Monday, May 26, 2014

The Nagging Question of God: Farewell Sermon at Trinity College

From one point of view, this College is named Trinity for the sentimental attachments that certain of our founders had with similarly-named institutions in Cambridge and Dublin. From another perspective however, the name Trinity reflects the nagging question of God, and specifically the Christian response to that answer.

Over eleven years I have had the privilege of speaking here to congregations diverse in age, faith, and otherwise about the Bible, the problem of evil, social justice, sustainability, about the very possibility of religion, and about that nagging question of God. And this last question is my topic this evening, not merely because it seems apt for a theologian to name it on a significant occasion like a farewell, but because it has something to do with why we are all here, sceptics and believers alike, and with why those other questions matter too.

The God issue has not become an easier one to handle over those eleven years. Popular discourse about God and religion is often characterised by superficiality and sound-bite-ism, whether the case is being made for or against. Religion’s popular despisers rarely seem to have read any actual theology, but are often able to identify faith with fundamentalism, partly because faith has too few intellectually and indeed morally credible champions.

Let it be admitted - or indeed proclaimed - that what often passes for God in popular discourse does not really deserve to be believed in. “God” merely as a sort of being larger than other beings, whose existence can be invoked to explain that shrinking pool of phenomena not otherwise yet explained, is not a necessary or impressive proposal. What might be more surprising is that this was not the God of classical theology in any case; theologians worth reading always affirm that the word “God” is a convention that points to a mystery, not a sign with an obvious or easy referent.

The real religious question that will not stop nagging us is not whether there is such a large being or anything left to explain, but whether there is a mystery to encounter at the heart of life, which has little to do with explanation and evidence, but much to do with awe and wonder. If you can answer no to that question I will grant your status as officially irreligious without argument. But if there is indeed a mystery at the heart of being and the universe, it is that, and not anyone’s imaginary friend or hypothetical intelligent designer, that we people of faith call “God”. For all the complex edifices of story and ritual built on it, religion and spirituality have that awe as their foundation, and build on it because this is what human beings do; we create art and music, reflection and argument, in hope of catching and conveying glimpses thereby of truths that lie beyond and beneath.

This is of course not quite enough to get us as far as speaking of God as a Trinity, even though that doctrine is famously referred to as a mystery too. But the language of Trinity does stem from a very different and specific set of affirmations about God, which are again very different from those of contemporary fundamentalism.

Christianity does indeed claim some more specific and potentially implausible things about the character of the universal mystery, most particularly and audaciously that the life of Jesus of Nazareth sheds light on it in a definitive way. The essence of this claim is not that his teaching or miracle stories identify him as that large being aforesaid, and hence that we had better follow him or watch out. It is that the character of his life, and above all the willingness of this man to die for his friends, tells us something about the mystery of our lives;
not that God is to be sought after and served because powerful or even just plausible, but that God has sought after and served us, and that our hope centres not in some divine manipulation of events in our favour but in the willingness of the divine to be subject to the vicissitudes of human life. This is why the most fundamental affirmation Christians make about the reality of God is not to do with power, but love.

The necessity of speaking of a Trinity emerges from early Christian reflection on this same story. God, the followers of Jesus believed, was simultaneously the transcendent mystery beyond thought or knowledge, but also encountered in the man Jesus, and also immediately present as the Holy Spirit. Unwilling to jettison any of these affirmations while affirming traditional Jewish monotheism, they confessed God as Trinity. 

More than that, they saw the relation between these three aspects of divinity as social; just as the relationship between God and the world was characterised as love, so too the inner reality of the Trinity was one of love, between a parent, a child, and Spirit. Thus in turn human relatedness, and the reality of love as the character of human community, is not merely an accident of our being or a defensible moral choice, but lies at the heart of our existence, and our experiences of love constitute a window onto the mystery that sustains all.

When our founders chose this name they were referencing those ancient reflections. We still teach them here in our Theological School, we celebrate them in this Chapel, and some of you might also be surprised by how many of our Foundation Studies students affirm them. 

All this has at least two consequences for all of us, diverse as our positions on the God question may be:

First, by calling this place Trinity, the founders affirmed then and we do now that the character of human community is itself not merely historical accident or pragmatic necessity; community is something we honour and celebrate, something that reveals what is at the heart of our lives. This means that here we work and study and play and dine, believing that these things are inherently good; and for some of us they even come close to what Christian theological language calls “sacraments” because they reveal or allude to deeper mysteries even than themselves. It also means - as that somewhat opaque collegiate motto pro ecclesia, pro patria suggests - that we do this work together as a small community with a sense of the wider implications for the whole of human society. We seek to be compassionate and just, because now as much as ever Australia and other nations need compassionate and just societies.

