Sunday, 25 February 2018

Faith vs Scientism- Romans 4- Lent 2

In the letter to the Romans, the faith that Paul is talking about is trust in God to do what seems impossible. Abraham and Sarah believed in God to give them a child, even in their old age. In a sense, it was a promise to bring life out of a dead womb. Paul relates this to the faith Christians are to have. Just as Jesus was resurrected- life out of a dead tomb- so Christians trust God to bring life out of death. 

Being “right with God” doesn’t come from obeying the law. You can obey a lot of rules while not really trusting God. Actually, Abraham didn’t have any rules to follow. He had no Law. He trusted in God and the promise that was made. Faith is a relationship word. It isn’t about proofs. It isn't really about knowledge. It is a recognition that God is in control. Faith is choosing to trust that God is good and will follow through on promises made. Faith is trust in God’s actions and God’s motivations.

Faith has become a tricky thing in our society. When I think about talking about faith, I feel this roadblock. There is this whole hidden mental framework that is all around us, but we don’t really see it. We are like fish swimming around, but we don’t really notice the water because it is all around us all the time. Sometimes it is worth drawing our attention to the framework. It can be more powerful when it exists hidden in the shadows.   

Generally, our society assumes a way of looking at the world that is sometimes called materialism[1]. Materialism, in a philosophical sense, doesn’t mean being obsessed with money, which is how we use the word in an everyday sense. Philosophically, materialism means something like “what you see is what you get”. Matter is all that matters. This life is all there is. There is no supernatural reality out there. The universe amounts to the interaction of matter and energy according to the physical laws of the universe. And there is nothing else. The universe came into being with a Big Bang, and some day it will all fade away into the heat death of the universe. The things you do are determined by your genes and the way your psychology has reacted to the things you have experienced. … The assumptions of materialism are in the background when we start talking about faith. That’s the water we are swimming in.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has tried to describe the process of secularism.[2] He describes how Europe in the 1500’s went from being a culture that assumed God and the reality of the supernatural, to the reality we are faced with that generally assumes the supernatural is not real. Academic discourse generally assumes an agnostic or atheistic worldview. Most public discussion assumes the same. Religion is pushed to the edges of our society as being something like a private hobby for those who are into it (but please don’t talk about it or we’ll roll our eyes and talk about you behind your back). Or, religion is (at worse) a superstition that doesn’t belong in the modern world- Some might even think it’s dangerous. Religion, in its various forms, is something weak people need when they can’t face the facts, or it is tolerated as a part of someone’s culture. So, Islam might be respected, but not because it might speak truth. Rather, it is treated respectfully out of a desire to be “inclusive” and “accepting”, or maybe out of fear of being labeled a “bigot” towards a foreign culture and people.

In the secularized world the universe is a machine. The gears of the universe spin according to the principles of physics. The universe is unconscious. It is just stuff- matter- things and unconscious energy. There is no real ultimate purpose. Human beings are just animals who have developed over time to have certain attributes because it was helpful for survival. We are survival machines that exist partly due to chance.

As we became secular, God was pushed to the fringes of accepted and respectable thought. This thinking even infiltrated the minds of Christians. They whittled down their beliefs to what was respectable and defensible in a secular world. … This is where Deism came into being. It is the belief in a God that created, but who then walked away. It is a God who doesn’t interfere. But, it is a gutted religion with no real room for those things that define a belief system. No real room for prayer except for it being psychologically helpful. No room for ritual, except for it being an action that binds the community together. There was some room left for God as a source of morality, but even that was often suspect as the culture of the Bible was felt to be less evolved than modern culture (and every age feels more evolved than the previous age). Religion became internalized and personalized. Authority, in the realm of religion, was mostly removed. Authority, if there was any, was now grounded in personal experience. Really, there was no longer any “truth” when it came to religion. It came down to what was "true" for "me". But any objective religious truth "out there" was almost offensive. … All this is in the background as we talk about faith. It is the current we are fighting against as we seek faith.

These assumptions seep into the mind of our society and suddenly they are assumed without the need for proof. People in our society weren't convinced of materialism at a meeting where proof and arguments were presented and then they decided to change their mind about how the universe works. It was an assumption that was in the air and they breathed it in over and over and over, until it just became a part of them. The scientist and the academic become the new priests. Their word becomes trusted as law. If you want to grant a statement authority in our society you say, “scientists say…”. The general public don’t usually do experiments themselves, so they don't really have personal first hand experience with the scientific method. But, they have faith in the scientists and academics who tell them what they have seen- like Moses coming down off the mountain to tell the people. 

