Saturday, March 29, 2014

ETERNITY AND I AM: WHY IT'S REALLY OK TO TALK ABOUT GOD

         I cannot wait for Time In Eternity by Robert Russell to arrive in the mail. It’s a physicist’s connection of science and Christian teaching dealing with the really big stuff. What is Eternity? What is time? How do they connect? When it comes, I may find that it is over my head. Or it may prove everything I am going to say here to be wrong. The former is likely. The latter – I don’t think so.

         Eternity is the very heart of my faith. It’s where I place my faith. It’s the basket where I keep my existential eggs. And it’s why my faith may or may not be true, but it is just nowhere near as dumb as secular cynics insist on thinking it is.

         On the one hand Eternity is beyond the grasp of the mind. We cannot conceive of it. It is too big for us to comprehend and it is therefore ultimately mysterious. On the other hand, it is the sort of thing philosophers call “a necessary truth.” We cannot deny it. Eternity cannot be comprehended but it is impossible not to imagine. Finitude cannot be imagined. For example, we once thought the universe was infinite in space. But now scientists say it is elliptical. There is an edge to the universe. Ok, if there is a border to the universe, what is on the other side? We cannot imagine a border with only one side. Once we thought the universe had existed for all eternity. Now we know, to the extent we can know anything, it actually began at a certain point. Ok, what was before that? It may have been very slow moving. But what was there before the moment when the universe exploded into being? We cannot imagine reality that is not set in the context of Eternity.

         Russell’s physics may tell us more about Eternity and more importantly about the connection between Eternity and time by which I mean the temporal realm in which we live our lives and history progresses, or regresses, whatever it is doing. But I don’t need physics to persuade me that Eternity is the context of the temporal realm. I cannot imagine otherwise. If we were to diagram Reality, it would be two concentric circles – a huge one on the outside and a small one in the center. The small circle would represent the temporal realm. The large one would represent Eternity, though of course its circumference would be a fictional line just to help us see. It really has no outer border. One thing leaps out about that diagram. Eternity exists outside time, but it also is inside time. The big circle includes the small one. So Eternity is both immanent (in all things) and transcendent (extending infinitely beyond all things). I bet you see where this is heading.

         So where does God fit in this picture? We might hypothetically posit the existence of a being outside time living in the eternal realm. That is a fairly wild speculation. It is what many atheists mean by “God.” But such a being would be like a random shard, a second free-floating circle inside the larger circle. It frankly says nothing coherent and would not be what classical ancient orthodox Christianity means by “God.”

         If we understand God to be eternal at all, then God cannot be in any respect, temporal or spacial, smaller than Eternity. Eternity on the other hand, by definition, cannot be limited either temporally or spatially. God cannot fit inside Eternity. Eternity cannot fit inside God. So what is the connection between God and Eternity? They would be co-terminus if either of them were “terminus” at all but they are not. Here’s the thing: being eternal cannot be an attribute of God along with other attributes that God might or might not possess. Eternity has to be God’s very essence.

         That leads inexorably to this fundamental point: “God” is not a word we use to posit the existence of a being that might or might not exist. “God” is a word we use to say things about Eternity, which is impossible not to imagine. Granted we could say Eternity without using the word “God.” Then we would be saying Eternity is eternal, nothing more – not very interesting, indeed what Wittgenstein called a tautology. That may be all we can truly prove by reason. But to describe Eternity with the word “God” is to invite imaginative, intuitive statements about the foundational nature of reality. It is to invite us into a conversation that we cannot readily have without the word “God.” (I did not make this up. It’s pure Karl Rahner.) To call Eternity “God” is to express our awe and reverence, perhaps devotion. To call Eternity “God” is to open the possibility of hope that, while the temporal realm is decidedly an unsatisfactory mix of blessings and curses, Eternity may be beneficent and therefore a source of hope that the losses of this life may be redeemed, that wrongs may be set right, and that love may in that realm conquer all after all.

         What then do we say about God, and therefore about Eternity, and therefore about “the way things are deep down and forever?” The answer would be the entire field of theology. But here’s a handy way to start. “I Am” is the name for God in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Gospel of John, there are eight “I Am” statements.  The number is not an accident. There are seven days in a week. The eighth day is the ancient symbol of eternity. That’s why baptismal fonts have eight sides, to signify birth into Eternal Life. Read casually, the “I Am” statements sound as if Jesus is just talking about himself. But when one remembers “I Am” is the name of God and that the number eight signifies Eternity, then every “I Am” statement in John becomes a truth claim about the nature of Eternity. They are metaphorical but evocative. “I Am the good shepherd.” “I Am the Way (Tao), the Truth (Dharma) and the Life (Qi).” Big stuff. Not something we can grasp, but something we can ponder.