Second, and more fundamentally if perhaps also more problematically, “Trinity” amounts to a statement not just about who we are, but about what the world is, and what it is for. For almost one hundred years, members of the College have come to this Chapel to encounter, through a veil, a truth and a love deeper and older than any number of centuries. It is as mysterious as time and the universe, or more so; but it is as immediate as you and I are to each other as community, as friends. May this place continue to provide its members, and the wider world, with glimpses of this mystery for which it is named. 

Eucharist and Anglican Catholicism: Sermon from St Peter's, Eastern Hill

E. S. Hughes and others at St Peter's, Melbourne, c. 1900
In this place you are the inheritors of a great tradition of liturgical worship, spirituality, and mission that goes back not only to the Oxford Movement of the mid nineteenth century, but to the medieval and even the ancient Church - a pattern of corporate life and prayer, centred in particular on the celebration of the Eucharist.

Before the Church of England was reformed in the 16th century, the Eucharist or Mass was celebrated often, but participated in little. Medieval Christians were more focused on the character of the Mass as an sacrifice, offered for them by the priest, than on its character as a banquet to which God’s people were all called.

The protestant reformers, including the framers of the first Books of Common Prayer like Thomas Cranmer, believed correctly that ancient Catholic order commended regular eucharistic participation; but their contemporaries were unable to overcome their sense that the solemnity of the sacrament was not to be trifled with by receiving it too often. Thus Anglicanism took on for some centuries the accidental and quite novel shape of a Church that worshipped in Word far more than sacrament; this is still the fate of much contemporary Protestantism, ironically to be deeply medieval by downplaying eucharistic participation, and hence failing in a core aspect of Christian discipleship by not presenting the Eucharist as the characteristic act of Christian worship.

It is not so long ago however that the Fathers and Mothers of Anglo-Catholicism recalled us  to the centrality of the Eucharist; and it is this sacramental re-focussing, rather than its ritual expression, which we must consider as their real gift.

When the likes of E. B. Pusey and John Keble in the Oxford Movement of the mid-nineteenth century articulated a new sense of catholic identity in the Church of England, their concerns were not primarily about ritual and ceremony at all; rather they were concerned with the fact and the importance of prayer and sacrament. It was only in the next generation that now-familiar patterns of ornaments and ceremonies became a major focus of interest. Anglicans of Catholic mind came quickly to believe that the sacraments whose significance they had come to appreciate in more profound ways required an embodied piety of which our now-familiar vestments and rituals are the outward expression.

The beauty of this vehicle has always been a great strength of the catholic movement, but has always also risked being a distraction or an idol; it is common, inside Anglo-Catholicism as well as out of it, now to find ceremonial the most distinctive thing about us. This is a deep and dangerous misconception, and one that extends into different forms of Anglicanism influenced by the beauty and order of this liturgy but less clearly aware of its real roots; this can be a case of, in T. S. Eliot’s terms, doing “the right thing for the wrong reason”.

Anglicans may indeed be people who do things “decently and in order”, well and good; but this is our cultural heritage, not our theological foundation. Anglicanism does not mean formality in liturgy; Anglo-Catholicism does not mean the use of Fortescue’s Ritual Notes. We enact what we think of as characteristic catholic ritual at the Eucharist, not because of its agreeable aesthetics but because of the remarkable sacrament; not because of the tradition, but because of the Gospel.

What then does the Eucharist mean for us? Three things are worth remembering, at least:

First, the Eucharist is the sacrament of Christ’s saving death and resurrection, in which we encounter him truly and personally. Our individual participation in it is a unique means of grace, through which God feeds and leads us to the fullness of the new life we have been born into through baptism. Hence the great Catholic tradition of prayer and devotion, the offer to the Church and world of a deeper spiritual life. In the Eucharist, Christ calls us to receive and worship him.

Second, the Eucharist is the reminder and enabler of our together being members of the mystical body that Christ has constituted through his life, death and resurrection; we are united in the Eucharist not only with him but with one another in this body the Church, curious as it may be in history, glorious as it is known to God and will be revealed in God’s good time. Hence the great Catholic tradition of building up not merely individual converts but a great pilgrim people, united in worship and mission. In the Eucharist Christ calls us to be his body.

Third and not least, the Eucharist proclaims a wider reality about God’s love for and presence in the world; the God once incarnate in Galilee can be present here with us in bread and wine, but is also present still in that world God loves so much. Hence the great tradition of heroic social service and advocacy that was so famously encapsulated in Bishop Frank Weston’s manifesto at the 1923 Anglo-Catholic congress: "You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.” In the Eucharist Christ calls us to serve him in the world.

