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Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Trinity - Knowing God

I guess that thousands of volumes have been written and millions of sermons have been preached concerning the doctrine of the Trinity over the last 2000 years. Don’t worry. I am not about to try and condense these into a grossly inadequate summary here. There is a much simpler starting point and it has to do with experience.

In truth, the Orthodox Church has it right when she claims that the Trinity is a doxological reality in the Church; that is it concerns worship, and therefore, experience. It was an encounter with the living Christ that convinced a group of monotheist Jews that Christ was God along with the Father. It was the experience of being filled with the Spirit at Pentecost that convinced these disciples that God remained present with them in this Gift and that they should ascribe Godhead to the Holy Spirit also. Interestingly, when St. Basil the Great wrote much later on the Trinity he justified giving glory TO the Father, TO the Son and TO the Spirit he in part appealed to the received practice of worship. This is a source in Tradition for the Orthodox along with the Scriptures and the witness of our God-bearing fathers and mothers in the faith.

Bearing this perspective in mind, when those claiming to be Christians deny the Trinity, one cannot help but conclude that they have not encountered the living Christ who saves; they have not been filled with the Pentecostal Spirit who imparts holiness. It isn’t that they are being wilfully contentious or difficult, it’s just that the experience of God-with-us, tripersonally, has not been present. Therefore, when confessing the Trinity, merely arguing about it one way or the other achieves little or nothing. The way to the Trinity is an invitation to know God personally. There is no other sure route.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sharks without Daddies, Sky without Theology

You heard it here first. Sharks do not need salvation! They are utterly sinless. All that bad press from Mr. Spielberg and others is just a put-up job. Sharks are pure ... and that's official. Or at least according to SKY TV News. Not that I blame SKY specifically for theological illiteracy. The error of confusing IMMACULATELY conceived (that is, without taint of original sin according to Roman Catholic dogma) and VIRGINALLY conceived (that is, without a daddy in traditional Christianity as a whole) is commonplace. It is sloppy journalism though. I don't know anything about cars but I wouldn't dream of commenting on carburettors unless and until I had researched the basics. So, until then with SKY we chant: "Hail O long-toothed one! Your bite saves us!"

The real story of course is that female sharks, under certain circumstances, can give birth without the aid of a male. Right on selachimorphae sisters! Down with shark patriarchy!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Seeing What's Really There

Tony Blair's former press officer, Alistair Campbell famously once intervened when the Prime Minister was asked a question about faith and politics. "We don't do God," he stated curtly. Well, modern liberal secular politicians, even if believers, don't generally "do God" but that doesn't mean that belief is irrelevant to how leaders lead and the projects they pursue.

Both Blair and Brown are practising Christians. Tony is your fairly typical middle-of-the-road liberal Anglican with a social conscience, somewhat emasculated by Thatcherism, but also, and untypically, with an old-fashioned imperial "let's teach Johnny-foreigner civilised values" foreign policy. Gordon is a son of the Kirk, (presbyterian Church of Scotland), brought up in a strict Sabbatarian, Protestant work ethic, social-justice-prophecy environment. He is able, therefore, to square the circle of capitalism, self reliance and international development without worrying too much about the Calvinist inconsistencies between the various strands of his thought.

From an Orthodox Christian point of view, this got me thinking. What would an Orthodox Christian Prime Minister look like in a British context? What would be his or her agenda. Would he or she "do God" ... explicitly or implicitly?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Moscow and ROCOR reconciled

It is an occasion for great rejoicing that the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), the (originally) old White-Russian emigre church has now enterred into canonical communion with the formerly Red-accommodating/resisting Moscow patriarchate. This sympathetic observer is mindful of the following spin-off questions.

(1) What of the other "Russian" jurisdictions ... the Exarchate based in Paris under Constantinople, the ROCOR refuseniks (who are now getting even more entrenched in isolationism) and the much troubled Orthodox Church in America (OCA - the old Russian Metropolia established BEFORE the Revolution)? Should they or could they consider loosening something of their jurisdictional autonomy?

(2) The question broached in (1) is not at all likely to be positively answered unless Moscow can show by its actions that its presence outside of Russia is not just for Russians but rather, in the best tradition of Russian missionary activity, for all those who wish to worship and serve God in their own native tongue and culture.

Time will tell.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Going Up?!

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, famously declared on reaching the heavens that he had found no god. We take this so much for granted nowadays that unless Gagarin was being supremely ironic, we laugh to think that anyone could have thought that God was "up there." That the Soviets saw this as an atheistic propaganda coup is astonishing!

