Sunday, May 26, 2013

Science and The Trinity

Trinity Sunday
26 May 2013

Back in my student days in Hartford, CT, I heard rumblings among some of the students that science was in search of a Unified Field Theory (UFT) - a kind of single explanation, or beautiful mathematical equation, that would "explain" everything within a field. Einstein coined the term while trying to reconcile relativity and electromagnetism. No UFT has yet been derived. Following Einstein, as quantum mechanics began to unfold revealing even deeper and more complex and even paradoxical aspects of the known universe, scientists set off on a quest for a GUT -  a Grand Unified Theory of everything. The very fact that we humans can even conceive of such a thing should force us to ponder that the most complex physical structure we have ever encountered is just six inches this side of the eyepiece of the world’s most powerful telescope - the human brain.

Christians have entertained, since about the 4th century, a sort of GUT - The Trinity. The Sunday after Pentecost is always celebrated as Trinity Sunday complete with reflections on the historic creeds and singing of Saint Patrick's Breastplate, perhaps the most elegant proclamation of just what we mean by The Trinity.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is Christianity's attempt to describe our understanding of reality and our experience of the Divine. As a doctrine, it must be imperfect since whatever we attempt to say about God is necessarily limited compared to the reality of the Divine. Every year for the past five or six year I have read and re-read Science and The Trinity: TheChristian Encounter with Reality by The Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, past President of Queens College, Cambridge, Canon Theologian of Liverpool, and yes, a theoretical physicist! I am just beginning to grasp his argument - which is in all humility, and he is remarkably humble, to explore the possibility that The Doctrine of the Trinity very well may be the GUT science is looking for!

As astonishing as his claim sounds, it shouldn't be. After all, thanks to the Quran, the summary of 23 years of divine revelations to Muhammad, Muslim culture was able to establish the first international House of Knowledge, develop the precursor to germ theory leading to the establishment of hospitals with wards for people with similar symptoms, remove cataracts with a hollow needle, create municipal water purification systems, public water supplies and even indoor plumbing, all while Christian Europe was muddling its way through the dark ages more concerned with knocking one another off and putting serious scientists like Galileo on trial for heresy. By which I mean, the symbiotic relationship linking science and religion is not the problem 20th century western civilization has made it out to be;

I cannot adequately recount Polkinghnorne's thoughts on the subject, but to say, the man is onto something - and anyone with a passing interest would do well to get his book and spend a few years reading it and letting it percolate into your brain cells and let the single most complex physical structure we have ever encountered do the rest of the work!

For instance, science has long held the view that the human ability to understand the universe far exceeds "anything that could reasonably be considered simply an evolutionary necessity, or as a  happy spin-off from that necessity. The universe has proved to be astonishingly rationally transparent" p 63 And further, it is believed that mathematically  "beautiful" equations prove most fruitful, while those that are ugly offer no hope for new discovery. We are capable of understanding and describing the mysteries of the universe. Polkinghorne finds that in Trinitarian terms our scientific ability to "explore the rational beauty of the universe is seen to be a part of the Father's gift of the imago Dei (the image of God)  to humankind, and the beautiful rational order of the universe is the imprint of the divine Logos [Word/Wisdom = the Son] without whom was not anything made that was made (John 1:3). Whether acknowledged or not, it is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (John 15: 26) who is at work in the truth-seeking community of scientists. That community's repeated experiences of wonder at the disclosed order of the universe are, in fact, tacit acts of the worship of its Creator." p65

Another fundamental of Polkinghorne's analysis accepts that the Universe is more of a Jazz Improvisation than a carefully written and orchestrated score - that is both the universe and humankind are given freewill to unfold, or create themselves, which is the essence of evolution. That is, the universe and everything therein is not a static whole, but rather a dynamic becoming - a result of God's own kenotic act of self-limitation, such that God allows creatures to be themselves and make themselves. "A creation allowed to make itself can be held to be a great good, but it has a necessary cost not only in the blind alleys and extinctions that are the inescapable dark side of the evolutionary process, but also in the very character of the processes of a world in which evolution can take place." p 72 Translation: bad things can and do happen as a result of a universe that is unreliable, also known theologically as Theodicy. "That there is cancer in creation is not something that a more competent or compassionate Creator could easily have eliminated, but is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself." Polkinghorne then argues that the depth of the problem posed by theodicy is only adequately met in Christian thinking by a Trinitarian understanding of the Cross of Christ, seen as the event in which the incarnate God truly shares to the uttermost in the travail of creation - Jesus is the 'fellow sufferer who understands,' or the One who is creation's partner in its pain.

