Monday, 31 December 2012

Ironies of the Nativity in Matthew 2 A Carol Service with a difference!


A guest post by my brother, Richard Matcham, who pastors a church in Torquay, based upon a recent carol service. 
2:1 “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…”
Bethlehem. The ancestral birth place of the great King David, through whose line the promised Messiah would come. So Jesus was born of a royal human line in fulfillment of Scripture and the hope of the word. Born in a place which means “House of Bread” – a clue to His own identity as the Bread of Heaven, the bread which fed the Israelites in their wandering wilderness, and ultimately, his claim to be the Bread of Life. “No one lives by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus is the Word of God that comes from the mouth of God. It is on Him we feed and find true sustenance. And it is through the archetypal King David that the True King comes – Jesus!
2:1 “…in the days of Herod the King…”
In the days of one king, is born another. In the days of a false king, an example of human pomp and arrogance, is born the true King, in humility and weakness. A King born into this world, whose kingdom is not of this world. A heavenly fulfillment of an earthly promise: He shall reign forever, King of Kings and Lord of lords.
2:2 “…wise men came saying, ‘Where is he who is born King of the Jews? We have come to worship him.’”
Wise men sought Jesus. Wise men still do. Wise men seeking a king, the King, but no ordinary King. This is wise men seeking the wisdom of God. And this wisdom is foolishness to men, but still it is wiser than our wisest. So there they kneel; there they bow; wise men with their gifts to the child, when it was the child who made the universe, such is God’s wisdom.
2:3 “…Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes and they told him that the prophet had said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem…”
The scribes and chief priests had searched and known the Scriptures. Jesus would say years later to this group, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; but it is they that testify about me.” The chief priests had missed the testimony of the Great High Priest among them, one like Moses who would save his people.
2:9 “The star they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over where the child was.”
Jesus said, “I am the root and offspring of David, and the bright morning star.” Jesus is the Light of the world by which all people are called. He is the one who holds the seven stars of God in his right hand. The number 7 for perfection and the right hand for strength. Jesus is the perfect Son of God who saves and delivers. He is the light of the world, for all people.
2:15 “…they remained in Egypt until Herod’s death, to fulfill what the prophet had said, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
Just as Jacob’s family went to Egypt to escape a famine and were protected in Egypt, so Jesus escapes to Egypt and is protected. Just as Moses led the Israelite slaves from Egypt, so Jesus is called out of Egypt. Just as the Gospel of Christ is Good News for the whole world, so Jesus goes to Egypt to embody the hidden purposes of God for the salvation of the world. In Christ there is no longer male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, but all are one in Christ.
2:16 “Herod became furious and sent and killed all the boys two years and under in Bethlehem.” 
At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. The innocent for the guilty. The just for the unjust. He was oppressed and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth. Like a Lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep before his sheerers he did not open his mouth. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace. God and sinners reconciled.
Thus just as Pharaoh had the Israelite children killed, so Herod. Just as Moses led the children of Israel to freedom in the Exodus, so Jesus leads the Second Exodus. Just as God defeated Egyptian gods with displays of power, so Jesus defeats sin, death and the devil with a display of weakness. And God said to Moses, “I will raise up a Prophet like you from among My people.” And later to Isaiah, “You shall call his Name Immanuel, for He shall save his people from their sins.” Herod displays the heart of human sinfulness – murderous hatred for the things of God. Jesus died for Herod, and me and you.

2:23 “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth.”
But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish. He has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.
Can anything good come from Nazareth?
No one is good but God alone!
I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Light of the World. I am the Bread of life. I am the Truth.
So can anything good come from Nazareth? Perhaps in Jesus’ day this was the greatest miracle of them all. No one is Good but God alone. If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father. Yes! Something Good did come from Nazareth. The Good God sent his Son the Good Shepherd to save sinners like Herod, you, me, for something glorious and good.

Arise shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

Gregory of Nyssa, Immanuel Kant, the Aesthetic, and the Infinity of God

Gregory speaks of spiritual progress principally in terms of virtue, but by this he means more than either the prudent restraint of sinful nature or the active pursuit of morality; for goodness has no being outside the plenitude of God's goodness.  Whereas the perfection of things sensible, says Gregory, lies in their limitations, the perfection of virtue is in its very limitlessness: this because it is the presence of the infinite God; and every excellence within the soul is nothing less than a participation in God's fullness - again, not as a fixed property or substance, and not according to the soul's own capacity, but only through its ecstasy.  Still, when Gregory speaks of a "growth" in glory, he really means a transformation of the soul into something other.  "In all the endless ages, the one running to you becomes greater, more exalted, ever growing in proportion to his ascent through the good."  Gregory likens the soul partaking of divine blessings to a vessel endlessly expanding as it receives what flows into it inexhaustibly; participation in the good, he says, makes the participant ever more capacious and receptive of beauty...    

David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 196

Gregory of Nyssa

While I would be very wary of linking up the thought of Gregory of Nyssa with that of Kant, there seems to me to be a distinct connection between the former's thought on the infinity of God and the infinity of the aesthetic in the latter.  Indeed, had Kant sought to locate God within the domain of the aesthetic rather than within the domain of pure and practical reason there is every reason to suppose that the Kantian God would have appeared less as a monstrously sublime ethical demon and more like the Christian God.  That said, the point I want to make here in relation to David Bentley Hart's piece above is that thought through Kant's aesthetic theory God could be likened to a perfect work of art.  That is, within Kant's aesthetic theory you can say that a bad work of art is one that gives itself wholly over to the viewer without any effort on their part.  A good work of art will cast a multitude of meanings over a wide area, some reasonable, some less so.  The (Kantian) imagination delights in bringing together as many meanings as possible in "working out" what a work of art means - the more the better.  This bringing-together capacity isn't endless, though, and if any possible meaning(s) become untenable for the imagination to synthesize, the work either fails as art or passes into the sublime.  Whatever else it may be, at this point it isn't beautiful.  The best work of art, for Kant, would be one which both casts a multitude of meanings, but also one in which those possible meanings themselves are open to an infinite regress of depth.  That is, to use a cliched example, the smile of the Mona Lisa opens itself out to a multitude of interpretations, but always it is the smile itself that captivates and fascinates.  One is drawn into the depths of that smile, not just in terms of what it means, but in terms of the infinite play of the fact of a smile that can never be fully known.  That the same smile can both cast a variety of plausible meanings and at the same time remain forever elusive lies at the heart of the aesthetic appeal of the Mona Lisa.  To actually know why she is smiling would reduce the work to the level of kitsch.


