codes had labelled them. And it is there that God’s presence and not Rome’s presence was fully established. It is in that engaging, empathetic relationship that God is present and not just in the removal of the shame and worthlessness. It is more than the ideology, more than the system, more than the culture. Changing the theory, the policy, and providing a new economic structure or ideology does not change things. It is in reaching the gut level, the empathetic level that enables the irrational, nonsense connection that is love at its best. This level of awareness and sensitivities had to become shaping factors in individual lives.

This week we hear some more of those instructions in our gospel story. But we also hear something new – a warning: ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. Here I think we have the message about politics, social justice movements and even being the church, or engaging in community building, or ministry, or wellbeing activities. Be wise about getting into these activities, be innocent meaning don’t be judgmental or negative about these activities because they don’t ignore the individual self-commitment but they do challenge the dominant power structures of a society or group and like Jesus found out challenging these can be very risky business.

There was an interesting debate on talk back radio this week talking about the young southern MP who had put the election results at risk at one level and sullied all politicians at the other. I wondered if he was so new to the world of fake news or politics propensity for a non-absolute truth that he had made a mistake. He secretly recorded his staff and heard some not so nice comments about himself. He took those comments personally and used his political connections to deal with his dilemma. The discussion on radio was about his having been dishonest or lied to cover up his mistake but I wondered if it was just that he had little experience of the world of politics, and was naïve about the world of politics where truth is less about absolutes and more about public perception. We can be negative about political spin and political speech but it is the system where absolute truth is something to be wary of. One can be negative and say it is all lies and speaking a lot of words and saying nothing but that is the nature of a system that seeks to satisfy everyone at once. The contributors to talk back spoke about the MP being young and inexperienced, it was even suggested that his mother and family had pleaded for a fair-go because he was a good man. Again, I think we have the conflict between the individual and the structural or communal. It is what might be called the battle between situational ethics and political accomplishment. It very easily leads to individual banishment and political expediency, the person resigns and the blame shifts around till it dissipates.

But getting back to the general argument it is interesting to note, that living out a ‘dream’ is not easy, especially one which seeks to address the violations of human rights resulting from racism, poverty, poor housing, inadequate education and health care, let alone widespread apathy and indifference, and a lack of freedom. We know that living such a dream can and will shake any ruling elite to its core.

The dream in our story is that there is a place where politicians never stretch the truth, where economic theory or religious adherence can exist but only in the service of everyone. The reality is that when this is close to achievement there will be aggressive, abusive name calling and even violent responses. We even have parliamentary protection to enable this, and we expect the spin of politicians and play at holding them accountable to this impossible dream.

But to get to our specific topic for a bit we want to first enter that space that Rex Hunt calls the space where wise serpents and innocent doves reside, and we want to attempt to explore that space between economic theory and society’s wellbeing which comes from “being connected and engaged, from being enmeshed in a web of relationships and interests. This place between theory and practice perhaps, that gives meaning to our lives.”

There is a claim that despite all that governments say about economic theory, tax cuts, fiscal policy etc, evidence shows the focus on wealth creation as the foundation for raising wellbeing, is not all it proports to be. That claim says that “The relentless drive for greater economic efficiencies, which are needed to maintain high growth rates, has been accompanied by increasing inequality, sustained levels of unemployment, the growth in under- employment and overwork, pressures on public services such as health and education, and the geographic concentration of disadvantage, leading to deeper and more entrenched divisions within society.” It is acknowledged that the rise in technology contributes but there is the question as to what the technological advance is for that needs analysis. And just to take a little side track we read that certain words can and will influence artificial Intelligence because some words are naturally negative and others are positive and facial expression will become AI responses. In other words a grumpy person’s self-drive car might not start or an angry persons car might pull over and stop and wait till the occupant has calmed down.

Just as Jesus’ claim about an alternative society, an alternative social system to that which was based on a Roman view of human behaviour would end up getting him executed so the claim about an alternative to the common is without doubt powerful, and disturbing stuff! As we close in on our election this claim could even unsettle our own political persuasions and personal core values. Our system fluctuates between ideological extremes but does not raise alternatives from an economic centrality and an alternative would be upsetting to some. The challenge of an alternative criticizes our entrenched assumptions because it claims that our collective wellbeing or ‘happiness’ is improved if we live in a peaceful, flourishing, and supportive society, rather than if we have more money and more of the things money buys.

