"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Monday, May 27, 2013

Trinity, Gender, and the Oneness of God

And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.  
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
~ from the Creed of Saint Athanasius

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, one of the principal feasts of the Church year, in which the Church gives thanks to God for the grace to hold to "the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity" (from the collect for Trinity Sunday, BCP).  The doctrine of the Trinity is truly foundational to the way the Church understands the nature of God; it is also truly difficult to understand (indeed, it is actually not something that can be understood rationally, but is a divine mystery), and can therefore sometimes be a source of controversy.

Another, not entirely unrelated, source of potential controversy has to do with the way the Church understands and speaks of God in relation to human concepts of gender.  In the Christian tradition, God has generally (though not absolutely) been spoken of using masculine terminology, even as most would acknowledge that God is neither male nor female (though, of course, God was incarnate in the man Jesus, who is truly God).  Both sexes have their origin in God, and both reflect the Divine Image, as the Genesis account asserts, "And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."  Throughout the Scriptures (and the Christian tradition) one can find images of God that are decidedly masculine, others that are decidedly feminine, and others that transcend gender; note the response to Moses' question about God's identity: "And God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM'" - God cannot be contained within our human categorizations.  In light of this, it is understandable that the Church has in recent years been exploring ways to understand and speak about God that are more gender inclusive.  I think this is a conversation that the Church can and should have, reasonably and prayerfully.  Which is to say the conversation should be within the Church, working from the Scriptures and tradition as they have been revealed to us, out of a desire for truth in our ever seeking for a greater understanding of God (i.e. the motivation should not be from a secular pressure to 'get with the program and join the 21st century', and all the sexual politics and tensions that entails).

Much could be said on this topic, of course, but I would simply offer one brief thought at a point where this discussion intersects with Trinitarian doctrine.  The doctrine of the Trinity is, admittedly, quite masculine.  And for a host of theological reasons, which I won't go into right now, the matter is not so easy as simply 'switching genders' and speaking interchangeably of God as Mother, Daughter, and Spirit.  One seemingly less controversial approach which seems to have gained some traction has been to speak of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier (or some similar language).  This is fine in one sense, as God is indeed all of these.  The problem lies with identifying God in Trinity as defined by what God does, rather than who God is.  In other words, using such language specifically as an expression of the Trinity does precisely what the Church in the first few centuries went to such great lengths to prevent - it results in 'dividing the Substance' of God, implying that 'this part' or person of God creates, and another redeems, and another sanctifies.  But God, as the creeds and traditions assert, is 'one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity', Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; this mystery is lost in such a formulation as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, which is functional, rather than relational.  And at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity is the revelation that God is Love, a continuous and perfect outpouring of love in the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  And this is indeed a truth and a mystery that we do not want to lose sight of through an attempt, however well intentioned, to speak more inclusively about God.

A few apropos thoughts from minds far greater than yours truly.

Saint Athanasius, from his Epistle I to Serapion:
"And so the Trinity, which is recognized in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is holy and perfect, and has no adulteration of that which is foreign or external.  Nor is it compounded of creator and created matter, but it is endowed with the complete power of creating and energizing; its nature also is consistent with itself and undivided, and its energy and activity is one."       
Rowan Williams, reflecting over the Rublev Trinity icon (the Hospitality of Abraham); from his The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ:
"But it is, as I have already hinted, very important in the interpretation of the story that it shows three agents acting as one - not a sort of divine drama with different characters.  At a time when the theology of the Trinity sometimes sounds as though we are talking about three 'personalities' collaborating in a project, it is good to be reminded forcefully that all that God does is done by the whole Trinity equally, and that to talk of three divine persons must not mislead us into thinking of human patterns of relationship and cooperation."
Williams continues with a thought about how sound doctrine does not hinder, but rather facilitates inclusivity and welcome:
  "The doctrines of Christ and of the Trinity can seem remarkably remote and theoretical to most people these days; what we seem to forget is that they were designed in order not only to tell us the truth about God but to make us live that truth.  They are invitations, ways of passing on Jesus' invitation to be changed, to repent and trust him, to walk with him ... Accepting the invitation, going through the gate into the new territory of Jesus' life (and it is worth noting how often we come back to open doors of one kind and another in thinking about icons of Christ), is the essence of orthodoxy; the teachings of classical theology are there to reinforce and expound the divine welcome."


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Williams: 'Around him the whole universe reorganizes itself'

(this post is part 3 of a series - part 1,  part 2)

A final reflection on and  excerpt from Rowan Williams’ book The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ.

As has been seen, Adam and Eve figure prominently in the icon of the resurrection.  Of course, Adam and Eve, and the opening chapters of Genesis, have become increasingly controversial in the modern era, with its scientific advances and theories about the origins of life and so forth.  I recall a conversation I had with a friend, in which he made a comment about doubting whether the doctrine of the Fall made any sense in light of theories about the biological evolution of humanity.  In his words, “What was there for us to fall from?”  I found a reasonable answer to that question provided by John Polkinghorne (the esteemed quantum physicist and Anglican priest).  He was actually responding to the question, ‘do you think Adam and Eve actually existed?’ which he answered thusly (I’m paraphrasing him): If we accept that there was a point in time when a man and a woman became spiritually conscious, that is, aware of God, then it is perfectly reasonable to assert that ‘Adam and Eve’ existed.  And it is also sadly probable that these first true humans were also the first to consciously turn away from God. 

