Archives For Thomas Aquinas

Untitled10I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Knowing most folks won’t read long boring books,  I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

I’ve used the catechism of the Catholic Church as a basic skeleton of categories. I’ve phrased the questions in the approximate wording of the questions I’ve received from doubters and believers over the past couple years while the answers are an incestuous amalgamation of Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas, David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas and all my other theological crushes.

Here are Q’s 4-6

I. The Father

4. What do we mean by calling God Creator?

We call God ‘Creator’ not because God at some point long ago created the world.

If the world ceased to exist, God would still be ‘Creator,’ for all the atomic laws and mathematical principles which comprise the world- and which God created- would still exist.

We call God ‘Creator’ because God is the Cause of all that exists in the universe and holds it all, at all moments, in existence and apart from God, at any moment, all would cease to exist.

By ‘Creator’ we mean God is our answer to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?

“For in God we live and move and have our being.” – Acts 17.28

5. Can God be proven?

No.

God cannot be proven because God is not a god. God is beyond the limits of science, the powers of reason or the perceptions of sensory experience because God is not a being within the material, observable universe.

God is Being itself, distinct from and encompassing all universes.

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closet relationship with the Father, has made him known.” – 1 John 1.18 

“…God’s greatness is unsearchable.” – Psalm 145.3

6. Can God be disproven?

No.

God cannot be disproven because God is not a god. God is beyond the limits of science, the powers of reason or the perceptions of sensory experience because God is not a being within the material, observable universe.

God is Being itself, distinct from and encompassing all universes.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” 

– Isaiah 55.8

 

 

 

Defiance_Logo_Tv_ShowMy friend Morgan Guyton points out: ‘when Paul uses the term haeretikos in Titus 3:10 that gets translated into our term “heretic,” the problem with the person he’s describing is not the incorrectness of his views, but his divisiveness.

Ironically, the greatest heretic-hunters are usually themselves the greatest heretics if we are using the word the way that the apostle Paul used it.’

The same point Morgan makes from Paul can be made by way of St Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasAs I’ve been hammering here on the blog lately, Aquinas’ central thesis in his Summa Theologica is that the God who reveals himself in the Burning Bush (‘I Am He Who Is’) is not a god among the gods of the world. God is not an object within the material universe. God is not a kind (Thomas uses the word ‘genus’) of being alongside other beings like you or me.

God is the Source of Being. It’s because of God that anything from quarks to quacking ducks is at all. It’s because of God that there are somethings instead Nothing.

Everything that is is because of God, and that includes everything that happens, all our thoughts and deeds and decisions exist because of God.

A song relies upon the singer to keep it in being; likewise, God is the cause of all things in every moment.

As Hebert McCabe elaborates on Thomas:

“It is quite a thought that if you choose to break the law of God by cruelty or indifference to suffering, it is the Lord who is keeping you in existence while you are doing this, from second to second.

To think you are defying the Lord is the ultimate absurdity and contradiction, for you only exist, you only are because of God.

This self-delusion, the delusion that you can stand over against God, that you are not a creature- this is what sin is.”

It’s worth repeating in case you skipped past the quote: to think you can defy God, who is at every moment the cause of your being at all, is the definition of sin. images

It’s to deny a creature-hood which entails God’s constant sustaining. It’s to imagine we’re something more than creatures- to imagine we’re gods, free and independent of God except when we call upon the great cosmic butler.

And when see ourselves as already more than creatures, we forget the meaning of salvation: that God aims to take us beyond our creature-hood in the Son and through the Spirit into the life of the Trinity.

If imagining that we can defy God is the most basic and thus the most absurd of all sins, then ironically…

it’s those of us who obsessively point out other people’s sins- those people we perceive to be defying God- who are the worst sinners of all.

We look at people and refuse to see them for what they are: creatures held in being by God at every moment- every moment- of their lives.

In other words, Thomas simply points out what we learn from the Elder Brother’s refusal to join the Father’s Feast (Luke 15).

Sin = Refusal of Grace.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meetingFor all the crap I give Joel Osteen for his toothy grin, his Dapper Dan hair, his swarmy, snake-oil salvation sales pitch and his dilution of the Gospel to the basest of our American prosperity-driven desires, I have to admit Joel Osteen gets exactly right what so many other ‘enlightened’ or ‘faithful’ Christians get wrong.

Prayer.

If what you really want in your heart of hearts is to happen upon an empty parking space or to receive that promotion at work, then Joel Osteen thinks, by all means, go ahead and pray for the rock-star parking spot outside Nordstroms. If that’s what you really want, you should pray for it.

Pray for whatever you really want, Osteen says.

And I agree.

joel_osteen_by_bdbros-d4cnmxiAs a pastor in a mainoldline Protestant tradition, I know more Christians who are reluctant to pray than are ready to pray, and I’ve found that one of the primary reasons people find it hard to pray is that they pray for the wrong things.

That is, they pray for the things for which they think they’re supposed to be praying. They pray for ‘spiritual things,’ rather than the things they actually want.

Too often people feel they ought to want a cure for cancer or the end of 3rd world hunger when really they want a nice bonus at work so they can buy that new flat screen and so they pray for the former when the latter is who they really are.

But it would selfish and unChristian to pray for a TV instead of the hungry being fed, right?

No.

Joel Osteen doesn’t think.

And I don’t think so.