The title of my sermon presupposes the possibility of an alternative way of being holistically well, and I think it is because all of our human systems regardless of whether they are political, economic or social, are under pressure to change from the priori of an economic focused world. What if there is something other than socialism, capitalism, communism and all the isms? What if there was a way of shifting our systems to be more focused on outcomes that provide wellbeing as opposed to relying on economic theory and thus a profit motivated system that assumes wellbeing? If we want to retain the word economy then could it be seen as more about the disposition or regulation of the parts or functions of any organic whole? The regulation of an organized system or method as opposed to its most common interpretation, which is that economy means ‘the prosperity or earnings of a place or person?


The questions we would face then are how do we do this thing rather than what resources do we need to do this thing? How do we provide fulfilling work without money? Is it people doing something as opposed to being paid well? How do we reclaim, reprioritize our time? Is it by being paid more for less work or is it about doing more regenerative things for each other? How do we protect the environment? Is it less about making the environment work for us as opposed to working more with the environment? How do we ensure education contributes to our wellbeing? Is it about perfection and outcome for the individual or is it about experience and interpretation for each and every one? Is it about creating certainties and knowing facts or is it about living with uncertainties without absolutes? And so the questions go on. How do we invest in early childhood, discourage materialism and promote responsible advertising? How do we build communities and relationships, create a fair society and measure what matters?

What we do know is that widening disparities in incomes and access to services create resentment and disharmony, and we know that resentment and disharmony are time consuming engagements. Instead of blaming the victims of the systems we run, we should perhaps acknowledge that some people are left behind by the so-called market driven economy and do something about it rather than hold our hands up and say they are the product of their own making. They have a choice. The question is do they?

One of the startling outcomes of recent years is that we have become more self centered as nations and overseas aid has become a burden rather than an opportunity to care for each other. In recent years we have extended this to keeping refugees to a minimum and only allowing the movement of people if they can contribute to the particular nations economic theory. Maybe there is another way of ensuring more public funds go to overseas aid to help the poor in developing countries escape from poverty and destitution. It was interesting to see that one of the key issues that came out of the recent interactive TV program ‘What Next’ was that the eradication of poverty is a priority for us as a nation. And that is something that we no longer have a viable economic definition for, yet we know exists. What if poverty is the loss of an ability to participate in being well rather than being unable to participate in the economic system?

And to finish I want to ask what difference does our being a (progressive) Christian congregation make in the lives of others? Are suffering and marginalised people better off… Are the poor and homeless finding their lives improved… Do children have a brighter global future… Is this the case because we are on the journey which Jesus first chartered?

What I think is that throughout history the various sages and prophets have all counselled that wellbeing of the individual and as a community, is not a goal but a consequence of how we live. And this means that the changes I have implied are gospel imperatives can inspire healthier communities, stronger personal relationships, happier workplaces, a better balance between work and home, less commercialization, and greater environmental protection.

Likewise, by continuing on the journey which Jesus first chartered rather than worshipping that journey… And re-imagining the kingdom or realm or empire of God from the perspective of gospel compassion… we can all keep alive the dream and immanency or present-ness of God.

As Andrew Hamilton, Jesuit priest and editor of Eureka Street once said in an editorial, “Steady and decent public policies [by Governments] in which we can take pride actually build confidence.  — High human confidence is not only useful.  It is also valuable” (Eureka Street. 16 June 2008).

Notes: Bessler-Northcutt, J. 2004. “Learning to see God: Prayer and practice in the wake of the Jesus Seminar” in A. Dewey. ed., The Historical Jesus Goes To Church. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press



Consider The Lilies Of The Field’

Isaiah 49:13-16a                 Matthew 6:25-31, 33-34.