[I am grateful to Trevor in the first comment on this article that Gagarin was almost certainly not the author of this comment, (ed. Fr. Gregory)].

John Lennon probably wasn't being ironic either when he wrote this piece of theological drivel for his 1971 "Imagine" album:-

"Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today..."

So, clearly, as late as the 1960's and 1970's, many people still presupposed that God's existence depended on some ancient long superseded celestial topography. How extraordinary!

However, as this article makes clear, ["Is Heaven the Sky?] "God living in the sky" was precisely what the ancients supposed. This is the cosmology of Genesis and how irrelevant it is now to what we know about this planet and the Universe in which it is set.

On the 16th May, the Church celebrates the Ascension of Christ. This is a vitally important feast for Orthodox Christians as it affirms a central truth of our faith. Simply put, it is that in the resurrection of Christ, our humanity has been refashioned, glorified. This is a new creation of God in which even the physicality of our new bodies is not constrained by the spatial and temporal limits of the spacetime continuum in this Cosmos, (as we might say today).
We must not suppose, therefore, that Christ literally ascended into the clouds and had to use an oxygen mask, then later a vacuum sealed space suit. What nonsense is this! Rather, Christ ascended to the Father, taking our humanity, glorified with him and in him. This is why Christ came, to complete the work that the Father had intended for our good in creation.

What might, therefore, characterise an ascended humanity, aside from its already mentioned discontinuous existence in an unspecified transcendent state? First and foremost this would be a humanity that had left sin, suffering and death far behind.

The biblical way of referring to this is the "New Jerusalem" but again we must put away all carnal and this worldly descriptions of this paradisal state. Jesus himself said concerning marriage:- "When they rise from the dead they will neither marry nor be given in marriage but will be like angels in heaven" (Mark 12:25). This by the way is the most striking difference between Paradise in Islam, (also the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses), and that of the Orthodox Church.

Clearly a world in which there was no sin, evil, suffering or death is NOT in any way like our own broken creation. That is why, eventually, Christ had to leave it physically in order that he might open up the new reality of the Kingdom of God fully to his followers ... that, indeed, we might ascend to "where" he had gone before. To this end he promised to send the Spirit from the Father at Pentecost ... for knowing what and where we are called to be does not solve the HOW of acquiring that state. The Church then became the gathering of a new humanity, one in which the advances hitherto of evolutionary adaptation seem tame in the extreme. The Ascension is not so much "up" therefore as "one vast leap forward" for humankind. All that is required from us is a life consecrated to Christ that we might become by grace what he is by nature ... ASCENDED!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

And God created Gliesians

Part Two - Divine Images

Observation has shown recently that only 20.5 light years away there is a planet 1.5 times the diameter of earth with 5 times its mass orbiting much closer in to a cooler star. On account of its close, tight orbit, although its year is only 13 days, the surface temperature should be remarkably earthlike. This appears to be a rocky world so we might surmise the presence of surface water without which life (as we know it) seems improbable. Have we at last found another earth? Well, hardly. There are a lot of "ifs" and "maybes" here but this is probably the best candidate yet for an earth-like planet in our galactic neighbourhood.

Now, just suppose that this planet did have life, even (stretching the probabilities) intelligent life. How would Christian theology respond to such a situation? Doubtless there would be some "creationist" Christians who would deny any significance to such a "find." For them humans and humans alone are made in the divine image.

I suspect that Orthodox Christians would have a much more open and inclusive theological approach ... or at least I hope so. We are approaching the feast of the Ascension of Christ. Orthodoxy believes that in this ineffable event Christ took our humanity into the heart of God where it acquired the deification by grace that Christ had by nature. The compatibility of God and humanity is presupposed by this teaching but why should such compatibility be limited to humanity? Whatever the divine image is in humans it is clear from the Scriptures that we are made in God's image not God in ours. There is every reason to suppose, therefore, that if Gliesians exist, God made them, loves them and takes them to himself. God's character and actions are not quixotic but have all the dependability that his love confers upon them. I suspect that the Divine Logos will have had many incarnations on many different worlds ... or at least I am not constrained by my faith necessarily to think otherwise.

I will leave the last word with Alice Meynell in her wonderful poem, "Christ of the Universe."

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us. These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.

But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord's entrusted Word.

Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.

No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens he guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way,
Or His bestowals there, be manifest.