These materialist beliefs are assumptions about how the world works. Assumptions aren’t based on facts. It is an assumption on their part that consciousness is confined to the human brain, and when that brain dies, so does the consciousness of that person. It is assumed, but not proven, that the natural world has no purpose. It is assumed that there are consistent laws that govern the behavior of matter and energy. It is assumed that we aren’t in a reality like the matrix. These are assumptions that aren’t provable by science. They are assumed starting points.[3]

I should say that I am not against science. I married a molecular biologist. In various churches I served I had as parishioners both a head of a chemistry department at a university, and a particle physicist who worked on the God particle and was regularly invited to CERN. I recognize science as a tool, but it is not a tool for every job. I’m against the assumption that science can answer all our questions. For example, science can’t tell us about right and wrong, and science can’t tell us what is beautiful. Science can't tell us about the meaning of life, or why there is something rather than nothing. Those who assume that science can answer every question, and impose materialism onto science, have shaped their version of science into a kind of religion.[4] They see religion and science as being the same kind of creature and answering the same kind of questions.

I once heard a story about a scientist who was on his hands and knees looking through the grass in his front lawn. Some of his students walked by and asked what he was doing. He said he lost his watch and was looking for it. The students offered to help and they all got on their hands and knees and started combing through the grass. After about 45 minutes the students hadn’t found anything and one of them asked the professor, “where did you see it last?” He answered, “in my study”. Shocked the student shot back, “why are we looking out here then?” “The light is better out here”, he said. … Science can give us a lot of confidence in certain areas of knowledge, but not everything that can be known is out where the light is bright. God will not fit into the test tube. That is not the way to go about searching for God.

So when we talk about having faith, or trust, in God, this is what we are facing. The waters we are swimming in as we get our education, and as we watch the news, assumes an agnostic or atheistic universe. Over the years those assumptions penetrate out minds without our really even knowing it. The ideas are just there, we haven’t been convinced of them by an argument, they are just there like the air we breathe. And as Christians we sometimes find ourselves having to fight against these ideas that intrude into our minds.

In the letter to the Romans, the faith that Paul is talking about is trust in God to do what seems impossible. Just the sheer existence of God can seem impossible in our society. In a materialistic mechanical view of the universe, senior citizens don’t conceive children, and the dead aren’t resurrected. … Sometimes we are holding onto our trust in God by our fingernails.

I don’t have any scientific experiments to show you that can help you trust in God. That’s not the way to go about it anyway. There is no law, there is no lab, that will guarantee God for you. Paul talks about the error of using the law to guarantee God being for you. Faith, trusting in God, is a relationship. You are trusting someone. Faith is like trusting in your surgeon before you go into surgery. Faith is when a spouse trusts the other to love them and work for the benefit of their relationship. … Faith isn’t about knowledge of facts. Faith is trust in a person. And the materialism we are swimming in is fighting against you knowing and trusting that person.

So what do we do? … Materialism has soaked into us through the society we participate in, the way we are educated, the news we read, the music we hear. It is all a vast liturgy that shifts our mind without the need for the direct use of arguments and proofs. They are assumptions that we slowly take on as our own. 

To counter that we need to soak ourselves in different assumptions.  We soak ourselves in God’s story. We read Scripture, everyday. We pray, everyday. We participate in eating the bread and drinking the wine- and we fight against the thought telling us that nothing special is happening in that moment. We enter into God’s story that tells you that you are not here by accident. You are wonderfully made by your Father, the Creator of the universe, who has every hair on your head counted. You are so loved that God came as Jesus Christ so that you would know Him and so He can save you. He was even willing to die for you. Your loving Father is constantly seeking after you- always trying to help you- always showering you with love, even when you don’t see it. … Trusting in God means trusting that story, and being soaked in that story, more than the materialist story that tells you we are in a purposeless, unconscious universe, and are here by accident. Just as Abraham and Sarah trusted that God could bring life from a dead womb- and just as Paul trusted that the resurrection of Jesus was the first of many resurrections that were to come- so we are called to trust God’s love for us in the face of materialist voices that tell us the future is death and meaninglessness. 

[1] There are a number of different ways to define a metaphysical framework the rejects the supernatural. For example see naturalism, and physicalism.

[2] A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. It is notoriously hard to get through- both because of length and language. If you want to learn his ideas I would recommend James K. A. Smith’s How (not) to be Secular

[3] Rupert Sheldrake, the Science of Spiritual Practice. The conclusion gives an interesting summary of secularism. 
If you are interested in learning about some research that challenges materialist assumptions you might want to look at Sheldrake's Science Set Free.
I don't agree with everything Sheldrake says, but I like the challenge he poses to materialism. In other books he shows research regarding dogs who know when their owners are coming home, as well as the sense of being stared at, which he concludes are experiences that are verified through research.     

[4] Sometimes called Scientism. “Metaphysics” is an overall system that the physical understanding of the universe sits into. “Meta” means “after” or “beyond”. Metaphysics is a theory about what is beyond physical reality. Science can’t really say anything about metaphysics, since science is concerned with the physical universe by definition. The minute a scientist comments on God the scientist has left the realm of Science and has entered the realm of philosophy or religion.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Lent 1- Noah’s Ark

There are a few directions we can go when it comes to dealing with the story about Noah’s family and the flood. The first is the story we often tell on the walls of nurseries- It is a floating zoo and wouldn’t that be fun? We don’t go much further than that though.

