Sunday, September 23, 2012

God is not mawkish

Continuing in the series on the Creed, we encounter a set of statements about God, offered in apposition, as an indirect description of who we might be talking about.
the Father

Father is, of course, metaphorical. It reflects a hierarchy taken from patriarchal societies, including the way ours has been traditionally. In a society with a different understanding of sex and power, it could be Mother, it could be Parent. In context, it says at least two things to us.

First, that we have an inborn relationship with the One in authority.

Second, in the late Greco-Roman world, this someone in authority is a father, meaning nothing remotely close to a post-1990 nurturing New Age father. The ancient father was a man who had power of life and death over, and legally owned, every creature and person in his household.

God as father is a paradox, then, intimate in relationship, distant and awe-inspiring socially.

the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,

It took until the middle ages before philosophers came up with a comfortable word to refer to the characteristics of God affirmed in the context of faith: attributes. No one has dissected God in biology class and described the divine entrails. Most of us have never seen God with our eyes. At best, we attribute traits or behavior to God, from what we can discern about divine deeds.

Almighty is an attribute referring to the idea that God must be the ultimate in every respect, or else whatever is the ultimate is God instead. In a patriarchal imperial society the almighty was the emperor. The Creed says, no, it is God.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed has "maker" whereas the Apostles creed has "creator." The difference reflects a more close harmony with the biblical text, which suggests that God was working with something (a formless or void or trackless waste). Only the deuterocanonical Maccabees 7:28 says "from nothing."

Indeed, as an editor I usually cross out create, used to mean establish, set up, generate. Sorry, Republicans, there are no job creators among us, only job generators.

of all that is, seen and unseen

Yet, make no mistake about it, the council fathers added "all" to make sure no one misunderstands. The maker of all is, in effect, a creator. Indeed, causa causarum (cause of all causes) is the best-known phrase affirming a single deity and it is the one that even the big bang theory does not undo. Whatever matter banged did not preexist God, per the Creed.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

We believe in one God

In my absence from blogging I have been carrying on a discussion about the Nicene (or Nicene-Constantinopolitan, if you insist) Creed. It is so widely normative in Christianity (accepted by Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans and Orthodox) that it's a good kernel from which to think through basic teaching.

Thus, I am resuming this blog with a series of posts on the Creed, which I used as the basis of the confirmation classes I taught years ago.

I always began those classes with the question "Anybody here believe in God?" The pre-adolescents would dutifully all raise their hands. Then I would ask, "Why?" Their look of surprise would confirm that no one had ever asked them to consider that. Yet how could they be expected to confirm their baptism without turning the question in their minds at least once?

Let's begin, then, without further ado.


The creed starts with belief as a community, rather than as individuals. This is suggestive of the historical Christian perspective on humanity as a community created by God who is also community.


The creed states what the community believes. It is not a statement of fact or knowledge.

The ancients who composed the creed were philosophically minded, unlike the apostles themselves. They were responding to particular challenges the apostles had never completely addressed.

They did so in a manner known as the via negativa, or path of negation. They took what the apostles had taught, particularly in the books of the New Testament, about which there already was a consensus concerning its canon, or list of accepted books.

They did not feel authorized to add to what Jesus and the apostles had taught. But there was a religious, social and even political urgency to respond to various notions that were circulating. These questions had not been directly addressed by Jesus or the apostles.

Some said Jesus was a god who pretended to be human; others said he was human and was made divine in a way we all could be. If Jesus was God, what about the things God had done before Jesus was born? And so on and so forth.

These are not our questions, but they were those that arose in the third century as the Christian faith could be legally proclaimed and discussed in the open, without fear, for the first time.

So they examined what could not be said if one accepted apostolic teaching, and proceeded from there, before articulating the little that human beings who believed could say about such things.

Belief is the conclusion of an act of assent.