God as infinite love is more or less the same.  The description of Gregory's thought above likens the soul's ascent to God as ever-widening to receive the infinite plenitude of God.  This plenitude is not an infinite variety of possible meanings or aspects of God, but a constantly deepening infinity of the knowledge that God is love ('all the way down' to quote Rowan Williams) in which the soul expands it's capacity to know that love.  Like the most perfect work of art, there is nothing behind God that hasn't been revealed which will surprise us in the sense of an infinite progression of new things to discover.  What salvation means (one meaning, at least) is that our capacity to understand the love of God will increase exponentially in an endless ecstasy of understanding - we will never get to the bottom of what God's love means, even though there will never be anything new or deeper to discover about God.  


With this in mind, I wonder if a reappraisal of Kant's aesthetic thought in the light of Gregory's ought to be looked into, not to reclaim Kant for theology, but at least to correct a very destructive tendency within both Kantian and Enlightenment thought regarding God, immortality and freedom.  By locating God within the infinity of reason rather than the infinity of the aesthetic, Kant more or less led both God and art to their doom within philosophy: God becomes a moral monster, while art is torn from any relation to truth and goodness.   


Monday, 24 December 2012

More on the Pot of Nard

Mark 14: 3-10


While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. 
Jesus in revolutionary mood
This story has intrigued me since I first read it years ago.  A couple of things: firstly, her action with the nard was outrageously extravagant to the point of being offensive.  A tiny amount would have produced a very nice effect at more than half the cost.  Secondly, Jesus seems to become suddenly blase about the poor.  His words are suggestive of an ideological stance that willy-nilly accepts the socio-political and economic constructs that support mass poverty.  Thirdly, why should this story, above all stories, be one that is remembered in connection with the spread of the gospel?  That is, there is very little to be found in the story of forgiveness, or of helping one's neighbour, or speaking in tongues, etc.  Fourthly, the comments of those present (whom John informs us were led by Judas Iscariot) actually make good common sense.  Jesus didn't need a years wages worth of perfume poured on his head, and the money raised could have helped a lot of people.   

I think that the reason why this story is so closely associated by Jesus with the spread of the gospel is that it exposes us very strikingly to the way in which the gospel is offensive to both common sense and conventional morality.  Mary's act of generosity flies in the face of even the most generous human action through being so excessively wasteful; it's the gift that gives over and above any conception of need.  As perfume it is wholly a non-essential luxury product, and as a consumer product it is worth a fortune.  Lavishing such a non-essential, expensive good even on Jesus exposes the cramped meanness at the heart of much that passes for generosity in human terms.  I'm not just referring to a few quid in the collection plate, or tithing, or whatever.  Mary's act must have come from the Holy Spirit himself, poured out in her heart.  It was a supernatural, superabundant act of which she would have been incapable, no matter how much she loved Jesus from her natural self.  That is precisely why it is a GOSPEL act; it does not represent how much she loved him, or how generous she was, etc; but rather it represents Mary being caught up in the love of the Father for the Son through the Holy Spirit.  The gospel is the invitation to become a participant in this extravagant movement of love.  A little sprinkling of oil would never do.  Not least, more evidence that Mary was acting under the Holy Spirit's guidance is that her action was likewise prophetic of Christ's impending death and burial.  That her action should be prophetic of the cross, Christocentric, and offensive to good manners/sense to boot means that what she did was done from within the very heartbeat of the gospel.

Incidentally, while the last verse makes Judas specifically look bad, it also casts judgement on the kind of human-inspired generosity that purely human love and understanding veer towards.   

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Tree planted by God and the Tree planted by Men

My brother recently asked me to read this post by Joe Hayward at Evangelist Changing on the penal substitution debate.  Needless to say, I haven't read it just yet (deadlines, deadlines, and more deadlines...), but it got me thinking of what it is I actually believe was effected at the cross - was it a simple legal transfer of God's righteousness onto humanity, or is there something more?

A few thoughts came to me as I wandered here and there upon the earth...

Firstly, the doctrine of penal substitution certainly hits the mark with regards to the efficacy of our standing before God.  That is, 'God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.'  This much is fairly clear to me.  



Secondly, however, to stay at this level of a legal transfer of sin and righteousness seems to miss the mark of what actually occurred at Golgotha.  On the cross the glory of God is revealed through the obedient death of the Son.  This brings up two questions: what is God's glory, and how is it revealed on the cross?  The first can be answered by saying that God's glory is his substance, his innermost being.  This can be further understood with reference to Hebrews 1:3, that 'the Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being...'  The pattern of God's glory is fundamentally one of Trinitarian kenosis.  That is, that in pouring himself out in his entirety to the Son, the Father's glory is revealed in the Son, who reflects back that glory to the Father.  The glory of God is his kenotic, self-emptying love, which spreads ever outward through the Holy Spirit, who breaks up any possibility of God being simply a dialectic of self-contained love between Father and Son, like a kind of mutual admiration society.  For the second question, one can say that on the cross, through his (relatively) unwilling obedience to the Father's will, Christ enacts this same kenosis of self-emptying by dying a horrifyingly lingering death.  In this, the glory of God (his kenotic substance of mutual, out-going love) his revealed.  See: Isaiah 40:5.

What does this mean then?  It means that along with penal substitution, on the tree planted by men Christ reverses the original sin of Adam's disobedience on the tree planted by God.  The tree planted by God was desirable (to look at, to eat, and to make one wise), whereas the tree planted by men, as an expression of man's wickedness, is wholly undesirable.  By submitting himself to total self-emptying without remainder on the tree planted by men, Christ reinstates humanity's position before God, recreates the species in the image of God, and pays the penalty for our original sin.  The concept of penal substitution, then, can be upheld, but with the proviso that it doesn't go far enough.  The cross is not simply a legal transfer of righteousness, but a reversal of humanity's fallen state of disobedience through obedience.


Anyway, must go and read that blog post...:)   

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Mike Reeves on Youtube

Mike Reeves has three excellent youtube sermons in which much of his output to date is massively condensed into short video presentations.  For some reason the Youtube account is only open if someone has the exact link, which I got from somewhere - probably from Glen at Christ the Truth.


Friday, 27 July 2012

I'm Going to be a Daddy!

Only five more days before the wife and I meet the little two year boy we've been lucky enough to be matched for adoption with.  Our whole lives are going to change, but - importantly - I'm going to be a daddy, and Carolyn is going to be a mummy!  

We're so excited!!  

