Archive for May, 2018

‘A Curious Trinity’

Posted: May 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

John 3:1-17

‘A Curious Trinity’

Gretta Vosper reminds us that “Church history, like most history, is generally told from the perspective of the victors, those who made the rules and reinforce them.  Those who dissented from the accepted beliefs of their time – often risking infamy, isolation, academic shunning, ridicule, or death – are depicted as heretics and traitors to the faith. History is told to discourage us from finding affinity with them.”

I want to make a suggestion about what I think might be our experience of history discouraging us from discovering a new way of being religious, or a new way of articulating the value of Jesus for the future.

Some time back I suggested that Gordon Kaufmann might be on to something here when he sought to use the word creativity instead of God as a means of understanding God in today’s context. He added the word serendipitous when he wrote his book ‘In the Face of Mystery, A Constructive Theology”. He had come to the conclusion that all theological ideas-including the idea of God-could best be understood as products of the human imagination, when employed by men and women seeking to orient themselves in life. This freed him to experiment with a variety of ways of thinking of God, humanity, and the world more congenial to modern/postmodern consciousness about these matters than were the more traditional formulations. It was in the publication of his book In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Kaufman 1993a) that he was able to set out in some detail the major problems he had with traditional Christian thinking about these matters, together with his own constructive proposals addressing these problems. Three terms he found useful in his constructive work were: bio-historical beings; widespread serendipitous creativity; and cosmic, evolutionary and historical trajectories or directional movements. The first; humans as bio-historical beings means conceiving the human as being deeply embedded in the web of life on planet earth at the same time as attending to the significance of our radical distinctiveness as a form of life. Being human is distinctive within the whole of what life is. The second; the widespread serendipitous creativity manifest in the cosmos as conceived today. This provides a promising way of thinking of God. The suggestion here is that the concept of serendipitous creativity is that force or energy which is manifest throughout our evolutionary universe. One might say that serendipitous creativity is that which powers the universe. This also presents creation as ongoing processes or events rather than a once off event in time. And three; in the notion of cosmic, we acknowledge evolutionary, and historical trajectories or directional movements that have emerged spontaneously in the universe at large and on planet Earth in particular. These trajectories or movements have made visible to us humans, the consequences of the divine creative activity in the world. This places religion within our current understanding of cosmic, biological and historical-cultural processes. It enables us to interrelate and interpret the enormous expansion and complexification of the physical universe from the Big Bang onward. As well as the evolution of life on earth including the gradual emergence of human historical existence.

Last week I suggested we might start to paint a new picture with the beginning of John’s gospel and reinterpret the word God as serendipitous creativity.

In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and serendipitous creativity was with God, and serendipitous creativity was God. All things came into being through Serendipitous Creativity and without it not one thing came into being. What has come into being in serendipitous creativity was life,* and the life was the light of all people.

“In the beginning was serendipitous creativity, and … [this] serendipitous creativity was God”? There are two quite different interpretations that come to mind in this. In the ordinary understanding of John’s Gospel, it is usually assumed that to say the Word was God” (1:1) is a declaration that the Word (which a few verses later will be identified with Jesus) is fully divine. John goes on to emphasize this point immediately by stating; All things came into being through” this Word (1:3); this is what created the heavens and the earth. Were we to follow this pattern of interpretation, our paraphrase would be redundant, simply asserting that the serendipitous creativity” that brought all things into being is nothing other than the activity of the creator-and we would be left with our familiar and recent traditional ideas about both God and creativity.

The other interpretation of the paraphrase, however, turns this all around and asserts that the phrase “serendipitous creativity was [or is] God” is not redundant at all but rather a claim about what our word” God” designates: it is serendipitous creativity that is God; when we use the word “God,” it is the profound mystery of serendipitous creativity to which we are referring. Our anthropomorphic or personalistic images and ideas of God should not get in the way of our recognizing the significance of this point. The common point is the mystery that will always exist. The words “serendipitous creativity,” as we have been noting, leave the question of how or why the new comes into being completely open, and (in this second interpretation) the word” God” is the religious name for this mystery that goes beyond human understanding. This interpretation implies that we should beware of unconsciously importing any images or ideas -personalistic or other -into our thinking about God, for that would be refusing to acknowledge the ultimacy of God’s (serendipitous creativity’s) profound mystery, instead of facing up to what that mystery means for us.

