Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Justice and Peace

When we consider statutory law, we know that there may exist a tension between how a particular law may be interpreted and what the makers of that law intended. At the conclusion of a court case, the judge must make a judgement, taking all the facts into account. Ideally, he or she will seek to act within both the letter and the spirit of the law. We may get a sense of the potentiality for the exercise of that spirit in Portia’s plea for clemency in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice:

The Quality of Mercy
The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

In day to day life, we are constantly required to make decisions based on our own judgements. A judgement may be an opinion that we have not expressed; but expressed or not, it remains still: a judgement. We make judgements when we see others breaking the law or when we feel that someone we know has not quite lived up to our expectations. At the same time, we can be admonished for being too judgemental. Nevertheless, it remains within our power, whether or not to forgive a slight against us, or to make the decision to write off that debt that someone may owe us.

On the question of forgiveness, we have the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18: 23-35) or Jesus’ injunction that we should forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22). There are clear psychological and spiritual benefits in practicing forgiveness, as we all know, but in the real world we also have to use our common sense. Whilst we may understand the depth of compassion uttered in that plea from the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34); we cannot, for example, remain indifferent to the murder of a child. We have courts of law for good reason. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

But this really speaks to us of an attitude, a way in which we might relate to others and not that we should suspend our faculty for critical thought. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, wrote:

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. Romans 2:14

Implicit in this statement appears to be the idea that at some level, within ourselves, a sense of justice prevails. Without any legal or religious training, most of us know that our actions have consequences albeit, not always foreseeable! Furthermore, because we are human, we naturally have the potential to understand and to empathise with others, thus the golden rule of ‘do unto others…’ is readily grasped and universally understood.

In law, there is the concept of ‘natural justice’ and in the broadest sense we know that codes of behaviour have evolved over time, from society to society, but this sense of justice seems to be an innate part of who we are, it’s hard wired into our psyche. We hear it from aggrieved squabbling children, that old refrain, ‘It’s not fair!’. In the adult world there are campaigns for justice of one kind or another. Plaintiffs appear in the news and in feature articles declaring that they ‘only want justice’. The bereaved may seek justice at a murder trial, or at a coroner’s court. And we are all familiar with the old ruling that, ‘Justice should not only be done; it must also be seen to be done.’

However, there are limits to the sanctions a court can impose or the compensation it can award. Justice is not the same as revenge and human pain and loss are not so easily set aside by the ruling of a court, no matter how just that ruling may be. The fact is that some grievances cannot be resolved no matter what reparations may be reasonably offered simply because the aggrieved cannot, or is unable to find or accept closure. In the end, there is the world as we want it and the world as it is. If one continues to reject ‘what is’ in favour of ‘what isn’t’, then the suffering will continue.

Paradoxically, that same suffering may present the opportunity for healing, for freedom and the opportunity to move on. The prophet Elijah, in deep despair lay down in the wilderness and asked God to take his life (1 Kings 19). As the story moves on, we find Elijah standing on Mount Horeb as God passes as ‘earthquake, wind and fire’. God wasn’t present in any of this spectacular, earthly, tumult, but then came the still small voice of God asking, ‘what are you doing here, Elijah?’ From time to time, ‘What are you doing here?’ is a question we may have to ask ourselves because this question properly considered has the potential to bring us to the present moment, affording us the opportunity to reassess and to recalibrate our lives, to find peace and to surrender, and to accept what is.

Friday, 29 May 2020

The Ascension: Beam me up Scotty!

An apocryphal story is a story that probably did not happen. At the same time, an apocryphal story may tell us a ‘truth’ about the subject of that story. When I was in the Royal Navy, I heard the story of a steward who whilst waiting on officers, called out, ‘Hands up those who want soup!’ I heard this story so many times it felt like it had happened on every ship in the fleet. Perhaps it really did happen. Another story that began to do the rounds in the navy of the 1970s was of a rating who was brought before the captain on a disciplinary charge. At some point in the proceedings, the accused put his hand in his pocket, pulled out his ID card and in imitation of using a radio, put it to his ear and said, ‘Beam me up Scotty’. I heard this story a few times, always with a strong assurance that it was true. That particular line, ‘Beam me up Scotty’, from the Star Trek science fiction TV series does not exist. We might think it does, but it doesn’t; its’ apocryphal.