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Blade that Cuts also Heals


Excerpt from Mike Higton's Difficult Gospel: the theology of Rowan Williams
We are all of us precarious creatures.  We live in environments we cannot control, and are hedged about by limits we cannot overcome.  We face frustrations, we face competition for scarce resources, and we are jostled in a confined space by the egos of others.  There is only limited difference that we can make, and we have only a limited control over even that difference; our actions are inevitably shaped by what others have done to us, and they mix uncontrollably with the actions of others and the unpredictable resistances of our environment, and they escape us.

Our unavoidable dependence on and involvement with others is distorted by their selfishness, and the inevitable dependence of others on us and their involvement with us is distorted by ours.  And in the midst of all this, we constantly invent ways of pretending that all of this is not true, or of refusing the responsibility with which it leaves us.  We inherit and invent endless ways to deny our finitude.  We ruffle our feathers to make ourselves big enough to scare the world; or we try to move the world to pity us.  We try to force the world to feel its moral obligation towards us, or we try to make ourselves so small the world will not notice us.
We pretend that we can shape the world to our will, or we despair and assume that we make no difference at all, and that we are therefore not responsible.  We are finite, we are mortal, we are weak - and in the absence of any sure foundation, these truths are too bitter for us, and we hide them behind layers and layers of fantasy and illusion.
We try to persuade ourselves that there is some territory in the world, or some core to our selves, in which we alone are in control, in which we alone get to define what is valuable.  We scratch away at the world to produce some space in it that is definitively ours, that we can defend against all comers - knowing that, deliberately or inadvertently, imperceptibly or violently, others would colonize it if they could.
'The Gospel', says [Rowan] Williams, 'frees us from fear and fantasy...it is the great enemy of self-indulgent fantasy.'  The Gospel is the message that we are held in a loving regard which we cannot coerce or fight off, and which has no shadow of selfishness about it - no shadow of our being so-opted into someone else's strategies, somebody else's fantasy.  And so it is the message that we are set free to see and accept our finitude, our limitation, our mortality, and to surrender that limited, mortality to the love which upholds us. 
pp. 17, 18
SCM Press
London
2004

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Creationism vs Evolution

(I wrote these comments in the comment section of an article about Michael Gove in the Guardian: here)

The debate about creationism vs science is a very bizarre one because it seems to me to be a red herring. This is shown when you try and answer the question as to why it matters in any real sense if one person or a whole group of people believe that God made the world in 6 days a few thousand years ago, or if our evolution from lower life forms took millions of years. In terms of most of our relationships, our ability to make good choices, our careers, and so on it makes no difference at all. Why then is there all this fuss?


It is because such belief is, either way, indicative of a general stance towards things that effect us in the here and now. This is the point of contention. Creationist beliefs suggest and support (in a very poor way, granted) the view that our human dignity and fundamental equality is something inalienable and given by divine fiat. Evolutionary beliefs stand in, not for evolution in particular, but for the whole panoply of scientific achievement, which the opposing view appears to challenge. It is only from this perspective that the hot air generated by a debate about origins makes any contemporary sense to me. They are arguments about and for different things.

In both cases, evolution and creationism stand in for what they are not, which is general arguments about separate issues (our preciousness and equality versus our hard won achievements as a species), and as such ought not be opposed to one another since they both speak of different things. Moreover, proponents of evolution misunderstand that creationists are responding to the logical conclusion towards which a purely evolutionary account tends (that humans are fundamentally unequal); whereas creationists misunderstand that one does not need to oppose evolutionary science to uphold the idea that God made and loves us. The fact that virtually non one intellectually assented to the idea that Genesis 1-3 was historically/scientifically "true" before the rise of science in the 17th Century, to which creationism itself rose in misguided response, suggests that this debate lacks any self-awareness.

It is a pointless debate.

It's not even a debate....

Monday, 16 July 2012

Matcham @ the BBC

My brother, the minister from Devon, was on the BBC (again!) just last week on the Sunday Service program.  As of today there is only 5 days left to listen.  In between worship songs, he spoke about his recent study of Amos, forgiveness, and the plight of the Palestinians.  Personally, I thought that the show ought to have ended with 'There is a Tavern in the Town' as a nice contrast, but his singing voice wasn't quite up to it.  



The recording can be found here.


Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Risky Leap of Faith into the Unknown



One of the common arguments wheeled out against religious belief by those of the scientific positivist mould is that religious belief is opposed to scientific evidence, that, indeed, “faith” is an essentially anti-rational adherence to that which is believed in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.  I don’t want to tread old ground here and wade in with my own arguments against this or that, or for this, or for the other.  Rather, what I find interesting here is not the argument but the way in which faith as a way of knowing, as a way of being even, is much misused by its rationalist critics.  That is, obviously if one wants to reduce faith to the simple capacity to cling to certain ideas or propositions in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence, then “faith” so understood is highly questionable.  But is this equivalent to that which is being proposed by those who place life-giving value on the fact of their faith?  Also, is “evidence” the only way, or even the best way through which we can come to know something?

Flying Spaghetti Monster
I want to suggest that, in essence scientific positivists are not opposed so much to the form of faith-based knowing so much as they are opposed to the uncertain nature of what threatens to break through from such an epistemological position: fairies, ghosts, flying spaghetti monsters, etc.  This is hardly an unreasonable position to have; (though I personally have my doubts that superstitious belief isn’t actually “evidence-based” in one form or another).  Likewise, faith-based “knowers” are not opposed to the call for evidence from scientific positivists, it is just that they are conscious that to know something through an essential leap of faith in which neither the form of knowing, nor the object of such knowing is certain is not one which can be upheld if the guarantees of evidence are also sought to bolster one’s knowledge.  That is, to know an object as an object of faith is implicitly not to base such knowledge on that which can be objectively verified.  This does not exclude such objective knowing, it simply is not central to it. 

There are two forms of knowledge at work here, and two ways in which knowledge is known by the knower.  The problem is that both are making truth-claims, but truth-claims of radically different orders of knowledge; and this to such an extent that the claims of the other are not recognised as legitimate, because outside of their respective realms they are not legitimate.  So, to know something through a long established peer-review process of evidence gathering and scholarly research is qualitatively different than it is to know something through a leap of faith.  The key difference resides in the extent to which knowledge requires the stamp of evidence as a guarantee, and the degree to which one is personally involved in the given knowledge-based position; the greater the personal involvement/risk in a given knowledge position, the greater the chance will be that such knowledge will not (and cannot) be evidence based: to believe in Atlantis is not the same as to believe in the faithfulness of one’s wife.  The one involves the knower at a great personal distance, whereas the other involves the knower at the most intimate level of his being.  To base one’s knowledge of a wife’s faithfulness on objective grounds is to remove the personal from that which is explicitly personal, rendering such knowledge safe for the knower.  To believe in Atlantis objectively or otherwise is to indulge in essentially safe speculation the truth of which effects the knower not one jot.  On this level to believe in Atlantis or String Theory is equivalent in terms of existential involvement: one is true, the other not, but neither require the knower to place his or her subjectivity on the line because neither make any personal demands on the knower.

