It Smells, Silly!

In his letter to the Ephesians quoted in the epistle for today, Paul writes:

 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Paul lived in a world in which spiritual energy was experienced as intricately interwoven into the dimension of time and space. This was a world in which the signs of transcendence were to be seen everywhere and in everything. For Paul and the countless generations who shared a prescientific imagination – the divine presence was experienced as deep, and broad, long and high.

We live in the world of the post-scientific imagination. We are people reshaped by a post scientific imagination in which the spiritual life is easily dismissed as at best poetic, and at worst, supernatural. How are we to find in Paul’s words an experience that takes us beyond poetic imagination into a lived experience of the divine within the post-scientific imagination bounded by dimensions of time and space?

It comes down to a matter of perception – or the way we see the world.

For me, this goes to the heart of the struggle to live the spiritual life. Whether we feel we achieve it or not most of us know how to live a good life, a productive and useful life. A good life is encouraged by religious faith. We speak a lot at St Martin’s about collaborating with God in the healing of the world. But the spiritual life is more than sound ethics and social-ecological justice. What about the kind of vivid experience of the spiritual life that Paul is directing attention to? Of course, we love Paul’s enchanted imagination- we feel the inspiration in his words Paul – but do they have an application for us beyond the merely poetic?

Walking Charlie Girl in the early mornings I notice how busy she is following her nose. Cocker Spaniels are irresistible sniffers. They were bred to flush game out of the undergrowth and then to retrieve the downed birds – dutifully, bringing them to their master. On our walks, CG is always sticking her nose under bushes and into hedgerows – and it can get very tiresome indeed.

I often wonder what the world looks like for Charlie Girl. On our early morning walks, the world is primarily a visual experience for me as I keep my eyes peeled to spot in advance anything lying in our path that I know Charlie will want to disgust me by trying to eat. I see the world not only in images, but complex gradients of color and texture. My senses of sound and smell support what is for me a primarily visual experience of the world.

On the other hand, Charlie Girl’s map of reality is made up from a world of smells and sounds. With around 300 million olfactory receptors – most herding breeds average around 225 – her world is alive to dimensions of reality hidden from my measly 6 million receptors.

She also hears better. Young humans can hear up to around 23,000Hz. At 66, I’m probably confined to a range of sound no greater than 12,000Hz. Charlie’s hearing on the other hand, detects sound up to 45,000Hz.

I can only wonder at how different the world must seem to Charlie Girl – a world impregnated with smells and sounds.

All creatures perceive the world through the hard evidence of their five senses. Yet through a rebalance between the senses – our experience of the world can take on very different shape.

Through the physical sciences the post-scientific mind has been able to develop and deepen understanding of the world that in one way takes us beyond the limitations of our five senses. Technology greatly enhances our ability to see into the structures of the material universe in ways that were hidden from Paul. Yet, in our world transcendence -that sense of the more-ness of above and around has been supplanted by immanence – the sense of what lies immediately in front of us. Staying with Paul’s spatial metaphors, the post-scientific mind may see more and more into the depths of the material universe, but it has lost the pre-scientific mind’s sense of the height, breadth, and length of the cosmos.

The problem -at least as I experience it – in the living of the spiritual life we no longer expect to experience the full panorama of cosmic wonderment. Shaped by the materialist philosophy of scientific naturalism religion is shorn of spirituality and spirituality no longer anchored in religious practice becomes the domain of the weird and fanciful. As G.K. Chesterton once remarked: when people stop believing in God, they will believe anything. A sentiment echoed by the Belgian playwright and poet Emile Cammaert who likewise wrote: The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.

For the prescientific mind, limited to the natural operations of the five senses without technological enhancement, a universe defined by the limitations of touch, taste, smell, and sight needed an additional dimension of perception to do justice to the complexity of human experience. The roles of intuition and imagination supplemented – filling the gaps in natural knowledge and experience.

Intuition – that ability to know without knowing how you know – provided a powerful extra element on top of sense experience. Intuition and the enchanted imagination were faculties – more finely tuned in the pre-scientific mind.

In our post-scientific minds intuition and enchanted imagination have atrophied. Today we seek to escape this self-imposed imaginative poverty through magical realism in film and books. We don’t necessarily believe in the superheroes and special effect miracles – but our delight in them points to what we’ve lost in our sense of the height, breadth, length, and depth of the spiritual life.

When it comes to religion, which for most of us is now a matter of ethics and doing good, we reject the supernatural as fantasy. Yet we still crave for it in literatur, art and film. The human imagination needs more than the material universe can provide. So, what are we to do?

What we can know, and in what form we can know it, depends upon the scope and functioning of our own cognitive equipment (John Hick, The Fifth Dimension 1999).

Hick is alerting us to the task at hand concerning reclaiming what he calls the fifth dimension of experience. In terms of Paul’s spatial metaphor, the task for us requires an expansion of our sense of height, length, and breadth to accompany our much-enhanced experience of depth. This is something the practices and exploration of the spiritual life must offer us.The spiritual life opens us to experience the signs of cosmic transcendence within the experience of the imminent universe. It’s simply a matter of recalibrating reception.

Extrapolating on my speculation of how the world looks to Charlie Girl – maybe the transcendent is a matter more of smell and sound than of sight. Smell the cosmos!

A Man’s man

Present Day Context

This week, Carl Nassib became the first NFL player to out himself as an openly gay player. Nassib’s action has been greeted with a chorus of affirmation and support from team owners, coaches, fellow players, and fans. My, what a long way we’ve come in a relatively short time! Despite conservative Christian resistance and hard right political opportunism we see a growing acceptance of homosexuality in mainstream social, sporting, judicial and political life in the US. Across European democracies – where they previously existed – long standing criminal codes against male homosexuality have been repealed. Yet, in increasingly totalitarian Poland and Hungary, government attacks on LGBT+ persons are on the increase, as nationalist politicians deploy the Vladimir Putin playbook.

LGBT+ persons form a convenient scapegoat for rightwing and totalitarian regimes. Like the Jews, gays – especially gay men- represent the feared other of the enemy within. Homophobic persecution is principally directed towards gay men for two reasons:

  1. In patriarchy women don’t really matter.
  2. It’s male homosexuality that evokes an atavistic fear at the heart of male dominated order. Freud noted the paradox at the heart of patriarchy with respect to male homosexuality. He asked: why does something purported to be so rare and so abnormal provoke such powerful reaction?

In Russia and elsewhere, the LGBT+ community is an easy scapegoat for distracting attention away from regime policy failure. Africa continues to pose its own special examples of drastic persecution of LGBT+ communities. Uganda and most recently Nigeria pose examples of recent attempts to impose the death penalty for homosexuality.

