Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Sword of Faith

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34

At the end of an online sermon on Matthew 10 which treats everything up to verse 34 a reader posts the following comment: “Yet again, another complete avoidance of Matthew 10: 34-39. I guarantee you the folks sitting in the pews are very curious about your views on these particular verses.”

There are several ways to go with this challenge. Given the current geopolitical-theological climate which tends to represent Islam as a religion of violence and warfare one might start here to say something like, “See, Jesus advocates violence just as the Quran does.” Not that such an argument is needed. Christianity has been as violent a religion as any in its nearly 2000 year history: the persecution of early heresies, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, the European Wars of Religion, complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, and complicity in the Holocaust to name just a few sad chapters of Christian history. This does not even take into consideration the ethical questions that remain after the only tactical use of nuclear weapons on a civilian population was ordered by President Harry Truman, a man otherwise described as a faithful Baptist.

Context is everything. Although it is true that the Quran has passages that discuss the rules of engagement in case the community of faith is attacked. These  revelations to Muhammad arrive in a historical period of intense tribal warfare in which the infant Muslim community in Mecca finds itself in the midst of daily persecution(the revelations are similar to Christian Just War theory – fighting only to defend, forbidding violence against women, children and non-combatants – a sign that groups like Al Queda, the Taliban, ISIS and others are not considered faithful or traditional Muslims if they are even Muslims at all).

Even after Muhammad and his followers flee Mecca for Yathrib (later Medina), the tribes of Mecca sought to wipe them out once and for all. Somehow the Muslims survive several years of attacks and eventually win a decisive battle. When they march into Mecca as conquerors the expectation is that the men of Mecca will be killed, the women and children enslaved. Muhammad surprises everyone – everyone is to be spared and allowed to continue life as they choose. Only the over 300 idols in the central worship space, the Kaba, are destroyed. Islam sets a new standard for peaceful resolution of tribal disputes. More to the point, as Islam expands and becomes the largest empire in world history, peoples from Spain in the west to the Indus River in the east are allowed to maintain not only their own religious traditions, but can maintain their governing practices as well. No one is required to convert to Islam. Whereas it would be Christianity that would baptize by the sword as it circumnavigates the world.

As for the context of Jesus in Matthew – it is sometime in the decade after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Roman Empire (70 ce). And it is some 40 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Not to mention a decade after the epistle called Hebrews wrote, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) Jesus’ use of the image of a sword precedes his description of what faith in him can and does precipitate: tribes and families divide. In the case of first century Israel, the family of faith did in fact divide and go two separate ways after the destruction of the Temple: one part of the family became rabbinic Judaism, the other part of the family became the emerging church. In the context of Matthew’s gospel, this division is well under way. Those going the way of the church began a long history of Christian Supercessionism and anti-Semitism which it has only begun to address in the years after the Holocaust.

As historic figures like Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others have shown – often to live one’s life out of the Word of God is to challenge the current dominant paradigm or world-view. This, says Jesus, has consequences. On the only recorded incident of one of his disciples using a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus ordered his disciples to put them away. Jesus himself chooses not to lead an army, not to fight back against Herod and Pilate, but rather to launch a revolution of faith and ethical behavior. He wrote no books, commanded no army, and yet, in less than 300 years the movement he began displaced the Imperial religion of Rome with the Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the edict of Milan. Considered a triumph of Christianity, it also shifts the young church from offering an alternative world-view to that of the empire’s to suddenly become the empire. Luther, Calvin and others would be on the leading edge of critiquing what a problem this became. Only in recent decades is the church as a whole beginning to see the downside of having been the empire and seek a way back to the kind of religious movement Jesus led in first century Israel.

What I hear Jesus saying in Matthew 10:34 is that we all need to allow the Word of God to judge the intentions and thoughts of our hearts so that we might turn our hearts and be the people Jesus calls us to be. Amen.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Science and The Trinity Redux

It is Trinity Sunday – the Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost. I attended Trinity College. I should understand this foundational doctrine of the Church. But, as Ringo Starr once put it, “You know it don’t come easy!” Back in those 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 an even greater quest for a GUT -  a Grand Unified Theory of everything. Every thing. 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: The Christian 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 reed, 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 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 of 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

Saturday, June 7, 2014

I Am As You Are

Pentecost - The 50th Day after the Resurrection
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

OK. Pentecost is the 50th day after the day of the resurrection. Seven weeks of seven days. The 50th day represents a new beginning - it is the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples - the day they were able to proclaim the good news in the streets of Jerusalem in ways that everyone could understand. As a result, we are told, thousands joined the new emerging community of those who followed Jesus. That is, they were all beginning a new life, living out of a new paradigm or world view. So this is a feast of new beginnings, underscoring the theological idea that always we begin again.

