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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

A right to cheap petrol?

The general public discussion in the mass media following the recent increase in the price of fuel has betrayed a frightening sense of entitlement to cheap fuel world without end.

Any future dining hydrocarbons at minimal personal cost into account ...

The disconnect between concern for climate change and the whipping up of populist demands for reduction in the price of fuel is amazing to behold.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Living the Trinity

The sermon on Trinity Sunday this morning reminded me of how difficult it is to preach about an abstract doctrine which is what "the doctrine of the Trinity" has become.

Trinity as it emerged as a doctrine, comes across as an attempt to set fences around the embers of the explosion, the excitement, the wonder, the awe that lay behind the socially and politically subversive and transformative Jesus movement, lest the flames begin burning again and upset the emerging applecart of Christendom and the accompanying use of the church for the purposes of stabilising the empire.

The Trinity, like the Creeds emerged in a particular situation, as an attempt to achieve an understanding that could inform teaching and evangelism and respond to the questions that were being asked in the intellectual, political and religious context of the time. It is not a timeless abstraction, but you would never guess that from most of the preaching tht I have heard.

Simon Barrow in s sermon from last year's Trinity Sunday, see the link below, is a little more generous than I was inclined to be in responding to the preaching this morning and helpfully reminded me that Trinity can be understood not as belief in an abstract sense as giving assent to a rational formula but arises from the dangerous experiment of living as a Christian in a community shaped by the remembering of Jesus life death and resurrection.
God, in other words, is now and forever the transcendent mystery of the world, the 'Word' (or reason) of God expressed through flesh, and the energy of God continually inviting us into the ritual of life and equipping us to dance. ... what we are talking about here is three irreducible and mutually interdependent ways of believing in one God – belief, in this case, residing not in a proposition, but in experimental living. How do we touch God’s creativity? By developing and celebrating each others’ creativity. How do we touch God’s love for humanity? By refusing all that imprisons human beings in themselves. And how do we touch God’s spiritedness? By nurturing the everyday gifts of the Spirit – not abstract or 'religious' virtues, but love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5.22). This happens personally and corporately.

... 'Trinitarian language' is about several very important things. First, holding together elements of God’s life which superficially appear in contradiction (transcendence and embodiment, say) and which we would otherwise be tempted to separate, to turn into a hierarchy or to ignore. Second, discovering the nature of God by learning to re-order our lives according to the promise of God’s endlessly hidden appearances beyond, in and between us. Third, constantly repeating (in speech, sacrament, song, deed and thought) the figurative grammar which goes on linking us to the modes of God’s life and God’s modes of living to us. In this way we "become Christians".

The chief difficulty we have with all of this, I suspect, apart from the fact that it demands our lives not merely our assent, is that the components that make up this all-embracing 'traditional' Christian speech about God have come to us in abstract Greek metaphysical categories - ones which address questions and formulate responses that seem remote from our habits of thinking. Our task, then, is to so inhabit what our predecessors were trying to say that, discovering its fruitfulness, we can say "if they put it like that then, how would we put it in our language today?" ....

How would we put it in our language today? What are the questions that trouble us as we try to speak of God and live out our discipleship?

Simon rightly draws attention to the fact that the technical language used at the time the doctrine was formulated, "persons" and "substance" for example, meant something quite different then to what they mean in contemporary usage.

For example, I once heard a well-known theologian wrily observe that grasping Trinitarian language is not too difficult... once you realize that ‘one’ and ‘three’ aren’t numbers in a sequence (but rather ways of speaking of a singularity embracing beyond the merely numerical); that ‘persons’ in the Trinity are not human persons (the Greek means something like dramaturgical ‘masks’ or ‘appearances’, and was deliberately chosen to avoid what we now denote by ‘personalness’); and that ‘substance’ applied to God doesn’t mean ‘stuff’ (but true essence beyond our knowledge of ‘thingness’)!