And neither did Hebert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher.

Herbert McCabe, said that the distractions people experience in prayer are really their real wants and concerns breaking in their feigned, bogus wants and concerns that we think are the only proper ones for prayer.

“When you are really praying for what you really want you won’t be distracted” McCabe writes, “the prayers of people on sinking ships are rarely troubled by distractions.” 

Because all prayer is an entering into the life of the Trinity through the Spirit, McCabe taught that prayer is a matter of bringing ourselves- in the form of our wants and needs- before the Father.

If we don’t bring our authentic, flat-screen desiring selves to God but instead pretend to be altruistic, pious saints then we don’t really make contact with God at all.

imagesAs McCabe writes:

“Prayer of petition is a form of self-exploration and at the same time self-realization. If we are honest enough to admit our shabby infantile desires, then the grace of God will grow in us…it will slowly be revealed to us, precisely in the course of our prayer, that there are more important things that we truly do want. But this will not be an abstract recognition that we ought to want these things; we will really discover a desire for them in ourselves.” 

I have my doubts about syrupy Joel O’s authenticity; nonetheless, his angle on prayer is spot-on.

If parking-space wanting you is the genuine you then pray for the damn parking space instead of peace in the Middle East.

As in most things so with prayer and discipleship, you’ve got to start with where you are.

You can only become someone else, through grace, if you begin with who you really are.

Herbert again:

“We will never grow in the life of prayer if we begin by imagining that we are St John of the Cross. We have to begin with our own infantile imperfect grasping state. All that the Father requires of us is that we recognize ourselves for what we are. He will attend to the growing. He will grant the increase. Children will never mature if they are treated as adults from the age of two.” 

So maybe there’s a reason Joel O’s books and preaching are pablum. Maybe, just maybe, he recognizes what his audience does not- what more ‘sophisticated’ mainoldline Christians do not:

Just how childish we really are.

True prayer begins with owning it.

lightstock_98305_xsmall_user_2741517A folktale about worship goes thusly:

Once there was a rich man who fell in love with a maiden, who was beautiful in form and more beautiful still in character. The sight of her brought him much joy but also much grief, for unlike the maiden he was ugly outwardly and even more unsightly within.

Being so repulsive, he knew he would never win her heart so he struck upon a plan. He approached a mask-maker and requested a mask that would make him appear handsome to the beautiful maiden. The mask-maker did as he was asked. The mask transformed the rich man into a handsome man. In love with the maiden, the masked man did his best to summon the character to match his new outward beauty. He asked the maiden to marry him and ten years of happiness ensued.

But the masked man knew he was carrying a secret. Every day it weighed on him more. He wanted to know if his wife loved him. What’s more, he knew marriage should not be founded on deceit.

One day, filled with fear over what his decision would bring, the husband returned to the mask-maker’s door and made yet another request: this time to the remove the mask.

The mask-maker did as he was asked and the husband returned home fearful.

To his surprise, when his wife saw his unmasked face she showed no reaction whatsoever. No shock. No revulsion. No disgust.

Not understanding, the husband grabbed a mirror and looked only to discover that his face was handsome, not at all like he had once been.

He returned a third time to the mask-maker, looking for an explanation.

The mask-maker told him: you’ve changed.

You’ve loved a beautiful person and become beautiful too by loving her.

You’ve become like the one you’ve loved.

For Augustine, worship is the most important thing we do as Christians because it’s in worship that we adore God and through worship that we become more like the One we adore.

Thomas Aquinas always pointed out Paul’s teaching that when we pray it’s not something we do. We can’t comprehend God.

No, when we pray and worship it’s God the Holy Spirit do so in and through us.

We become what we love, what is loved through us.

This stress is woven into the very terms we use.
The word ‘worship’ is a combination of the words ‘worthy’ and ‘-ship.’ Worship is the practice of attributing ‘worthyship’ whereby we become more worthy.

The word ‘service’ that we use today to refer to the Sunday liturgy comes from the word ‘Gottesdienst’ meaning ‘God’s service to us and our service to God.’

Worship doesn’t name something we do.

Something’s done to us too.

Already beloved, we’re made beautiful.

St Thomas AquinasTim Keller and DA Carson, leaders of the Gospel Coalition, recently and unceremoniously booted a fellow member, the high-profile grandson of Billy Graham, Tullian Tchividjian.

The offense?

Heresy.

As a United Methodist, I’m at least encouraged to see church leaders getting hot and bothered over something other than sexuality.

Tchividjian had apparently strayed in his understanding of grace, specifically the doctrine of sanctification.

The notion of one Calvinist telling another Calvinist they’ve got their theology of grace all wrong surely has the ancient Church Fathers, notably St Thomas Aquinas, laughing in their graves.

After all, that Neo-Calvinists today are getting tripped up over issues of grace is not surprising since their namesake, Jean Calvin, screwed the pooch on the doctrine ago.

In Calvin’s severe theology, God’s work of grace and our human freedom are posed as mutually exclusive poles.

And, as anyone who knows their church history knows, Calvin argued that the work of grace is solely the work of only one of those two poles.

The work of justification and sanctification is the gratuitous action of God to which human freedom contributes nothing and plays no part.

Not only is God’s grace infallible- it gets what God wants- it is, ironically enough, coercive. It involves our will not at all; otherwise, Calvin believed it would be disqualified as a work of grace.