It would be claiming we know something that we cannot possibly know, why and how there is something and not nothing. In the Genesis 1 story, although the created realities spoken of there -like the sun and moon, plants and animals and humans -are all things that we know perfectly well. Just what the creator God is, or how and why God is able to bring these sorts of things into being, remains completely unexplained. It is interesting to note that the modern story of the Big Bang, the subsequent coming into being of the cosmos, and the eventual evolution of life has similar limitations: all that we actually see or can understand here is that new realities have emerged in the course of time. In this account, like in the biblical account, the how and why of creation remain profound mysteries. So here again is the challenge to not allow ancient religious assumptions and beliefs to lead us into thinking we know or understand what happens in events or processes of this kind.

God, of course, has always been understood to be a profound mystery, but the way in which God has been talked about has often involved fudging this point and proceeding as though we knew that God is really a personal being, one of enormous power who can create at will things that previously did not exist. A supernatural. Interventionist God.

Thinking of God as serendipitous creativity (rather than as “the Creator”) forces us to take the profundity of God’s mystery to a deeper level. For serendipitous creativity” is simply a name with which we identify this profound mystery of new realities coming into being; it is in no way an explanation of it. What has come into being is the whole vast cosmos -with all its multifarious contents -the wide context of our human lives. Within this developing cosmos, after billions of years of further serendipitous creativity,’ life emerged on planet Earth and gradually evolved along many different lines. On one of these trajectories, after further billions of years of creativity, mammals, primates, and finally humans came into being. This particular development represents, of course, only one line of the creativity manifest in our universe, but it is the one that -in its serendipitous superabundance -brought humans into being and thus is of special meaning and importance to us. To become aware of this awe-inspiring mystery of serendipitous creativity is to come out of the dark unconsciousness of these matters. Most of life, and of human history as well, lives and has existed. It lives and has existed into the paradoxical consciousness and knowledge of the profound mystery within which we humans live. It is this mystery of serendipitous creativity, that Kaufmann and I am suggesting, that we today should think of as God.’

But what has this to do with Trinity? Can this 14th century doctrine be of any value in talking about this serendipitous creativity as God? Well, to recap; I think it can. When reminding ourselves of some key points in this claim we see that Serendipitous Creativity is a name of God and it is a way of speaking about God. Trinity is a metaphor that expresses the individuation of God and by individuation, I mean the completion of God, in other words an evolutionary God is always almost here, all around us and almost here. Trinity suggests that God is understood through the triune relationship, the dynamic of relationship between the cosmic, life and human flourishing. God the father, the cosmic creation, God the Son, the life creation and God the Holy Spirit, the human flourishing.

When we examine these three significantly different modalities of serendipitous creativity, each of them is involved in mystery in its own distinctive way; putting this point theologically, one can say that serendipitous creativity (God’s activity) will be considered here in connection with three different contexts, and thus in three different forms. The first of these modalities -which we might call serendipitous creativity is the initial coming into the ongoing coming into being of trajectories of increasingly complex novel realities. In this mode creation is not thought of as simply and straightforwardly from nothing; it is, rather, creation in the context of other realities that already exist. The second mode is about the kind of complex processes that today are believed to have produced, in the course of some billions of years, humans (as well as many other creatures). This mode provides (among other things) a link between Serendipitous Creativity 1 and serendipitous creativity 3. There are, doubtless, other ways of thinking about the concept of creativity, but this trinitarian, three-fold division enables us to view it from three distinctly different angles. The ideas of the Big Bang and the subsequent evolution of the world and of life have become commonplace features of a very comprehensive way of thinking that some commentators believe is increasingly bringing the sciences back into relation with each other as they now proceed with their work. After some years of vigorous debate, a widespread consensus appears to be developing among cosmologists about the basic facts of the universe -how old it is, how large it is, the various stages through which it developed, and so on.’ It is believed that the universe is very large and perhaps consisting of many billions of galaxies, each of which, on average, Scientist Stephen Hawking said `At the big bang itself, the universe is thought to have had zero size, and … to have been infinitely hot” (Hawking 1988,117). Though this may be plausible mathematically, it is very difficult to imagine or think just what is being said here about an actual state of affairs: what could it mean to describe this whatever-it-is as being, of zero size”, and how could anything of that sort be articulated clearly in our ordinary speech.

The Big Bang, its effects or what follows it are cumulative and long-lasting but probably not unending as new structures and patterns gradually emerge in the universe that is coming into being. There is of course more to say about what could be called ongoing serendipitous creativity or more creativity but for today I want to leave that discussion for later. Suffice to say that this further creative activity also cumulates and develops and brings more new forms of order into being through long and increasingly complex creative evolutionary processes. The earlier experiences of serendipitous creativity or God’s activity produced the material and vital orders of the world in which we live, and this latter serendipitous creativity- appearing in and through the activities of our human minds, our spirits, produces the whole mental /spiritual world as an emergent outcome of those prior modalities of serendipitous creativity. This argues that serendipitous creativity should not be thought of as a static reality, always and everywhere the same, but rather as itself modulating and developing in ways appropriate to the increasing complexity of the realities it is producing and within which it appears.