For about a millennium in Europe, assenting to the statements of the Creed was assumed or deemed the conventional thing to do, in some cases the legally required thing to do. Thus, many in Europe conformed to the social custom of expressing belief without genuinely assenting to the propositions of the Creed. This was not, and is not, faith.

Real faith is when we truly and without compulsion receive the witness of faith, or experience a revelation, or somehow reason our way to certain propositions, then make the willful decision to say, "yes, I believe this."

in one God

Monotheism is the cornerstone of the three Semitic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The belief involves an insistence on a collective experience of communication with one deity, the only real deity.

Karl Rahner speculated that if all belief were to be forgotten and lost, there would still be a need for a universal reference point, which would be a version of the God of Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed. A faint version, to be sure, one without legend or mythology, ritual or theocratic movements.

God as a universal reference is a concept. Everything hinges or depends upon or somehow starts with this one reference point, God.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Jesus refused the crown

The striking line in last Sunday's reading is: When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

To anyone exposed to Christus Vincit, the subtly monarchist, right-wing hymn adored by those who adore Papa Nazinger, the verse is rebuke enough.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Blessed are the lesbians and gays

This is what Jesus might have said if he had been in the 21st century, not that it changes much. At least, this is as far as I can take last Sunday's readings. This set of Sunday readings took me time to digest.

The two Old Testament readings provided by the common lectionary that until recently covered all major denominations are both gamechangers on their own:
  • 2 Samuel 7:1-14a suggests the notion that God will build David a house, rather than the other way around. See how this upends the human perspective on worship and doing things for God?
  • Jeremiah 23:1-6 is, appropriately, a jeremiad against all in authority or trust ("the shepherds who shepherd my people") for destroying and scattering God's people. Would that every church read that and took it to heart!
The reading from the epistles, Ephesians 2:11-22, echoes the message I think is best said in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." I have been moved by this, but in thinking about this post dismissed it as too obvious, too uncontroversial in this day and age.

Instead, I was going to write a post I was tentatively calling "Slow down, you move too fast," borrowed from the 1966 Simon & Garfunkel song "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)." It was in a commercial just a few years ago:
Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feeling groovy
Paul Simon never explained to me what he had originally in mind, but I first heard the words as satire, a dismissal of the "hippie" and "movement" fashion.

Taking the song at face value, it might echo the sentiment of the gospel reading, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, especially Jesus' request that his disciples "Come away ... and rest a while." The text helpfully adds the explanation, "For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat."

The gospel story has Jesus himself going off into the desert for 40 days and nights, giving rise later to an entire monastic tradition. The Jesuits still have a tradition of calling their members to 30-day silent retreats.

Certainly, summer days would be the appropriate time for this message. Go off and rethink things, re-create yourself. Still, not enough.

So I waited in my imaginary desert, looking for inspiration until from the pulpit I heard a reference to the Episcopal Church's General Convention decision, on July 10 to "bless" same-sex couples. Now, the word "blessing" is an Anglican ambiguity straight from central casting, even though proponents made clear that the policy is not meant to set up an equivalent to matrimony, whom some regard as a holy sacrament, even within the Anglican communion.

The preacher pointed to the Pauline universalism in Ephesians as an example of how differently from us God sees the world. The sermon isn't posted as I write, but if and when it is, it will be posted here. In brief: We see races and nationalities and sexes and sexual preferences; God sees "my children" or as Jeremiah put it, "my people."

That may be a seemingly necessary message for the First World, to which the quintessential moral issues raised by Christianity all have to do with the kinds of sex of which others partake. If we go by the gospels, however, Jesus had exceedingly little to say on the subject in general, nothing concerning homosexuality.

But Jesus did speak about the human order. When he pointed out whom God blesses, he didn't start with the most privileged of his time, the emperor and senators of Rome; nor those most wise and devout, the rabbis and priests.
In classic gospel fashion, Jesus up-ended the human scale of values and started with the poor. In his discourses he went on at length about injustice and about the woes heaped upon the rich. In a society in which legal theft goes unchallenged, that is a much more needed message.