With support from conservative Catholics and Protestant Evangelicals, homophobic persecution goes hand-in-hand with political attempts to increase male control over the female body. Draconian anti-abortion legislation such as that enacted with strong support of the Catholic Church in Poland and now being attempted across Republican controlled states in our own country dovetails with homophobic hostility.

What’s in a word?

As a term homosexualitat first appears in 19thcentury German scientific literature. The term causes confusion among English speakers who usually mistake the Greek homo – meaning the same, for the Latin homo-  meaning man-male. 

Homosexuality from the Greek homo means sexual attraction for the same sex, rather than the Latin homo meaning sexual attraction by men for the male sex. Contrary to popular usage the term applies equally to sexual attraction between women as between men.

Biblical Context

Last week’s reading introduced us to the relationship between David and Jonathan, who at their first meeting experience love at first sight!

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

As if to add emphasis – in a somewhat Freudian slip – the text has previously made explicit reference to David’s smooth cheeks and sparkling eyes – allusions to his effeminate youthful ,and at best, androgynous appearance. In today’s installment, we skip forward to the death of Saul and Jonathan; father and son together having fallen in a last stand in battle against the Philistines. With broken heart, David composes one of the great love eulogies of all time. In what came to be known as the Song of the Bow, David cries out in anguish –

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!

How the mighty have fallen.  ….

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! ….

How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle.

Jonathan lies slain upon you high places.

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;

greatly beloved were you to me;

your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

How the mighty have fallen,

and the weapons of war perished!

Commentary

These are the words of one man’s love for another. Issues of gender and sexual identity continue to fuel our current culture wars making for an interesting answer to the question: was David and Jonathan’s love, homosexual?

Or were they just Oxbridge-style soul-friends; the kind of tortured platonic attraction between men much admired among the English upper classes and characterized in the novels of E. M Forster’s Maurice and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; men’s platonic desiring one another with their minds on higher things from the waste up.

Until relatively recently, the story of David and Jonathan has only been read through a patriarchal lens. Biblical commentators have over the centuries gone to considerable lengths to deny any homoerotic inference in the love that David openly declares for Jonathan. 

Contemporary commentators no longer directly deny the homoerotic content of this story but issue strong warnings against the danger of anachronism – that is where we project back into history our current attitudes, values, and ideas. Alongside the development of a feminist biblical lens, there is now, a growing body of commentary committed to a queer reading of this text.  Bruce Gerig openly embraces the homosexual nature of the love between David and Jonathan. David and Jonathan are clearly an emotionally bonded couple. From their first meeting, Jonathan places his love for David above his loyalty to his own father- protecting David from the dangers of Saul’s murderous paranoia – a very big statement in a patriarchal society. On the face of it, by declaring that Jonathan’s love is a love beyond that of women – David, the inveterate womanizer, seems to draw attention to the homoerotic component to the love between them.

Are David and Jonathan great historical gay figures? I see no reason we should not draw from their story encouragement to resist the patriarchal expunging of homoeroticism from the interpretation of scripture. However, I accept that to read a modern polarity of homosexual – heterosexual back into the relationship between David and Jonathan is anachronistic. The terms homosexual and heterosexual, and the distinctions they imply are products of the modern age. David and Jonathan were not gay in the contemporary sense that I would claim that description. The love between David and Jonathan is the sexually charged love common in intensely patriarchal-warrior cultures. From Classical Greece to Samurai Japan, in these tribal-warrior cultures the social and emotional inferiority of women meant that while suitable as the bearers of children, they could never be considered as emotional partners with men. In patriarchal societies the primary emotional identification for men could, and can, only be, other men.

Many of us grew up with the phrase – he’s a man’s man – without ever wondering about the hidden irony. In traditional man’s men’s worlds, there’s a discrete tolerance for homoeroticism, usually involving age difference relationships between older and younger men.

Our social concept of homosexuality as a stable emotional developmental state, existing along a continuum of identity and gender fluidity has little relevance when reflecting on men’s sexual arrangements in such societies.

Conclusions

What’s the value in the story of David and Jonathan for 21st-century readers?

  1. It  questions our assumption that in the patriarchal past, homoerotic relationships were always forbidden. The patriarchal lens is rooted in the Israelite anxiety about homosexuality, evidenced in the early texts of the Torah; an anxiety of a tribal society’s concern about diverting sexual energy away from procreation. Babies meant survival.
  2. Reading the Bible through a non-patriarchal lens reveals more complex wider social nuances – raising the possibility that in Israelite society where the primary emotional identification was between men and not between men and women, homoerotic expression had its place.
  3. For these reasons alone, a patriarchal reading renders the Bible itself as a very unreliable witness in any attempt to prohibit contemporary homosexualities.
  4. The story of David and Jonathan reminds us that a Christian theology of human relationships rests not upon issues of gender but on the capacity for love. Love as emotional commitment and ethical fidelity is the Christian understanding that underpins the experience of a love relationship between significant others.
  5. David is not only an inveterate womanizer –he is a very poor role model for emotional commitment and ethical fidelity as we understand these today. He’s a man of his time and place. A warrior king, abusive husband, and terrible father. He’s also a man with a deep and abiding love for another man. When we stop trying to domesticate him, we can see there’s nothing odd in any of this.  
  6. Human beings may be biologically gendered for the purposes of reproduction, yet this cannot be the final statement on either the purpose of sex or what it means to be made in the image of God.

For 21st-century Christians, it is no longer the gendered identity of the object of our desires that matters, but the integrity of the love that comes to bind two persons in a relationship that is of primary significance for both.

The longing that characterizes such relational love- the giving, the receiving, and the sharing of such love is a direct reflection of the divine nature; of our longing for God, and the longing God has for us.

In that sense David and Jonathan reflect the timelessness quality of human relationship.

It’s the Technology Thing – Stupid!

Two weeks ago, reflecting on the events of Samuel’s anointing of Saul as Israel’s first king, Linda+ noted:

There is plenty to ponder here, with more questions than answers. What should people expect from their leaders? What should they fear? What should influence leaders’ decisions regarding power and vulnerability, war and peace, poverty and wealth, justice and equality?

For the rest of this month, throughout July and into early August – the O.T. readings are taken from the books of first and second Samuel, first and second Kings. These chronicle the goings on in Israel as it grapples with new challenges to its national identity and security.

What we refer to as the Deuteronomic History covers Israel’s transition from a loose tribal confederacy to a centralized monarchy. One of its major themes is the uneasy fit of monarchy within the framework of Israel’s ancient covenant with God.

History has an uncanny rhyming quality. The dramas chronicled in the Deuteronomic History continue to echo into our own time. Like ancient Israel we too are struggling anew with our own national identity. For us it’s as a nation of laws within a guiding framework of the Constitution. New information emerging from the last days of the Trump administration reveal anew the crucial importance of fidelity to the Constitution as our only true defense against the tyranny of mafia style government.