Others will look at the story and seek out a way to prove the story as a historical reality. Could it be that 7-9000 years ago the straight between Greece and Turkey breached and the Mediterranean flooded into the basin that is now the Black Sea, making it seem like the entire world had flooded? … Others look for clues while scrambling up frozen glaciers in the Turkish mountains searching for wood and nails, evidence of a lost ship run aground in the mountains. They seek to prove the historical event that inspired the story we have about Noah.

Still others will read the story and dismiss it. It is sheer mythology. A story of an ancient people, like the epic of Gilgamesh. Evidence of an expired mythology and an expired idea of deity. The cynical and suspicious abandon the story with a roll of the eyes.

If we believe that the Bible is inspired, however, then our focus should be on what this story teaches us about humanity, God, and our discipleship to Jesus. If we start with the assumption that God is in some way speaking to us through this story, then there is still treasure to be found here. If we can resist distancing ourselves from the story by minimizing it into a cutesy story for toddlers about a floating zoo. If we can resist treating the story as a historical fact to prove in all its detail- If we can resist looking down on the story patronizingly dismissing it, we may yet have something to learn from it.

So, what can we learn? First, we learn that sin is a big deal, and it has an effect on God.
“The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Gen 6:5-6

Paul often talks about Sin as a force that keeps human beings captive. Sin describes both individual choices to turn away from God’s will, and a power that overwhelms people, which they have to be rescued from. Sin is something we have to own as individuals, but it also has to do with the society we are a part of. When it comes down to it, sin is just a way of saying things aren’t the way they should be- they aren’t the way God wants them to be. The world is upside down and sideways. It’s not the way it was created to be.

We don’t need much convincing that sin is a reality in our world. We are reminded every time we watch the news. Corruption, hate, violence, and exploitation are all regular and expected content. It rarely surprises us anymore. It’s normal. Sadly, we have even come to expect school shootings.

Sin was a reality in Jesus’ time as well, though, which is why his ministry starts with a call to repentance- 
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
 Repentance means admitting to the fact that we live with the reality of sin and we are called to turn away from it, so that we can turn towards God. We protest. we refuse to accept sin as a permanent reality.

In Noah’s story sin had gotten out of control. We read that 
“every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5).
 It was a situation God wasn’t going to allow to persist. 
“The Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6).
 I hope we can hear the pain of God there.

What caused this pain to God? Think about that sin that makes your soul call out for justice. Think about that sin that causes anger to rise up in you. Don’t think about God looking on disapprovingly about you shopping on Sunday. Think, instead, about armies that steal children in the middle of the night, force them to kill their families, then get them addicted to drugs, and force them to fight on the front line of whatever battle they are fighting. … Think about a woman describing being raped, over and over, from the time she was a child. … Think of that kind of sin. Then think of a world full of it- swimming in it. People destroying each other. This is not what God created the world for. …. Then think about God’s grieving heart. This can’t continue. Each new generation exploited, and corrupted, by the previous generation. 
“So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created… for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Gen 6:7).

That might have been the end of the story.

Then we read 
“But Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord” (Gen 6:8).
 There is hope. In all the darkness there is one bright spot- Noah’s family. With the presence of Noah there is another possibility. Noah has God’s favour. We read over and over that Noah did all that God commanded him (6:22; 7:5; 7:9). God makes a new covenant with Noah. Noah is the model of faith.

The overwhelming evil of Noah’s society made Noah’s holiness stand out even more. He was able to swim against the current of his society. Chrysostom comments that, 
“Scripture not merely called [Noah] ‘blameless’ but added ‘among the [people] of his day’ to make it clear that he was so at a time when the obstacles to virtue were many” (Homilies on John 71). “If someone cultivates virtue among those who refuse it, he makes it much more worthy of admiration” (Homilies on Genesis 23.4).
 Noah’s goodness in the midst of so much evil made his holiness all the more impressive.

Of course, the early church found in Noah an image of Christ. He represents faithfulness in a sea of sin. On him God will rest hope for creation. The faithfulness of Noah and the wooden ark is the salvation of creation. Augustine saw the ark as 
“a figure of the church that was saved by the wood on which there hung [Jesus Christ] … As for the door in the side, that surely, symbolizes the open wound made by the lance in the side of the Crucified- the door by which those who come to him enter in, in the sense that believers enter the church by means of the sacraments that issued from that wound. … So it is with every other detail of the ark’s construction. They are all symbols of something in the church” (City of God 15.26).
The early church saw symbolism everywhere in this story. Some early interpreters saw the flood as representing baptism, which washes away sin, and the mention of 40 days as representing Lent (Maximus of Turin in Sermons 50.2). The mixture of clean and unclean animals aboard the ark represents imperfection within the church, and the variety of animals as representing salvation of all the nations within the church (Augustine in Faith and Works 27.49; Tractates on the Gospel of John 9.11.1). The dove that returned with the olive branch they saw as representing the Holy Spirit that came to Jesus at the time of his baptism (Ambrose in Letters 40.21; Bede in Homily 1.12; Maximus of Turin in Sermons 49.3).