"Blessed be the gays and lesbians" is just a first step to realizing that our human order needs to be set on its head, or scrambled, before we can begin to see how God sees.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Every act has a discernible consequence

The consequences of our actions can be foreseen in the divine order and we are offered help to discern them. This is the theme I see running through all three of today’s readings (go here for the passages).

In Amos and Mark we see monarchs at odds with prophets, full of suspicion.

Jeroboam, king of Israel, the northern political splinter resulting from quarrels between David and Solomon’s heirs, has set up the cult of a Golden Calf (hmm ... where have we heard of this before?) to mesmerize ten tribes of the Hebrews into following him.

Fast-forward some seven centuries or so to the time Jesus, who has begun to gain a reputation for casting out demons and healing. Herod Antipas, king of Galilee, the northern part of what was once Jeroboam’s domain, is reminded by the wonder worker of someone: indeed, the man’s cousin John, prophet and cleanser of sins by ritual baptism.

As Amos warned Jeroboam of a bad end (idolatrous Israel weakens and the people are taken captive to Babylon), John had once warned the king about Herodias, his brother’s wife. Now Herod sees in Jesus the spectre of John. Like Hamlet, he knows something is rotten in the kingdom.

Act and consequence. Only Amos and John, called out to tell how God sees things, read the signs of the times as God decoded them.

Unaided and on our own, we are all like Jeroboam and Herod. As Jeroboam, we are lured to worship false idols: the almighty dollar, power, sex and so many other things we pursue with zeal, into captivity. I empathize with Herod: I know the lure of adultery and the manipulation with which a young woman can flatter an older man to promise her anything, even the head of a prophet.

That is why Jesus appears to Herod, and to us, as an accusing spectre, the upright man whose holiness lays bare our concupiscence, that is, our ardent desires for sex, power and the money that can buy them.

It is only after conversion, as Paul writes in Ephesians to those who have accepted the grace of Jesus Christ, that we become adoptive children of God, “marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” able to rise to apply the divine view of our times, just like the prophets.

It doesn’t matter that, like Amos, we are just herders and dressers of sycamores. We are forgiven, redeemed, endowed with an inheritance to “live for the praise of his glory.”

All this is just how things are. It isn’t God being a spoilsport. What our actions will lead to becomes obvious from the point of view of someone who hears and sees from God’s point of view.

Today’s Readings: Amos 7:7-15, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A prophet is never honored in his country and among kin

Without my planning it, the first post in this new blog on Sunday readings turns out to be on a subject that is dear to my heart. “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” Jesus says in the key phrase of today’s gospel reading, Mark 6:1-6.

The Galilean woodworker has come to Nazareth is given to read from the scrolls and speak at the synagogue. Oddly enough, given Jesus’ conclusion, this is quite an honor; it’s not a role bestowed on just anyone who walks into a synagogue on the Sabbath.

So, yes, he was honored by his countrymen and kin. He just wasn’t paid heed. The hearers choose any old excuse (he is the young man we all saw grow up, seems to be the gist of it) to discount and disbelieve words of “wisdom” by their own admission.

There’s a game going on here. I have encountered it.

Kinfolk and their friends in a far away land disbelieved nearly everything I told them about the United States. Instead they told me: Americans eat everything in tins; they all drive Cadillacs. Conversely, in the United States, people heard a foreign accent I don’t have or guessed I was a seductive tango dancer merely because I have an unusual name and my parents came from the land of tango.

Like the people of Nazareth, kinfolk and fellow citizens choose absurd excuses to dismiss anything I say, even if I happen to have personal experience or book knowledge that might contain a useful insight here or there. Nothing like what came out of the mouth of Jesus, but something worth considering.

There’s an assumption that we can judge a book by its cover, even if our eyesight is a bit off. No one in a club we’re likely to be admitted would know anything worthwhile. So we miss countless chances for insight and discovery.