The Covenant between God and Moses – forged on Mount Sinai dictated the kind of society Israel was to be. The terms of the Covenant stipulated that Israel was to have no God but YHWH and consequently in terms of government, there was to be only one king in Israel and YHWH was his name. In the time of Samuel, Israel was forced by external threat into a difficult transition from a tribal confederacy into a monarchy. But fidelity to the covenant confined the powers of the king to the functions of YHWH’s regent.

The Deuteronomists had a simple rule of thumb in assessing the success or failure of a king’s reign. Did he rule as God’s regent, or did he rule as God’s replacement? Was he a faithful servant or a usurper?

The story so far.

  • Samuel’s leadership occurs on the cusp of momentous political change in the face of the long Philistine emergency.
  • The Philistines were a sea marauding people originating from northern Greece. In an apt comparison – they were the Vikings of their day. Over several decades they established colonies along the Mediterranean coast bordering the Israelite Confederation.

For as long as the Israelite tribes had inhabited the hill country, they had warred with their Canaanite neighbors on the coastal plain. But the Philistine threat was different in magnitude. More than the usual tension between neighbors – the Philistine emergency represented the clash of technology on the cusp of the transition from the bronze to iron ages.  The Philistines possessed superior iron-based technology – giving them the military upper hand against the bronze-based weaponry of the Israelites.

Back to the story.

  • The tribal elders came to Samuel and said: look you are going to die soon, and we won’t accept your corrupt sons as judges over us. Therefore, give us king like the nations around us – one who will unite us in battle to defeat our enemies.
  • Against his wishes, after warning the people of the curtailment of the freedoms they could expect under a king, Samuel anointed Saul to be the first king over Israel. Israel may have needed a king, but as it turned out, Saul was not the king it needed.
  • Both Samuel and eventually God grieve over Saul. God sends Samuel out again, this time to Jesse of Bethlehem – in search of a new candidate to anoint as king. After reviewing the beauty parade of Jesse’s strong and handsome sons – men all rather in the Saul mold – you know tall, broad shouldered, bearded and virile – God instructs Samuel to anoint the youngest son, David; a mere boy in the bloom of youth with sparkling eyes and ruddy cheeks.
  • After this secret anointing the next we hear of David is when he appears with Saul’s army preparing for battle with the Philistines.

We all know the story of David and Goliath, the young shepherd pitted against the most ferocious Philistine giant of a warrior. Every Sunday school child knows the outcome of the story of David slaying the mighty Goliath with his slingshot.

We pick up the story following David’s victory when returning with the army to Saul’s house we learn that for Saul’s son Jonathan, it’s love at first sight – remember those sparkling eyes and ruddy smooth cheeks. But Saul is consumed with murderous envy of David. Having appointed him head over the army, Saul is increasingly trapped between and rock and a hard place. With every victory the young David brings home, Saul’s paranoia can only grow as All Israel and Judah loved David; for it was he who marched out and came in leading them.

The winds of historical change are driven in the end not by political or social change but by a society’s capacity to harness the drivers of technological change. History shows that flourishing societies keep abreast of technological change and harness it for constructive ends that mitigate social and political disruption. History shows that societies who fail to embrace and harness technological change become overrun by it and fall behind in the race to the top.

The impact of technological development and its far-reaching effects is crucially important for social harmony within America and for securing our place in the world. All over our country, community and group identity no longer stems from the quiet confidence flowing from economic prosperity. Failure to effectively harness technological change to benefit all has resulted in a crisis of community and social identity – not only in America, but throughout the industrialized first world. Culture war and race have replaced prosperity as the core component of social identity. In culture war a seeming endless gushing of social grievances –amplified by the technological revolution in social media- represents our failure to harness technological change for the wider benefit of sections of society that feel left behind.

We feel powerless in the face of a looming ecological catastrophe. We feel equally helpless as the rapid pace of technological change and its unforeseeable effects reshape our lives for ill as well as good. Left with nothing else, we retreat from our sense of helplessness into the satisfactions of culture war.

One need look no further for the most recent example. Faced with a crisis of identity caused by a shrinking base –itself the result of increasing disillusionment at the Church’s failure to address the challenges of modern life – the Catholic Bishops Conference responded this past week not with addressing the effects of the pandemic, or the growing inequality of rich and poor, or the increasing polarisation of society. In international refugee week no mention was made to the plight of the worldwide refugee crisis – all crises with technological causes. Retreating in the face of ongoing sexual scandals they took refuge in an attempt to weaponize the Eucharist in the service of culture war. Where the Southern Baptists have led the way, American Catholic Church leaders seem intent on following.

Last week I spoke about living on the cusp of change and our paradoxical attitude to change. The changes we long for are also the changes we resist most as hope for the future conflicts with fears of loss of the past. This paradox, I believe, goes to the heart of the current struggles symbolized by the conflicting visions our two main political parties hold for America’s future.

All our current social advances and losses can be traced to the pressures introduced by technologically driven change and in many cases our failure to harness it for the common good. From the shipping of core industry and national infrastructure offshore to the increasing dominance of monopolistic corporations such as Amazon and the seemingly untouchable beneficiaries of the tech revolution -global capitalism riding the winds of technologically driven change demonstrates its allegiance only to itself and not to the communities it exploits.

The rapidly growing threat to cyber security reveals our fundamental infrastructure vulnerabilities as largely resulting from putting corporate profit before technological innovation and security. We live with everyday reminders of this.

Samuel led a people living on a cusp of technologically driven change – much as we are today. Though the fallout was political and societal reorganization from tribal confederacy to centralized monarch the challenges were technologically driven as Israel began under David to embrace the new technology of the iron age – ending the Philistine Emergency.

As we know to our own cost, technological change always triggers political and societal upheaval. Can we learn the lessons of the past to with confidence and courage embrace the opportunities for a different future? Our attitudes towards technology; our ability to harness the fruits of technologically driven change in the service of the common good – will define our answer to this question.

We are living in a time of unprecedented change – on the cusp of a new age. We sense its coming with feelings of dread tinged with expectation and hope.

Being on a cusp between old and new worlds is a bewildering experience. The paradox is that the changes we long for are also likely to be the changes we strongly resist.

In today’s gospel portion from Mark – Jesus presents two conflicting horticultural images for the kingdom’s coming.

The first parable depicts a farmer scattering seed and then getting on with his life, minding his own business while the seed’s germination takes care of itself – it sprouts and ripens. Nothing is required of the farmer until harvesting. Here we find the kingdom presented as the outcome of the stable natural order of growth -between planting and harvesting the process of growth requires no human responsibility.

But then Jesus offers a second parable of the kingdom in the image of the mustard seed. It’s not immediately obvious to us, but it would have been glaringly obvious to his 1st-century Jewish audience – that no one in their right mind would plant mustard seeds in their fields or gardens. So, this parable must have raised a few eyebrows.