Catholic Anglicanism stands ultimately on these affirmations, not on ceremony. Our future as a means of God’s action in the world depends on our willingness to receive Christ in the Eucharist, for ourselves, for each other, and for the world. However well or badly we worship in ritual terms, we affirm with gratitude that in the Eucharist as otherwise it is God who has acted, God who has spoken, God who has given; for this we humbly give thanks, worshipping the Word made flesh who still comes among us as bread and wine, transforming us for his work in the world.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary"

[From a sermon preached at Evensong at St Paul's Cathedral Melbourne on Sunday May 18 2014, in a series on the Apostles' Creed]

In this brief pair of phrases from the Apostle’s Creed we find expressed in a pithy narrative form the Christian answer to the question “who is Jesus?"

The answer can also be called the doctrine of the incarnation. Historically, we profess that this conception and this birth happened; theologically, we have said rather more in the process of reciting the Creed - namely that Jesus is truly divine and truly human.

The Christian affirmation that Jesus is divine and human is the most distinctive thing the Church has to say about God, humankind and the world.

Some people digging down into this affirmation may however find it problematic; it may seem to be not merely unlikely but contradictory to say that a person is at the same time the transcendent reality on which the world depends for its existence and the particular historical figure constrained by time and space, human nature and culture. Is this more meaningful than saying that God can make a square circle or a breakfast so large he cannot eat it? But the Christian affirmation about Jesus’ identity does not begin with our preconceptions about divinity and humanity; rather we allow both these to be redefined by what we learn from him about them.

Perhaps it’s true of most of us that we at least begin with one aspect or the other, the divine or human, when it comes to Jesus.

There are certainly those more comfortable sticking with Jesus’ humanity - “born of the Virgin Mary” - than with his divinity. For some, Jesus is thus primarily a good example of being human, a moral teacher or example. I confess that this approach I have never found particularly convincing, in that Jesus’ teaching and example - taken in isolation at least - are at best confronting and at worst a counsel of despair. But few who claim him in these terms really pay attention to the radical nature of his proclamation about love; instead they turn it into something like a version of the “golden rule”, and depict him as a kind and wise self-help guru.

Yes, Jesus does say “do unto others”, but describes this as the essence not of his own teaching but of the law and the prophets (Matt 7:12). Jesus of course affirms this too but says, more confrontingly, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Luke 6:27). He also says “think not that I have come to bring peace on earth, but a sword” (Matt 10:34), and “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt” (Luke 6:29), and - last for now, but not least, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).

Jesus’ teaching about love in other words is not a self-contained moral prescription for the good life; it is a radical set of claims that cannot be understood independently of him and his fate. As Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it regarding what Jesus’ life teaches, “if you don’t love, you’re dead; and if you do, they’ll kill you”. If Jesus’ teaching were translated to the shelves of inspirational book-sellers, we’d be reading “Chicken Soup for the Crucified” and “The Seven Habits of Highly Offensive People”.

Little wonder then that even the faithful tend to flick past Jesus’ own teaching and its unsettling elements, and sink more comfortably into the relative comfort of later Christian reflections about how to exist in a stable and sustainable way. The man Jesus is, taken in isolation, a tragic figure.

So on the other hand, and perhaps more commonly among Christians, Jesus’ divinity - “conceived by the Holy Spirit” - may be assumed as the starting point. This may sound more orthodox, superficially at least, but it is not necessarily so.

Too often Christians may adopt a sort of space-suit theology; God we imagine appeared in human form, but for the purposes of effective communication, as a marketing strategy of sorts. This quasi-human God can be very attractive; he seems to be a great ally, and can help us order neat prosperous lives. But this is not really Jesus either.

What the creed affirms is that God not only appeared human or took on a body, but that God “born of the Virgin Mary” entered into the whole reality of human experience, including finitude and mortality. While the Gospels present Jesus as embodying the kingdom of God in ways that exceed human capacity and expectation, they also present him to us as limited in knowledge, capable of feeling grief and despair, and of course ultimately constrained as we are by his mortality; for nativity must always foreshadow mortality too.

I suggested earlier that to affirm Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” was to confess the doctrine of the Incarnation, but not merely to combine our preconceptions about divinity and humanity. We can begin, then, with Jesus' humanity or divinity as we attempt to understand his significance for us; but we cannot remain where we began, wherever that may have been.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit”.

So it is above all with him, conceived of the Spirit and born of the Virgin. We believe that as the human being uniquely conceived by that restless creative Spirit and who thus shows us what God is really like in the world, Jesus does not fulfil our preconceived notions of what our human lives are for, or of who God is, but offers new, disturbing and glorious glimpses of real human life and of true divine service. We believe that meeting him, truly God and truly human, we find that the humanity we share with him and Mary is changed; and that the divinity we encounter is more remarkable, more awe-inspiring, and more loving than we had ever imagined.