Atlantis 
So, what is happening in this leap of faith, and why is it a valid form of knowledge?  Essentially, the leap of faith is literally a leap into the darkness of not-knowing, in which one does not trust to one’s cognitive capacity or ability to master an object of knowledge.  Indeed, the object of knowledge may not even exist, at least, not in a form recognisable to the potential knower.  The leap of faith is the openness to the possibility that the leap of faith may actually fail or prove otherwise false; as such it is an inherently risky business.  Insofar as faith leads to a form of certainty it is a constitutionally unstable certainty because the knower cannot refer back to any evidence as a form of guarantee.  This does not invalidate the certainty, it merely means that it cannot take the form of a guaranteed certainty, for which one has one’s scholarly, peer-reviewed existential receipt.  

Faith, then, is not so much constituted by the content of the knowledge which results from it, but rather by the readiness of the faith-full one to not master in advance that which appears as an object of knowledge – or even the appearance of an object of knowledge at all.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the relational format of subjective knower over and above the objective known is deconstructed.  In faith one has to risk the possibility that one’s usual stance as a subject opposite an object of knowledge is itself unstable; that one does not so much know as much as one is known. 

Faith cannot be constituted as a blank cheque to believe anything one likes.  To be sure, faith is always orientated towards the object of faith: it is never blind, but sees its object through eyes of faith.  It is always a faith-in-something.  In its approach to the object faith seeks a form of engagement, of knowing and of being known, that does not demand a receipt in exchange for its trust.  In this it could be severely mistaken; the object of its faith may be non-existent, malignant, or even unknowable.  This cannot be known in advance according to the logic of faith.  Of course, it could be argued that such form of knowing is not worth the risk; except that, if one waits for evidence to give a cast-iron guarantee to your faith then you can be sure that what is known through evidence is not the same as that which can only be known through the open riskiness of faith.  This is because the certain knowing that comes from prior evidence (scientific knowing) is not the same as the knowing that comes from eschewing evidence as a form of guaranteed security.  To know without the possibility of doubt, or failure, or risk is qualitatively different from knowing with the constant possibility of not-knowing or of remaining ignorant.  This is why belief in fairies or sea-monsters is not the same as faith in Christ, because such belief places these spectres of fantasy in the world as (invisible) objects of certain knowledge.  It is as easy to believe in fairies as it is to “believe” in red tea pots, there is no leap of faith required for either, just a more or less sloppy relationship with apparent evidence; thus belief in fairies actually fits in with the form of knowing laid out by scientific positivism.  Belief in fairies does not involve the believer within a form of knowing in which their whole self is put on the line; which means that superstitious beliefs are not the same as the leaps of faith I am describing. 

On the contrary, to have in Christ cannot be reduced to the position of believing specific propositions about him as being factually true; believing he rose from the dead is not the same as believing that he had brownish hair and grey eyes.  The former fact makes certain claims on the one who believes it that the latter does not.  To believe that Christ rose from the dead is to give of your self in a way that believing in a certain messianic hair colour does not require.  Whatever evidence (philosophical, archaeological, textual, etc) that may exist for or against the resurrection is not of particular importance to the one who knows through a leap of faith; such evidence more or less places the one who stayed dead or was resurrected within the frame of guaranteed objects of knowledge.  Knowing Christ through quality-assured evidence based forms of knowing is not the same as throwing oneself into the unknown not-knowing of faith-full knowledge.  This is not, again, to say that faith cannot be certain; just that this certainty does not reveal itself as something that requires a guarantee to operate.  The certainty that comes from faith comes through the appearing of that which can only be known through faith.  Of course this may never happen; the faith may prove to be objectless in the sense that Christ is dead, or that God doesn’t exist.  There is the possibility that God does not exist, in which case any imagined certainty of faith would be misplaced; but that is the point of faith: one cannot know in advance what will be encountered, or even if anything at all will be met with.  The absence of certainty is here the opposite of a blank cheque of belief, because the faith-full one is not in a position to dictate what form the object of his faith will take before him; and, of course, no one would place this sort of faith in random fantasies of the imagination.

The main point to be made regarding faith and knowledge is that there are some things that can only be known through a leap of faith.  For example, it can only be known that a supposedly reformed thief will become honest by trusting him.  Based on the evidence alone no sensible man or woman would ever make that leap into the unknown: he might now be honest, he might not, but that is none of the sensible person’s concern, and so remains forever out of reach as a possibility.  In this sense, though, actually trusting a thief has the creative potential to make him honest, might give him the incentive to become honest: faith here is creative in what it knows, or allows to be made known as a possibility.  It is only through faith that faith is justified, not through choices based entirely on evidence.  Without that faith one would never know; with faith a situation is opened up as a possibility that would otherwise (especially if left to the guaranteed certainties of evidence).  Likewise, belief in God based on evidence is inherently unstable, because the evidence is uncertain, and in any case, a God in whom one can be evidentially secure is no different from any other equally “known” object in the universe, be it an apple, a planet, an alien or water-fairies.  Trusting a thief against all odds does not require a leap of faith that the thief actually exists (that is as certain as any other object of knowledge); what is at stake is the possibility that the thief may be able to become honest – at present it requires a leap into the unknown, a risk, an imaginative stance towards a possibility that may prove expensively false to the knower.  Likewise, with God, an uncertain evidential basis requires that the only way to know him is to make a leap into the unknown.  This is the choice.  To not make the leap, to stay on the side of safely weighing up the evidence for or against and remaining undecided is to never know; faith opens the possibility up for the individual that God may exist, and if he does, to be known.  Without faith it is impossible to know, just as without trusting a thief it is impossible to know if he can become honest.  Thus, it can be seen here that evidence can only go so far in terms of the choices we make; some things can only be known through making a leap into the unknown, where the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.  Faith then is stupid, is risky, is as open to failure as it is to success, and cannot be accessed through guarantees; but without it some things will remain forever unknown.  To trust an already trusted honest man with a till of money is not a leap of faith, is not a risk to the person doing the trusting.  Without that gap between the known, the certain, and the unknown, important modes of knowledge remain forever out of reach.  