In other words, Calvin and much of the Protestantism that followed cast God’s work and human freedom as an either/or binary wherein the presence of one necessitates the exclusion of the other.

The gracious action of God requires the absence of human work while human freedom becomes, by definition, the absence of any action of God.

Thus, the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

For Calvin and many Protestants, it’s an either/or vexation.

It’s odd that it should so, however, since the Christian tradition prior to Calvin saw it not as an either/or but as a both/and.

According to Thomas Aquinas, God’s grace is both infallible and non-coercive. God will eventually get what God wants (friends that we call saints), but God does not do so against our will, without our participation.

God’s work of grace, Aquinas says, requires human consent, for consent is what’s required in any friendship.

But- and this where the either/or goes wrong- that human consent is itself the gracious work of God.

The gracious of God’s salvation requires human willing which is itself the creation of God’s gracious work.

Thus, to the familiar question: ‘Are we saved by God’s grace or by our works?’

Aquinas (and Augustine before him) answer ‘Yes.’ Both/And.

The work of grace is 100% the work of God, but paradoxically the work of grace is 100% human freedom because that freedom is what God’s gracious action creates.

To Aquinas, the either/or dichotomy of what became Calvinism produces a mistaken- even idolatrous- picture of God. It’s why Aquinas begins his Summa so ploddingly, unpacking exactly what God is and what is not God. The god of the mutually exclusive, either/or, God’s Action vs Human Action binary is not God. Is not the God Who Is. To suppose, as most modern Christians do, that what makes my actions free is that I’m the only agent responsible for them is to misunderstand the God who holds all things in being at all times.

After all, if I decided to pick up my dog and throw her out the window, you might say that I’ve done so of my own free will, that God had nothing do with it. Except in every moment of that decision and action God was actively holding me in existence (and my dog) and, apart from us, God was actively holding in existence the laws of gravity that would guarantee my dog met an unpleasant end.

God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

For our every action, both God and we are the causes of them (which means evil is not a dilemma that can be explained away by citing ‘human freedom’).

The idolatrous problem with the either/or binary of Calvinism can be seen in the two options which it produced in the modern world:

1.) A loathsome god who, as Thomist Denys Turner puts it, is “a hands-on, interfering busybody’ acting apart from the actions of his creatures. This is the magic-genie god of Joel Osteen et al, but it’s also the angry, wrathful god who sends natural disasters to punish for political positions.

 

2.) The hands-off Deist god whose relationship to the world is evacuated of any presence and power exactly in those places our lives have their most meaning and value. This is the god of nearly everyone else.

In both instances, the either/or binary reduces God to the level of another creature within the universe, and in both human freedom is exclusive of God’s acting.

When God’s not acting, offering lucky parking spaces or sending down torment, God’s not acting.

But for Thomas the Church Fathers before him, it’s never either/or. It’s is always both/and because God is the God who just IS. Existence itself. God is nearer to me than I am to myself. There is nothing in the universe and no action of ours that is not free and uncoerced, yet simultaneously- and perhaps paradoxically- there is nothing in the universe and no action of ours of which God is not the cause.

 

 

St Thomas AquinasFor a few weeks now, I’ve been running with this pericope from an essay by the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To many contemporary Christians, to assert that God does not change seems to fly in the face of their understanding of God, particularly the pathos-filled God of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed many modern theologians go even farther than insisting that God changes, making the claim that God feels. Even- God suffers.

What was formerly denounced as a heresy (patripassianism) is now, functionally at least, the new orthodoxy among Protestant theologians.

The argument typically proceeds thusly:

In contrast to patristic thought, biblical thought depicts a God who is intimately and passionately involved in the world. The ancient Christian notion of divine impassibility (that God does not suffer) is blamed on the pernicious influence of Greek philosophy upon nascent Christianity.

After all, the argument erroneously goes, it was the pagan gods who were static and feelingless towards the world, whereas the God of Israel is active, sympathetic, emotional, even to the point of suffering with his people.

Greek philosophy, in other words, led to the deterioration of an originally unadulterated system of biblical belief. Such a caricature however ignores the fact there is no uniform Greek view on the matter of God’s suffering nor is there a unified biblical view, for the same Hebrew Bible that depicts the cuckolded God suffering lady Israel’s infidelities also depicts God self-identifying as ‘he who is’ and asserting that that same God does not change (Malachi).

Herbert McCabe discusses “the involvement of God” in the world in his book God Matters. McCabe addresses this question of the impassibility of God, that is, is God involved in the world in such a way so as to experience suffering?

Many modern theologians dismiss Church Fathers like Thomas Aquinas for saying too much about God’s nature philosophically without deferring sufficiently to God’s self-revelation, Christ.

For example, McCabe cites the founding father of passibility, Jürgen Moltmann on Aquinas’ Five Ways:

The cosmological proof of God was supposed by Thomas to answer the question utrum Deus sit, but he did not really prove the existence of God; what he proved was the nature of the divine, . . . Aquinas answered the question “What is the nature of the divine?,” but not the question “Who is God?” (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, 12).

In fact, McCabe points out this is exactly what Aquinas avoided. Aquinas believed we cannot know what God is, that is his nature. We can only know what God is not in his nature. For Aquinas, even God’s self-revelation in Christ does not change the incomprehensibility of God.