But, in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

Oh be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The infinite forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

Cosmic Wonder and Human Scales

Part One - Big Bangs

15 million years before the first dinosaurs walked the earth, a star in a distant galaxy, (NGC 1260), some 150 times the size of our sun, exploded in a devastating supernova explosion. Last September the light reached earth and for 200 or more days has outshone in brilliance any previously known supernova, much brighter in fact than that of its host galaxy.

The power of this dying star, anonymously catalogued as SN 2006gy, is the power of birth. Supernovae account for the presence of heavy elements in suns such as our own given that they are too small and cool to have produced them by our their own fusion processes. Life without supernovae would not be possible.

Moreover we have our own SN 2006gy ticking away to destruction just 7500 light years away in our own Milky Way galaxy. A little smaller perhaps at 120 solar masses, this star, Eta Carinae has already had a mini-eruption, observed in the 19th century. Being much nearer, when this star fully explodes, you will be able to read a book by its light at night time and it will be plainly visible during the day. It could happen at any time; although it may have already happened and its radiation would now be racing across the stellar void so that it can "happen" here. Life on earth is probably safe. The supernova would have to involve a gamma ray burst on a very narrow trajectory cone to to threaten us here ... but you get the point. The Cosmos is a dangerous violent place. It has to be if the building blocks of life (the "dust" of Genesis) are to be in place waiting the "breath of God" (Genesis 2:7).

In a now-famous statement, at the end of his book "The First Three Minutes", (1977), the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg wrote that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." In effect Weinberg was claiming that science paints a picture of our universe as a vast purposeless place in which we can see no evidence of a point for ourselves as human beings. Weinberg has now joined the likes Richard Dawkins and other atheistic scientists in an evangelical crusade against religion; yet, as a Jew and unlike Dawkins, he remains wistful for the passing of what he must deny. But is the conclusion - that the Universe is cold, violent, purposeless and devoid of God, rational?

I submit that this question cannot simply be resolved by observation and the explanatory power of scientific theory. We need such methods and operations to understand physical phenomena but it is quite a step to deny the legitimacy of existential questions as if these were simply the lazy and unwarranted speculations of "dust refusing to be dust." It seems strange to me that cosmic wonder should so readily escape those who behold the stars, those who hold life in their hands. Ever since I can remember I have had an intuition about God from the wonder of creation. I gaze at the novas remains of a nebula and I am at once "homo adorans" ... which is why I find Weinberg's melancholy before the apparently cold cosmic vastness so incomprehensible.

Actually I think that we have two problems here. The first concerns the God bearing potential of creation. The Protestant Reformation denied this. It stripped away the sacramental character of the physical realm. It demystified the material world, banishing the spiritual to the private and mental sphere. All science in the west has been conducted in this context since. It has non too subtly shaped popular perceptions of the Cosmos as God-less. Pietism has been its bedfellow. Some (but not all) scientists who are believers sometimes seem to pursue their scientific work quite independently of their spiritual lives; much in the manner of the divorce between public-fact and private-feeling.

The second problem concerns the impoverished vision of the pietist's God who could barely manage to create a good souffle let alone the Cosmos we see through our telescopes. From an Orthodox point of view, his "God" is just too small or rather we say that the true God is beyond all conceptions of size and temporality. Likewise in the "nothing-buttery" of the atheist for whom by definition nothing can exist "outside" the Universe (since the Universe is "everything") the conclusion has been presupposed in the very act of enquiry. How is this a rational open ended approach to the question of why there is anything at all, not just the actual vast Cosmos we see (and the others perhaps that we cannot)?

I guess I am just asking for a bit more humility, not just of the Copernican sort that accepts our smallness in the Cosmos but also of the existential and philosophical sort. There are no knock down incontrovertible arguments for or against the existence of God from creation but there is wonder. Our response to who we are and what we are cannot be exhausted by our ability to explain physical phenomena. Even the biggest bang of the largest supernova cannot match the enormity of the deepest questions that such wonder evokes.

Monday, May 07, 2007

All the King's Horses and all the King's Men

Humpty Dumpty ... who done it?

“Well, he sure weren’t pushed! Guess the old ellipsoid got a bit careless!”

Notes from the police file ...

PRIDE ... he was a top-of-the-wall kind of guy. He needed to be there and he needed others to see how improbably he had achieved the great feat of his ascent.
PERILOUS DISEQUILIBRIUM ... but then, it only took a wobble, no great thing to start with, but then a helpless fall to a scrambled fate.
IRREVERSIBLE ENTROPY ... Humpty learned all too soon the lesson of increasing entropy, the tendency to disorder. No earthly power could mend that logic.