In the excerpt below, Williams echoes this understanding of the Genesis narrative.  “Adam and Eve stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal of God began”.  And the good news, the gospel, is that Christ has been there, and has redeemed that moment.  But it is not only this particular fall that is redeemed, it is the Fall, the curse under which all of humanity and all of creation has groaned, the brokenness that afflicts our world.  All is bound up and brought together in wholeness by the victorious work of God in the resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, “the one in whose company we come fully to life.”

Peace, and happy Eastertide!
“What Christ does and suffers affects all things, all areas of human experience and so all aspects of human relation, including relation with what is not human.  Around him the whole universe reorganizes itself, just as human history reorganizes itself around this new centre which is at the same time the ancient and unchangeable centre of God’s glory.  Once again, the Jesus who lived and died as a particular human being ‘opens out’ upon the glory of God.  And that glory is here visually brought down into the middle of the realm of death so that death may be swallowed up.
“As his hand grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, Jesus goes back to embrace the first imaginable moment of rebellion and false direction in human life – as in the icons and liturgy of the transfiguration we are reminded that he goes fully into the depths of human agony.  He reaches back to and beyond where human memory begins: ‘Adam and Eve’ stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal of God began – not a moment we can date in ordinary history, any more than we can date in the history of each one of us where we began to forget God.  But we are always dealing with the after-effects of that moment, both as a human race and as particular persons.  The icon declares that wherever that lost moment is or was, Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future; in his resurrection, he brings all those possibilities to reality. 
“Looking at this, then, we can first of all be sure that Christ has chosen to accompany us from the first point at which we began to lose our faithfulness to God; that he has been there at the roots of whatever sin and self-destructiveness we have been involved in; and that he has already sown in us the seeds that will come to new life.  How they do depends on whether we are willing to put our trust in him as the one in whose company we come fully to life.”
~ Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Saint Leo the Great: 'Admitted into the eternal Father's dwelling'

Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things; Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God in glory everlasting.  Amen.
~ Collect for Ascension Day

A reading from a sermon by Saint Leo the Great:
"Throughout this time between the Lord's resurrection and ascension, my dear brethren, the Lord in his providence fulfilled one purpose, taught one lesson, set one consideration before the eyes and hearts of his followers: that the Lord Jesus Christ, who was truly born, truly suffered and truly died, should be recognized as truly risen.  The apostles and all the disciples had been filled with fear by his death on the cross, and their faith in the resurrection had been hesitant; but now they gained such great strength from seeing the truth, that when the Lord went up to heaven, far from feeling sadness, they experienced a great joy.  Indeed they had a great and mysterious cause for rejoicing.  For in the sight of the vast company of the blessed, human nature was exalted above the dignity of all the creatures of heaven, passing beyond the ranks of the angels, being raised above the high seat of the archangels, to receive an election that would have no limit until it was admitted into the eternal Father's dwelling, to share the glorious throne of him with whose nature it had been united in the person of the Son."          ~Leo the Great, Sermon I on the Ascension

Friday, May 3, 2013

Williams: 'That wholeness given by Christ's resurrection'

(this post is part 2 of a series - part 1,  part 3)

Having sketched how the icon of the resurrection points to Christ’s healing of divisions, even those between the living and the dead, Williams continues by noting that this brings critical insight into how Christians read the Scriptures. The Biblical figures, the patriarchs, prophets, and saints, are our contemporaries (the communion of saints) precisely because of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus is the center upon which all else turns, in whom all things hold together. The Church Fathers were well aware of this; I love how they are able to see Christ in all the Scriptures, from Genesis right down to Revelation. Sometimes, I think, the Fathers may be justly criticized for overly stretching a text to read into it a Christian meaning, or going a bit overboard with an allegory. Certainly, it is important to understand the historical and cultural contexts in which a passage emerged. But even in these ‘creative’ cases, I find myself inspired by the Fathers’ interpretations, longing myself to be so soaked in the ever-present Christ that I cannot help but find Him everywhere I turn. And I do agree with Williams that ‘a proper Christian reading of the Bible’ must always be in the light of Christ and His work, or else ‘we shall read inadequately.’

“The Bible is not a human record from the distant past, full of a mixture of inspiring and not-so-inspiring stories or thoughts; nor is it a sort of magical oracle, dictated by God. It is rather, the utterances and records of human beings who have been employed by God to witness to his action in the world, now given to us by God so that we may learn who he is and what he does; and the ‘giving’ by God is by means of the resurrection of Jesus. The risen Jesus takes hold of the history of God’s people from its remotest beginnings, lifts it out of death by bringing it to completeness, and presents it to us as his word, his communication to us here and now. Because we live in the power of the risen Christ, we can hear and understand this history, since it is made contemporary with us; in the risen Christ, David and Solomon, Abraham and Moses, stand in the middle of our assembly, our present community, speaking to us about the God who spoke with them in their lifetimes in such a way that we can see how their encounter with God leads towards and is completed in Jesus. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus speaks of Abraham being glad to see his coming (John 8.56); this is the thought that the icon represents. Just as Jesus reintroduces Adam and Eve as he takes each of them by the hand, so he takes Abraham and ourselves by the hand and introduces us to each other. And from Abraham we learn something decisive about faith, about looking to an unseen future and about trusting that the unseen future has the face of Christ. Thus a proper Christian reading of the Bible is always a reading that looks and listens for that wholeness given by Christ’s resurrection; if we try to read any passage without being aware of the light of the resurrection, we shall read inadequately.”   ~ Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light