Mustard is a wild herb that thrives in the wild and must at all costs be kept at bay from invading organized garden spaces. For the gardeners amongst us – it’s like planting ferns or wisteria in our vegetable gardens. If you know anything about ferns and wisteria- which when living at our house on Burrs Lane I unfortunately discovered – once rooted – neither can be easily eradicated. Traveling through underground vine roots, they quickly take over any planted area of cultivation.

In his commentary on this text, Richard Swanson notes:

The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard. It grows and burgeons. It erupts where and when you’d least expect it. It is destructive to its own ends. It undercuts itself even as it grows. It is chaos and it is life and it is hope and it dissipates its own hopefulness. The question with a parable is not What does this mean?, but What does this do?” What does this make you think about?

The current meeting of the G7 captures the zeitgeist of our time. President Biden and the other leaders of the major democracies are signaling the need for change. But can they bring it about?

At this G7 we’ve heard the collective lamentation of failure to effectively address the global impacts of the pandemic from the leaders of the world’s major democracies. The G7 meeting takes place in the face of growing international tensions – forcing the world back into the dangerous fragmentation of tribal nationalisms.

In China and Russia, the old imperial dream revives. Chinese expansionism allies with Russian mischief making, and we watch helplessly as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin play dress up with the hitherto discarded mantles of Emperor and Tsar. The old totalitarian hubris lives on.

Western Europe is once again riven by petty nationalisms as the members of the Union squabble among themselves. Hollow dreams of Rule Britannia cloud British sensitivity to the destabilization of the post Brexit European order. Petty grandstanding by Boris Johnson – now threatens the hard-won peace in Ireland.

America is in no better position. We awaken to a post Pax Americana morning with the splitting hangover of unreconciled racism, gun violence, and social divisions which like old forest fires that have smoldered underground now reignite in a landscape overgrown with Russian instigated conspiracy theories and bereft of the natural protections of shared civic values and commitment to the democratic vision.

And the travails of the old-world order’s unravelling is but a side show alongside the center stage drama of fast approaching planetary ecological collapse. From the positive feedback from my comments in this week’s E-News Epistle about the need to think globally and act locally, at least this is one matter we find consensus on.

The coming of the kingdom of God is an image that heralds change. The kingdom is a metaphor for the reign of God in this world and it’s abundantly clear to anyone this is a reign yet to be firmly established. But it’s a mistake to see the kingdom’s coming as a metaphor for incompletion. Instead, the kingdom is a metaphor for judgment on a world where things are not as they should be – a world crying out for change to set things to rights. As we find ourselves on the cusp of a transition between the ordered world of a past now gone and the excitement and turbulence of a world yet to come – how does the metaphor of the kingdom’s coming speak to us?

There is a sense of hope in the anticipation of change? Yet there is also a desire to fiercely resist change -fearing disruption and loss. With change we fear that this time will we be the losers?

Will the coming new order result from the controlled arc of the moral universe bending slowly upon its axis towards justice? Or will the new world order come accompanied by upheaval and destruction amidst chaos and unpredictability. The experience of the pandemic and our failure of response has shown us some of what might still lie ahead.

Where the powerful never voluntarily give power up, it must be wrested from them. We are at this kind of cusp – between the old order and the new there is occurring a shift in power relations. Such changes bring both hope but as those who are having change thrust upon us – hope comes with a cost.  

Hope costs are words we should make into a fridge magnet and place them where we have to see them every day. We are a community that naturally embraces change as a moderated, well ordered process. We are a community who expects the kingdom to come in ways we can slowly absorb without too much discomfort.

The kingdom comes with burgeoning hope. But how will hope be realised? Will hope’s arrival be ordered and gradual or chaotic and unpredictable? Swanson again:

This parable [of the mustard seed] is only incidentally about how the dominion of God brings BIG things out of little things. More significantly, it makes it clear that the big things that God’s dominion brings will always shake anything that has (so far) passed for stability and safety. To read it otherwise is to tame it, and comfortable people will try anything to tame the dominion of God. If [w]e succeed, this parable becomes a religious affirmation of [our] own stability. And that is one thing the dominion of God never brings.

What’s in a Name?

Jesus asked his disciples: Whom do people say that I am?

His disciples answered Some say you are John the Baptist returned from the dead; others say Elijah, or another of the old prophets.

And Jesus asked again: But whom do you say that I am?

Peter answered: Thou art the Logos, existing in the Father as His rationality and then, by an act of His will, being generated, in consideration of the various functions by which God is related to his creation, but only on the fact that Scripture speaks of a Father, and a Son, and a Holy Spirit, each member of the Trinity being coequal with every other member, and each acting inseparably, each interpenetrating every other member, with only an economic subordination within God, but causing no division which would make the substance no longer simple.

And Jesus answering, said: Excuse me?

There’s an old term for God which we don’t refer to much these days. It’s the Godhead. Godhead is so much more than a name. It’s a description which hints at the essential nature of the deity. That essential nature hints at the communal rather than the solitary. God is a nickname by which we refer to the Godhead. We have every right to think the Trinity is confusing. But it’s actually very simple.

First a little history. The most expansive articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity was officially accepted at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The doctrine of the Trinity was and remains protective rather than explanatory in nature. The doctrine of the Trinity requires us to tolerate mystery -as in- knowing – but not knowing how we know.

The 4th-century Nicene doctrine of the Trinity is the culmination of three centuries of theological speculation on what begins for the first Christians as a lived everyday experience.

As Jews the first Christians experienced the historical God of their ancestors who brought them up out of the land of Egyptian slavery; who gave them the Torah through Moses; the God with whom they had lived – falling in and out of relationship over centuries of ups and downs.

Yet, as the followers of Jesus, they also had a new experience of God – God with a human face. While living among them, Jesus had taught them a new way of seeing God – God revealed through the intimacy of human relationship – God revealed in a loving look, a casual smile, a kind or not so kind word of instruction from a human voice, a physical touch of a healing God.

After Jesus left them –-they were surprised by a completely unexpected experience of God as indwelling spirit –the Spirit of the risen Christ – now inhabiting deep within them, filling the spaces between them, and enveloping the whole world around them.

By the 4th-century, Christianity had developed from an obscure Jewish sect to become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Religious zeal and political lobbying now ran in the same channel – a phenomenon we today are not unacquainted with. Factional partisanship fanned intense theological disagreements between competing episcopal camps – inevitably spilling out into running street battles between the unruly mobs of their supporters. For a chilling perspective on the death and violence that accompanied the conciliar debates, John Philip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars is a must read.