Humpty has things to teach us about maintaining the integrity of the Church and her faith. If pride gets “in the works” as it were, people start thinking that they know better than their forebears; that they need to remake Christianity after their own image (desires, inclinations, opinions) or to appeal to the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Sometimes this involves removing key elements or adding new ones. The result is that the whole enterprise is destabilised. Instead of more people being drawn into the Kingdom of God through repentance and transformation, the “Church” (for this is no church) shrinks both in extent and depth. Instead of God being at the centre, man once again takes centre stage and all is shattered.

A little later in this process of decline some people wake up to the real and dire situation in which they find themselves. However, although they see Humpty broken at their feet they wrongly surmise that he is not broken beyond repair. They make the serious error of not understanding entropy, of supposing that the shattering is reversible. Re-forming Humpty is a noble but hopeless task. Vainly do they attempt to mend the poor fellow by, for example:-

(1) Putting a belief back that had been formerly abandoned. However, by now the interconnections and morphology of belief have changed. The former faith has been reconfigured. There are no spaces for the “missing piece.” You can see this classically with the Orthodox understanding of the resurrection. If the west was to return to that, its understanding of the cross would have to change. Its understanding of the cross would have to change because its belief concerning God and Man remained unreformed. Its understanding of God and Man would then have to change because the divine nature and the human predicament would otherwise remain seriously distorted ... and so on, and so on. Beliefs cannot be “re-tweaked” by human intervention and manipulation once compromised. This also applies to just about every other aspect of Christian life and worship. Once the Orthodox Christian ethos has been lost it cannot be conjured back from this starting point of fracture. The king’s horses and men have tried ... and failed, miserably.

(2) Copying what they remember of Humpty before his fall, in effect starting all over again with a “new egg.” For how many years, centuries even, have disillusioned Christians left their churches to form their own new churches wherever, supposedly, all would be made well again? And when this fails, (as fail it must), what then? Where then? Sadly, too often this meant the end of the line for these Christians, a damaged faith and no church or simply atheism as a new fundamentalism replacing former certainties. But must such an enterprise be doomed to fail? Well, to be fair, not necessarily. Consider though what needs to happen for it to succeed. EVERY aspect of Orthodox Christianity would need to be re-constituted from scratch. This would require extreme humility from the church leadership. If, for example, a prevailing idea had been that Mary should have no prominent place in Christian piety and worship and if the New Church research revealed that indeed she had always had an honoured place in the Christian assembly then that would have to change, without compromise, prevarication or qualification. Who would have the grace to respond to that challenge? Historically it has happened as in the recent case of the Campus Crusade for Christ groups in America that embarked on a long period of exploration and discovery that led them eventually into the Orthodox Church through the reception of their own transformed communities. You can read an account of such a journey by Fr. Gregory Rogers in his article “From Evangelical to Orthodox”. Nonetheless such bloc conversions from churches outside Orthodox en masse are exceptional and rare. It can be a hard lesson to learn that Humpty cannot humanly be put back together again.

If these are the problems associated with the Humpty strategy for Church reform what may we characterise as the tried and tested way? The answer will not satisfy some because it involves sacrificing a key part of the western heterodox Christian mentality, independence. This can be very difficult for some people to do. Consider the so-called Continuum or continuing Anglican churches. These bodies, on both sides of the Atlantic comprise Christians who have grown weary and disillusioned with contemporary Anglicanism and who have often shown a long interest in either Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christianity. However, so often when the crunch comes, (doubting the resurrection or some key aspect of Christian dogma, the priesting of women etc.), these Christians do not follow up their interest in Catholicism or Orthodoxy and especially if they are not promised some form of “special treatment” that allows them to keep cherished aspects of Anglican spirituality and life. Independence is a spirit far stronger in such cases than humility. The irony of course is that it is precisely this spirit of independence that led their former ecclesiastical allegiance into rejected unwelcome paths in the first place. Be that as it may, the Continuum remains a dead end ... being neither accountable to anyone else nor being in communion with anyone else.

So to return to the key question, what is the tried and tested way? Simply, to return home as quickly as possible; not temporising or shrinking behind a wall of cowardice, rationalising that godless anxiety in all the countless ways that make delay seem to the responsible thing to do. If saving truth lies in such and such a direction, saving faith means that you delay not but rather trust God, pick up as far as you can all those for whom you are responsible and who wish to travel with you AND MOVE, now, today.

There is a wall that Humpty has neither scaled nor will ever scale.
There is a Humpty that is full of new life.
Let neither the king’s horses nor the king’s men distract you from finding that “egg” entire, whole and complete.
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