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Re-post - Temptation & Sin: 1 & 2


Temptation & Sin: 

An actual photograph of Jesus rebuking the Devil.
Part 1 

How can we understand the biblical concept of temptation? Is there such a thing as a Biblical concept of temptation? How does temptation manifest itself in and through the Biblical text. The primary source of information in the Bible comes from Luke 4: 1-13, the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness. In one sense this might seen unfortunate since, if this is the primary way in which temptation is seen to manifest itself as a Biblical concept, might it not fall prey to the criticism that Jesus, being the Son of God, was in an inherently privileged position to resist temptation when it came his way; that, maybe, the temptation of Jesus was a kind of show-temptation, a foregone conclusion far removed from the daily experiences of temptation as it is encountered by Christians across the globe? Can the temptation of Jesus, by no less than Satan himself, be seen as normative of the concept of temptation for all Christians in general? I would argue that in spite of these considerations, the temptation of Jesus both is and can be seen as a working model for how the Bible understands temptation. James 1: 13-15 takes a line on temptation that might seen to contradict the idea of Christ’s temptation as normative for our own experience. He writes: Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death.

‘God cannot be tempted by evil.’ A common sense reading of this passage would leave the reader thinking that, since God cannot be tempted by evil, either Jesus was not really tempted by the devil, or that he is not really God incarnate. Since the latter totally opposes orthodox teaching on the matter of who Christ is we must for the moment resist a common sense reading in this direction; but, equally, the former stretches both the meaning of those verses in Luke and any working conception of the incarnation. That is, if the temptation in the desert was a piece of pure theatre what possible reason do we have for holding fast to a definition of the incarnation which identifies Christ as a man exactly like any other man, warts, temptations and all? A clue perhaps beyond a common sense reading lies I think in the precise wording of the epistle, that is that ‘God cannot be tempted by evil [κακών].’ Herein, too, lies one of the main points that I would raise about the nature of Biblical temptation as it manifests itself within the text, that the concept of temptation is not identical with the concept of temptation of, or by, evil. For example, what were the temptations of Christ? They were, in order:

- to turn a stone into bread (he was extremely hungry). Luke 4: 3
- worldly authority. Luke 4: 5, 6
- to prove to himself and others that he was the messiah through the working of miracles. Luke 4: 9-11

In each instance it is arguable that evil was not the intended aim of the temptation; indeed, even for the second, the "temptation" to bow the knee to Satan in exchange for worldly authority was merely a means to an end, at no point was Christ offered the opportunity, and therefore faced the temptation, of simply bowing before the devil with nothing else in view. The devil, as before in Eden, when he tempted Eve with godlike knowledge, was not positing something that in itself was evil. To be sure, the context of both the ministry of reconciliation for Christ, and the rule of obedience in Eden renders the giving in to the temptation an evil, but neither godlike knowledge nor worldly authority are in themselves evils. Temptation, very rarely, if at all, enters into the Biblical conception of it as a pure temptation to that which in itself is evil; rather, temptation is the tempting towards a certain good that, contextually, renders the giving in to it an evil. In this regard temptation can be seen as working within the frame of conceptions of the good in conflict with other goods. So, seen in this light, the fact that David, for example, felt a strong sexual desire towards Bathsheba and acted on it was not in itself an evil; the evil consists in the context in which such a desire and such an act occurred. Having sex with Bathsheba was a good towards which the will and desire of David had orientated themselves in contradiction to the context in which she was already another man’s wife, thus rendering the good of sexual union between the two an evil. Evil is not here conceived of as having inherent reality, but rather feeds off the good as a distortion of it. Likewise, the turning of bread into stone, of claiming worldly authority, of performing miracles, are not to be seen as evils desired by Christ, but merely manifestations of goods that contradicted a good which had a greater claim on the orientation of desires. In order to develop a point for further reflection I turn now to Kant’s thoughts of what he termed ‘diabolical evil’, that is, an evil which desires evil because it is evil, which, turning its back on any conception of the good, desires that evil above all else. In this sense, in orientating the will to desire that which is in itself evil, the will makes a "good" out of the evil. Herein lies the paradox noted by Kant, that diabolical evil was only a theoretical possibility for humans, since to desire the evil as if it were a good would be ultimately destructive of the desiring self and logically impossible. The point to be made here is that every temptation offers the one tempted a good, the context of which renders a given temptation illicit. Of course one could dispute this, to say that the temptation to murder a small child, say, is not a good that has been perverted. In reply I would add that, yes, while the murder of small children is not in any context a conceivable good, however it is enough to say that at that time this action must be seen by the tempted would-be murderer as a good to be desired, for whatever reason. It would not be appropriate to say of someone who acted in this way that they were tempted to do it if that which they were supposed to have been tempted to do had not appeared as a good that might be tempting. In order, therefore, for something to be tempting it must first be made manifest as a good to the one tempted, even if on the level of morality that something is in fact an outrage. Diabolical evil, in contrast, is an evil that is in no way encountered as a possible good.

This brings me to the central point that I would like to make: that temptation is a matter of the affections, to what or whom they are orientated as towards a desirable good. Insofar as something immoral is desirable  it appears during the period of temptation as a good to be desired. This means, that temptation takes at least three forms, but follows one logic. That is, that both moral and immoral things can appear as temptations. In the case of the first form (for example, of Christ’s temptation, Eve’s, David’s) that which is considered desirable is not in itself immoral, but is made immoral by the context in which they occur. In the case of the second type (the would-be child murderer) that which is desired is immoral, but because the orientation of the affections are always pointing towards a conceivable "good" the temptation to kill an innocent child is understood as a desirable good to be acted on. For example, the sheer visceral pleasure of killing might be the desirable good to which the murderer orientates himself. In the final type, the temptation is away from any orientation of the affections towards a conceivable good, towards making that which is in itself evil desirable. In this type no act of immorality would be conducted out of a sense of gaining the slightest interest, and indeed might in fact work the other way against the one tempted. This is a theoretical possibility, but remains a technical impossibility for humans, because it is only by appearing as a possible good that evil can be in any way tempting. In this sense diabolical evil is not in the least bit tempting because it cannot appear as a possible good. To draw once more upon heterodox writers for the moment, both Kant and John Milton followed the argument that the reason why the fallen angels would never be redeemed was because they, in full knowledge of the evil to which they had turned, tempted themselves by that which was no temptation (no possible or conceivable good) at all. The one logic that temptation follows here is of course that temptation is always a temptation towards a conceivable good, never an evil as an evil. It follows from this that the battle of desire in the Christian is in fact a battle for his affections, for the positing of an orientation towards a good that trumps all other conceivable goods. The idea that temptation can be fought by unveiling the evil hiding behind the presumed "good" while mildly helpful does not do justice to the power of the affections to immediately cover it over again with a real or imagined good. The pleasures of drunkenness cannot be fought by pointing out the damage that alcohol does to either the liver or the lives of alcoholics, but by positing an even greater and consequently more desirable good in its place. So, rather than pointing out the damaging effects of alcohol on the life of an alcoholic one would instead in their place encourage an appreciation of sobriety as a good, to make it more attractive than the pleasures of drunkenness. In so far as the alcoholic is motivated to stop drinking because of a fear for his health rather than because he desires something else as a greater good than being drunk the battle of temptation for his affections has not yet begun.