         Theology attempts to bring the I Am closer to our ability to comprehend. It is Being (Aquinas), Suchness (Eckhart), the Ground of Being (Tillich), the Wholly Other (Barth), the Whence and the Whither (Rahner). But in the end (not an end to the subject which has no end but an end to our capacity which we reach all too soon) in the end, it is the mystery signified by the enigmatic name of God, I Am, elucidated by metaphors such as vine and light of the world.

         Is it absurd to stand in awe of Eternity, which makes the night sky over the ocean seem small? Is it unsophisticated to ask whether an Eternity that generates and holds in being this temporal realm may not be creative and if so to ask the impetus of this creativity? Is it na├»ve to hope that temporality is so unsatisfactory precisely because it is temporal, and that our hearts are unsatisfied because they long for Eternity having been born of Eternity and made for Eternity, as Augustine (an intellectual giant compared to today’s critics of belief) claimed long centuries ago?


         Religion is inherently a project of babbling about the mystery; so we cannot be dogmatic. We cannot claim we are right and all who disagree with us are wrong. That would be not only foolish, it would be irreverent because we would be pretending to know God better than we do, pretending God is small enough to be known so completely. We may not be right in what we say about Eternity. But it is wiser to ask the questions and humbly to posit answers than to dismiss the very meaning and purpose of our existence with a shrug.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

THE FUTURE OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH: A MINORITY REPORT

     What does the future hold for the Episcopal Church? There are those of us who care. We may have our share of frustrations with and criticisms of the Church. I certainly do. But she has been our lifeline too many times for us to dismiss her. So we care.

     It is in vogue to say the Church is a dead letter. Spirituality may survive in some vague, subjective way so long as it doesn’t actually say anything other than banal affirmations and so long as it does not demand anything inconvenient of people who have more important commitments. But the Church, the institution, the network of committed relationships among people who disagree about most things but share the most important things – who have a common intuition of where we came from, where we’re going, and what it all means – that family is fading fast and the diagnosis is terminal. Many Church folks have adopted a posture of fatalistic pessimism. Many small churches mourn for the death of their congregation even though they are still very much alive. And religion pundits sometimes talk about our impending death with a thinly veiled glee. So what do I say about the future of the Church?

     All futures are uncertain. History is written. The future isn’t. So let’s start with acknowledging that we don’t know. If we don’t know, then what attitude shall we take – despair, hope, curiosity? As Christians our attitude might well be informed by a theology of the future. Here is one: God has a desire and a plan for the Church. “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 But God will not impose the divine plan on us. Rather God give us a choice. “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse . . . . Choose life. “ Deuteronomy 30: 19 Cf Jeremiah 21: 8 God invites us into a future and offers us the strength and resources we need – the manna in the wilderness – to become what we are called to be. Whether we as a community consent to become what God wants us to be is, however, up to us. I am troubled by the suspicion that our pessimism is a way of saying “We can’t make it” because we don’t really want to show up. We don’t want to show up because becoming who God calls us to be will be costly. It threatens to cost us everything.

     Now to speak sociologically: I was recently talking with a religion analyst about our decline. It reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The plague is on and a mortician is going about with a cart removing corpses from homes for a small fee.

Mortician:           Bring out your dead.
Customer:          Here’s one – 9 pence.
Dead person:    I’m not dead.
Mortician:           What?
Customer:          Nothing – here’s your nine pence.
Dead person:    I’m not dead!
Mortician:           Here – he says he’s not dead.
Customer:          Yes he is.
Dead person:    I’m not!
Mortician:           He isn’t.
Customer:          Well, he will be soon. He’s very ill.
Dead person:     I’m getting better.
Customer:          No, you’re not. You’ll be stone dead in a moment.
Mortician:           I can’t take him like that – it’s against regulations.
Dead person:    I don’t want to go in the cart.
Customer:         Oh don’t be such a baby.
Mortician:           I can’t take him.
Dead person:    I feel fine.
Customer:          Oh do us a favor.