Each year, the Church celebrates Ascension Sunday as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. One cannot help feeling that this is another apocryphal, ‘Beam me up Scotty’ story. According to Acts while Jesus was still with the disciples, on Mount Olivet, forty days after the resurrection, ‘he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight’.

And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’   Acts 2:10-11 (RSV)

What are we to make of this? If a number of church goers were to stand on a hill watching their minister or spiritual leader disappear up in a cloud, they would be looking up into the sky or as Acts would have it: ‘gazing into heaven’. The inference is very clear, Jesus’ disciples were indeed looking up into the sky where heaven is; apparently. In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus said:  

Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21) (KJV)

Nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you (Luke 17:21) (RSV)

The kingdom of God within, or kingdom of heaven within, is often interpreted as being a state of mind - a state of inner peace. Furthermore, the kingdom of God may be found in relationship between ourselves and others. That is, the kingdom is in ‘our midst’; or that it is ‘amongst us’. Paul, in his letter to the Romans makes this clear

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink; but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17) (RSV)

Over the years it appears that the celebration of Ascension Sunday has been quietly dropped in many churches, though in the past, on that day, some churches would haul a statue of Jesus up through the ceiling of the church until it disappeared from view. This would obviously make an impression on the congregation!

However, Luke who is the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, from which the story of The Ascension comes, is not a reliable witness to any of the events he wrote about. He simply wasn’t there. Nevertheless, Luke has no difficulty in relating the story of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus or of how Jesus ‘appeared’ amongst the eleven disciples on that same night, ate fish, and encouraged them to check to look at his hands and feet and to touch him as proof  that he was physically present.

See my hands and feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; ‘for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have’ (Luke 24:39)

The problem we have with this story, apart from the notion of a physical resurrection is how a solid physical body can ascend in a cloud without the benefits of modern science or ‘Beam me up Scotty’ Star Trek technology. We are hardly likely to be convinced by the spectacle of a statue being hauled up through a church roof, no matter how ‘symbolic’ this is meant to be. In the rational mindset, we no longer live in a world where we are the centre of all creation, where God in heaven looks down upon us through the clouds, where miracles and magic are an accepted part of life:

When we find that there is no one ‘out there’, then we are left with our knowledge and our culture which become an end in themselves, and are therefore meaningless, since meaning can only exist in relation to something or someone else. When this Titan has succeeded in overthrowing the gods, he has no meaningful task left and so he must despair. (Machovec 1967).

 Alternatively, the spiritual seeker may see that despair is merely a vacuum waiting to be filled. The apocryphal story succeeds because it has currency, the story is passed around because at some level it is true or perhaps there is just a longing for it to be true. The story of The Ascension addresses that longing. If like Joseph in the court of pharaoh we could only get past the dream and interpret the message.  

William Barclay in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke took the view that Luke’s description of the Ascension was an attempt to put the indescribable into words. When the indescribable is put into words we get a story. Sometimes a story can become scripture, even poetic scripture. That indescribable story of creation as related in Genesis, stirs the imagination, coming to us in images that can be visualised and grasped in one way or another. We may ask why there should be any creation at all. We could say that it’s all meaningless and that indeed there’s no one ‘out there’. But if we were to say in modern parlance, that the DNA of the Universe actually runs through our very being then, we may sense the creative impulse that became the story of creation. Thomas Merton put it like this:

But it does not matter much, because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
(New Seeds of Contemplation)

The story the ascension really underlines the spiritual nature of our being. Again, in his commentary on the Ascension, William Barclay wrote:

There had to come a dividing when the Jesus of Earth had to become the Christ of Heaven. (The Daily Study Bible)

One day, each of us must leave this earth. There has to be a dividing. In the life of Jesus, we have been given an example, an alternative to despair, an example of the faith that can move mountains, faith instead of despair, the ‘joy of the cosmic dance’ of which we are a part and an assurance of the eternal, as portrayed in the story of the Ascension.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

The Trinity, A Unitarian Trinity, and the Universal Christ

It is sometimes said that the Unitarian and Free Christian churches are non-creedal.   Whilst Free Christians may legitimately make this claim we, as Unitarians, cannot.  If ‘creed’ is taken to mean a statement of belief, then our belief - whether we like it or not, is defined by that one word: Unitarian.