A final thought about the Holy Spirit: the universe, it turns out, like humankind, is by nature relational. Quantum theory implies that once two quantum entities have interacted with each other, they remain mutually entangled however far apart they may eventually separate. Things, like people, are interconnected whether they want to be or not. That is, the subatomic world cannot be treated atomistically! By analogy this challenges the individualistic atomism that is so characteristic of contemporary thinking about human nature - particularly in western civilization. This turns out to be true of the universe as a whole which exists as a result of two opposing yet interconnected forces: the explosive force of the Big Bang that propels the universe ever outward, and the countervailing forces of gravity pulling matter together by the effects of what has come to be called Dark Energy - perhaps substantiating what my dear friend and colleague Dick Chiroff maintained all along - Dark Energy, the force and source of the interconnectedness of all things, is, after all, the Holy Spirit.

It should of course be stated forthrightly that none of this "proves" The Trinity - but rather, the Trinity in these few instances, and numerous others that Polkinghorne musters, does provide plausible ways of understanding the universe, all that is seen and unseen (since it is a creation that is still and forever becoming!). Perhaps a Trinitarian world view is a reasonable candidate for a GUT after all.

A final thought on this Trinity Sunday: eventually all this, even in the hands of professionals like Polkinghorne, reaches limits to the completeness of our understanding that can be achieved through the enterprises of theology - and science. Yet, urges Polkinghorne, this should never deter us from attempting the task before us, nor should it encourage us to settle prematurely for some relatively undemanding form of understanding. Accounts that are truly convincing can be expected to have a richness and complexity that demands our best thinking. "It is scarcely surprising that only [demanding and complex accounts will prove] even partially adequate to the exploration of the inexhaustible riches of the Trinitarian God, the Ground of our existence and the Source of our everlasting Hope." p117
In the name of God
Earth maker
Pain bearer
Life Sustainer

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dar as-Salam

Dar As-Salam
Acts 2:1-11/ John 20:19-23

The Christian Feast of Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter. We find at least two versions of the Day of Pentecost as experienced by the disciples: an exciting and dramatic telling in Acts (Luke-Acts a two volume work), and a more intimate and in some ways more powerful telling in John. The John account takes place Easter Evening, the Acts account 50 days later.

I begin classes every day with a few minutes of centering prayer. We repeat a phrase several times, sit in silence, and then repeat the phrase again – a practice we learned in Seminary years ago from The Very Reverend James Fenhagen, Dean of GTS. This past week the phrase was from the Quran since we are studying Islam: “God invites you into the Home of Peace.”   - Qu’ran 10:25  Yunus/Jonah

Here is it’s context in the Surah: “And know that all mankind were once but one single community, and only later did they begin to hold divergent views...and know that God invites us unto the abode of peace, and guides those that will to be guided onto a straight way.”

The Home of Peace, the abode of peace, “dar as-salam.” The Arabic “salam” is the Hebrew equivalent of “shalom.”

It helps to know that in Biblical Hebrew there is one word for breath, spirit and wind: ruach. It is this ruach that hovers or blows across the deep waters of creation in Genesis. In Genesis 2, God breathes ruach into a handful of dust to give life to the first person. That is, this Spirit-Breath-Wind of God has been around a long long time. And there is one word in the Koine Greek of the New Testament: pneuma. It is this pneuma that blows through the disciple’s household on that 50th day, alighting upon them with tongues as of fire, sending them out of the house into the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming the Good News.

Jesus utters much the same invitation as the Quran in John’s version of Pentecost as he breathes upon his disciples: “Peace/Shalom/Salam be with you.” As he breathes on them – much the same way God breathes into that handful of about to be human dust. It is no mistake that the fourth gospel begins with the first words of Genesis: In the beginning….

As he breathes on them Jesus utters this twice, which is the Bible’s way of adding emphasis - underline, italics, bold print! Shalom be upon you -enter into the abode, the household, of shalom!!

Muhammad Asad in his notes in The Message of the Qu’ran writes, “...dar as-salam denotes not only the condition of ultimate happiness in the hereafter....but also the spiritual condition of the true believer in this world: namely a state of inner security, of peace with God, with one’s natural environment, and within oneself.” n.40 to 10:25

This “inner security of peace with God” connotes a deep sense of social justice, respect for all people, dignity for every human being – in short, a world made right in accordance with the vision of life found in both the Quran and The Bible. And, as Asad explains, it means shalom or salam for one’s natural environment as well!

The disciples were in Jerusalem during the festival of Pentecost. Pentecost was a Jewish festival, fifty days after Passover. Originally a spring harvest festival it came to be a time to recall the gift of Torah, God’s Word, on Mount Sinai to the Hebrew slaves who were in the wilderness of the Sinai fifty days after their escape from Egypt.

Torah, The Qu’ran, The Gospels, all issue an invitation for people to return to the straight way, God’s way, Allah’s way – the way of peace, shalom, salam. And here we see God in Jesus starting, re-starting, creation all over again.