So, back to the trinity. For a piece of theology which was supposed to bring unity in the church amid political intrigue and a host of opposing theological opinions, of ‘suspected heretics’ and ‘dissidents’, we have to say it failed! Yet when listening to Marjorie Suchocki, professor emerita of Claremont School of Theology and executive director of ‘Process & Faith’ we have to think again. She said that: “despite (its) divisive history, the doctrine of the Trinity is more important today than ever, and for two very practical reasons: the first is that the doctrine can keep us from the idolatry of thinking God is just a human being, only bigger and better than the rest of us. We know that taking away a theistic God and a divine Jesus we are apt to feel that we have lost our faith or destroyed Christianity and Suchocki’s claim is that the doctrine argues against that as well as telling us that the very deepest form of unity is one that includes irreducible diversity.” (Process & Faith web site 2006)

In closing we are invited to hear Nicodemus again. To hear him as a member of the religious institution of his day take the risk of changing his view. He was a mover of theological boundaries. He was willing to risk leaving behind the so-called ‘truth’ as he and his colleagues had known it, in order to explore something new. Nicodemus as for us, must be allowed to respond to ‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways rather than prescribing a single mode. Otherwise how else can he and we discover that our lives and our thinking might be different? Nicodemus, Patron saint of the curious.  And for many of us, our patron saint. May he protect the curious in each of us. Amen.

Lowry, E. L. “Strangers in the Night” in W. B. Robinson (ed) Journeys Toward Narrative Preaching. New York. The Pilgrim Press, 1990.
Robinson, J. A. T. But That I Can’t Believe! London. Fontana Press, 1967.
Vosper, G. Amen. What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief . Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012

Kaufman G. D. In The Beginning Creativity. Fortress press 2004[Back To Top]

Pentecost B, 2018
Acts 2:1-4

Pentecost: Beyond the ‘Language Game…

Picture two scenes of beginning.

Scene one: In the beginning was the word and the word was ‘How r ya’. That’s how the New Testament book we traditionally call John might have begun if Jesus had been born a Kiwi. To some, Kiwi English is a lazy drawl of distorted vowels and suppressed consonants. But to most of us Kiwi’s it is a rich vein of regional idioms and unique slang expressions. “We don’t talk like anyone else on Earth,” some have said of Australians and we too might claim that also, even if in some cases the English put us two together in confusion.

Scene two: In the beginning was serendipitous creativity and serendipitous creativity was with God, and serendipitous creativity was God. All things came into being through Serendipitous Creativity and without it not one thing came into being. What has come into being in serendipitous creativity was life,* and the life was the light of all people.

These two stories give us the context for Pentecost and I suggests a Pentecost beyond language.

Rex Hunt suggests that like a movie director, Luke, the one we traditionally claim as the author of Acts, creates a scene with wind and fire. This is flamboyant speech. It is great drama. A Pentecost script full of symbolism which cannot be taken literally, whatever historical event does or does not lay behind this story. But is Pentecost just about a ‘language’ game as charismatics might argue?

Rex suggests a couple of interesting articles which took the Pentecost story beyond this, into some social issues.

One article claims that the ecological crisis is a ‘spirit’-ual problem. The other is about the power and dignity in other words, the ‘spirit’ – of a city. In our case the City of Auckland. Two rather unlikely subjects to be associated with Pentecost, according to Rex and he offered some random thoughts from each of those articles that might apply to us.

Lynn White, in one article suggests that Christianity’s attack on so-called pagan religion effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning. When paganism was banished what happened was that it replaced the belief that the sacred is in rivers and trees, with the doctrine that God is a disembodied spirit whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth. God is up there out there unconnected and untouchable.

He wrote: “By destroying pagan (religions), Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.” (White 1967) This suggests that the impact of Christianity’s teachings has tended to empty the biosphere of any sense of God’s presence in natural things. And what was created in terms of traditional theism, is that God is pictured as a sky-God.

And in turn, human beings, as bearers of God’s image, are regarded essentially as ‘souls’ taking up temporary residence in their earthly bodies. Or to put it in the common idiom: God is against nature. God is super – natural, disconnected from nature, superior to nature. ‘Dominion over’ becomes a top down idiom.