A call to contemplation/mindfulness with imagination

Way back in the 1960s and early 70s, a contemporary theologian named Amos Wilder claimed that Jesus’ speech had the character, not of instruction and ideas, but of compelling imagination. (Wilder 1971). He claimed that Christianity is a religion of imagination and the oral word. And behind the particular gospel stories and images lie a particular life-experience and a language-shaping faith.

His ground-breaking scholarship was that Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers broke into the world of speech and writing of their time, with a novel and powerful utterance. This reminds us that as far as we know Jesus never wrote a word, except on that occasion when, in the presence of the woman taken in adultery where, ‘he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground’. In secular terms we could say Jesus spoke as the birds sing, oblivious of any concern for transcription or written record.

Less romantically we might say that Jesus’ use of the spoken word alone has its own theological significance. This is because writing things down has about it a sense of permanence. It presupposes continuity and a future. But the spoken word is temporary. The words are gone as they are spoken.  As Wilder said: “Jesus was a voice not a penman, a herald not a scribe” (Wilder 1971:13).

Tradition has it, that one of the most important pieces of ‘Jesus voice’ is the so-called ‘sermon on the mount’, and the bits and pieces of sayings that the author of Matthew’s gospel puts after this collection, such as today’s sayings:

  • Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will drink, what you will wear…
  • Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns…
  • Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…

Generally speaking, most biblical scholars now days believe there was really no such thing as a ‘sermon’ on the mount. In reality, they say, it was the editorial work of the author of Matthew’s gospel, to place Jesus within the Jewish tradition in general, and as another great teacher like Moses, in particular. However, many of those same scholars reckon that the particular everyday sayings which follow in the next chapter, and make up today’s Lectionary sayings, indicate every possibility that we have before us “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus” (Funk & Hoover 1993:152). So let us stay with this scholarly suggestion for a moment.

The biblical stories frequently have Jesus drawing his figures of speech from the everyday world around him. “The need for food calls the birds to mind, the need for clothing the lilies…” (Funk & Hoover 1993:153). Plus… as the 1950s Scottish theologian William Barclay helpfully said, Jesus was not advocating a thoughtless, improvident attitude to life, “but was warning against a care-worn, worried, fearful way of living each day” (Millar 2000:175).

That’s why many scholars claim Jesus was a secular sage, (Hunt 2007:6). He made no theological statements. Neither did he set out to establish a new religion. He belonged more to the ‘wisdom’ stream than the ‘priestly’ stream of Judaism. That said, these particular sayings:

  • are addressed to people who are preoccupied with day-to-day existence, rather than with the broader political situation;
  • challenge common attitudes towards life, and
  • and of course they are exaggerations
  • and they do fit with some other sayings also attributed to Jesus.


In another but similar context, theologian Arthur Dewey says of Jesus’ sayings, they:

  • dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality,
  • admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal boat people/immigrants—whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’,
  • challenge us all to reshape our social categories, especially those of others, formed by our fears and rumors and innuendo.

And the implications of these sayings and this vision? Arthur Dewey again offers this suggestion: “…can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply” (Dewey 2002:80).

What is important about all these sayings is, the imagination bit. They make it possible for us to see the world, the everyday world in which we live, not only as it is, but also as it can be. To re-imagine. To move us to new places. To turn us into new people. And to lure a response from us that will want to do away with that which oppresses, limits, restricts, deprives, imprisons, others. And this brings us to the contemplation/mindfulness bit.

Clyde Reid in his book “Celebrate the Temporary’ wrote;

Celebrate the simple things: enjoy the butterfly embrace the snow run with the ocean delight in the trees or a single lonely flower

Go barefoot in the wet grass

Don’t wait until all the problems are solved or all the bills are paid You will wait forever

Eternity will come and go and you will still be waiting

Live in the now with all its problems and its agonies with its joy and its pain…

There is joy and beauty today It is temporary Here now and gone

So celebrate it while you can

I read this as a call to take time out, to engage more fully, waste a moment so that whet come next will have meaning. Consider the Lillies of the field. But just before we get into that we need to get some sort of working definition for mindfulness, which in today’s world is the discipline that psychiatry, psychology and counselling is suggesting as a means of dealing to depression, anxiety and many things listed under the term mental illness. Mindfulness is it seems the tool for a non-pharmaceutical approach to healing the mind.

