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.

Monday 11 May 2020

The Resurrection - A Unitarian View

Christian orthodoxy will condemn me as a heretic for simply saying that the story of the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, is not as literal or as factual as the Bible seems to tell us or as the Church would have us believe. But I can still say that I believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth was executed like thousands of others under Roman rule. He was executed as a common criminal for reasons of public order, as a matter Roman of expediency. He was executed through crucifixion on that day we now know as Good Friday. In the aftermath of this event came his resurrection.

In life as Jesus of Nazareth he was fully human, a man a prophet and a teacher in whom God was met. He was a flesh and blood man who met his death on the cross, he had a history as the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter. He had brothers and sisters and was part of a wider family network. He had his friends and disciples. The story however, that is essential to the Christian faith is that Jesus died on the cross and yet he rose on the third day. The day on which we commemorate his rising, Easter Sunday was decided upon by the church, ruling that it should fall after 21st March each year, according to the phases of the moon. We could therefore say that the whole thing is an ecclesiastical construct but we should not let this observation invalidate a deeper essential truth.

Perhaps the most compelling of the resurrection stories may be found in the Gospel of John 20:24-29.

Jesus Appears to Thomas
One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.”
Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t be faithless any longer. Believe!”
My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed.
Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”

What are we to make of this?  Why should Thomas have doubted in the first place? That's the question we really need to ask. I mean, wasn't Thomas part of the inner circle, one of the twelve disciples and had he not been there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? And surely, on the testimonies of the other disciples, Thomas should have believed having been told, as it were, that Jesus had come back from the dead?

Yet we have it on record, in the Gospel of John, that Thomas resolutely refused to believe until he had seen his Lord and placed his fingers into his wounds. In this story, Thomas, presents as one who lives life without faith like those who would much rather have the bad news than the good news. In modern parlance, we might say the lights are on green for 'go', but it still requires faith to drive through them. The story of Thomas and his doubts really points to the fundamental question of how we might live our lives. And therefore, the real question is, can we have faith? Can we live our lives in the spirit of Jesus who said:

I am come that they might have life, and that they might have life abundantly' (John 10:10)

Those of us who have even the smallest inkling of God, of a greater reality instinctively sense that there is more to life, the world and the universe than our minds can grasp. There is, I believe this vast ocean of consciousness, of love of which we are all a part of if only we can know and if only, we could live each day as though it were true. The great religions, the mystics and the poets bring that same message to us and point to our true destiny and our eternal home. St Paul in his dramatic encounter with the Christ saw only a blinding light on the road to Damascus and heard his voice; it was an encounter that not only transformed Paul but changed the world forever. 

The 19th century pre-Raphaelite artist Holman Hunt also claimed an encounter with the risen Christ, an encounter that inspired him to create what essentially became his life's work: that painting that became known as 'The Light of the World' and that painting was seen by millions in the early years of the twentieth century decades before the advent of modern mass communications.

Each year at Easter we are brought face to face with the great mystery of life, of death and renewal and the confirmation of eternity. The Easter story, the death and the resurrection bring the victory of hope over despair, of life over death. The power of the resurrection story is really the confirmation that death is not the end and that the human spirit is eternal. In his first letter to the Corinthians St Paul made this clear when he wrote that 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God'. The resurrection is therefore a spiritual and not a physical matter, so I close with these words of St Paul:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
Where, O death, is your victory?
  Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.