Likewise, the same holds true for any other possible desire for any other possible real or imagined good; merely bolstering the will without changing the affections does nothing to affect the heart of the one so tempted if the temptation still appears as more desirable than Christ, and may in fact mitigate against Christ in the long run. The point, therefore, is not to expose the evil lurking behind the imagined good (for which you would need a considerable amount of time to work your way through each temptation), but rather to engage in orientating the affections in a single direction to the exclusion of all others. This is not to denigrate the impact of genuine temptation. Clearly if Christ experiences temptation (and to think his incarnation rightly this must have been so) then having one’s affections rightly orientated does not mitigate against temptations that must come as possible goods in a struggle for our affections. Insofar as something, anything, can appear as a possible good it has the potential to become a temptation to an evil. In the case of Christ, his battle with genuine temptations took the form of clinging to that which he desired more, i.e. obedience to the will of the Father. Indeed, in this instance the "goods" that the devil was tempting Christ with were in many ways legitimate goods for the Son of God, and that is precisely what makes them so tempting for him. The temptation would have been a rather quick business had the devil tempted Christ with things that would never have appeared to Christ as possible goods, which shows that the temptation took the form of a battle for possible goods in the heart of Jesus. The battle was not at the level of the intellect, or even a pernickety adherence to the minutia of scripture, but rather at the level of the affections - what did Jesus desire as his greatest good, to what was his affection orientated in the face of other possible objects of affection? In order to beat the temptation Christ must necessarily have desired a prime good over all other possible contenders.

In so far as Christ’s temptation offers us a model for thinking and experiencing temptations for ourselves it offers two conclusions. The first is that when temptation comes our way it fixes itself onto our desires, and our desires are always fixed on that which appears as a possible good to which we necessarily orientate ourselves. This is why no two people experience temptation in exactly the same way, because that which for one is a possible good, for another may appear as being still a good, but considerably less so. The difference between a man who gambles all his money away and a man who saves for the future is not a difference of will power or intellect, but a difference of orientation towards and an affection for differing goods: for the gambler the "good" of the pleasure of gambling takes precedence over the "good" of saving, and thus motivates his actions. There is little room here for self-righteousness, which there might be if temptation were merely a matter of steeling the will against what you knew to be an evil when it first arose. The second conclusion is that the battle over temptation is a battle for the affections, the battle over that which seems to us a greater or lesser good at any given moment. The temptation will never appear as evil in itself, since even if a temptation is self-consciously aware of itself as being evil by the one tempted the core of the temptation will be a possible good such as, at the very least, immediate physical pleasure. In order for such temptation to overcome the good to which the temptation is pointing as desirable (which in itself is still a genuine good) this good must be seen by the affections as a lesser good than the prime good, which is Christ himself. 

Part 2:

While I would broadly agree with the above analysis of the nature or essence of temptation I would add a few important qualifications. Chief among which is the qualification that says that the mere turning of the affections towards Christ can never be enough to bolster one against the perennial tendency to sin. What I mean is that, just as the strengthening of the will or the sharpening of the intellect are things that one can do, so the warming of the heart to Christ is equally a work of the flesh; by which I mean that the warming of the heart to Christ, if it remains the actions of an autonomous individual, is still in the realm of ascribing confidence in the flesh rather than in Christ. If it were purely true that turning one’s heart towards Christ in affection as an orientation towards an ultimate good then one’s resistance to sin would be on the same level as looking to either the intellect or the will as a means of securing for oneself rightness with God. One’s relationship becomes grounded not in Christ but in what and to what extent one feels.

What I would add, therefore, to the previous analysis is the idea that one’s turning to Christ can, firstly, never be the action of an autonomous individual: salvation is not an individual affair between you and God, but is constituted by the Father in Christ through the Holy Spirit and realised on earth eschatologically in the body of Christ, the church. Just as one is born into sin through one’s human heritage, so the struggle with sin is not an individual thing conducted alone: there is no conceivable temptation that is not common to all mankind at one time or another. Also, and this touches upon the very nature of Christianity itself (as I understand it), the Christian life is not constituted or conducted as a struggle in the Christian between sin and not-sinning. To be sure, we encounter sin through temptation as a struggle that frequently beats us, but that is not here the point. The point is that God has so arranged things in order that we, as sinners, can come before him knowing that our righteousness is independent of ourselves, and is in fact seated at God’s right hand: we have a relation to God not predicated upon our own behaviour or tendency to sin but entirely upon his grace towards us. Christianity is the outworking of this fact in the life of the fellowship of the church. Thus, sinning or not-sinning is not the issue which temptation and sin present us with; rather both together they present to us our own self-limitation, our own incapacity to do the good that we want to do, the good that an ideal version of ourselves would be able to do if only he had enough will, intellect and heart to do it. This was the battle Paul encountered and described in Romans 7. Counter-intuitively God uses our sin and temptation pedagogically to expose to us the reality of what is going on in our hearts when we sin, in particular through our sense of shame. By allowing sin and temptation to remain ever present possibilities for us rather than simply removing them once we’ve acknowledged his Lordship God allows us to see our total dependency upon Christ for our righteousness.

I am not here going to argue in favour of shame as a faculty of the conscience, showing us the difference between right and wrong, but against shame as the sense of our own self-nakedness. Shame is the gap that we feel between our actual self and the ideal self that we would like to be able to see ourselves as being, in which sense it is the sacrifice owed to the demanding idol of self-perfection that is the ideal self. Consider this example, in Matthew 5: 21, 22 Jesus raises the bar of what constitutes murder by insisting that murder begins in the heart, which considerably increases the number of murderers in the human race to more or less 100%. In the normal course of events however no one of sound mind feels shame upon the mere existence of a brief murderous fantasy or burst of unjustified anger. Without the support of the will or the intellect a fantasy such as this remains a fantasy, a product of the sinful but ineffective heart, thus the gap between the actual and the ideal self is not made too wide by the existence of the fantasy, which comes and goes anyway. What this example reveals is that, while for Christ murder is not confined to the mere performance of actually murdering someone, for the average Christian the felt shame of widening the gap between ideal and actual self is only accomplished through real or attempted murder, not a mere fantasy. In terms of sin murder in the heart is as wicked as murder in fact. The shame of sin for the average Christian is not, then, a valid indication of how sinful he or she is, but merely reveals the gap between their actual and ideal self, between who they are and who they would like to see themselves as being. This is the sorrow of the world that leads to death, a sorrow at having to confront one’s own limitation and corruption. In practical terms this means that repentance is skewed if it is conducted under the shame of self-exposure to self rather than as a re-turning to the will of God. All such repentance does is attempt to soothe the soul and placate the ideal self image of one who has become conscious of their own inability to be perfect in their own sight.