White claims, in this sense the ecological crisis – global warming, irreversible ozone depletion, massive deforestation – is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. Because… certain Christian teachings have blunted our ability to experience co-belonging with other life forms. How do you feel when we say those words in our community prayer “Forgive us when we trespass against others, human and other than human”? Do you get a sense of the challenge to review your relationship with the non- human life on this planet” What does it mean to trespass against other than human”?

The next question is “has this dominant view of nature rendered us unwilling to alter our self- destructive course and plot a new path toward sustainable living. If one holds to a doctrine of Trinity then it’s possible that the three in one relationship is distorted at best, and maybe there is a battle between pantheism and panentheism. God is Nature verses God is in Nature becomes the mechanism of avoiding the hard question.

The second article is a about St John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the 4th and early 5th centuries, who described the Festival of Pentecost as the ‘capital city of holy days’ and ‘the metropolis of the Christian year.’ While other cities may be larger, or more populated, or more fun… warmer even, Chrysostom argued they do not have the power or might or dignity of the capital city.

Living as we do in the City of Auckland, one of the most multicultural cities in the world where a myriad of languages is spoken this Chrysostom reference could be applied. The festival of Pentecost is the Auckland City of holy days, the metropolis of the Christian year. A significant image in this city of Auckland is the streets upon streets of different cultures and languages. In many of its buildings from houses to business all the peoples of the inhabited world are represented. In this city there are many people of different ethnicity’s and tongues, many cultures celebrated, much art and music and food and clothing to please the tastes of all the families of the planet.

Returning to Chrysostom’s image, in the city of Pentecost, no house or building is under siege, none has been shuttered or its families sent away by a secret order from the government, no front door has been vandalized or spray painted with insults or taunts, no refugee person has been declared persona non grata. Of course, that last claim might be challenged in our city. The issue is that the city of Pentecost is the safe place where all the cultures and languages are meant to be and the idyllic nature of this claim also reminds us that the city of Pentecost is not yet fully come.

The question we face is ‘how is ‘pentecost’ moved beyond the ‘language’ game?’ What is Pentecost as living with the planet rather than against nature? Pentecost as living in all the dignity and diversity of Auckland city. One might also say that this is the task that faces St David’s today. What is Pentecost as St David’s living in and with Uptown Auckland and of course within the greater city of Auckland.

Luke as storyteller, suggests something here. He suggests that the spirit (Sophia) is the source of unity amid diversity. (Why else the United Nations list of participants?) She does not eliminate diversity, but she makes it possible to rejoice in it instead of fighting over it. Neither Greek nor Roman, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female… Neither Irish, Indonesian nor Chinese, neither Pakeha or Maori, neither straight nor gay…

Pentecost is not yet come. It is a promise, a vision not yet achieved in practice.  Rather, it is a goal towards which we strive with greater or lesser success and indeed with greater or lesser effort. Theism or Serendipitous Creativity, Pentecost might be understood as the nudging of God in our lives which can bring about an expanding experience of what life is really designed to be about.” (Goff.P&F Web site 2003)

In this we can relate to as ‘just a bit of ‘Pentecost’ each day’. This initiates a process of empowerment found in the dynamic of relationship across complexity, which can bring satisfaction to God in creation, I might say the satisfaction is found in the healthy relationship with and understanding of Serendipitous Creativity. Found in the relationship between God and the city, and between us all.

This has got to be worth reflecting upon and celebrating, As Rex adds; especially on a day when we see ‘red’!

Easter 7B, 2018
John 17: 6-19

Prayer as Language of The Heart

Powell Davies, served as minister of All Souls Church in Washington, USA, during the late 1940s and early 50s and he wrote a book on prayer that raised a number of questions about prayer. What he said was that “Prayer… is the language of the heart, akin to poetry. Its concern is not with exact description, as that of prose so often is, but with reality itself and with the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off: it has to do with what is least known and yet most deeply felt.”  (Davies 1956:6)

In that simple statement he made some significant claims about prayer that I want to explore a little today. The first is that ‘Prayer is the language of the heart, the second that language of the heart is akin to poetry, the third was that Prayer is not concerned with exact description but rather with reality itself and this is a claim that reality is as I argued some months back when quoting the Italian Physicist Carlo Rovelli when he said Reality is ‘not what it seems”. Prayer is more akin to being not what it seems as opposed to exact description and what is important about prayer is that it has the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Prayer goes on where other language leaves off, and its main concern is to explore what is least known and yet most deeply felt. What I want to explore this morning is some of the connections this approach makes with the rest of life because I think that somehow this understanding of prayer permeates almost the whole of human living.