At issue were attempts to define the nature of the internal relationships within the Godhead. The Emperor Constantine the Great, fearing civil war called the bishops to convene in Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 where he forced them to codify something that earlier generations of Christians had simply lived as an everyday awareness.

At Nicaea, using Aristotelian philosophical concepts of persons and con-substance it was decided once and for all – at least at the official level – that the essence of the Godhead comprised three persons all sharing the one substance. One God in three persons, three persons but only one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To put it in today’s language – three discernable identities emanating from and united within a single relationship. If you think relationship the wrong term here let me go on.

Tradition is a slippery thing. It passes from one generation to another, each subsequent generation receiving the legacy of its forebears. Yet, if tradition is received unchanged – it dies. For Tradition to remain a living force – each generation must reinterpret what is received – so that it speaks to the lives actually lived by Christians facing new challenges and seeking to apply timeless truths in new contexts.  

As I wrote in E-News this past week, you can’t be in a relationship by yourself. There is no such thing as a community of one.  We identify ourselves in reference to others with whom we live in relationship. Today we recognize that individual identity filters through our perception of the way others see us. We catch a glimpse of ourselves in the face of the other – looking back at us.

Andrei Rublev’s famous 14th-century depiction of the Trinity offers a pictorial metaphor of three identical persons – each lovingly gazing upon one another. We see here three identical figures gazing upon each other with a strong mutual love. That there are three attests to the communal nature of relationship within the Godhead. That they are identical attests to their single shared nature. But it’s their mutual gaze that strikes us. It’s as if each figure catches a glimpse of themselves in the reflected gaze of the other two.

We not only see the figures gazing at each other, but we also catch a glimpse of ourselves in the relationship to them for as we gaze at them they are also gazing back at us. We are communal and relational, because God is communal and relational – after all in whose image we were created.

All well and good you might say but can we really continue to talk about God in the gendered terms of Father and Son, with the Holy Spirit not obviously gendered until referred to as he, which is odd because in the Hebrew ruach is feminine and carries the pronoun she.

Patriarchal Tradition – linguistically ascribed masculine identities to the relational elements within the Godhead. Whereas in our own time the drive for linguistic inclusivity is a response to evolving conceptions of gender relations exposing the Tradition’s male gender bias. Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a warning we should hear, however.

We hear the gender bias issue being resolved by referring to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. This may overcome the gendered issue but the problem here is that these terms refer to functions within the Godhead not to relationships. It’s important to remember that the point of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is not gender but relationship.

A better solution is to refer to the members of the Trinity – as I do frequently -Lover, Beloved, and Love-Sharer. These terms preserve the essential relational – can’t have one without the other- nature within the Godhead.  

It is the relational quality within the community of God that commends itself so powerfully to us – living increasingly in a world where relationality, its presence or absence, is the measure of meaning and an indicator of quality of life.

If only the Nicene Fathers had had the benefit of an Irish poetic sensitivity:

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,
Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,
Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,
Frost, snowflakes, and ice, all in water their origin share,
Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.                                
Celtic Prayer to the Trinity.

Reboot

In the lead up to Pentecost in 2021, I’ve felt the preacher’s perpetual dilemma when facing into the great feasts of the Church – what’s new to say? It’s easy to forget however that each anniversary or stopping off point in the yearly cycle of Christian celebration happens in a new and changed context. The texts and theme remain the same from year to year, but with each revolution of the yearly cycle – the texts and themes echo into and are heard in a new context.

I’ve been wondering about guidance and journeying during this past week – and the words: you can’t get there from here – have been on my mind a lot. I mentioned this to a couple of friends who informed that this was an expression much favored by the residents of the great state of Maine where – upon asking for and being given directions you’re likely to be told oh, but you can’t get there from here.

On this day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit not only to the community of the Church, but to each one of us by virtue of our baptism – I’m aware that our Christian journey – historically speaking- has a Jewish-Palestinian starting-off point.

The root of Christianity lies buried deep in the cultural soil of Palestine. This means any flare-up in current Israeli-Palestinian tensions feels to us more than a local Middle Eastern affair. The events taking place across Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza during these past days have had the feel of something infinitely more serious than the normal ongoing level of intercommunal tensions. In our Christian liturgies we have the historic request to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. This year the prayer carries a deeper urgency. With Jesus we want to cry out Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

With due regard to the complexity of opinion and passion that can ignite over the Israel-Palestine question – it’s probably foolhardy of me to even think about touching this third rail of controversy. But on this day of all days – Pentecost Sunday, I feel recent events cannot pass without mention.

You will recall the story of the Gordian Knot – a knot tied by Gordius, king of Phrygia, held to be capable of being untied only by the future ruler of Asia. Many had tried to untie it before Alexander the Great simply cut the knot with his sword. A bold solution. The Israel-Palestinian question – not to mention our conflicting thoughts and feelings concerning it – presents a classic example of the Gordian Knot.

There is an earnest desire for peace on all sides, but peace is a destination – and it’s a there that cannot be reached if you start from here.

Any attempt to talk about the situation runs immediately into questions of mind-numbing complexity:

  • How much is Western European political criticism of Israeli action a thin veil for an older anti-Semitism?
  • How much is an easy American condemnation of Palestinian violence a cover for anti-Muslim prejudice?
  • How can the Christian-nationalist right be so virulently pro-Zionist and yet remain violently anti-Semitic at the same time? -Remember the chant Jews will not replace us arose from this section of our society.
  • Can Israel be both a democracy and a nationalist Jewish state at the same time?

Peace is a journey as well as a direction we journey in search of. Peace is a destination – a there – and no matter the directions given –  you just can’t get there if you insist beginning the journey from here. Hence the need for accurate guidance.

For there can be no peace without justice.

The birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus evidences a – you can’t get there from here God moment realization. In Jesus, we Christians believe that the Creator-God personally enters within the process of creation and with the gift of the Holy Spirit God reboots the whole creation system – resetting the direction for its subsequent unfolding.

At Pentecost, the divine Spirit –once brooding over the creation now becomes actively engaged from within – empowering you and me to become the change we long to see. As Christians we believe the Holy Spirit now empowers us with agency, filling the depths within us, inhabiting the spaces between us -enveloping the world around us. The Spirit reboot, empowers us to partner with God in the work of nurture and repair of the creation.  

Acts 2 – which begins with amazing pyrotechnics of wind and flame announcing the Holy Spirit’s descent into the world amidst the polyglot cries of those present that differences separates us from one another, no more. The chapter ends with Luke offering an amazing glimpse into the Pentecost events immediate effect on the community of Jesus followers.

All who believed were together and had all things in common. Those with wealth disposed of it for the benefit of all – and they gathered in community both in the Temple and privately for the breaking of bread in memory of Jesus.

This is a glimpse of the destination which we can only reach when we begin our journey from the right place.