The analyst showed me a graph of the membership of the Episcopal Church in recent years. There was a sharp downturn – not surprisingly corresponding to the years of the schism when five dioceses left the denomination and some parishes split off from dioceses that remained in the fold. However, the last couple of years showed a sharp rebound in Episcopal Church membership. I asked what that might suggest. He said it didn’t mean anything because church membership figures are inherently unreliable. I grant in a heartbeat that membership is not a reliable number. However, my point is that we find membership numbers significant when they show decline, but not when they show growth. I sense a bias in how we read numbers.

     If membership means anything at all, this might be of interest. I cannot find my source for this, but I have been told that the membership of the Episcopal Church today is the same percentage of the American population that it was in the 1920s. Granted that is much smaller than it was in the 1960s but it does put things in a certain perspective.

     Most dioceses I know are reporting growth in attendance. We all have some parishes growing and some shrinking. My experience is that growth and decline shift among parishes in different years. But generally speaking, it’s going pretty well out there in the mission field. The hole in that good cheer is the plight of small town churches. As jobs leave small towns, people go with them, especially young people. That takes a genuine toll on small town churches. But somehow dioceses are reporting increased attendance on the whole. I don’t have official CPG statistics on this. But when I ask how it’s going, Bishops are telling me it’s going well in that respect. Moreover, as people’s schedules are changing, church life is expanding beyond Sunday mornings into various kinds of gatherings for prayer, study, and worship throughout the week in forms that are not generally part of any measuring reports. Theology on Tap for example is bringing untold young people into the Episcopal circle, but no one is counting them.

     Speaking of young people, what about the Millennials – the generation we have supposedly lost? Three points about Millennials:

1.In American Grace, Robert Putnam observes that there is a stage of life factor and there is a stage of history factor in measuring church affiliation. Millennials are at the stage of life when they tend not to affiliate with church; and this is a stage of history with lowered church affiliation. The combination of the two factors makes the statistics on the millennial exodus more dramatic. In other words, the stage of history factor is real but the stage of life factor makes it look like a bigger deal. The pessimistic statisticians report the total as if it were all stage of history.

          2. Now let’s put the stage of history factor in context: Church
 affiliation has declined during an era when all voluntary associations have declined. Every group from the Kiwanis to the NAACP to the neighborhood bowling league have lost membership. See Putnam, Bowling Alone. So our self-recriminations about what we Church folks have done wrong are excessive. We have been through an era of disassociation from civic groups (including all voluntary associations). I don’t meant to let us off the hook completely, but we have primarily been part of that broader trend. The important fact observed by Gilbert Rendle is that American society over the course of history has repeatedly come together in those voluntary associations, vaunted by Alexis de Tocqueville as essential to our free republic, and then seen those associations disintegrate, in order to come together again in new ways. It is a recurring cycle. We have been on the downswing and are nearly due for the next upswing.

3. But let’s acknowledge that there is a special sociological trend that makes the Millennial/ Church situation particularly strong. True, there is an exodus of Millennials from churches. But they are for the most part fleeing from the fundamentalist churches that surged in the 80s and 90s as a backlash against the anti-establishment excesses of the 60s and 70s. The number one adjective people under 30 use to describe Christians is “anti-homosexual.” The old saw that our LGBT inclusion is the cause of our decline is flat wrong when it comes to Millennials. We are in fact ahead of the curve on that point. I have known a good number of young straight people who joined our Church precisely because we are inclusive. For the very reason that overall Millennial/ Church affiliation has declined in recent years, the Episcopal Church is well positioned to attract Millennials when they come to the re-afilliation stage of life.

     The summary conclusion on Millennials is that they are not less spiritually and religiously inclined than their ancestors. They are different and the Church must make some changes in order to be in relationship with this new generation – but without exception, I believe these changes are for the good. The Millennials insist on integrity, authenticity, and mission. They want to see a Church put its time and money where its mouth is. They are not formally affiliated with us now but Millennials place a higher value on community than did the Boomers or the Gen-Xers. They are intrinsically inclined to affiliate in a way that Boomers and Xers are not. To throw up our hands and write off this generation of young Americans would be to abandon them to a secularism unworthy of their good characters.