As McCabe writes:

it is extremely difficult for readers of Aquinas to take his agnosticism about the nature of God seriously. If he says ‘Whatever God may be, he cannot be changing’ readers leap to the conclusion that he means that what God is is static. If he says that, whatever God may be, he could not suffer together with (sympathize with) his creatures, he is taken to mean that God must by nature be unsympathetic, apathetic, indifferent, even callous. It is almost as though if Aquinas had said that God could not be a supporter of Glasgow Celtic, we supposed he was claiming God as a Rangers fan. (McCabe, God Matters 41).

McCabe reminds us then that we should be careful not to jump to conclusions when we read that God “cannot be changing.”

He continues:

“As with the Celtic and Rangers, it does not follow that, if God is not affected by, say, human suffering, he is indifferent to it. In our case there are only two options open: we either feel with, sympathize with, have compassion for the sufferer, or else we cannot be present to the suffering, we must be callous, indifferent. We should notice, however, that even in our case it is not an actual ‘suffering with’ that is necessary for compassion, but only a capacity to suffer with. Sharing in actual pain is neither necessary nor sufficient for compassion, whose essential components are awareness, feelings of pity and concern” (McCabe God Matters 44). 

God, McCabe argues, cannot literally be understood to have “feelings” of compassion.

McCabe explains that when we have compassion for others, when we are present to another’s suffering we want nothing less than to fully take on that suffering, but we cannot do this because we are always outside the other person.

Compassion is all we have and there is always frustration involved in remaining outside of the other person, that is, not being able to fully be with the other.

By contrast, God, as Creator cannot be outside of his creature; “a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator” (44).

So, “if the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its centre holding it in being” (45).

McCabe holds that our compassion is a feeble attempt to be “what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend” (45).

Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, McCabe affirms that it’s in being transcendent that God is intimately involved with each creature much more than creatures could be with one another.

McCabe then goes on to argue that the popularity of a suffering God goes hand-in-hand with a misunderstanding of the incarnation.

McCabe looks back to the Council of Chalcedon, which affirmed the one person of the Jesus as truly human and truly divine.

The Chalcedonian formulation, McCabe points out, allows us to say “quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death” (46).

The traditional doctrine of the incarnation allows us to affirm that the Son of God assumed a human nature and therefore God suffered in his human nature.

But this is not the same thing as saying God suffered in his nature.

We can say “The Son of God died on the cross” and also “God died on the cross,” but while God signifies Jesus’ divine nature, McCabe reminds us, it refers to what has this nature, that is Jesus of Nazareth.

 

image001A few weeks ago I posted a reflection on the ancient Christian doctrine of God’s immutability, God’s unchangingness. Admittedly the jumping off quote from the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe, was a rhetorical stick of dynamite:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

In the posts that followed the initial reflection, I’ve become increasingly convinced that retrieving the first Christians’ speech about God could pull away some of the cobwebs believers and nonbelievers get tangled up in today.

Just as immutability was a surprise to many, I think many Christians would be surprised by what we mean by ‘Creation’ and how that impacts our speech about ‘miracles.’

The Apostles’ Creed begins seemingly innocuously: ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.’

But already in that first breath most believers have already gotten off on the wrong track. The creed’s beginning is neither innocuous nor, it seems, self-evident, for most Christians mistakenly assume that by calling God ‘Creator’ we refer to God’s prior activity that we can locate at some debatable point in the past (millions or thousands of years, depending on whether or not you’re ignorant).

Those same believers erroneously assume that by calling God ‘Creator’ we mean that long ago God rolled up his sleeves and worked on some-thing called no-thing which resulted in creation. Once set in motion, God stepped back and, as though on a cross, declared it is finished. Like a watchmaker, God could hang up his ‘creator’ hat confident that the atomic and evolutionary gears would hum in perpetuity. Or, if not a watchmaker, God could step back and like Santa watch us from afar, keeping track of who is naughty and who is nice and occasionally intervening in creation to answer a prayer, smite a sinner or take responsibility for insurance claims.

To profess the first line of the creed with this in your head is to get the ‘Creator’ exactly wrong from how the ancient Christians so thought of God. For them, to call God Creator is to believe that God is the One who makes things to be without there being anything prior to his creative act save himself. For God to create is to make it be that something simply exists. When we name God as Creator, we confess that without God there would not be anything at all.

Whereas the watchmaker makes it be that there is a watch out of all the disparate parts that were prior to the watch, God makes it be that things just are- from the quartz in the clock to the simplest raindrop.

By calling God Creator we profess that God is the reason there is something instead of nothing, and this is a confession that quite obviously renders any debates about the earth’s age or the mode of creation forehead-slappingly irrelevant. To say God the Creator is the reason there is something instead of nothing is to say that God makes it that things are at all moments of their existence, past, present and future. Without God, all things would cease to exist in an instant.

The ancient Christians so emphasized this ongoing, continual, present creative act of God that they even believed it was irrelevant whether or not the earth had a beginning.

This is the ancient doctrine of creation that God is the reason there is something instead of nothing- a question beyond the bounds of the material world and thus a question science could never answer in the affirmative or the negative. According to this ancient doctrine of creation, everything other than God is completely dependent on God for its existing and for being as it is; therefore, God’s presence is nearer to every thing and every creature than believers today often suppose. God is everywhere, closer to us than we are to ourselves, for God is the one making it that we exist at all. God is not everywhere in the sense of taking up physical space but everywhere in the sense of causing the existence of all things.