Just as through Noah God saves creation through the wood of the ark, so God saves creation through Christ and the wood of the cross. After the flood, God makes a new covenant relationship with humanity and the rest of creation- 
“I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen 9:11).
 God ties Himself to these creatures. God is no longer only Creator. God becomes Protector, choosing to not deal with sin by wiping out sinners. God’s weapon is put down not to be picked up again. God binds Himself to creation. God limits Himself regarding how sin will be dealt with.

And yet, Sin must be dealt with. This Covenant sets God on a road to deal with sin from the inside. This road reaches a climax in the passion of Christ on the cross. There we see God deal with sin not in the sheer power of a flood, but through vulnerability and weakness on the cross. There we see God binding Himself to humanity, willing to experience even the brokenness Sin made of God’s good creation. And through entering that brokenness providing a way to overcome sin and providing a way of union with God’s creatures in a creation set right. The cross becomes a kind of lock pick for the human heart, so God can work on sin from the inside, rather than destroying it from the outside.

In Lent we are called to remember the seriousness of sin, and the mercy of God who chooses not to deal with it through destruction and violence. God has provided another way. Through Christ our sin has been ultimately dealt with, and we are invited to participate in the ways of God’s kingdom as we become more fully people expresssing God’s image.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Ash Wednesday

When I noticed that Ash Wednesday (the official beginning of Lent) falls on Feb 14th this year I found myself fantasizing about drawing ash hearts on people’s foreheads.

“Saint Valentine”, the (probably legendary) 3rd century Roman priest and martyr who is connected to the day of romance lends nothing much to the day, save his name. Chocolate, flowers, and heart-shaped everything are the true icons of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against romance. I got my wife a heart-shaped something. I do, however, think it is interesting that these days overlap this year. There is no lack of tension in the air tonight.

In our society we generally dislike the challenge of Ash Wednesday. It feels like such a downer. “Remember that you are dust” doesn’t get the heart pounding in the same way as “be my valentine”. February 14th this year is an unfair fight between a romantic dinner and liturgical reminder of our brokenness and death.

Perhaps there is a connection, though. The most tear-jerking moments in romantic stories usually have to do with one lover risking their life for the beloved. Think of the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet. Or, think of the moment Jack sinks into the freezing waters so Rose can survive the sinking of the Titanic. I wonder if those stories have such an impact because they point to another greater sacrifice for the sake of love. Perhaps an ash cross is a more appropriate symbol of love than an ash heart.

Sacrificial love seems to count for more. We don’t want someone to just love us when it is convenient. We want someone to love us even when it is hard- when it costs them something. Love that costs us something feels more valuable, more real. That’s what makes the cross so powerful. It expresses a love that doesn’t hold back- it expresses a love that is willing to give it all even to the point of excruciating pain. (ex crucio meaning 'from the cross'.)

That goes both ways though. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and to pick up our own crosses- all for love. The German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote 
“If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation” (Cost of Discipleship).
The discipline of Lent is about love. It is a way that we can enter into sacrificial love for our Lord.

The cultures of the world practice challenging disciplines as a part of practicing their faith. Fasting, for example, a traditional Lenten discipline, is a discipline of self-denial. It is an interesting coincidence that in our own society, that knows abundance and comfort like no other in history, has such an issue with practices of self-denial.

Sure some in our society might diet if it means fitting into those jeans again. Some might endure the pain of lifting weights for the sake of more impressive arms. (Dare I say these are disciplines of self love?) … But, sacrificing for spiritual reasons (for the love of God) has fallen out of fashion.

Jesus speaks about ego-destroying practices. 
Give, but don’t let anyone know it’s you. 
Pray, but pray where no one will pat you on the back for your holiness. 
Fast, but don’t tell everyone how hungry you are. 
Why all this secrecy? Jesus is planning the death of our false self. That is the self that needs people to be impressed by us. It is the self that is puffed-up by comparing ourselves to those around us. It is the self that does the rights things for the wrong reasons. It is the self that will do the right thing when they are being watched, but not when there are no social pressures to punish or reward. It is the self that doesn’t really think it needs God.

The secrecy Jesus calls us to exposes the desires of the false self. 
If we will only pray at church, but not alone at home- 
If we will only give if there is a brass plaque attached to the gift- 
If we will only fast when we hear friends say, “I don’t think I could do that. You’re so disciplined”- 
then our false self is probably driving those practices.

Jesus’ talk about treasure is really a way of talking about desire. Human beings follow what they truly love. Our desires will drive our actions. If we desire our egos to be stroked, then secrecy will starve that desire. If we desire God, the secrecy will purify that desire. The secrecy Jesus calls us to opens up questions within us- “Do we desire the right things? Are our desires aimed at the right goals?” Or are we, as the atheist Jean Paul Sartre said, a “useless passion”.

When we receive the ashes on our foreheads we are receiving what a friend of mine called, “a reverse sacrament”. A Sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. A reverse sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual need. … Our deepest need is to love God. When that desire is purified everything else will fall in place. Without it life is just ashes (see 1 Corinthians 13). Lent is a time for the purifying and testing of that love.