Hold in your minds the idea that mindfulness is another mane for contemplation and that the wisdom tradition, the monastic tradition, the gnostics perhaps were all attempts to explore the wholistic human being. Being able to explore the imagination, the silence, the depths of thought were all ways of healing humankind. But to return to today we find that Dan Siegal summarizes mindfulness as “being aware, on purpose and non-judgmentally, of what is happening as it is happening in the present moment”.

Tara Brach defines is ‘The quality of awareness that recognizes exactly what is happening in our moment -to-moment experience”.

James Austin tries to capture the one-of-a-kind nature of mindful awareness when he speaks of ‘being mindfully attuned to the fresh individuality of each present moment as it evolves into the next one, and then the next one”

Jon Kabat-Zinn when speaking of lovingkindness meditation suggests mindful awareness is focused on someone you love. This is a blending of mindfulness into the experience of the relationship itself.

It is not surprising then that mindfulness/or contemplation as it is understood above involves the very areas of the brain that are involved in the creation of our capacity for compassion and intersubjectivity. In other words how my subjectivity, (the fact that I cannot ever get outside myself) interacts with your subjectivity (Out of which you cannot get either). It is by the practice of mindfulness that enables us to let go of judgmental processes and stay more ‘present.’ Meditation or contemplation can change the brain to become more empathetic and attuned to everything.

I want to show you a short video now that talks about this place that we might enjoy by being mindful through contemplation. But just before I do that I want to remind you about Eric Fromm’s 5 points about living a spiritual life.

  • He says that people who have a spiritual life believe there is a hierarchy of values – Love and compassion are seen as more important than distain for the Oxford comma.
  • That people who have a spiritual life know that life is not filled with simple answers, but that life is a series of questions that expand us.
  • That people who are engaged in a spiritual life know that life is about being transformed.
  • That people who have a spiritual life know that life is not about the self, but it is about transcending the self we think our selves to be. We need to free ourselves from our selves so we can be ourselves.
  • And that people who have a spiritual life know that there is an inter-connectedness of humanity and with one another.

I think that here we have the key to mindfulness as a discipline that does not abdicate the cognitive, reasoned world in favour of silence or nothingness, but rather through the awareness of self and the subjectivity of the self in tension with the other provides an experience that is birthed in the questioning of our devotion to our self and provides a willingness to be transformed in love and connectedness. Lets watch the video as I think Watts talks about this place of knowing or being mystical and engaged.

You Tube- Waiting for magic -Alan Watts

Emilie Townes, Professor of African American Religion and Theology, at Yale Divinity School, made a presentation to the ‘Voices of Sophia’ conference of Presbyterian women in the USA… Her oral presentation was shaped around a theme: What will we do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are. She didn’t offer a highly academic speech. Neither did she suggest she was talking about what makes any of us, perfect. What she did say was: “I’m talking about what we call in Christian ethics, the everydayness of moral acts… It’s what we do every day that shapes us and says more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action” (Townes 2006.

Using ordinary rather than so-called ‘holy’ language, reminiscent of the one we call Jesus, Townes lists her everyday moral acts which her listeners, and now us, are invited to identify with:

  • the everydayness of listening closely when folks talk or don’t talk, to hear what they are saying;
  • the everydayness of taking some time, however short or long, to refresh us through prayer or meditation;
  • the everydayness of speaking to folks and actually meaning whatever it is that is coming out of our mouths;
  • the everydayness of being a presence in people’s lives; the everydayness of designing a class session or lecture or reading or writing or thinking;
  • the everydayness of sharing a meal;
  • the everydayness of facing heartache and disappointment;
  • the everydayness of joy and laughter;
  • the everydayness of facing people who expect us to lead them somewhere, or at least point them in the right direction and walk with them;
  • the everydayness of blending head and heart;
  • the everydayness of getting up and trying one more time to get our living right.

It is in this everydayness, Townes says, that we are formed. Boundaries and differences are irrelevant. And in the everydayness of the Jesus imagination: love enemies, forgive others, imitate divine tolerance. Amen.