According to the doctrine of creation, God is always everywhere, always present to creatures.

This means, in a certain manner of speaking, that there is no such that we commonly call ‘miracles.’

imagesWhat we mean by ‘miracles’ are those occasions when (the distant watchmaker) God intervenes in the created order. Implicit in our use of the word ‘miracle’ is the Enlightenment presumption that God otherwise is set apart from creation; that is, you can only intervene where you were not previously present and active.

To intervene, as Herbert McCabe says, you have to be an alternative to, or alongside what you are interfering with.

But if God is present everywhere, in everything, at all times the reason there is something instead no thing at all then there is no thing that God is alongside of or apart from.

There is no such thing we call ‘miracles’ because

you cannot intervene in what you yourself are doing.

To call God Creator is to name the most mysterious miracle of all- that there is something instead of nothing. This is a miracle that then determines what we properly mean by the word ‘miracle.‘

A miracle is not when God intervenes in our lives from outside our lives to act upon us. A miracle is when only God- and no other secondary causes- is acting in our lives, not from beyond but from the nearness where God has been all along.

 

St Thomas AquinasIt’s not named the ‘Summa’ for nothing.

In his massive, multi-volume and ultimately unfinished Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas makes his account for the Christian faith by first asking such questions as ‘Does God exist?’ and ‘What can be known about God?’

Only after establishing baseline conclusions about God with which a reasonable non-believer could concur does Aquinas dig a bit deeper, exploring what the Church means by naming God ‘Trinity,’ how God reveals himself in Creation and fully in Christ.

Only at the end of this long, methodical chain of exhaustive logic does Aquinas finally in the end get around to talking about us. Human creatures.

Those whom God foolhardily made in his image.

Much of modern liberal theology has returned the favor, making God in our image and doing so, Stanley Hauerwas argues, by upending Thomas’ medieval method.

The founding father of modern liberal Christianity, Friedrich Schleiermacher, sought to re-present theology as an academically respectable discipline in the light of the scientific age.

Schleiermacher’s 19th century no longer took ‘God’ as self-evident nor did it accept the particulars of Christian doctrine as referents to an exterior, objective reality. As a result, Schleiermacher repositioned Christianity for its ‘cultured despisers’ by turning away from God to the human subject.

Schleiermacher sough to preserve Christian theology’s place within the secular academy by turning away from what could not be proven objectively (theos) and towards what could be objectively established (anthropos).

Religion, therefore, should be judged not according to the soundness of its doctrine but according to its ability to articulate humanity’s feelings of dependence upon ‘God.’

That is, does a particular religion adequately address the human existential crisis.

To save Christian face in polite, secular society, Schleiermacher made us not God the subject of theology; consequently, the coherence of Christianity was to be measured by our emotional appropriation of it not by its correspondence to anything ‘true’ outside it.

By shifting from doctrine to dependence, doctrine itself became subsidiary- even unessential- in modern theology.

One of my muses, Stanley Hauerwas, has made it his life’s work to retrieve Christian theology and its practice (ethics) back from the modernist turn towards the human subject, a turn, which Hauerwas has argued repeatedly, makes Christianity unintelligible; so much so, that a portrait of Scheiermacher with a bulls-eye painted on him could gloss the cover of nearly every Hauerwas book without misleading the reader as to its contents.

hauerwasIt’s a sneak attack then that Nicholas Healy lobs at Hauerwas in his new book, Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction.

Healy argues that Hauerwas- the anti-Scheiermacher- merely repeats the modernist sin only in plural form.

Rather than turning away from God to the human subject to justify Christianity’s intelligibility, Hauerwas turns away from God to human subjects. That is, the Church.

Healy writes:

“In spite of his rhetoric of retrieval- his reaffirmation of our distinctively Christian communal identity over against the temptations of liberalism, individualism and sundry other modern or longer-lasting errors- his turn to the church is sharp and thoroughgoing enough to amount to a new direction in theological inquiry.”

As he continues his critique, Healy wonders if Hauerwas’ attempt to ground an account of Christianity in the community’s practice-based interpretation of scripture is sufficiently robust to make the breadth of historic Christian belief intelligible.

Put the other way round, Healy suggests that Hauerwas’ theological vision begins with too narrow a vantage point to ever take in broader Christian themes like Christology or the doctrine of God.

Put an even different way, by beginning where Aquinas’ Summa sought to end Hauerwas’ Theologiae doesn’t have the gas to make it to the other end. If the error of the modernist turn was individualism- a charge with which Hauerwas heartily agrees- the error of Hauerwas’ approach is ecclesiasm, a focus upon the ecclesial community so severe it obscures the God in whose name the community gathers.

Such a reductive focus upon the Church, Healy argues, distorts much of what historic Christianity has proclaimed about the Church and its God. By not beginning theology with God and God’s actions towards the world, Healy argues, Hauerwas finds too little grist to say things about God and God’s actions in the world that any Christian would think need to be said.

I think Healy has hit upon an appropriate critique of Hauewas’ theology if for no other reason than that it’s unique from the ad nauseam, ignorant criticisms of Hauerwas as fideistic and sectarian. And while I certainly think ‘Hauewas is doing ethics not theology’ could serve as adequate reply to Healy’s critique, I also know first-hand the frustration that Hauerwas’ approach provokes for larger theological questions.