God bless your journey and preparation for the cross where the God you loves you more than you can imagine held nothing back… all for the sake of love . AMEN

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Epiphany 6- Is God a Dude?

Image result for early church women

The question we are going to deal with today has to do with the maleness of God.

Throughout the Bible, God is constantly referred to in male terms. In the Old Testament, the grammar of the Hebrew describes God as male. In the New Testament we see a similar theme in the Greek grammar and with Jesus referring to God as “Father”.

There are, however, a few hints of God being referred to using female imagery. For example, Hosea 13:8 describes God as being like a mother bear. Deuteronomy 32 uses similar female imagery describing God as a mother eagle (vv11-12) and as giving birth to the nation (v18). Isaiah compares God to a mother in a number of places (66:13; 49:15; 42:14). One of the Hebrew words to describe God’s compassion is (R-H-M) rachum, which is related to the word for womb, rechem. So, we might say God’s compassion is womb-like.

In Luke 15 Jesus compares God to a woman looking for a lost coin (15:8-10). In Matthew Jesus says to Jerusalem, 

“… How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37).

The Holy Spirit is complicated in terms of gender. The word “spirit” in Greek (which doesn’t always refer to the Holy Spirit) is neuter and neither male nor female. In Hebrew, “spirit” is feminine, but when the Holy Spirit is referred to as the “comforter” a masculine pronoun is used.[1]

While the Bible doesn’t refer to God directly in female terms, neither is the Bible bothered by occasionally using feminine imagery for God.

Male imagery of God is probably more dominant because the culture was a patriarchal culture. Everyone found their place under a protective male head of the family, so it was a natural image to use for God in that society.

Under the influence of feminism, there have been those who have questioned the overwhelming use of male imagery of God. Some have called for a more balanced approach, using both masculine and feminine images. For example, some will call God “Mother” to try to balance out the use of “Father” imagery. …. Others have tried to remove gendered language when referring to God. Instead of saying, 
“God refers to Himself in Scripture”.
 They might instead say, 
“God refers to God’s-self in Scripture”.
 Or, instead of saying “him” they will just say “God”. This can get a bit awkward. For example, in Gen 1:27 we read, 
“So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”.
 To try to remove the gendered language we might say, 
“So God created humankind in [God’s] own image, in the image of God [God] created him; male and female [God] created them”.

The overall motivation of feminism towards the Bible is to rightfully bring out feminine aspects, and to lift up female contributions. These are very important insights. Feminism has been important for addressing the inequality between the sexes. The contribution of women has been suppressed, and it is impossible to deny the violence women have endured throughout history. 
Not everyone, however, is in agreement about pronouns for God. Switching pronouns from male to female can get cumbersome and confusing for some. Calling God “it”, rather than “he” or “she”, feels impersonal. “It” is usually reserved for inanimate objects. God is not a chair, or a robot. The God of the Bible is personal and that would require a “he” or “she”.

It is also a historical reality that having a female deity hasn’t always meant liberation for women. For example, the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth in the first century is said to have had around one thousand female slaves that functioned as temple prostitutes.[2] Just as an image of a male god can trap us in an image of maleness as dominance and warfare. It is also possible that a goddess can trap us in an image of femaleness as a sexual object, as a womb, and as a mother.

So what is the answer? There is an ancient type of theology called Apophatic theology, or sometimes it is called Negative theology. The concept is that all images of God ultimately fail to show us God’s true essence. The 10 commandments instruct us to “not make for yourself a carved image” for worship (Exodus 20:4). Any image we have of God will eventually fail us. In the end, carved images tell us something not completely true. God says in Hosea, 
“I am God and no human, the Holy One in your midst” (Hosea 11:9).

If we call God “Father” what do we mean by that? Do we mean that at the time of creation the Creator of the universe was a flesh and blood human being? And not just a human being, but a ‘male’ human being? With all the accessories that makes one male? … It is the image of an old man in the clouds. Is that an accurate image of the God who created the universe? … So, what do we mean when we say “Father”? … It is an analogy. Just as a loving father (and not everyone had one) cares for his children- teaches them, guides them, and provides a place for them in his home- so God cares for His people.[3]

We have to be careful to allow the analogy to say something true, but we have to be careful to not push the analogy into absurdity and make it say something untrue. So there is a way in which God is like a father and a way in which God is not. … In Psalm 18 we read, 
“who is a rock, except our God?”
 Well, we don’t mean that God is inanimate and not conscious. Psalm 18 is saying that God is strong, everlasting, and can be relied upon. If you stand behind a rock you are protected. If you build your house on a rock (rather than sand) it will be stable.

Apophatic theology reminds us that God is always beyond our words. Ultimately, when all analogies fail, when they are pushed to their very limit, God is not like anything but God. As Isaiah says, 
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Is 46:9).
 As the 4th century archbishop and theologian St. Gregory Nazianzen said, 
“It is difficult to conceive God, but to define him in words is impossible”.