In Acts the disciples are pictured in a room in Jerusalem, just as in John. Earlier we are told that they are every day in the Temple praising and worshipping God. On the Feast of Pentecost they were suddenly visited by The Holy Spirit – God’s eternal Ruach! And they begin speaking – speaking in many many different languages.

At St. Timothy’s where I teach, we have girls from some 20 different countries. So in chapel I urged everyone to begin speaking at once in their own native language. It was fantastic! One hundred and fifty girls speaking in some 20 different languages all at once! I just needed to have some idea of what it must have sounded like in Jerusalem that 50th day after Passover and Easter! It sounded great!

The miracle, of course, is not that the disciples could speak in other languages. The miracle is that people understood them. People understood one another. This is probably the most difficult of all human tasks – to understand one another. Ask siblings, as husbands and wives, ask diplomats, as ball players and umpires! That day in Jerusalem people understood one another. This is undoubtedly a first step toward a world, a household of shalom/salam – which Asad extends to the “natural environment.” And why not? The words for household (oiko or eco) is the root for ecology as well – and in creating people in God’s own image we were given the task as God’s appointed stewards of the household of creation.

Of course no good deed goes unpunished! The disciples are accused of being drunk!

Peter says, “No no no! It is only nine in the morning! No this was spoken through the prophet Joel and will again be said by the prophet Muhammad, praise be upon him! I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters shall .... see visions and dream dreams....and enter into the household of Peace, of Shalom, of justice and dignity and care and mercy and compassion for all people.....”

And this is the vision - this is dar as-salam. This is shalom. Shalom for one another. Shalom for the environment. Shalom for all. Peace be with you. When he said this he breathed on them.

His breath is spirit, his breath is life, his breath is like the wind carrying God’s shalom far and wide. “Receive the Holy Spirit!”

To receive anything, to really receive something, we need to be open. We need to open our hands and our hearts and our minds. To open one’s hands, heart and mind one needs to let go - let go of everything that prevents us from receiving.

To enter a mosque one takes off one’s shoes. For most of us this is a rule to be kept. For those Muslims who are Sufis it is a reminder - what do I need to remove, let go of, that separates my soul from God? What do I need to open in myself to receive God’s Shalom, God’s Peace, Allah’s Salam?

For it is in such letting go that we become closer to God, closer to creation, closer to others and closer to our very selves.

“There is a way of polishing all things whereby rust may be removed. That which polishes the heart is the invocation of Allah” One of whose 100 names is Salam, Shalom.

Pentecost – through the Ten Commandments, by his Holy Breath, calling to us from his Holy winds that blow across the face of the deep, by breathing upon us and whispering in our ears, God invites us into the home of Peace, the home of Shalom, dar as-Salam.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

He Is Here!

Thursday, May 9, was The Feast of the Ascension – forty days after Easter, ten days before Pentecost. The biblical basis for this annual celebration lies in these passages from Luke-Acts:
Luke 24:44-53/ Psalm 47/ Acts of the Apostles 1:1-11. At some dimension it remembers that moment in time when Jesus left the disciples, which always means us, on our own as he is depicted rising up into the heavens to his celestial abode, reunited as One with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the first thing to notice in a close reading of the appointed texts is the opening of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles: In the first book, Theophilus I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught fromt eh beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions….

Evidently there was a First book – the best candidate is the Gospel of Luke, which begins: Insasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of all that has happened…it seemed good to me also…to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus…

That is the compiler of Luke appears to be the compiler of Acts: volume one chronicles the earthly life of God incarnate, Jesus, while volume two describes the life among his followers after he returns to being God.  Both books are dedicated to the honorary “Theophilus” which in the Koine Greek of the day means something like, “Friend of God,” “God lover,” or even “Beloved of God….”

That is, both books are dedicated to anyone who loves or wants to love God, and/or be loved by God….which could be me or you or all of us…. Which makes it worth pausing to consider: when was the last time a book was dedicated to you? What does it feel like to know that someone nearly 2000 years ago addressed not one but two books to you, giving you the honorific title of “Friend of God,” or “Beloved of God?”

It took me a long time – nearly 30 years, to come around to accepting all this, so it is safe to assume that we all come to such acceptance in our own time – not chronos or clock time, but what the Koine Greek calls chairos, or God-time….the right time or the opportune time….your time….our time….Our day will come/and we’ll have everything/we’ll share the joy/falling in love can bring…our day will come…..[Ruby and the Romantics!]