A Christian life organised around the satisfying of the ideal self will not be characterised by sorrow for sin so much as sorrow for not attaining the level of perfection imposed upon him internally by an imagined ideal self. To be a Christian will become a battle to deliver the actual self up to the ideal self as perfect and free from sin; to be a Christian will become characterised by the intense desire to eradicate sin from oneself in order to not appear as unrighteous in one’s own eyes. Indeed, repentance will largely consist of seeking the forgiveness of this ideal self under the name of Christ. The ideal self is here seen to be an idol equivalent, if not identical, to any imagined divine being, who deals in exposing the actual self to the self-disgust of shame for not being better or more righteous in himself. Christianity, by contrast abolishes the need to satisfy any such idol by not predicating our relationship to God on whether or not we sin. In Christianity the only thing the Christian can do is to throw their self upon the mercy of God in Christ, and even this is not a doing in the normal sense of the word. Throwing oneself onto the mercy of God in Christ in fact is the end of any self-grounded efficacy of the will the intellect or the heart, being something that one does at the very point at which doing anything in one’s own power no longer has any meaning. It is the opposite of a work of the flesh. Not only does this mean that the shame-filled gap between the ideal and the actual self is rendered irrelevant, but also shame itself is not made redundant, being rather transformed into the humility whereby the actual self recognises itself as powerless to achieve righteousness on its own account: godly sorrow. The Christian life is not the continual struggle against all manner of sin and temptation (a battle lost before it has begun) in the individual Christian, but is rather the constant throwing of oneself onto the mercy of Christ that is the essence of faith. Christianity refuses the gap between the actual self and ideal self, rejecting the ideal self as an idol which is the source of a great deal of shame and pain. This is not the obliteration of sin as a reality in the world or the self, of temptation as an ever-present prospect, but is instead the re-orientation of the self away from increasingly demanding ideals of self-perfection; a re-orientation achieved through reaching and recognising the end of one’s capacity to achieve.

In the bosom of the Father

Home group again tonight, focusing on John 19.  A point I raised that occurred to me regarding John as the disciple whom Jesus loved was that in John 13: 23 he writes
 Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
There seems to be a connection with John being the disciple whom Jesus loved and his leaning on Jesus' bosom.  John is clearly goading us into seeing a narrative connection between this instance of intimacy at the last supper and that which Jesus enjoys with his Father.  That is, that the intimacy he shared with Jesus parallels the intimacy Jesus and the Father have shared from before time.  In John 1: 18 he writes 
No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
The spreading love of God in Christ shares itself through the total intimacy of his being in the bosom of the Father, an intimacy that Jesus draws John into, and by implication this is shared with those who believe in Jesus through John's word.  

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Mea Maxima Culpa

Luther
My wife and I had four friends from our old church in Diss over last night to enjoy homegrown pizza together.  It was - if I say so myself - a hoot.  In good company I drank a lot of wine and, as Luther might put it, right freely!  Luther, of course makes an excellent point here, but despite which there is still no getting round the biblical injunction against getting drunk.  Why do the biblical authors make this point (see here)?  The obvious, and most boring answer, is that drunkenness is a stepping stone to other forms of debauchery; e.g. get drunk and you might find yourself flirting, fighting or otherwise disgracing yourself, etc.  That's fine, but of course that wouldn't really have been much of a temptation last night; it was just a group of friends enjoying each other's company over wine and pizza.  Why not drink to excess?

The answer I would suggest is not to do with the effects of alcohol on inhibitions after having drank too much, but rather the state of disordered desires that precedes the excess, and of which the drinking is a physical manifestation.  That is, excessive alcohol consumption is symptomatic of a kind of incontinent appetite, a grasping, greedy reaching over and over again for something that in itself is a social good.  In this sense, to drink too much is no different from eating too much or buying too much, or any other manifestation of an 'I must have' mentality.  To be sure, alcohol also incorporates lowered inhibitions that can be unhelpful, but essentially the problem with all of these manifestations of an incontinent appetite rests not so much in the behaviour itself but in its opposition to who God is as pure self-giving generosity, as the opposite of an 'I must have' appetite.  It is because God is the opposite of the open, desiring mouth that just wants more, more, more, that drinking too much is wrong.  As such, the solution to the problem of drinking too much is not necessarily cutting back, but rather in drawing closer to Him who is pure self-giving love and becoming like Him in his total (violent, even) generosity.  This is not to give licence to excessive drinking, but rather to acknowledge that drinking or not drinking are not the point, as neither represent a better, more godly position than the other.  

I hope I've explained myself clearly.  I'm not arguing for drunkenness, but neither am I arguing for sobriety as being good or bad in themselves; I'm arguing for being transformed (intoxicated) by the Spirit, and drawn into the circle of God's expanding love in Christ, and allowing that love to rightly organise one's appetites.  Only transformed and reordered desire towards Christ can solve the problem of drunkenness and sobriety.  

      

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Trinity Sunday Sermon at Yaxley, Suffolk


[WARNING: heavy pilfering from Mike Reeves ahead!]

Icon of the Trinity
I’ve got about 10 or so minutes to try and talk about the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s a bit tight, but I like a challenge!

I think that for me, the main reason why the Trinity is important is because it is the answer to the question of what Christians mean when they say that God is love, and that it is because God is love that we are invited to share in his life at the most intimate level. The doctrine of the Trinity IS the good news of Christianity. 