I am currently reading a book loaned to me by Carl Becker entitled “Desiring the Kingdom’ by James K A Smith, which talks about there being an intentional nature in being human and that this intent is a desire to be a lover as opposed to being a thinker. Much of our recent history as human beings has been obsessed with thinking and our education theory has been centered on cognitive development. Not that such learning is not important but current thinking is that it is not enough to be cognitively proficient, our learning environment needs to recognize that human development is more likely to be through cultural and sociological exposure, or as Smith suggests cultural liturgies. That are formational. We note here also that Smith talks about Liturgies as the way we pull the cognitive and the practice together. In this way he can claim what I think we already know, and that is that education is a holistic endeavour that involves the whole person, including our bodies, in the process of formation that aims our desires, primes our imagination and orients us to the world, all before we start thinking about it.

But returning to our topic; what is this to do with prayer? Well I want to suggest that the connection might be in the power to evoke our spiritual resources. Under the strain of difficult conditions, or in severe loss or bereavement, or when emotionally moved by a scene of natural beauty, there is something within us that cries out for expression and this is a natural phenomenon. This is the beginning of prayer. In traditional language, this is God, or the sacred, found in the midst of ordinary life and in the natural world. Or as K E Peters suggests prayer is “something more than ourselves in which we ‘live and move and have our being’… [and] which in various ways, calls us and the world, on the edge of time, to move beyond present states of existence” (Peters 2008: 12).

To use Smiths approach, prayer is a challenge to the person as thinker model (I think therefor I am’) as being reductionist and not recognizing that the complexity and richness of human persons is not found by reducing the core identity to something less than it should be. We are not totally defined by our thinking ability and in fact other means of learning and human development are more involved in human identity. It is here that Smith I think introduces the idea that we are more likely to be driven by love than cognitive thinking. Prayer might just be an example of this attempt to reach beyond the cognitive.

Today’s gospel story by the bloke we call John, is a very small part of the tradition
which was circulating about Jesus’ prayers or prayer life. The tone of this rather long-winded prayer is very personal. In it Jesus addresses God as someone whom he knows
very intimately indeed, and as someone whom he trusts implicitly. At one level this is classic ‘theism’, but at another it is an acknowledgement that there is more to prayer than a conversation with a supernatural being, it is rather a claim that his human identity as a son of God is more than that which is limited by human thinking. He knows in his gut that he can trust God. He feels convinced that he is in the same space as his God. They are one in existence. And in this prayer John has Jesus weaving together the past, the present and the future into a kind of timelessness, which he suggests is available for all. This particular prayer is quite different from the ‘The Abba Prayer’. Which suggests that there are many different types of prayer and many different approaches to prayer. Just as poetry engages the space between the words and evokes a person’s spirit to explore meaning and feeling and even action so does prayer.

In regard to the different types of prayer we might suggests that a prayer which somebody leads in church or in a prayer group on behalf of others, is quite different from private prayer. Any measurement of prayer has to take into account the hearer and how many hearers as well thus the cognitive dilemma. On the other hand, prayer may be just a few words, like OMG, or a waiting in silence. Whatever the sort of prayer you prefer, the common thing is that there seems to be a need for some time for silence… and the deeper we get into prayer the more it tends to be listening prayer rather than speaking prayer. Again; we have the need for room for the non-cognitive.

This silence may be when you’re outside gardening, or enjoying a bush or beach view,
or looking at a picture, or out for a brisk morning walk in winter. It may also be while
you’re ironing, or painting the shed, or washing the car. Or it may be in deliberate meditation.

Helder Camara, a Roman Catholic bishop in Brazil, wrote some words on prayer to the people of his diocese, at a time when they were enduring horrific suffering. He said that Prayer was “putting our ear to the ground” in order to hear the Divine voice… to recognize that God always is by our side, even when in our agony we are silenced and unable to think at all. What I think he was saying was that prayer is not just about thinking but rather about something more than language could engage with. He wrote “Put your ear to the ground and listen, hurried, worried footsteps, bitterness, rebellion. “Hope hasn’t yet begun. Listen again. Put out your feelers. The Lord is there.  (Camara 1984)

Peter Millar from the Iona Community offers a perspective on Camara’s prayer: when he says “Is this not the essence of prayer – to see the One who is always near, and who is constantly inviting us, in gentle compassion, to come back to our inheritance as a human being made in the divine image?” (Millar 2000:37)

Another perspective on prayer, especially how ‘it works’, comes from Christine Robinson.  She suggests that prayer ‘works’: “on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear our own wisdom, to reroute habits and habitual responses, to help us adjust to and find good in all that we cannot change, and see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they are, in our lives” (C Robinson. First Unitarian, Albuquerque web site, 2007).