It is tied to the events reported in Acts chapter 2 as the disciples and companions were in Jerusalem to celebrate the already existing Jewish feast of Pentecost (its Greek name meaning 50th day), or its more familiar name Shavuot. Shavuot commemorates the day God gave the Torah to the new nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. It was celebrated 50 days after Passover, the day the people of Israel were freed from slavery under the empire of Pharaoh. It also marked the conclusion of the Counting of Omer. On the day after Passover an omer of barley was offered at the Jerusalem temple marking the beginning of the grain harvest. On Pentecost an offering of wheat, specifically two loaves of bread, were offered to celebrate the end of the grain offering.

So before this remarkable event among the disciples, Pentecost already commemorated the endlessly generous gifts from God of freedom, grain and Torah, God’s Word. Now was added to these was the gift of the Spirit.

It is odd that the seventh chapter of John seems to suggest that there was a time without this Spirit - that until Jesus is “is glorified” there was no gift of the spirit. This is difficult to understand since the author of John goes to great pains to make sure the reader knows that before time itself, before creation, there was the Word, the logos, which was in fact the animating spirit of all creation. By starting the gospel with the words, “In the beginning...” we are to recall Genesis, which in chapter two depicts God, Yahweh, Elohim, scooping up a handful of moistened dust and breathing ruach, breath, wind and spirit into the dust resulting in the first person - Adam, made of atham, or earth. John knows there is ruach at work throughout creation and focuses our attention on that very fact in the opening poetry of the fourth gospel.

So it is not as if the disciples in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost-Shavuot were not already enlivened by God’s spirit - or that there really was a time in human history without this animating Ruach Elohim - but that this new outpouring of God’s animating spirit, breath and wind was at work doing a new thing, enlivening a people to become a new people, just as the slaves in Pharaoh’s empire were remade into a new people Israel with the outpouring of God’s Torah, God’s word and God’s law.

At that very time the disciples were finding new ways to proclaim the good news two loaves of bread, the offering of wheat, was being presented at the temple to a kohen, or cohen, a priest. I find myself thinking about those two loaves.

A loaf of bread is central to the weekly Sabbath meal in Judaism, central to the passover meal as unleavened bread, and central to the weekly remembrance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in Christian Sunday worship.

I cannot help but wonder if there is not one loaf for the community of Abraham and Moses, and one loaf for the community of Jesus. Sure, I am just making this up, but....I cannot help but wonder if an opportunity was not missed?

What if those same disciples, who knew that two loaves were at that very moment on that very day were being offered at the Jerusalem Temple, and those Israelites celebrating the grain harvest and giving of the Torah on Sinai, what if they had all had a moment of insight to look at those two loaves and see - see that there is a loaf for us and a loaf for you. Here is a loaf for Israel and a loaf for the church. That here is a symbol of faith that can unite us rather than divide us.

The Ruach Elohim, the Spirit of God is God himself.

What if we like Elihu in the book of Job could say to ourselves every day, “But truly it is the Spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding...The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life...See, before God I am as you are; I too was formed from a piece of clay.” Job 32:8, 33:4,6

Might we, as Paul asserts in the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians and in Galatians, become neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, you name it - might we not one day come to see what Elihu says, and Genesis says, that “I am as you are”?

For isn’t this in the end what the day of Pentecost, the 50th day, the first day after seven weeks of seven days, really all about? Coming to an understanding that comes from the very breath of the Almighty that we are all One as the Lord God Almighty is One? As the one time columnist in my hometown Chicago Daily News once put it, “I may be wrong but I doubt it!”

Let us think about, contemplate and meditate on those two loaves of bread. How might history have changed had we shared those two loaves? How might history be changed if we begin to share them right now?

They are given. Just as the Ruach Elohim is given to everyone of us. Just as the grain is given to us and by us as a reminder of where we all come from. I am as you are. I too was formed from a piece of clay! Alleluia!

Let the people say, Amen.