The trick is to recognize when we’ve gone off track.  Let me suggest a final image on this feast of Pentecost in 2021. These days when we get lost – we have a GPS voice telling us to take the next legal U-turn – showing us how to get back to from we should have started our journey in order to each our desired destination.

Among the many names for the Holy Spirit perhaps we need to add a new one – that of Holy GPS – the ultimate life guidance system.

Vine and Branches

I am the vine; you are the branches!

There is an old African saying:

If you want to go fast – go alone; if you want to go far – go together.

In these weeks following Easter we have opened again for in-person worship alongside our continued livestream. We are all experiencing the joy of moving tentatively, yet assuredly forward together – moving into a time when not everything is defined solely by the pandemic. Despite our in-person worship still having some restriction – the biggest of which is still no congregational singing – everyone who has the experience of returning says how good it is to be back!

The experience of pandemic restrictions on our church and social lives has paradoxically expanded our sense of virtual connection. This alone will not be enough. We must rise to the increasing challenge to give an account for why we exist. In a world increasingly moving away from institutional church affiliation this is the most important question of all and will dictate the contours of our future.

As more and more of us return to in-person presence in worship – our livestream worship becomes an additional long range arrow in our quiver. Virtual worship enables participation from those among us who for reasons of age or infirmity, temporary sickness, or other reasons – cannot be physically present in worship.  What it is not, is a permission to stay away from in-person worship!

I see our livestream worship as an outreach channel connecting us with the spiritually curious – whose curiosity about faith might be encouraged through their exposure to our online worship – those who might one day risk the counter cultural action of walking through our red doors for an in-person experience on Sunday morning.

The church’s institutional decline in our time mirrors the disaffection with institutions across the Western World. Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z’ders raised in a time when many of our hallowed institutions have increasingly failed to deliver on their promises, automatic loyalty of previous generations to institutions is being seriously challenged. This is compelling us all to question beyond our experience of church as an institution. If no longer as an institution, how might Christian communities redefine themselves?

Jesus focused on relationships not religion. He certainly had little interest in forming a new religion with an institutional product. Jesus projected his experience of being in relationship with God into the relationships he built with his followers. By extension he taught them how to make their connection to him into relationships with one another.

In the 1st letter of John, Jesus says:

No one has seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us.

This is a later echo of Jesus Great Commandment recorded in John’s gospel:

Love one another – by this the world know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.

His teaching points to a way of life that seems simple enough! Well at least clear enough though not necessarily simple to live.

Elsewhere, Jesus paints word pictures of what relationship with God looks like through the use of arresting metaphors that draw their power from being taken from every day and the familiar aspects of life. Last week’s gospel portion from John 10 Jesus uses the metaphor of the good shepherd whose love for the flock has a very intimate and self-sacrificing intensity. In today’s gospel – He continues in John 15 with another powerful metaphor – that of the vine and its branches. This is a metaphor that speaks of the organic life of relationship.

It seems to me that the future of the church in our own century lies in a return to Christian communities defined as vision movements putting core spiritual values into concrete practice. This will require letting go of our investment in church as an institution. I don’t mean we should abandon the institution but allow the nature of our identity and sense of purpose to shift with and not fight against institutional decline. In other words, to take advantage of institutional decline to be freed and renewed by the presence of the risen Christ in the world.

Such a shift in orientation will go to the heart of our evangelism. Is our evangelism aimed at shoring up the flagging membership of the institution, or is our evangelism focused on winning hearts and changing lives? Do we want to revive our flagging enculturated institution – or will we take a new opportunity to put into practice Christ’s counter-cultural message of love – and in the words of St Paul –  give a good account of the faith that is within us?

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

Through cracks in the institution of the church –  a new vision movement emerges – inevitably setting in motion the cycle from movement- to institution – to decline in motion once more.

Historically, we find ourselves in the scary but also exciting institutional decline stage of the cycle. As we contemplate the overall cycle of larger decline – at local levels we continue to celebrate signs of vitality. For instance we are moving to celebrate the success of our recent capital campaign. For some, this is a sign of the revival of the institutional St Martin’s fondly remembered. For most of us, we are not so sure. We grope our way forward – somehow sensing that our recent campaign success must be used to transition us into a different kind of future – the contours of which have yet to fully emerge.

I’m a member of a small parish working party that is currently participating in a five-week stewardship seminar series involving a wide range of attendees from across the Episcopal Church. The first question we have been asked to address  why we exist?

Simon Sinek in a video called Getting to the Why, addresses the question: why is Apple so innovative? Year after year, they have proved themselves more innovative than the competition yet like their competitors, they are just computer company, operating in the same business climate and conditions as every other computer company.

Sinek drawing three concentric circles on the board wrote why in the center of the three circles – then how in the middle circle, and finally what in the outermost circle. He noted that every single person in an organization will know what the organization does. Some will know how the organization achieves what it does. But he claims very few will know why the organization does what it does.

By the why – Sinek is referring to purpose not product. What is the cause or belief that explains not only why an organization exists but also the paramount question – why should anyone else care? Most organizations begin at the outer circle and move inwards. They will tell us what they do and maybe how they do it but are silent on why they do it. Making a profit or a product is not a why – it’s a result or a goal. In contrast, innovative and inspired organizations move from the center circle outwards – telling us why they exist before moving onto what they do and how they do it.

Sticking with Apple he gives an example. (If you click on the link here or above – listen from 2:17- 4:02.)

Following Sinek’s approach compare the following two pitches:

We have a beautiful church and an active community. We marry progressive theology to traditional worship. We have fun and do good– want to join us?

and..

Everything we do strives to give an account of the faith within us to become better equipped for the purpose God has for us. We are a community on a journey together in the belief that if you want to go fast journey alone but if you want to go far journey together. We will be greatly strengthened by your presence with us. Will you join us?

Jesus said

I am the vine; my father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes and makes it bear more fruit. … I am the vine; you are the branches … because apart from me you can do nothing.

The Good Shepherd

The Lectionary – the texts for Sunday worship revolves on a three-year cycle. This may suggest a tedious repetitiveness. For instance, every three years the gospel reading for the fourth Sunday after Easter is always the good shepherd passages from John 10. It’s always tempting for the preacher to recycle the sermon preached three, or six, or even nine, years ago. After all, what new insights can be shared that have not been shared before?

The texts may repeat, but each repetition is read – and more importantly – heard within a new context. 2021 is not 2018, nor is it 2015. Changing context brings a dynamic quality of the unexpected to the reading of familiar texts. Words matter. But it’s context that makes them so.

The historical themes of human folly repeat, but they repeat in new contexts. So much of our recent experience of populist authoritarianism forged in the heat of the cultural grievances that accompany the transition between the collapse of the old order and the arrival of the new– is historically familiar because as Mark Twain wryly observed, history does not [exactly] repeat itself, but it [certainly] rhymes.