Now we can’t stay there for long because then we can’t speak about God. We end up in a wordless contemplation. We need our analogies, while also recognizing their limits. I mentioned Apophatic theology. Well I want to also mention Cataphatic theology[4], which is a theology that embraces analogies. We have to use the things of creation to speak about God. God is like a rock. God is like a bridegroom. God is like a shepherd. Or, we can use less concrete analogies- God is light; God is love. We need to be able to speak about God, and to do that we need analogies.

God is so other- so transcendent- that we can lose all ability to speak about God. It is essential that God reveals God’s Self to us through the creation, otherwise it is impossible to know God. This is why the incarnation is essential. The letter to the Colossians tells us 
Jesus “is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15).
 God has expresses God’s self to us most perfectly through Jesus. Jesus is the dynamic image of the revelation of God. 

I tend to use masculine pronouns when it comes to God because that is the scriptural language, but that doesn't mean I'm not very aware of the limitations of the analogy. If we drift too far from the language of the Bible, however, I think we cause more problems than we solve, theologically. I tend to side with theologian David Yeago who has said, 
"If feminist concerns can only be received in the Church against the grain of the biblical texts, there is every reason to think that feminism will lose out. Any reform of Christian language that requires that we censor or discredit persistent features of the Bible's discourse will always be artificial, fragile, of severely limited effectiveness and extremely doubtful survival value. ... In the long run, then, the Christian Church throughout the world will read the Bible and learn its talk of God from the Bible, skillfully or ineptly. Surely it would be better, even on sheerly pragmatic grounds, to embrace important feminist concerns from within a credible reading of the Bible, rather than getting embroiled in a struggle against the Bible." (The Apostolic Faith, Unpublished).

I do want to come back to the original feminist motivation behind the question. This is important and deserves much more time than we are going to give here. The role of women in the church has been incredibly important from the very beginning and that role has often been suppressed and not celebrated. 
For example, in Romans 16:7 
“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.”
 "Junia" is a woman’s name, and Paul says she is not just an apostle, but prominent among them. She has not been spoken of much, and recent scholarship has found that in her name had been transformed to make it appear male even though it was not a known male name in the ancient world. Her name and status as an apostle of the early church was suppressed. John Chrysostom (around 344AD) said this about her, 
“To be an apostle is something great. But to be outstanding among the apostles- just think what a wonderful song of praise that is! They were outstanding on the basis of their works and virtuous actions. Indeed, how great the wisdom of this woman must have been that she was even deemed worthy of the title of apostle”.[5]

Some scholarship has shown that cultural understandings can drastically change the meaning of some of the more difficult passages of the letters of the New Testament having to do with women. For example, knowing that worship in some places may have been conducted in a more formal language that was usually known by men, but not women, may have had something to do with comments about instructing bored women to quiet their chatting down during the long sermon they couldn’t understand. Or, perhaps it would be helpful to know that in Ephesus the cult of the goddess Artemis was dominated by women and trying to create ordered worship when women were used to dominating worship might include instructions that would be understood very differently without that cultural backdrop. Paul even instructs women on proper dress while praying and prophesying in worship in 1 Cor 11:2-11, which wouldn’t make sense if women were expected to be perpetually silent.

We know women were very active in the early church. When the Roman governor Pliny (61-113 AD) was trying to uncover what Christians were all about, among those he captured and tortured were two female ministers.[6] These women were probably selected because they were leaders in the church.

There are many other women mentioned in the Bible who play very important roles, but we don’t celebrate them very often- Hulda the prophet, who was asked about the Torah by young King Josiah, which led to a massive reform (2 Kings 22); Queen Ester, who saved her people; Deborah, who led Israel as a prophet, a warrior, and a monarch all that the same time; Mary, who Jesus accepts in the role of disciple, learning at his feet, when Martha says she should be away from the men in the back rooms with the other women (Luke 10). 

We could say a lot about women in the Bible and in the early church, and they deserve to be spoken about and celebrated, but we will have to save that for another day. I believe that the Bible provides us with resources for lifting up and valuing women and their contributions. We need to pay more attention to these aspects of our faith. It is important that we listen to what faithful feminist voices are teaching us about our faith.    


[1] The Greek word for spirit is the neuter “pneuma”. The English pronoun would more correctly be “it” rather than “he”. Though, scholars argue about this citing examples when the Greek may break the grammatical rule and use a male pronoun with pneuma when it refers to the Holy Spirit- Jn 14:26; 16:13-14. The Holy Spirit has also been associated with feminine Wisdom in the Old Testament by two of the Church Fathers and Syrian liturgies often saw The Holy Spirit as feminine. The Hebrew word for “spirit” is “ruach”, which is feminine. However, the masculine pronoun is used when the Holy Spirit is referred to by the masculine word Parakletos (Comforter) (John 16:7-8).