One of the problems with talking about the Trinity is that it’s easy to become either too complicated or too simple. Both are wrong, primarily because we don’t first know God as Trinity by working him out, like reading a really long and boring instruction manual translated badly from the Japanese into broken English. God is one, but he is also three, and the three are one, and they are the same but they do different things, but those things are the same – what does that even mean?? How is THAT good news? Instead it’s better to start with where Jesus started, which is with God as Father: his Father and ours. Now, whatever our experience, we all know or have an idea of what a father is; I’ve got one, you’ve got one, Tiffer’s become one again, and I’m about to become an adoptive father too. What Jesus was expressing in calling God his Father was neither a complex nor a simple theory about an idea, but a relationship. By saying that God is his Father, Jesus was saying everything he is comes from the Father. And unlike me, I bet God didn’t have to sit through endless meetings with social workers assessing him for his suitability. Jesus’ constant affirmation is instead that one of the most basic things you can say about God is that he is a Father. It gets deeper, because in Jesus’ prayer in John 17, he prays, 
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
The Father then loved the Son before the creation of the world. Before there was a creation to be lord over, and before there were miserable sinners like you and me and especially Tiffer to give laws to, who God is can best be described as a Father loving his Son. And what a shift this brings about in our understanding of God? My own early experience as a Christian was to imagine a god who was distant and vaguely angry. I thought I had to really work hard to please him, and of course nothing I did was ever good enough, there was always that critical voice condemning me. ‘Couldn’t you have tried better?’, or ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’ Quite a few years passed before the truth sunk in that God the Father loves me equally as much as he loves Jesus. With the doctrine of the Trinity this simply would not be possible, because if God isn’t Trinity then he also isn’t love. The gospel good news is the shocking truth that God loves us more than we can imagine because he is our Father. Jesus reveals to us a God who before he is anything else is a Father loving his loveable Son. God is Love. And they have always, always lived in a relationship of loving communion with one another. God wants to share his love with us. 

But this is Trinity Sunday, and you can probably sense something or someone missing from this picture. The Holy Spirit, of course. It’s fairly easy to picture God as a Father loving his Son, that is not something that needs much explaining; but with the Holy Spirit we have the introduction of a third and somewhat ghostly member, - a bit like a spiritual gooseberry. Does the Holy Spirit add anything to our understanding of God? Well, quite a lot, actually. 

The Father and Son love each other – that is what they do. But that love is not an exclusive mutual admiration society. All that the Father is he gives to the Son, and the Son gives back all that he is to the Father. Neither cling to what is theirs by right, their power and authority or their status; and the Son just wants to give all of himself away in the extravagant emptying of himself on the cross, which is where we most clearly see who and what God is like. And so intense is this love that it exists as a person in his own right, and the Holy Spirit is the name for this back and forth movement of love between the Father and the Son. I was always a bit nervous of the Holy Spirit. I can get the idea of a Father and a Son, but the Holy Spirit sounds a bit forbidding – the HOLY SPIRIT. Again though, Trinity means that God is love, and that through the Holy Spirit God’s love lives inside us. Having the Holy Spirit in us means that all of the love of God is given to us as a gift. There was never anything to be nervous of. 

Assorted Church Father

It was the Church Fathers who called the giving and receiving of love the Holy Trinity, and they said it was like a kind of dance. It’s hard to picture God as a Can-Can or a disco dancer, but it would probably be a better image than an old man with a long grey beard. This also answers that age old philosophical question about what if the Hokey-Kokey really is what it’s all about. And this dance is the love that God shared in the creation of you and me and even – unbelievably - Jedward. The Father sends his Son, who brings about creation through the power of the Spirit, in order that what is created can share in the Zumba dance of love. The work of the Holy Spirit is to be the means whereby the love of the Father and Son is shared, both between them and with the rest of creation, but especially with humanity, who it turns out are not very good dancers. Without the Holy Spirit we could not share in that love. 

God even loves these two!
When we say that there is one God, Father, Son, and Spirit, what we mean then is that God is one in the sense that God is the love between Father, Son and Spirit. We don’t believe in three separate gods who together make one big God. Christians do not believe in three gods any more than we believe that a child, wife, and husband are three families. 

And for us, the spreading love of God as a Trinity is very good news! What the gospel is calling us to is not just that we can have our bad dancing forgiven, but something much, much more. When I was a new Christian I was often told that becoming a Christian is all about inviting God into our lives, and this is true, but I think a much more accurate way of putting it is as my wife once said; that it is we who are invited into God’s own life, we who are literally invited to join in the dance of love between Father, Son, and Spirit. In his prayer for us, Jesus puts it like this:
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
So you see? The invitation of the gospel is really similar to the adoption process I’ve spent years going through to get my new son, who will become as much of a Matcham as I am, even though he wasn’t born into it. It is the invitation to enter into the love between the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit in which we come to know that the Father loves us as much as he loves the Son. And it would be fair to say that who the Father is, is entirely taken up with loving the Son, loving Jesus. Anything more than that is just peripheral. If you want to be more like God, then, the answer is simply to grow to love Jesus more, anything more than that, whether it’s trying to be a better person, or reading the Bible more, or coming to church, is just window-dressing. And none of this is a purely individual thing. The spreading love of God invites us as individuals, but equally we are invited as part of the church, as part of each other, because God always wants to spread his love as wide as possible. It is only as the Church, and not as individuals, that we are the bride of Christ. The good news of the Trinity is that we are invited to a dance and a wedding in which we are all honoured guests, in which we are all first born sons with God as our inheritance, and in which in the church we are together the peasant-bride who marries the king. These are all images that we can relate to and understand: fathers and sons, dancing and weddings, brides and grooms, romance, inheritance, and adoption. If you can understand those things then you can understand the Trinity. The Trinity is not then a dry, boring or irrelevant piece of ancient theology; it is immediately relevant to all that we know as being the best in life. And knowing God as Trinity is the best news ever, because to know God as Trinity is to know that God is love, and we are invited to share that love forever.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Connexions Blog: Blessing Gay Partnerships?

My comment on this thread:


Very interesting and subtle opener for a discussion on homosexuality. Personally I’m always amazed that heterosexuality is assumed to be, by default, the less sinful option, when Jesus’ teaching on lust raises the bar on holiness almost insanely high!

The point though is that if one is at the level of worrying what form of sexuality is sinful and what form is not sinful then you have missed the point of being led by the Spirit, because the fleshly nature (hetero- or homo-) must be put to death in either case because of it’s opposition to God. Romans 14: 23 ‘everything that does not come from faith is sin.’ As Augustine said, ‘Love God and do what you will.’


There is obviously a lot more I could have said.  I think it extremely unlikely, for instance that the Spirit would inspire one to enter into a homosexual relationship.  I could be wrong in this, as in the general idea behind my theological musings.  The blogger, Richard Hall, presents a very good argument for re-thinking Christian opposition to homosexuality as an anachronistic throw back.  Also, his argument regarding his own "adulterous" marriage is a very good point, and one which, at least, throws a light on shifting sexual mores within the contemporary church, not least an underlying prejudice in favour of heterosexuality (regenerate or otherwise).