That single word sets us apart from those churches which affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, the accepted Christian orthodoxy. Whereas Unitarians believe in the undivided unity of God, the mainstream churches declare a trinitarian creed, classically formulated by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and later refined in the Athanasian Creed. The resultant doctrine describes God as ‘one in three and three in one’. That is, the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Ghost is God.

The controversy focuses on our understanding of the status of Jesus.  Who is the man we encounter in the gospels meant to be?  He is depicted variously as an itinerant teacher, healer and prophet - Jesus of Nazareth and as Jesus Christ – the messiah, the anointed one.  In Trinitarian theology, Jesus Christ is the unique and exclusive Son of God and is God.  In Unitarian theology, there is only God and therefore, Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ although revered is not worshipped as the exclusive Son of God.

The much loved Unitarian minister, David Doel, would often tell the story of William Blake, eighteenth century painter, poet and mystic; asked if he believed in the divinity of Jesus Blake replied “He is the only God… and so am I and so are you”.

The classic rebuttal to the idea that God exclusively assumed human flesh and became a man in the form of Jesus Christ was given by the 19th century Unitarian and theologian, James Martineau: ‘The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.’

In his book The Man they Called the Christ (2009), David Doel gave a very clear exposition of the Trinity.  In his view ‘it is perfectly possible, indeed theologically necessary, for us to elaborate a doctrine of the trinity acceptable to Unitarians.’  It may seem strange indeed that Unitarians should wish to accept the concept of a trinity until one realises that our contention arises, not from the concept of God expressed as a trinity, but rather from the associated theology set out as dogma within the Nicene Creed.

The Trinity of the Nicene Creed has often been used by the Church to define those who are – and are not – able to subscribe to its theology.  For the mainstream churches, acceptance into the faith community has traditionally been conditional on accepting a statement of belief that includes the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of the crucified Christ and the notion that Jesus is the incarnate God, fully human and fully God, who came down to live amongst us, to suffer and die for our sins. An account of how the Church developed this dogma can be found in How Jesus Became God: the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (Bart Ehrman, 2014).

Answers to the question “Who was Jesus?” also develop through the gospels as can be seen by comparing the three earliest (synoptic) gospels with the later Gospel of John.  For Mark, the divinity of Jesus is expressly denied “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone” (10:17-18).  In contrast, the opening proclamation of the John’s gospel is an unambiguous statement that Jesus, the Word, is God.

In the beginning was the one who is called the Word. The Word was with God and was truly God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. And with this Word, God created all things. Nothing was made without the Word. (John 1:1-3) (CEV)

This sounds a bit like reading the opening verse of the first chapter of Genesis. And that’s exactly how it’s meant to sound.  Jesus Christ, the exclusive Son of God, was right there with God at the very beginning; co-eternal with the Father. John’s Christology shows a fusion of Greek philosophy - the Logos (Word), and Jewish religious thought (the Christ/ Messiah) which come together to create the second person of the Trinity.

In the opening lines of Genesis, in the King James Bible, we are told that in the beginning the earth was ‘without form and void’ and that ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep.’  Perhaps we can imagine a great loneliness and an overwhelming and ultimately uncontainable love breaking forth and pouring itself out. The great Creator manifesting the Word as all creation, in all creation.

Thus, the indwelling Logos, the likeness of God is embodied in all that is.  It exists in all places and at all times, within all that is and every person (Genesis 1:27). Again, in Martineau’s words, the incarnation ‘is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly.’

Bearing in mind those words of David Doel, and his desire to elaborate a doctrine of the Trinity acceptable to Unitarians, I suppose we can only ask how this could be achieved with any unanimity? The answer may not be obvious but these words of Richard Rohr offer inspiration and fresh hope:

Everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God. What else could it really be? ‘Christ’ is a word for the Primordial Template (‘Logos’) through whom ‘all things came into being, and not one thing had its being except through him’ (John 1:3). Seeing in this way has reframed, reenergised, and broadened my own religious belief, and I believe it could be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world religions. The Universal Christ (Rohr, 2019)

Rohr’s concept of the Primordial Template (‘Logos’) could be the paradigm shift we desire.  If we can see that of God in everyone we meet, if we can see the glory of God in all creation and if we can  see the goal of the spiritual life as really the discovery of the indwelling Logos and our essential and indestructible unity with it, maybe we could embrace the Universal Christ in a new Trinitarian understanding.