In other words, Trinitarian doctrine is not trying to describe God as you would a person or an object. But nor is it simply a mirror held up to our nice ideas about God. Instead it refers to what we can know by participation, rather than 'forensic examination' or speculation, about the life and affection of God encountered through the excess of the world, the unrestrained humanity of Jesus, the limitless donation of the Spirit, and the outstretched community of the church. It is therefore about image and relation, not some silly empirical claim to see into the very core of God when, frankly, most of us couldn’t claim to have much of a clue about what makes our spouse or neighbour’s cat tick – let alone the giver of the universe!

Further comment
On the Ekklesia Project blog on Trinity Sunday some comments by Debra Dean Murphy that makes a similar point:

The doctrine of the Trinity is foundational for Christian discipleship and for the ongoing shaping of Christian community. And yet our grasp of this doctrine is not merely a mental operation by which we give intellectual assent to the historic claim that God exists as one ousia and three hypostases. The truth of this doctrine is not available to us outside of our own participation in forms of life that bear witness to God as triune.

Earlier this week I attended a seminar on immigration sponsored by the North Carolina Council of Churches. The title of this event was “From Hostility to Hospitality: Immigration and People of Faith.” In listening to several presentations, I thought about hospitality in relation to immigrants in relation to the Trinity.

In Rublev’s famous icon we are invited to “see through” the art itself (something every icon asks us to do) and to recognize that the divine life is one of eternal communion in which we are invited to dwell.

Hospitality is the nature of God’s triunity and is the call of the Church in the world.

Indeed, it is the work of God as Trinity to make icons of us—to conform us to the image of the crucified and risen Jesus (image= eikon).
It is Jesus the Son, our hospitable host, who, through the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit, meets us at the table and transforms us into icons of Trinitarian hospitality in and for the world. When we offer such welcome to others—to immigrants, beggars, strangers of all kinds, we “entertain angels unaware” and we practice the Holy Trinity.
So no clover this year, please.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Escaping Fundamentalism, Evading Liberalism

Recent comments from Simon Barrow capture nicely the difficulty of pinning down what it means to be "biblical". It is as he rightly says being part of a community involved in an on-going, necessarily non-violent argument, about how we should respond to the humanity and freedom we meet in Jesus.

Such an argument might well include people who do not regard themselves as conventionally religious or affiliated with the church as an institution. Great - just so long as we can all get beyond the assumption that if you are not a "liberal" you are a "fundamentalist" and that if you are not a "fundamentalist" you must be a "liberal".

Christian faith is inescapably rooted in biblical tradition. But the Bible isn't a series of knock-down propositions. It is a set of living, dynamic, troubling, inspiring and disturbing accounts of the ways of God among wayward people across the centuries. For Christians its interpretative core is the Gospels. They are, by their nature, diverse rather than singular. They speak of a God of unutterable grace who, in Jesus, turns upside-down every expectation of the conventionally religious. In Christ nothing we thought we knew about God, the world or ourselves remains untransformed. But, as the New Testament records demonstrate, and as the communities that have been formed from it show, Christians have continued to disagree about the precise nature and impact of what God has declared in Christ. To be 'biblical people' involves recognising ourselves as part of this vital argument. It also requires us to engage vigorously (as the prophets did) with God in the contemporary world. In all this we are gloriously free. But we are also constrained by the Jesus whose concern was the last, the least and the lost; not the powerful, the sufficient and the self-righteous. For we are, finally, the people of a person, not a book. That is the living irony of 'being biblical'. To come to terms with it requires openness and generosity, but also the discipline to be formed into a people focussed on what might be involved in being Christ-like.

All this has implications for ecclesiology - an open ongoing argument embodied in our everyday life would end up with something that represented a disorganised religion, much less amenable to top down control and tight models of structure. Much more experimental - like the Jesus movement recorded in the book of Acts. That might be taking things a bit far though - they ended up spending lots of time in gaol.