Coming out of the Trump presidency we continue to live through the repetition of history’s dark old themes of race and religion expressed in the grasping for simplistic and caustic authoritarian responses in the face of complex social change. History rhymes in our current period. Context changes everything! Even the old rhymes and familiar topes now sounding into a new context of global environmental catastrophe.

Our world – the earth our island home – is shifting on its axis. The earth shifting on its axis is not a metaphor, though it is also this. Our planet is now literally shifting on its axis as the effects of human induced glacier and polar ice melt is literally shifting the geographical magnetic points of axis – generally known as the north and south poles.

Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s environment editor, wrote this past week of the marked shifts in the Earth’s axis of rotation – a process first noticed in the 1990’s and now rapidly accelerating.

The geographic north and south poles are points at which the axis of rotation intersect the surface of the earth. But these points of intersection are not fixed and changes in the earth’s mass resulting from the redistribution of water in the oceans is causing the axis points to shift.

Increasingly dire consequences – if you forgive the pun – will increasingly flow. The currents that stabilize climate are changing because of both ice melt and the pumping of stored land water which eventually flows into the increasing rise of the oceans. These changes – now irrefutably the consequence of human induced global warming – are having – and will continue to have – multiple knock-on effects.

The recent flurry of international efforts – thankfully ones in which the US has retaken a leadership role – only underscore what climate science has been telling us about the dire impact human induced climate change is now having on the very rotation of the planet.

Texts may be unchanging, but the contexts in which they are read and heard are not. Words may matter, yet it’s the constantly changing contexts into which they sound – that makes them so.

Hearing the words in John 10 in 2021 – we find Jesus speaking about himself as the good shepherd. Amidst the environmental catastrophe now threatening a future of global extinction – how does the good shepherd text now sound to us?

In the 1st– century context the shepherd metaphor carried a particular significance that in the 21st– century context is easily missed.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

The following comparisons make my point.

As we ate and looked, almost spellbound, the silent hillsides around us were in a moment filled with sounds and life. The shepherds led their flocks forth from the gates of the city. They were in full view and we watched and listened to them with no little interest. Thousands of sheep and goats were there in dense, confused masses. The shepherds stood together until all came out. Then they separated, each shepherd taking a different path, and uttering, as he advanced, a shrill, peculiar call. The sheep heard them. At first the masses swayed and moved as if shaken with some internal convulsion; then points struck out in the direction taken by the shepherds; these became longer and longer, until the confused masses were resolved into long, living streams, flowing after their leaders. Such a sight was not new to me, still it had lost none of its interest. It was, perhaps, one of the most vivid illustrations which human eyes could witness of that beautiful discourse of our Savior recorded by John. Cited by B.W. Johnson in his commentary The People’s New Testament, 1891)

Reminiscent of the way birds swarm – wheeling and turning – forming intricate patterns before re-swarming and moving across the sky as one – I watched as down in the valley the placidly grazing sheep began to race here and there – scattering before reforming into a flock moving first this way then that and eventually as on flock up moving up the hill side. I heard their panicked sound as they rushed over the brow of the hill – chased by the incessant barking of the shepherd’s dogs –who like the sheep wheeled and turned in response to his shrill whistles – wheeling around to drive the bleating stragglers back into the flock before diving among them -nipping at their heels in order to drive the sheep forward in response to the shepherds’ commands. The shepherd moved towards the sheep pen gate – opening it so that his dogs could drive the panicked and complaining sheep through the narrow opening into the corralled space of the fenced off holding paddock. With the sheep safely inside, the shepherd mounted his ATV and calling his dogs to follow as he headed off into the dusk. As night settled, the sounds of aggrieved panic among the sheep subsided – as with darkness falling, they settled down for the night.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

In the 1st– century context the shepherd metaphor carried a particular significance that we are likely to miss because of the changed sheep husbandry practices of the 21st– century context. The point of the comparison is not to suggest that modern shepherding practices in highly mechanized farming economies should revert to ancient Middle Eastern practice. The point is to reconnect with the spiritual message of Jesus’ shepherd metaphor – that is to connect with the spiritual purpose for which he employs it.

The good shepherd offers us timely images. The first is of the shepherd who calls the sheep to follow him – because like the suckling human infant who instinctively recognizes the mother’s voice – his sheep intimately know and trust his voice. The second metaphor is of sheep being driven forward panicked by fear. The sheep in the modern context know nothing of the shepherd’s voice. If they hear his voice amidst the cacophony of whistled commands and incessant dog bark – it’s the voice of impatiently shouted commands addressed not to them, but to the dogs herding them.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

Which metaphor will speak to our experience of God?

Jesus uses the good shepherd metaphor to communicate the intimate nature of relationship with God. The essence of this relationship lies in being attuned to the sound of God’s voice guiding us amidst the challenges we face. The voice we can trust – helping us to distinguish in these challenges the new opportunities that will lead us into a future that is more than a mindless, fear driven repetition of our past.

Recognition means to be able to distinguish the siren voices of the choices born of fear; simplistic short-sighted solutions resulting in the exercise of crude power; siren voices that have never led us anywhere good before. Recognition means the capacity to listen for the timeless sound of God’s voice calling to us through the ancient texts of our scriptures as they sound into new contexts. We learn to tune in – and with trust to follow the familiar voice that God uses to call us to our vocation as Christians in the world.

Jesus said I am the good shepherd. .… I know my own and they know me. …. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

Nothing has changed. It’s still as true now as it was when Jesus first uttered this teaching.

Jesus offered these words to his followers in anticipation of the chaos and collapse that was coming. Through his death and resurrection – the willingness of the good shepherd to lay down his life for his sheep – God opened a new chapter in the story of salvation. Our lives unfold – equipped for God’s purpose -shaped by this story of the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

Although we know its ending, this story is not yet over. We continue to live into its truth that through the good shepherds willingness to lay down his life for his sheep a new future is opened up for us.

The followers of Jesus made it through. Trusting to the sound of God’s voice guiding us to better choices – in the knowledge that through the good shepherd’s willingness to ultimately pay down his life for his sheep – we become the good shepherd husbanding the process of God’s good repair.

Superspreaders of Joy

Ross Douthat in a recent op-ed The Secularization of America noted the latest Gallup poll showing that for the first time in its decades of polling, fewer than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue or mosque. The fall has been swift: From 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

Of course, there is no single explanation for this phenomenon. Generational shift – with many millennials and those following rejecting the value system espoused in the Christianity of their parents. The post boomer generations have come to associate Christianity with the Southern Baptist -Evangelical kind of Christianity which they see as simply a religious handmaid for a paranoid, nationalist, political agenda. The polarizing language of them and us that accompanies this paranoid worldview – repels more spiritual seekers than it attracts. One might argue that this may be a case of tossing the evangelical baby out with the otherwise Christian bathwater. However, such argument is neither here-nor-there when we consider that non-Evangelical Christianity is now seen as only so much bathwater.