Here we again sense that prayer is not just about the cognitive approach, and that our fundamental way of dealing with the world is non-cognitive. It also suggests that because our fundamental nature is to be intentional about engaging with the world our engagement is neither reflectional or theoretical, in other words we do not go around all day thinking about how to live our lives. It is rather more that we simply involve ourselves in it and we orient and navigate ourselves without thinking about it.

For us as Progressive Christians prayer ‘works’ not because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural, being who just happens to be listening, waiting for our orders. Prayer works’ because our lives and our world are porous to new and creative re-imagined possibilities. As H N Wieman says: prayer ‘works’ in the re-creation of the one who prays.  (Wieman 1946)

Before I finish I want to say two things that I think undergird these claims about prayer. The first is that Prayer is part of the human intention for the world and it is born out of that which prayer seeks to manifest. The human intention is as we said; that we desire to be more fully human and that means to be more loving, that’s the ‘why’ question, and the way in which we see ourselves involved in that intent is by loving, that’s the ‘how’ question We are more fully human by loving and agents of love in that loving. It is more about what we do as opposed to what we think.

Last week I talked about plurality and how we needed to recognize that we live beyond the theory of tolerance of difference and find the experiential place of tension between the idea of assimilation and valued differences and what I did not succeed in doing was making clear what love and loving have to say in that approach to plurality. Today I am suggesting that an understanding the importance of the non-cognitive opens doors for the language of the heart and thus for love. Some would even go so far as to say that humans are essentially lovers because to be human is to love and that what we love defines who we are.

I want to conclude this talk by claiming that if ‘Religion’ has any value at all to humanity it has to be seen not as an historical organizational problem tied to the past but rather a wisdom born of centuries of experience, that tells us that qualities of heart, and mind rather than physical blessings, are a major concern in our prayer life. I would want to add here that it is the qualities of heart and especially love that exceeds even the importance of mind in this process. It also suggests that, we should pray not for more of the bounties of life, but for more awareness of life; not for more recognition and love from our peers, but for more capacity to give love and recognition. As a footnote I want to say here that this is why our liturgies begin with ‘Awesome wonder’ as acknowledgment of the bounteous beauty with which we are endowed, followed by an ‘Awareness’ as acknowledgement of the need to ask questions of our motivation, desire and expectations, followed by imaginative choice which recognizes that the scriptures and what we say makes sense as products of the human imagination and that the creative choice returns us to a place of gratitude, and an intent to love even more fully. One could say our liturgical journey is one of heart, mind, response, heart.

Davies, A. P. The Language of the Heart. Washington DC. A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee, All Soul’s Church, 1956.
Millar, P. Waymarks. Signposts to Discovering God’s Presence in the World. Norwich. Canterbury Press, 2000.
Peters, K. E. Spiritual Transformations: Science, Religion and Human Becoming. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2008.
Wieman, H. N. The Source of Human Good. Carbondale. Southern Illinois University Press, 1946.

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom. Baker Academic, Baker Publishing Group 2009

Pluralism and Love

Posted: May 2, 2018 in Uncategorized

Pluralism and Love’

For Progressive Congregations today is ‘Pluralism Sunday’ the Sunday we make plain the non-exclusivity of Christianity. For us religious pluralism is an attitude that claims that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and that at least some truths and true values exist in other religions. It is also a claim that ecumenism, is the promotion of some level of unity, co-operation, and improved understanding between different religions or different denominations within a single religion. It is also a claim that there exists a condition of harmonious co-existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations as a social norm and not merely a synonym for religious diversity. We call this aspect Cultural pluralism as a term used when smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities, and their values and practices are accepted by the wider culture provided they are consistent with the laws and values of the wider society. Simply put we might say we all believe in the same God and that a pluralistic attitude enables this belief to manifest a sacred loving.