Notes: Funk, R. W. & R. Hoover. The Five Gospels. The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York. Macmillan, 1993. Hunt, R. A. E. 2007. “Progressive Christianity: New moves in Christian thinking and practice”. A presentation to Christian Jewish Dialogue ACT, 4 February 2007. Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000. Reid, C. Celebrate the Temporary. New York. Harper & Row, 1972. Wilder, A. N. Early Christian Rhetoric. The Language of the Gospel. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1971. Dewey, A. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan”, in R. W. Hoover (ed). Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.

Trinity A. 2017 Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity: A Theology And A Holiday..

It is Trinity Sunday today and once again we revisit the doctrine and ask what it is, what it’s use is and do we need it. But as always, I have tried to find something new to say and I have to say that it is getting harder every year.

John Robinson, the English 1960s radical bishop of Honest to God fame, said it had become a formula as arid and as unintelligible as E=MC2 that Einstein said was the clue to the physical universe.

Going back even further we find that Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century theologian and mystic, imaged it in grand metaphorical style: A brightness, a flashing forth, and a fire. And the three are one.

In more recent times we find in an article by Sean Kelly, Professor of Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies, that Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, who are perhaps our most well-known cosmologists, apart from Carl Sagan perhaps, have provided another approach to the idea of Trinity. In his brief overview of the evolution of “the consciousness of the universe and its current crisis as humanity continues to destroy the life-support system of Earth, Kelly claims that, just as the collaborative effort of natural scientists and other researchers have revealed the outlines, at least, of a comprehensive cosmology, we find ourselves plunged into a maelstrom of unparalleled planetary madness. The madness: being a runaway catastrophic climate change, an accelerating mass extinction of species and generalized ecological deterioration, and a brutal, empire-driven regime of planetary apartheid”.

The wisdom of the article is the suggestion that the “Big History” type ‘grand narrative’ is a story that encompasses the mysterious origin in a “primal flaring forth” (popularly referred to as the Big Bang), “a growing, if perhaps never complete, understanding of the main stages of cosmic evolution, the complexities of embodied intelligence, the main thresholds of human history and the varieties of cultural expression, a sense of the lure or telos of the evolutionary adventure, and a prescient sense of growing planetary crisis. Complex yet trinitarian in nature, even if perhaps not traditionally sequential”. To be traditional it would be Father, Son and Holy Spirit = Big Bang, embodied intelligence and adventurous flaring forth. But then we must always remember what Bishop Jack Spong said: in one of his newsletters. “No one can ultimately define God, not even as the Holy Trinity.  The height of human arrogance is to suggest otherwise.  All any of us can do is define not God, but our experience with God. There is a vast difference between those two things. And this is the invitation to explore what our experience actually is. “The Trinity is a definition of our experience, nothing more.  Those that make this definition of our experience the definition of God, and call it the ‘bedrock belief of Christianity’ are not well informed” (Spong Newsletter, 2008).

In response to Spong there are those who argue that any person, who wants alternative names for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, should be declared enemies of the church, or heretics, but I want to see if we can transcend that simplistic, ‘them and us’ approach and to do that I want to spend a bit of time following down the Sean Kelly path with Swimme and Berry.

Kelly starts with what he calls a cosmological wisdom that Swimme and Berry seek in their argument. They argue for a threefold “cosmogenetic principle,” or as he prefers to call it, a trinity of cosmogenetic principles. By cosmogenetic he is referring to the generating beginning, These cosmogenetic principles are —differentiation, autopoiesis, and communion— and they “refer to the governing themes and the basal intentionality of all existence” and can be said to reveal the deep structure of cosmogenesis. They are three mutually implicated dimensions or moments of the emergence, persistence, and evolution of form “throughout time and space and at every level of reality”. Swimme and Berry invoke these principles to help us understand the integral nature of cosmic evolution, from the primal flaring forth (with the mysterious relation between the original singularity—if indeed there was a singularity—and the initial break in symmetry, with its perfect, fine-tuned calibration between gravitation and the forces of expansion or spatiation and also among the four fundamental forces), through the emergence of particles, atoms, galaxies, stars (especially our own Sun), and planets (especially Earth or Gaia), to the emergence of life, human societies, and civilizations.