     So back to the broader question: what is the future of the Episcopal Church? I do not mean for a minute to sound confident or to suggest that we do not need to take bold energetic action for the future. God invites us into a future excitingly and frighteningly different from our past. “Behold I am doing a new thing. Even now it springs up! Do you not perceive it? I am making a pathway in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19 Some of our old ways will not do. Sometimes “new wine will break old wineskins.” Mark 2: 22 But other old ways, by which I mean ways older than the “contemporary” adaptations of the 70s and 80s – old ways, by which I mean the ancient reverent mysterious ways we have somewhat forgotten in our modernizing impulses – these old ways may be the key to our future. “The Scribe who is trained for the Kingdom of God is like a householder who brings out of the storehouse things that are old and things that are new.” Matthew 13: 52

     So here are my three fundamental and absolutely simple points about the future of the Episcopal Church:

1.The future is unwritten. We don’t know what is coming next. The prophets of gloom are expressing an attitude, not a proven fact.

2. God invites to a future of hope and spiritual prosperity. If we don’t want that, we should just say so instead of hiding behind pessimistic fatalism. If we die, it will be an act of ecclesiastical suicide.

3. We must not change in order to survive. That would be self-serving and unbearably boring. We must change in order to dance into the new thing that God is doing, to experience the surprise and delight of grace erupting in new ways.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

WHY I SORTA LIKE ATHEISTS

     We need atheists. I am glad we have them. Atheists disbelieve bad images of God. In most cases, I find that atheists and I disbelieve in the same bad ideas of God. It is important to disbelieve in the bad God some theists proclaim, because He (and I use the word advisedly) stands between us and truth, and elevates to supreme value character traits that are reprehensible – jealously, vengeance, violence, etc.

      For Christians, talking about God has always been tricky business since our idea of God is an infinite progression. We do not believe the ultimate reality and value of everything can be reduced to words. Hence, the Jewish ban on speaking the name of God or rendering a visual image of God. (That is why in the ancient world Jews were often called “atheists.”) Going back at least to the 6th Century, we have insisted that we cannot say anything directly about God. We can only use metaphors that point toward the mystery. We can only use analogies to say God is like this or like that. But we have insisted that these analogies are severely limited. God is actually more unlike anything than God is like it. So whatever we say about God is more wrong than it is right. (Wittgenstein to the contrary, we still must speak of God – but that’s another blog post). So Christian discussion about God should always be “God is like x” – but immediately some one must respond “No not really.” It’s called the via affirmativa (saying something sort of true about God) and the via negative (denying the untruth). It is as old as the Church. Atheists do the via negativa part. We need that.

     The fundamental issue where this plays out is over the question of whether God “exists.” Atheists main point is to deny that there is a being named “God” (or some such thing) who “exists” alongside the other beings in the universe – only this God being is older or smarter or stronger or in some way superior to the rest of us. That is what no doubt what some Christians mean by “God.” But that is by no means the ancient traditional belief of Christianity.

     If we go back to St. Anselm’s 10th Century logical proofs of God, he was not proving the existence of a being among other beings. St. Thomas Aquinas, echoing both Augustine and classical Greek philosophy, referred to God as “Being.” Translators of the mystical Thomist, Meister Eckhart, use the word “suchness.” One of the two greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th Century protested against “the God of theological theism” (meaning the being among other beings) in favor of faith in “the Ground of Being.” The best contemporary theologians do not fall into the category Tillich called “theological theism.” They are closer to the atheists than to primitive theists. If I may presume to quote from my own book, God Of Our Silent Tears:

 Many Christians never get past the children’s Sunday School picture of God as “the man upstairs.” Even if we aren’t so naively anthropomorphic as to think God is a man, we are apt to think he is a being along with the other beings in the universe, only bigger, stronger, smarter, and older. Like the abominable snowman or intelligent aliens, such a being might or might not exist. However, if such a being does exist, he is not God. Orthodox, traditional theology teaches that God is not a being along with all the other beings, just bigger.[i]  Our best contemporary theologians agree. As Kathryn Tanner says, “God is not a kind of thing among other kinds of things.”[ii] God is that out of which all being arises and into which all being sinks when it ceases to be. St. Paul said, “From him and through him and to him are all things,” and “In him we live and move and have our being.” In Christian doctrine, God is the source, the destiny, and the meaning of reality. St. Augustine saw God as the ultimate object of all our longings.

         Monotheism, if we stop to consider all that understanding of the divine nature means, is mind-boggling. When we say “God,” we mean something vastly greater than polytheists would mean by “a god.” We wrap so much up in the word “God.” We know that all reality has a source. Exactly what it is, we can’t say. But it begins somewhere, somehow, in something.[iii] We also know that reality is in motion, in process, that history and evolution are moving forward toward something – and that something toward which it is moving may well be its purpose. The 20th Century Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, wrote of God as the source and the destiny of reality, “the whence and the whither” – “whence comest thou? whither goest thou?”