Our title suggests pluralism is an attitude and that it can be seen as a metaphor of Love. But what do I mean by making this claim? What In think I am saying is that conceptions of love can provide a useful metaphor to argue for balanced pluralism. In his seminal work “The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm defines motherly and fatherly love. In his words: “Mother’s love is peace. It need not be acquired, it need not be deserved… Motherly love by its very nature is unconditional.” On fatherly love, Fromm suggests it is quite different, based on the principle: “I love you because you fulfill my expectation, because you do your duty…” Fromm recognized, by the way, that motherly and fatherly principles were not necessarily related to people’s gender and it is with this assumption that I want to make my claims today. I want to suggest that both attitudes are about love. Love as peace, that which is always out ahead unconditionally waiting to be found and Love as a result of the human action of caring for one another within the reality of human life. But what do these conceptions of love have to do with pluralism? Well, perhaps nothing. But perhaps, we can use them as a metaphor to see our differences in views and attitudes in a more constructive way.

One Love is unconditional and pure, just like the Christian Love we talk about in theology. It demands nothing in return; it’s not always practical; and it may break your heart – but it is pure and gives us a safe haven. The other love expects good behaviour. It demands, provides rules, is more-strict, and love is only forthcoming if the potential recipient performs adequately. This is quite pragmatic, and there are important lessons we can learn from this love: accept and find an approach to live with the harsh realities of life, and you will succeed. This has parallels with conserving nature for its utilitarian values: we will preserve the wetlands, if (and only if) it provides us with clean water.

I want to suggest that both approaches to love are essential if pluralism has any credibility and essential if we are to understand love in its fullness. Gregory J Kerr in ‘A Pluralism Within’ makes it clear that Love is an indispensable condition. He quotes G K Chesterton in ‘What’s Wrong with The World when claiming the need for Love; Chesterton writes;

I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.

He also suggests that we are in a time in the history of humanity when there never been a greater need for an emphasis on pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, and difference. And just as assuredly, there has never been a time when we needed a greater generic and homogenized similarity. Without a love that welcomes difference and a homogenized unity we will struggle in our future.

We are without a doubt shocked at the quote above and we are shocked at the idea of other people being incompatible with us, but equally certain, on the other hand, people in our modem world are very wary of affecting the lives of others for fear of appearing intolerant. We are both so different and unique that we fear that we will impose our personal preferences upon others and that our differences will limit them. We will inhibit their personal growth as unique human beings. Who are we, we ask, to affect their lives? Just think about the changes to marriage liturgy as we see this struggle.

Today’s candidates for marriage would rather say “I love you,” than, “I’ll always love you.” Their dreams about the future with a partner, are conditional and avoid impose a rigid, authoritarian pattern on expectations of the future …. A serious person today does not want to force the feelings of others.

The same goes for possessiveness. When we hear such things, we find them sensible and in harmony with a liberal post-modern society but the sad part of this is that we, struggle with the temporary, conditioned contemporary liberal vision of pluralism. We are tolerant, yes! And we wish to be pluralists but with one caveat: no one’s view of reality can really be true. No one’s view can be better than the others. This means that while we are affirmed in our right to come up with our own theory or believe our own religion, we can never claim it to be true.

The result, of course, is that we never feel free to think or believe anything. It is not surprising that for Allan Bloom, in ‘The Closing of the American Mind, students no longer say “I love you” for they do not want to impose themselves on others. According to their view, they are all too biased and limited in their views. Only God would have the knowledge required!

And the popular contemporary writer on love, M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, believes that to tell others what is good for them is indeed like playing God. For Peck, if we are going to be genuinely loving, that is exactly what we have to do! We need to play God. Pope John Paul II said that no one can think for us and no one can will for us but still we can show, without claiming divine inspiration, that it is meaningful to talk about loving human beings and assisting their growth in a positive way. His claim is that there are truths in this area and through an analysis of the necessary elements involved in human discourse we can arrive at certain central truths about our humanity and about how to love others.

First, all human beings desire to communicate with one another. Second, as Jacques Maritain observes, this desire can only be accomplished when our words and ideas comply with the transcendental principles of the one, the true, the good, and the beautiful. I would say here, regardless of its status. The latest thinking in science is that there is a finiteness in the field of infinity. Maritain writes: “The moment one touches a transcendental, one touches being itself …. It is remarkable that men really communicate with one another only by passing through being or one of its properties.” This is true because people cannot communicate with one another if their ideas and words are logically incoherent (in other words our conversation lacks unity if we do not understand each other), we cannot communicate if we do intend there is a relationship to reality (it remains not true), nor do we communicate if we do not intend that our conversation has value (or we intend no worth to the other), nor is their communication if we do not address the beauty of the existentially unique and concrete situation that they are in.