In all cases they underline how the three principles “are themselves features of each other.” In fact, as they say, if were there no differentiation, “the universe would collapse into a homogenous smudge; were there no subjectivity [which Swimme and Berry associate with autopoiesis], the universe would collapse into inert, dead extension; were there no communion, the universe would collapse into isolated singularities of being” Here I suggest they might just be talking about the doctrine of the Trinity the need for the distinctive threesome that reveals the interdependence of the three in the one or the need for a relational reality. To be relational one needs the differentiation.

Swimme and Berry state that their understanding of the triadic principle is based on the manifest cosmos rather than on some a priori metaphysical (whether philosophical or theological) concept or doctrine. At the same time, however, it must be conceded that this principle is remarkably coherent with expressions of the nature of wisdom in triadic form found in the world’s great metaphysical traditions (see Kelly, 2010). We know that, before turning to scientific cosmology, Berry had undertaken a deep study of Asian traditions, particularly Neo-Confucianism. This study discerned a tripartite patterning or principle that culminated in a state of harmony or balance.

We note here that the Confucianism was influenced by the earlier “original enlightenment” school of Buddhism, where we find the notion of the “threefold contemplation in one mind” that is, the integral nature of the three truths of – emptiness, conventional existence, and the middle. The forms of all things exerting their functions and arising in dependence upon conditions, is, without transformation, the threefold contemplation in its totality. (Stone, 178)

Kelly is not suggesting that the three cosmogenetic principles of autopoiesis, differentiation, and communion are identical with the Neo-Confucian triad but rather that all three triads participate in the same archetypal complex, or “cultural invariant”, to use Raimon Panikkar’s term, which he calls the “radical Trinity.” “I may also use a consecrated name:” he writes, “advaita [“not twoness”], which is the equivalent of the radical Trinity. Everything is related to everything but without monistic identity or dualistic separation.” (Panikkar, 2010, 404) The most encompassing expression of the radical Trinity is the integral or non-dual “theanthropocosmic” intuition of “Reality comprising the Divine, the Human, and the Cosmic in thoroughgoing relationality.” (xviii) “We are together with other Men,” Pannikkar observes, “on a common Earth, under the same Sky, and enveloped by the Unknown.” (268) These three terms remind us of the traditional Chinese triad of Heaven, Humanity, and Earth. In Panikkar’s case, however, though deeply informed by both the non-dualism of Hindu advaita vedanta and the Buddhist notion of dependent co-arising, which he translates as “interindependence”), the deeper source is speculative Christian Trinitarian theology (with which Berry was obviously also familiar, despite his lack of formal training in theology and his self-designation as a “geologian”). The key insight here is the “perichoretic”, or mutually generating, relation among the three “persons” of the Trinity.

Right about now you might be asking what the heck I am talking about and you could be right in asking that because it sounds to me like an argument for the doctrine that seems to be swallowed up in technical concepts and clever language. It seems like I am advocating for the Trinity and if that’s what it sounds like it probably is, so I shall try to round it off by accepting the trinitarian approach as a structure, is helpful in that it is consistent with not fully knowing, consistent with a subjective truth and inexhaustibly generative, from which arises form and determination, “being” in the sense of what can be concretely perceived and engaged with; that form itself is never exhausted, never limited by this or that specific realization, but is constantly being realized in the flux of active life that equally springs out from the source of all. Between form, “logos”, and life, “spirit”, there is an unceasing interaction. The Source of all does not and cannot exhaust itself simply in producing shape and structure; it also produces that which dissolves and re-forms all structures in endless and undetermined movement, in such a way that all form itself is not absolutized but always turned back toward the primal reality of the Source. (xviii)

Echoing Swimme and Berry’s statement quoted above regarding the mutual implication of the three cosmogenetic principles, Pannikar states: “God without Man is nothing, literally ‘no-thing’. Man without God is exclusively a ‘thing’ not a person, not a really human being, while the World, the Cosmos, without Man and God is ‘any-thing without consistency and being; it is sheer non existing chaos. The three are constitutively connected.’” (Panikkar, 1979, quoted in Sabetta) Like Panikkar’s “cosmotheanthropic” vision, Swimme and Berry see their cosmogenetic principles active throughout the entire universe story. It is in our middle realm of Earth however, that we see the principles in action most clearly and consequentially.