This winter I attended a lecture Hauerwas delivered at Virginia Theological Seminary, in which he said:

Nonviolence is not a strategy by which Christians attempt to rid the world of war but rather, in a world of war, as followers of Jesus Christ Christians cannot conceive of any other way to live.

That makes perfect sense to me.

I know what theological conviction produces such a statement and I can see what conclusions derive from it. But I KNOW it’s obvious to everyone who’s not a theology nerd or a Hauerwas fanboy.

For Hauerwas, Christian nonviolence is the clear implication of Cross and Resurrection. We’re called to nonviolence not because it’s an effective means to an end nor because Christians are utopian idealists.

In Hauerwas’ view, Christians are called to nonviolence precisely because they’re Christians.

But such a claim depends upon a particular understanding of the atonement that may not be clear to every reader or listener.

Indeed Hauerwas’ work assumes a particular understanding of the atonement that is an alternative to how many Christians view the work of the Cross.

Saying nonviolence is the clear implication of the Cross is a complete non sequitor to many Christians steeped in traditions that tell them the message of the Cross is that Jesus died in their place to suffer God’s wrath for their Sin.

Sure, there’s even a more ancient view of the atonement available (Christus Victor). One that’s latent and assumed in much of Hauerwas’ work but he’s never supported his central argument by leveraging a fully developed theology of the atonement which would make his conclusions clear.

I think the full force of Hauerwas’ emphasis on Christian nonviolence is lost to many readers (who assume the individualistic, transactional view of penal substitution) because he never specifies his own understanding of what Christ has accomplished.

In reading Healy’s (very) critical treatment of Hauerwas I’m left feeling that both Healy and Hauerwas are correct.

I absolutely concur with Hauerwas’ vision for the church and his identifying Christians as the People called to live the non-violent love of the future Kingdom now. However, I can’t help but agree with Healy that had Hauerwas started his project more like Thomas the conclusions which Hauerwas wants us to affirm would be harder to avoid.

 

 

 

image001Led by Hebert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, I’ve spent nights and early mornings the past few months rereading many of the ancient Church Fathers as well as St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the ‘Doctors’ of the Church.

I discovered McCabe a few years ago by tracking back through the footnotes of in one of Stanley Hauerwas’ books, and he’s provoked me to return to material I’ve not read since my very first theology classes with David Bentley Hart. dbh-ima

Back then, as an undergrad, I had no inkling that archaic church doctrines like immutabilty could be explosive in both the life-giving and death-causing connotations of the word.

Back then, I had no idea my inbox would one day be filled with messages from all over the globe, from believers and non, pro and non, because of this simple pericope from a blog post:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

This has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To some, the idea that God is unchanging allows them to hear the gospel for the very first time.

After all, who would want a god whose love could change because of little old me?

To others, the insinuation that God is unchanging sounds like an a-biblical intrusion into a narrative that gives us nothing but a pathos-filled God.

And, after all, who would want a God whose immutable nature necessarily means he’s also impassible- unaffected? By my love and devotion? By the world’s sin and injustice?

To the former, a God who changes based on relationship with us not only contradicts God’s self-disclosure (‘I am He who is’) it threatens to break the first commandment. Such a god bears a striking resemblance to us.

To the latter, however, a God who is unchanging seems to bear no resemblance to the God of Israel who frequently rages and weeps like a cuckolded husband.

For reasons that fill more space than I can devote here, my feelings convictions passion lie with the former. I’m convinced the first Christians rightly held God to be immutable.

Not only do I think this is the only logical way to insure that the God the first testament is identified with the God who takes flesh in the second, I also do not think it renders a dispassionate god.

Far from saying God has no feelings or love towards us, immutability secures the fact that God has nothing but loving feelings in perfection towards us. Our relationship with God doesn’t change God because God literally can’t love us more than God already does.

Nor do I think the ancients’ immutable God an abstraction since at several points scripture tells us that the Word made flesh is the visible image of this immutable God.

Alright, but admittedly that begs the next question.

If God is immutable, if God doesn’t change, if God can’t change, then what exactly is prayer?

Isn’t prayer the spiritually-sanctioned means by which we manipulate god to do what we want, ask, or desire?

Doesn’t answered prayer imply a changed god?

No.

imagesAt least that’s how Herbert McCabe sees it.

In line with Thomas Aquinas, McCabe sees all prayer as a kind of parable of the Trinity. All prayer is made possible by the fact that the Son prayed to the Father and all prayer continues that prayer in that whenever we pray it is not us praying but the Spirit praying through us, as St Paul says.

Just as no one can understand or know God except God himself- the Word being God’s idea of himself made flesh- no one can speak to God except God himself. It is the same with prayer, McCabe argues.

“Prayer is God’s communion with God, prayer is the Holy Spirit breathed forth by the Father and by the Son because of the Father. We share in the Spirit in the inarticulacy of our prayer…When we pray we are prayed in, we become the locus of the exchange between the Father and the Son, the Trinity has made its home in us- for that we don’t need the right words with which to pray.’ 

So we don’t pray to God so much as God prays through us. Or, we pray to God in the sense that the Spirit prays through us to the Father and the Son.