         Likewise we believe, or at least hope, that there is some deep sense to reality, some order, some meaning. We believe that there is truth and that the truths we know, and the truths we do not yet know, may be ordered within an overarching, comprehensive structure of Truth which we cannot know. We value things. Indeed, we hold that things actually have intrinsic value. And of all that is valuable, there must be that which is most valuable, ultimately valuable, something that finally matters. Just so, we delight in beauty, believing, or at least hoping, that there may be a greatest beauty beyond the reach even of our imagination.”

      Miriam-Webster defines “atheist” as “a person who believes that God does not exist.” The word “exist” means to be a being in the universe separate from the other beings – hence the ex. In that sense, Christians would say, using the classic via affirmative and via negativa, God exists in the sense of being a transcendent reality but does not exist in the sense that other things exist. Atheists are for the most part just denying that God “exists” in the sense that other things exist. They are generally not plugged into the question of transcendent reality.

         Some atheists genuinely believe in a flat, tasteless, meaningless, absurd world devoid of any truth, meaning, beauty, goodness, or value. There are very few of them. Camus’s argument that you can deny all meaning and value to life and still not commit suicide was always his least persuasive point. So this brand of atheist, if they understand what they are saying, usually doesn’t last long. But most atheists would affirm something of truth (otherwise on what ground could they stand to deny God) or some goodness or some beauty in the world. Most would even dare to concede that there might truth that cannot be known, goodness that cannot be achieved, or beauty that they cannot even imagine. They do not choose to use the word “God” to apply to these ultimate values as Christians do. In a sense, we are then just quibbling over semantics. But there is something more bold and distinctive in the Christian use of “God” than just a word for ultimate value. We are rolling all the ultimate values into a kind of unity, saying with Keats “Beauty is truth; truth, beauty.” That is bold faith claim, which atheists might deny, but then they fall more into polytheism than atheism properly speaking.

     So I do rather like atheists. But only “rather,” only “somewhat.” There are a couple of things that bother me – not about atheism as a belief system but about the atheists I have known. First, I rarely sense a willingness on their part to hear me out, meet me on the same field, and talk about what I see as our commonalities and differences. They are often insistent on attributing to me beliefs I do not hold. Many atheists are a bit too fond of shooting straw gods, and unwilling to talk with me about the God I believe in. I know that many people just don’t connect with the language of metaphor and analogy we uses to speak of ultimate things. It’s like colorblindness. I accept that we just cannot speak each other’s tongues. But often I sense that the atheists I talk with are simply unwilling to hear me and consider that what I am saying may not be utterly idiotic. Putting Franklin Graham and Karl Rahner in the same hat is a huge and blatantly unfair category mistake.

     My second objection is this: I have known pompous, bombastic fools who were believers. But I have also known many believers who were gentle, humble, openhearted, and open-minded. I have rarely known atheists who held their disbelief with the same humility and grace as the best of the believers. If they did, I would feel much more at home with them. Honestly, I would prefer the humble and gracious folk, whether they are believers or not to the arrogant of either the believing or he disbelieving creeds.

         I conclude with one final good word about atheists. I have been contrasting atheists with believers (including theists, pantheists, and panenthists [meaning there is a reality that is present throughout the universe but extending beyond the universe – that would be my camp]). Now I compare atheists to the ever growing sect of apathists – that is to say, people who neither believe nor disbelieve, nor even wonder without knowing the answer like agnostics. Apathists just don’t care. They haven’t asked the question. We live in a time of increasing spiritual doltishness. In that context, hurray for the atheists who have asked the right questions even if they have not come to the same answers I have.





[i] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty Of The Infinite (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2003) p. 164.
[ii] Katherine Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and Trinity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2001. p. 4. Kyoto philosopher Keiji Nishitani says, both Being and Nothingness float in an Absolute foundation which Christians call “God.” In the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas called God “Being.” In the 20th Century, Paul Tillich called God “the ground of Being,” the “depth of existence.” They use these terms to say that God is not a being alongside other beings. God is rather the foundation of reality itself.
[iii] We may thing of this source temporally as in the originator or creator of the universe. Or we may think of it ontologically as the foundation, which now holds things in being.is