If this is true then human beings are communicators who must rely upon the transcendental principles, and these principles must be fundamental aspects of human nature itself. If to be human is to know and communicate through the transcendentals, then love will be those thoughts, feelings, and actions that contribute to the growth of our or another’s abilities to do this better. To love others is to help them develop their ability to learn about the true and to have a unified vision of the whole of reality, to help them to become more-free to respond to what is truly good and valuable, and to help them to be able to appropriate themselves aesthetically and existentially as unique human beings. I was making this claim of serendipitous creativity two weeks ago.

Paul J. Wadell, says “A human being is a creature of appetites, of powerful, perduring tendencies. A human being is one whose very nature is appetite, whose whole being is a turning toward all those goods which promise fullness of life. We are hungry for completion … ” To do this, however, we must love the right things in the right way. In part, this can be translated into saying that the human being has a natural appetite for truth, goodness, and beauty, and, to truly love is to nurture one’s own or another’s intellectual and moral virtues that regulate these appetites towards the true, the good, and the beautiful. Contrary to an educational theory that heralds only cognitive development, the growth of these abilities is not automatic. These abilities, like muscles, do not flourish but atrophy when left alone. People-parents, friends, and lovers-don’t help the beloved when they only leave them alone to decide and learn for themselves all the time. To develop virtue, according to Aristotle, we must endure some degree of pain or discomfort in attempting to repeatedly hit the mean between two extremes by aiming away from the extreme that hitherto has brought us inappropriate pleasure. People love when they, through time, effort, and guidance, help themselves or others build virtues or good habits along these transcendental lines. But there is a catch, a problem: these lines often are in tension with each other. Each appetite, each aspiration, each type of knowing has a blind spot towards the value of the others. There can even be fighting among them. As Maritain wrote in his essay “Concerning Poetic Knowledge:”

The fact is that all these [human] energies, insofar as they pertain to the transcendental

universe, aspire like poetry to surpass their nature and to infinitize themselves …. Art, poetry, metaphysics, prayer, contemplation, each one is wounded, struck traitorously in the best of itself, and that is the very condition of its living. Each one of these has a desire to be finite, concrete and the exclusive true and Man unites them by force.”

It can be shown Plato, and M. Scott Peck, who focus upon the good and practical nature of love are blind to the bodily truth about human nature and of the guidelines it provides. Just as those like C.S. Lewis who focus upon the truth about friendships and provide brilliant insight into genuine friendship diminish its moral element. There are others, like Montaigne, Kierkegaard, and Marcel, who take an existential or aesthetic approach but then leave no possibilities for any natural guidelines or principles at all. All of these theorists want to preserve and value something that is truly worthwhile, but they neglect other valuable aspects of love in doing so ..

Gregory claims that the solution to this difficulty involves a kind of pluralism . . . not a pluralism concerning truth, but a pluralism within. It involves affirming that while there is indeed one reality, there are different and incommensurable ways of accessing it. To love ourselves and others means to affirm these important but conflicting aspirations within all human beings. It means to affirm the unity of reality with the plurality of the ways of knowing it. To love, then, is at least this: to nurture the growth of these natural but conflicting, and yet interdependent, aspirations and appetites within us all. Notwithstanding certain interpretations of Plato, no one can be at ease with the speed with which he guides our minds to love that which is invisible, eternal, form-like, and divine. Even in the earthy Symposium, where there is much talk of bodily love, Socrates’ major contribution is to provide us with a ladder out of that. He goads us on to ascend to the form of beauty! Thus, the ultimate love is not that of other persons but that of a reality that is out of this world and impersonal. I would suggest this might be called the true Creativity. For Plato, the true is fused into the good and, as with Augustine, there is an impatience with the material aspects of truth in reality. Here we have the Serendipitous. The great insight of the Platonic view lies in the highlighting of the special nature and dignity of the human soul as it rises in its partial freedom from matter. The error is the identification of the soul with the real self and the forgetting our bodies and the spirit-incarnate whole that we really are.

Having given us a necessary condition of love, Peck, tells us that feeling, romantic love, and affection are not genuine forms of love. In doing so, he clearly wants to steer his patients away from unhealthy, delusional, codependent, and abusive relationships. He, like life management theorist Stephen R. Covey, wants to assert the importance of the idea that “love is a verb.”

Perhaps as a conclusion for today we can reflect upon what Kierkegaard said,

The true is no higher than the good and the beautiful, but the true and the good and the beautiful belong essentially to every human existence and are unified for an existing individual not in thought but in existence.

 And to repeat what Maritain has said,

Art, poetry, metaphysics, prayer, contemplation, each one is wounded, struck

traitorously in the best of itself, and that is the very condition of its living. Man

unites them by force.”

Pluralism and love. Amen.