All the great mystics of Judaism, Christianity and Islam write about becoming accepting God’s love in terms of romance and love: Rabia, Kabir, Hafiz all urge us to fall in love with God:
my soul
there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church
where I kneel.
Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist.
Is there not a region of love where the sovereignty is 
illumined nothing,
where ecstasy gets poured into itself
and becomes
where the wing is fully alive
but has no mind or 
my soul
there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque,
a church
that dissolve, that 
dissolve in
-RABIA From ‘Love Poems From God‘ by Daniel Ladinsky. 

As the disciples, as hapless a crew of followers as any religious figure has ever attracted, look up into the heavens, watching, seeking, searching the skies just as we do today with instruments like the Hubble telescope attempting to look all the way to the outer edges of the universe, the universes, hoping to catch a glimpse, of what? The origins of everything? The starting point? The Alpha to our Omega? Just a small glimpse of God, or Jesus, or Allah, or Yahweh, or whatever/whomever might be out there who may have set all this we call life in motion.

We may as well admit it, one time or another we all look out there – it is just so compelling to do so - to look beyond with some inkling that there is something out there beyond our knowing, all that is seen and unseen. So there are the disciples looking up in the sky when “two men in white robes” appear suddenly asking, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

Why indeed?

“This Jesus, who has been taken up  from you into heaven,” they continue, “Will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people…Thanks be to God, we say! But as Paul Harvey used to say, now for the rest of the story. The very next line tells us that they go back to Jerusalem. Which is why Luke gives us these two accounts. Because the other account – the first account?- seems to take place on Easter Day, Easter Evening really. Before he takes off in version one he specifically says: stay in the city and wait for further instructions. Which they do. And they were “continually worshipping in the Temple blessing God…” As in Psalm 47, “God has gone up with a shout/the Lord with the sound of the Ram’s horn/Sing praises to God, sing praises/ sing praises to our king, sing praises….

Jesus says, and Muhammed, praise be upon him, would reiterate some seven hundred years later, that instead of looking elsewhere for meaning in this life, stay right here…it is what we do here that matters, not what might happen on the coming Day of Judgment, the Day of the Lord.

So it one recites from Surah Two of the Quran, The Cow, verses 21-22, a Surah that focuses on turning to and maintaining God Consciousness: O Mankind, Worship your sustainer [and they were continually worshipping in the Temple blessing God…] who has created you and those who lived before you, so that you might remain conscious of Him who has made the earth a resting place for you and the sky a canopy, and has sent down water from the sky and thereby brought forth fruits for your sustenance: do not, then, claim that there is any power that could rival God when you know that He is One!”

Oddly, Jesus and Muhammed bear a similar message to humankind, to people like us who often forget that we were not only made by God but also are made in the image of God, who as the opening lines of Torah state unequivocally that God, Allah, Yahweh, not only made this earth our fragile island home in an otherwise dark, cold and seemingly impersonal universe, but gave it to us, gifted it to us for our Sustenance – for our care – as the place where we live out the kind of God consciousness the Quran imagines to be our purpose.

Two men in white stand beside them, beside us, beside all humankind and ask, why do you stand looking up into the heavens? Here is where you are meant to be. Here is where you live and move and have your being. Here we are meant to care for one another, and love one another as Jesus prayed we would do the night before he died. Including, said Jesus, love for our enemies.

We like it when he speaks of love thinking fondly of the Beatles who sang, “All you need is love!” But when he extends it to loving our enemies we pause – we recoil. Perhaps, Lord,  you are pushing it a little too far. So it turns out we need more than just love. We need compassion, we need understanding, we need to respect the dignity of every human being.

Yet, we attempt to deny Tamerlan Tsarnaev burial on American soil. We watch with disbelief as protesters attend military funerals as a platform for hateful speech in the name of Christ. There is a wideness to God’s mercy we sing, and yet we find for more and more ways to narrow that mercy to fit our own puny fear of “the other.”

The last words of New Testament Scripture are, “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.” Makes sense: he leaves after forty days of resurrection appearances so we want him to return. Yet, this is contradicted by Matthew’s understanding of his final appearance when he says, “I am with you always to the end of the age.” That is, he is here. He is there. He is here. He is always here. Faith is nothing if not shot through and through with paradox and irony! I can almost hear The Reverend Thomas Talley cackling, “Of course, sillies! He is here AND he is there – this is not a problem for a God who wants to love us and seeks nothing more than our love in return – which means a love for all that he has created – seen and unseen -  including loving our enemies here and now.”

In the end, sometimes we do need to look up to the heavens for some inkling of insight, hope, or love so that we can be here, really really be here in the present moment doing the things Jesus does, and, as he promises, “greater things than these will you do.” And sometimes we need to look within, to know the kind of passion and love that Rabia sings about in her poetry – a passion that also enables us to be here now – to be present in this moment as those people who not only love our neighbors but can love our enemies as well.

In my soul
there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church
that dissolve,
that dissolve in