[2] According to the Greek geographer Strabo

[3] While I use the male pronoun in reference to God I try to practice capitalizing it (Him) to remind myself and readers that this is a different order of “Him”. It is a metaphor and not essential to the nature of God. It is a necessity to refer to God as a person, but also dealing with the unfortunate reality of not having a helpful pronoun to replace it with that won’t result in cumbersome sentences and confusion.  

[4] Sometimes spelled “Kataphatic” theology.

[5] In ep. ad Romanos 31.2.  Similar things were said about her by Theodoret, and John of Damascus

[6] “The Story of Christianity”, Justo Gonzalez, “the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan p.40. 

Further Reading:

The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky
(This is not an easy read, but it is a pretty foundational text in Eastern Orthodox Theology regarding Apophatic Theology)   
Let Her Speak for Herself: Nineteenth-Century Women Writing on Women in Genesis Paperback by Marion Ann Taylor
(Marion Taylor was one of my Old Testament Prof. in Seminary. I highly recommend her work on historical female interpreters of Scripture).

Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide by Marion Ann Taylor and Agnes Choi

Women in the Story of Jesus: The Gospels through the Eyes of Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical Interpreters by Marion Ann Taylor and Heather Weir

Women of War, Women of Woe: Joshua and Judges through the Eyesof Nineteenth-Century Female Biblical interpreters 
by Marion Ann Taylor

Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues by N.T. Wright
(See especially chapter 4: The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women)

Junia Is Not Alone by Scot McKnight
(This is an excellent essay about the female apostle Junia and how her name was lost amidst patriarchal assumptions. McKnight also points towards numerous other women in the Bible and in Christian history whose names should be commonly know, but sadly are not.)

Finally Feminist (Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology): A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender by John G. Stackhouse

Monday, 5 February 2018

Epiphany 5- Suffering


The next theme for our Epiphany sermon series is inspired by three questions:
“If God is so loving, why does he allow all the hate and suffering of so many of his people?” 
“How do we know that Jesus is with us in our darkest hours (especially when we don’t feel it)?"
And, “We know that God is our lighthouse- but sometimes the waves in our lives toss us about and hide that light- I need help to keep my sight on that lighthouse.”

The first question is more philosophical. It is about the compatibility of a loving God with a world that has suffering. The other two are much more experiential regarding feeling God’s absence in the midst of suffering.

I just want to point out that when we ask these questions we are surrounded by numerous Biblical voices.

Think about Job, who lost everything and cries out to God for a reason for his suffering.

Imagine Joseph who is sold into slavery by his own brothers. He does well as a slave and works his way up the ladder, but then his master’s wife tries to get him into bed with her. He resists her advances out of loyalty to his master, but his master’s wife accuses him of trying to rape her and he is thrown into jail. I’m sure that Joseph has moments where he felt God’s absence in the midst of his suffering.

I’m sure Paul could relate to this experience. There’s a part of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians that I sometimes remind myself of when life gets hard. Paul is talking about what he has suffered while trying to follow God’s will. He says- 
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-28).

Tradition tells us that all the Apostles suffered for their dedication to Jesus. Most are said to have been martyred, and John was said to have been exiled.

There are people like Mother Teresa who spend their lives serving God in incredibly difficult circumstances, while also feeling a tremendous absence of God’s presence.

Of course, we think of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 22- 
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).
We can hardly hear those words without hearing them on Jesus’ lips as he is dying on the cross. Our Lord suffered. In some mysterious way, looking into the eyes of Jesus was to look into the eyes of God. Jesus suffered on the cross and chose to speak those words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He entered deeply into human suffering. Suffering, in some ways, is quite at home in Christianity.

If you are anything like me, though, this is easy to forget. I can enter into a difficult time and I can start wondering what I’ve done wrong. It’s natural for us to suddenly wonder where God is when we suffer. We wonder why God isn’t protecting us. Or, we wonder if we have done something wrong that has put us outside God’s protection.

Suffering can be one of the most difficult issues we deal with as Christians. I have found it helpful to deal with suffering on two levels. One level is a theological reality where I try to understand why suffering exists in the world. The other level is our emotional reality as we experience suffering.

On a philosophical/theological level I find it helpful to ask the question, 
“Is the goal of human life happiness in this life?”
 … If we answer with anything but a “yes” we open the door to suffering of some kind. …

Thinking about suffering can leave your head spinning. It is one of the major dilemmas that troubles theologians. There is a whole realm of philosophy/theology called “theodicy” that is exclusively dedicated to this issue. So, we shouldn’t treat this complex problem lightly or dismissively. We might not be able to completely solve the problem of suffering, but it is important to look for answers that might help us. But, we should be careful to not dump our reasons on people who are suffering.

The most foundational Christian explanation for suffering and evil in the world has to do with human beings misusing their free will represented by the Adam and Eve story in Genesis.

The main way I deal with why God allows suffering to continue to exist is this. I believe that God cares more about us developing a holy kingdom character than he cares about us being comfortable in this moment. If delaying healing will bring some development of holiness to me, I suspect God will choose that over healing me in that moment. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12, 
“a thorn was given me in the flesh … to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:7-10).
 So, for Paul there was some suffering that was allowed in his life that he understood to have a holy purpose. I believe that God can transform suffering to good ends. What was meant for evil God can transform and use for good (Gen 50:20). 