Douthat notes that the American educated class is deeply committed to a moral vision that regards emancipated, self-directed choice as essential to human freedom and the good life. The members of this section of the population – to which you and I actually belong, do not take kindly to any external judgements being made on the virtues or not of individual choice – delivered from on high by some remote authority. Like the rich young man in Mark’s gospel we seek the answer of salvation only in as much as it does not challenge our own moral self-sufficiency.

Two influences transformed the experience of the followers of Jesus. The first was pneumatic inflation with the Holy Spirit. According to John’s account, Jesus puffed the Holy Spirit into the band of dispirited followers in the upper room, banishing their fear with his peace. The second was material need. A members of a community of relatively poor individuals, living in a hostile religious and political environment, they realized that a radical sharing of resources was the only way they could survive. They clearly found this approach to a common life supported by their memory of Jesus’ command to love and serve one another.

Both these influences led to the transformation of the followers of Jesus from a disconsolate, grieving band into a dynamic and confident community. Their radical approach to living in a new and inspirited way equipped them to use their limited resources to avoid the pitfalls of what usually happens in situations of scarcity – the tendency to division into haves and have-nots. Willie James Jennings, the current professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale, sums this all up: We see money being used to destroy what money is usually used to create: distance and boundaries between people. Jennings here articulates the heart of the millennial critique of privatized – capitalist inspired – religion.

Luke also records the post resurrection encounters between Jesus and his disciples. The settings and incidental details change but the essential reports of the kind of experience between Jesus and his disciples remain consistent. Yet, Luke hints at a third aspect of the early Christian transformative experience. He tells us that they were overtaken by joy while still in the midst of doubting and questioning.

Shouldn’t joy expel any doubts and questions? It seems that whatever joy is it is not a panacea for doubt.

So, what is joy? In our society we are dedicated  to the pursuit and achievement – if we can – of happiness. After all, doesn’t the constitution guarantee us Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?

In common parlance joy and happiness are used interchangeably. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines happiness as: a state of well-being and contentment: joy. It’s my contention that this near universal conflation of happiness and joy causes us endless emotional and spiritual confusion.

Happiness is an emotion – a transitory emotional state – often no sooner felt then lost. Happiness is the fruit of an experience of fortuitous events – something goes well, and we feel happy in response. When the wheel of good fortune turns, happiness is replaced by a multiplicity of opposites: despondency, disaffection, sadness, even depression.

Despite the dictionary definitions – joy is not an emotion or transitory emotional state like happiness. Joy is a spiritual virtue – a persisting spiritual state of mind – an orientation of the heart. Joy is also motivational – propelling – compelling us to choices we might otherwise not risk taking. Joy – persists in the face of the chances and changes – old Prayerbook language for the ups and downs of this mortal life. Joy persists despite the ups and downs in life – because – it’s not a transitory emotional state. Once it enters our lives, along with the companion spiritual virtues of hope and love – joy motivates our future direction of travel.

In trying to tie joy down all I can do is point to an experience of the persistence of joy in my life. Looking back I can trace joy not in the feelings I felt but in the choices I felt compelled to make. It is joy that has sustained someone like me – always doubting, second guessing, questioning – in the Christian faith. But if I can point to one single instance – On the feast of the Falling Asleep of Blessed Mary, the Mother of Jesus, August 15th, 2005 our granddaughter Claire Elise was born. This event became a central organizing experience of joy in the middle years of my life.

All grandparents will know what I am talking about here -parents too – but the joy of grandparenthood far surpasses the joys of parental responsibility. I can only say that Claire’s birth marked a serious invasion of joy that in my experience has little comparison.

Claire’s birth set a chain of events in motion -the end result being a major life change. After 30 years of productive professional and fulfilling personal life in London, joy compelled Al and I to risk a major relocation from the UK to the US at a midpoint in our lives. Joy – a spiritual orientation of the heart – a longing for the connections of love in the life of our granddaughter compelled us to leave the familiar and secure and journey into the unknown of a future with no fixed certainties. Joy – the orientation of the heart became the compass setting – pointing towards the future.

The process of migration – a complex process of leaving, arriving, and the ups and downs of settling involved many emotional and material challenges. Al and I came without jobs and few assurances for the future. The risk for me also included the uncertainties of immigrant status. Moments of happiness came – and – just as quickly went.

I believe that the essence of joy’s persistence lies in its nature as an irresistible motivational compulsion that carries us through whatever challenges we might face – the doubts and the questions.

Douthat laments: My anthropological understanding of my secular neighbors particularly fails when it comes to the indifference with which some of them respond to religious possibilities, or for that matter to mystical experiences they themselves have had.

Coming out of the experience of the pandemic during which our world has shifted on its axis is in some senses comparable to the changes facing the early Christian community. Both situations involve a challenge of transformation. How will joy motivate – propel – compel us to be the active agents in the changes we want to see in the world around us? I think this is a question that lies at the heart of the persistence of joy among us.  In this moment of time new directions open up before us – new opportunities which hitherto we considered unrealistic become imaginable possibilities. However, as with hope and love, joy motivates but also compels us to take a risk.

The presence of joy in Christian communities – the source of which lies in the continued presence of the power of the risen Christ among us – makes us magnetic. To be magnetic is to be a community of attraction. I’m not sure many in the 1st-century flocked to the fledgling Christian communities for rational, worldly sensible reasons. I think they were attracted by the joy manifested by these communities.

We face some enormous challenges concerning the future of Christian communities in an ever-secularizing society. As we face the urgent imperative for renewal, we have to stop asking where is our renewal to come from? The source of renewal lies within us – in our ability to show how the faith within us makes a difference in our lives.

The early Church grew by leaps and bounds because people wanted what the first Christians seemed to have had. In a joyless world they became compelled by joy to join risk-taking communities. No one explained joy to them, they just became infected by it.

Douthat notes it is a mistake to focus too much on overt obstacles to people finding what they desperately seek in the Church. There are many barriers for them to overcome first – an important one being the way the Church currently is. Many barriers to active participation in organized communities of faith could as Douthat notes – be partially removed, rolled back a little way. But the rub is something else will still be needed – which he articulates as the impulse, the push, that makes people seek and knock and ask.

What’s required today as the church faces increasingly rapid institutional decline? I’m convinced that the answers – whatever they may be – lie within us as communities inflated with the Holy Spirit and motivated by joy – continually moving beyond happiness into joy – moving through sadness into joy – joy a persisting spiritual state of mind – an orientation of the heart – a motivational – propelling – compelling force that enables us to persist in taking risks despite our endless doubts and fears. How attractive – how infectious might that be for a world hungry for belonging?

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