It is good that we can have a healthy discontent with the doctrine of the Trinity because what is important is as Marcus Borg’s book reminds us, it is The God We Never Knew, or a Catching Water in a Net that Val Webb writes about that keeps us human. This tension between one and three is a healthy response because as both Webb and Borg suggest the Latin and Greek words translated as ‘person’ do not mean what ‘person’ most commonly means in English. For us, ‘person’ means separate being. But ‘person’ in the ancient texts refers to the mask worn by actors in Greek and Roman theatres. “To speak of one God and three persons is to say that God in known to us wearing three different ‘masks’… in three different roles” (Borg 1997:98). The Trinity not as doctrine but as creative concept and inviting of imagination is a welcome idea.

Here we have the image of a multifaceted sacredness creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing. Cumulatively speaking, Borg suggests that when we step away from a literalist understanding, ‘Trinity’ shows that: God is not a distant being but is near at hand. God is not primarily a lawgiver and judge but the compassionate one. And the religious life is not about requirements, but about relationship. Relationship between all things.

So, why have I given you the struggle with language and concepts of cosmology? Why have I tried to place the Trinity in the Big Picture? Well, I think it is because I believe that the more we can think progressively theologically then the more we can welcome honesty, be enriched by theological freedom, and spend less time on articulating literalistic doctrines that keep us focused on defining rules that limit God as opposed to exploring in a creative and imaginative way, seeking what a new human life can be. The way we imagine or understand God makes a difference. And anyway, in the words of Irish priest and theologian, Diarmuid O’Murchur: “How precisely the relatedness of Jesus differs from that of the Father and Spirit may well be one of the most meaningless questions ever asked” (O’Murchur 2005:52).

To finish off then, what’s with the holiday? Well its simply that all this Trinity stuff is not about defining God or Jesus or The Holy Spirit but rather about recognising the ever present-ness of God or the sacred, in all of our ordinary living. Then maybe thinking about God can suddenly become a whole lot more fun. Trinity Sunday and a holiday weekend perhaps. Maybe we could weave together these seemingly unrelated and in some ways, perhaps contradictory events…. After all the Trinity has for many people, become one of the more complicated of doctrines… Obscure. Abstract. And far too serious. Maybe a three-day holiday weekend with football or rugby and meals together, might just help. Having a holiday weekend with Trinity Sunday in the middle, could allow us to emphasize certain aspects of God’s nature we are likely to ignore when we take our creed-driven neo-orthodox theologies so seriously! Having a holiday at this time of the year could remind us that simply getting together as a family for dinners and family gatherings and taking delight in each other and in the world around us…

These suggestions, echo and reflect something of the spirit of God in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. That there is wisdom to be found in merely being playful. Having a mid-winter party, or barn dance or whatever. And we are expressing something of God’s own nature. The mystery of the livingness of God in a wondrous community…a creative energy beyond, a compassionate traveler with, and an empowering friendship within, connecting ‘all creation’ together.

Maybe… just maybe, this is really what the storyteller Matthew is on about. That the essence of God is to be in mutual relation… A mystery of dynamic communion of connectedness. A dancing and celebrating emmanuel at a party. Rather than the literal and liturgical interests of the ‘church fathers’ who set this lectionary story for this Sunday with its tenuous links to the so-called doctrine of the Trinity.

Notes: Borg, M. J. The God We Never Knew. Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. New York. HarperCollins, 1997. O’Murchu, D. Catching Up With Jesus. A Gospel Story for our Time. New York. Crossroad Publishing, 2005. Webb, V. Like Catching Water in a Net. Human Attempts to Define the Divine. New York. Continuum Press, 2007.

Kelly Sean Cosmological Wisdom and Planetary Madness