It also seems that a world where suffering and evil exist is important for the development of human character (which doesn't mean every instance of suffering leads to this betterment).  For example, to learn to be courageous people we probably need a world with some danger. To be patient people we need a world with annoyance. To be compassionate people we probably need a world with people whose suffering we can share. It seems like a world with a certain amount of suffering can help us grow in virtue. … Now, I should say that I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe that God is in the business of bringing good out of it. So, when I am dealing with suffering I ask myself how this can help my soul develop.

When my mom was in the midst of her cancer treatments, someone asked me how I can believe in God when someone I love is suffering. … I told them that in Christianity we believe that one of the places when God was most present in the world was when Jesus was dying on the cross. I have to believe that, while we feel like God is absent in the midst of suffering, the cross tells me exactly the opposite- God is incredibly present in the midst of suffering. Incarnation can be understood as God come to suffer with us.

Remember that Jesus wept (Jn 11:35). And Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane also seems to imply a prayer that was unanswered. Jesus says to the disciples, 
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34). Then it says, “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’ (Mk 14:35-36).
 Jesus suffered, even before he went to the cross. … God, through Jesus, knew suffering.

Most people aren’t bothered by suffering in an abstract philosophical and theoretical way. Most of us are bothered by suffering in an emotional, experiential way. It might be when we are suffering, or (what is often worse) when we are watching someone we care about suffer. … I remember being with my son, Seth, in the hospital when he was 2 years old and praying for him to be healed and being incredibly impatient with God. It felt like, if Seth is healed God is here, if Seth is still sick God is not here. … In the midst of that kind of suffering we start to wonder where God is in the middle of it all- but it is an emotional question that refuses to be addressed by a theoretical answer.

When dealing with suffering I have often thought about Jesus’ mother, Mary, watching her son die on the cross. On that Friday, is there anything that you could have said to Mary that would have made her feel better? What if you were standing next to her as she watched her son dying, what might you say? “Mary, don’t worry, God is going to use this to do something great”; "Don't worry. It'll all be okay"; "God has a plan". Wouldn’t she just be offended if you said something like that to her? … Even though it’s true, it probably wouldn’t be appropriate and probably wouldn’t help her in that moment.

I think suffering can be transformed to good ends, just like the cross was transformed into resurrection. I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I think God can transform suffering. I think from the point of view of eternity, our suffering will be viewed the way we view the cross now. We will look back on it as something God has overcome and redeemed in unexpected ways.  But, that is not necessarily something we can say to someone who is suffering, just as we couldn’t talk to Mary about the good that will come from the cross as she watched her son dying on it.

So what does Mary need in that moment? She doesn’t need some answer to explain suffering. She needs someone to share her tears. She needs someone to suffer with her. She needs someone to hug her. She needs a listening ear and a quiet presence. … Often that is God’s presence with us when we are hurting. God is there looking at us through the eyes of a friend, and silently putting an arm around our shoulder. AMEN

Recommended reading:

C.S. Lewis has a couple interesting books on suffering.
The Problem of Pain was written from a theoretical standpoint.
I would recommend reading this with
A Grief Observed, which is written after the book mentioned above and is a collection of reflections on grief based upon Lewis' own experience of grief after his wife died. 

Where is God when it hurts? by Philip Yancey
The next two are written by theologians and are therefore a bit more challenging.

Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff 
This is written by a quite renowned theologian who experienced the sudden death of his 25 year old son. The following are couple quotes from that book, 
“I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘[God] did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing [God] could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death. To live without the answer is precarious. It’s hard to keep one’s footing.”
“Eric is gone, here and now he is gone; now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him, now I cannot hear of his plans for the future. That is my sorrow. A friend said, ‘Remember, he’s in good hands.’ I was deeply moved. But that reality does not put Eric back in my hands now. That’s my grief. For that grief, what consolation can there be other than having him back?” 
“to the ‘why’ of suffering we get no firm answer. Of course some suffering is easily seen to be the result of our sin: war, assault, poverty amidst plenty, the hurtful word. And maybe some is chastisement. But not all. The meaning of the remainder [of suffering] is not told us. It eludes us.” 
“Suffering is down at the centre of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history. But the mystery remains. Why isn’t Love-without-suffering the meaning of things? Why is suffering-Love the meaning? Why does God endure his suffering? Why does he not at once relieve his agony by relieving ours?”

We cannot tell Wolterstorff that the death of his son Eric is “not really so bad.” (These are his words again) “because it is [bad]. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench”. 
God, Medicine, and Suffering by Stanley Hauerwas
Hauerwas has an interesting approach to this question saying that we are asking the wrong theological questions when we deal with suffering.

Doors of the Sea, The: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart
This is a reflection on the Dec 2004 Tsunami that killed 250- 280,000 people.

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