As Aquinas says, ‘we should not say in accordance with my prayer God wills that it should be a fine day’ we should say that God wills it to be a fine day in accordance with my prayer.’

God wills our prayers as much as God wills the fine day.

What does that mean?

It means, says McCabe/Aquinas, that God wills it to be a fine day through my prayer; in other words, that it should be more than a fine day. God wills through us that that fine day should be a sacrament of God’s love.

To understand prayer in the categories of answered/unanswered prayer gets prayer exactly wrong, according to Aquinas, in the same way that the category ‘miracles’ gets God’s activity in the world all wrong.

God is never not active in any part or at any moment of the world. A ‘miracle’ is not when God is suddenly intervening in the world; a miracle is when only God is acting upon something in the world.

Similarly, an ‘answered’ prayed implies God is not active until/unless the answer arrives but rather, says Aquinas, the very wants and desires we pray are themselves the handiwork of the ever-present Triune God. Unknown

The desire you pray pray for healing, love, fill-in-the-blank is not your desire.

It’s God for you.

Implanted in you by God.

Prayed in and through you by the Holy Spirit.

Put another way, prayer is the sacrament that God wants healing, love, fill-in-the-blank for you as much as you do.

image001In preaching on the satan this past weekend, I relied upon the ancient Christian doctrine of God’s immutability; that is, God doesn’t change, has never changed, will never change.

To hit the point hard, I quoted the late Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe:

‘In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

That’s been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To unpack the idea of immutability, I thought it would be helpful to go back to the sources; namely to the most famous of the Dominicans: St Thomas Aquinas and his tome, the Summa Theologica, wherein Thomas reasons his way through the question. St Thomas Aquinas

It comes early in the Summa for Thomas believed almost everything we say about God relies upon that God not to be a being bound in time, a being that changes.

So in question 9 of the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas asks whether or not God is immutable; that is, does God change?

For Aquinas God’s immutability is logically connected with God’s eternity, a topic he tackles in the proceeding question.

Before Aquinas can establish that God is eternal, however, he must demonstrate that God is immutable for only if God is pure actuality- there is no potentiality in God- can God be considered eternal.

Aquinas begins as he does throughout the Summa by acknowledging the possible objections to his topic.

Aquinas recalls that scripture appears to talk in terms of God changing in some way. God is said to have emotions for Israel, for example. However, there are also contrary passages such as Malachi 3:6

“I am God, and I do not change.” 

Where Aquinas sees this as an essential description of God’s nature, he suggests we see the passages that speak of changing as metaphor.

Indeed, the implication of God’s immutability are a logical consequence of what Aquinas has already proved in Q’s 1-8:

God is pure actuality- all things are present and actual in God at all times.

God is the cause of all things and holds all things existence at every moment of existence.

God is not caused by any other being but is Being itself.

Anything that undergoes change is, by definition, moving from potentiality to actuality, for ‘change’ implies that is present now in something was previously missing or absent.

But no-thing can be missing or absent from God- in fact, God creates from no-thing.

Therefore:

God cannot undergo change.

As usual, Aquinas is not afraid of counter arguments. Rather than stopping with the logic above, he tackles another two contrary positions. Unknown

An object, Aquinas says, undergoing change only changes in respect of certain properties; but in order to retain its identity it must remain the same with respect to other properties. Therefore such the object must be a composite. However, we know that whatever we mean by the word ‘God’ it’s that God is not a composite in any way whatsoever, therefore God cannot undergo change.

Finally to change is to acquire something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new.

Therefore:

God cannot change.

Aquinas then moves on to wonder whether God is the only thing that is unchangeable, which he affirms. All members of creation are changeable in the sense that their continued existence depends upon God keeping them in existence. If God were to withdraw his support from a thing, that thing would go out of existence immediately. Therefore all created things can change in the sense of coming into and going out of existence and owing every moment of their existence upon God.

Incidentally, you can see here already how Aquinas allows us to dismiss most debates about ‘creationism vs evolution’ as stupid and a giant adventure in missing the point.

For to call God ‘Creator’ is not to say he ‘began’ something; it’s to say he holds all things in existence at all times.

In Summa

God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; God is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which God could change. Loving us, for instance, does not change God, make God more loving, because God is LOVE.

Love is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

I know how easy it is to hear this completely wrong.

You might argue, as many have and do, that if God were immutable then God must be static and impersonal; that God could not be the God that we love.

But to do this, Aquinas says, is to violate the very first commandment; it’s to make God in our image or at least insist upon a god in our image.

God must be like us so that we can love Him.

Such an approach fails to see that God’s immutability follows on from God’s perfection and is intimately connected with God being in eternity.

God’s perfection means every possibility, realized or not, is already present within God.

God doesn’t change because God literally and logically cannot love you any more than God already does love you.

ar from being static, He provides the very being of all that is dynamic in the created world. Far from being impersonal, by holding all things in existence at every moment of their existence, God is closer to each person than they are to themselves.

image001Here’s my sermon from this past weekend. The text for confirmation weekend was the Lord’s Prayer as found in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 6.1-13.

You can listen to here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes or, better yet, download the free mobile app.

Today is confirmation, the ancient ritual in which young disciples make good on their baptismal pledge to follow in the footsteps that lead to suffering, crucifixion and death.

So it’s a happy occasion.

A long time ago, the age at which you were confirmed was called the ‘age of reason,’ meaning confirmation marks the age when you’re now old enough to know right from sin.

In other words, today- confirmation day- marks the point when God starts to hold you accountable for all your sins, stupid lies and dirty thoughts- so I think congratulations are in order.

Just kidding. The ‘age of reason’ is from a different time, a different world.

I was confirmed 20 years ago today. 20 years- it was a different world.

Back then, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were rumored to be considering presidential runs, Russia had just invaded a neighboring republic and an obnoxious theme song from a recently released Disney movie was on every radio station and every child’s lips.

Like I said, it was a completely different world.

I remember my first confirmation class. After beginning with a spaghetti dinner, the Reverend Dennis Perry taught our lesson.

Back then, Dennis Perry had white hair, a bad memory and tended not to prepare but shot from the hip instead.

Everything was different.

Because I hadn’t grown in the Church or in a Christian family, I was about 5 years older than any of the other confirmation students, which meant- by default- I was smartest one in the class, which meant I loved confirmation.

I was different back then.

I remember that first class. Dennis wheeled in a dry erase board. He sketched a scribble-scrabble drawing on the board, trying to help us conceive of the difference between eternity and creation.

     And then in his terrible hand-writing, Dennis wrote a funny, little word on the board: immutable.

‘That means,’ he said, ‘God doesn’t change.’

We might change. The world might change. But God does not change. Ever.

Immutable.

That was 20 years ago. And the world does change.

20 years ago, according to Gallup, 40% of Americans had attended a worship service in the previous 2 weeks, and 20 years ago if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was 8%.

It was a different world.

Over 50 years ago, the year this church was founded, 50% of Americans, according to Gallup, attended worship every Sunday.

The year this church was founded, church membership across America was growing at twice the rate of the general population. Think about that- churches in America were growing 2 times faster than America.

And the year this church was founded, 1956, if you asked Americans for their religious affiliation the number who checked ‘None’ was just 4%.

It was a different world.

It is a different world.

Just last year, 20% of Americans checked ‘None’ when asked about their religious affiliation.

One-fifth of everybody.

If you count those between the ages of 20 and 30 the percentage- emerging adults- jumps up to over 30%.

Over 40% of that age group report that religion ‘doesn’t matter very much to them.’

40% of the people who will have gray hair when you’re my age say that what we do here doesn’t really matter.

 We’re not just confirming you as disciples today.

We’re sending you off into a world that is very different than anything the rest of us have had to face.

Not only are we sending you off into a completely different world, we’re also handing you a great deal of baggage to carry into that new world.

     According to a Barna study of those between the ages of 20-30, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:

91% checked ‘yes’ to the description ‘anti-homosexual.’

87% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’

86% checked ‘yes’ next ‘anti-science.’

85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical.‘

78% checked ‘yes‘ to ‘too involved in partisan politics.‘

72% checked ‘yes’ to ‘out of touch with my reality.’

70% checked ‘yes’ to ‘insensitive.’

64% said Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’

     All that together adds up to one very large millstone we’re putting around your neck today.

     A millstone whose message is clear, if unintended:

God is against you.

     Who wouldn’t check ‘None’ if that god was the other option?

As familiar as the Lord’s Prayer is, what’s often forgotten is the reason Jesus gives the disciples this prayer in the first place.

Because it’s not that they didn’t know how to pray.

As uneducated 1st century Jews from backwater Galilee they knew how to pray better than all of you, and they did so more often.

As 1st century Jews, the disciples would’ve had all 150 Psalms memorized, ready to recite by heart.

3 times a day (sundown, sunup, and 3:00 PM) they would’ve stopped wherever they were and whatever they were doing and prayed.

They would’ve prayed the shema (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’). They would’ve prayed the amidah, a serious of 18 benedictions, and they would’ve recited the 10 Commandments.

3 times a day.

So Jesus doesn’t give the disciples this prayer because they didn’t know how to pray. They knew how.

     This prayer isn’t about the how of prayer it’s about the who:

‘Do not be like the pagans when you pray…’

The pagans believed that god- the gods- changed.

The pagans believed god’s mood towards us could swing from one fickle extreme to its opposite, that god could be offended or outraged or flattered by us, that sometimes god could be for us but other times god could be against us.

And so the pagans of Jesus’ day, they would pray ridiculously long prayers, rattling off every divine name, invoking every possible attribute of god, heaping on as much praise and adoration as they could muster.

In order to please and placate god.

To manipulate god. To get god to be for them and not against them.

You see, the pagans believed that if they were good and prayed properly then god would reward them, but if they were bad and failed to offer an acceptable worship then god would punish them.

The who the pagans prayed to was:

An auditor always tallying our ledger to bestow blame or blessing based on what we deserve.

An accuser always watching us and weighing our deeds to condemn us for punishment or recommend us for reward.

The pagans had a lot of names for who they prayed to: Mars, Jupiter…

But scripture has one name for the kind of person the pagans prayed to: שָׂטָן, ha-satan.

What we call Satan.

duccio_di_buoninsegna_040

     In the Old Testament, satan doesn’t have 2 horns, a tail and a pitchfork.

In the Old Testament, satan isn’t the Prince of Darkness or the personification of evil.

In the Old Testament, satan is our accuser- that’s all the word means.

Satan is one who casts blame upon us, who finds fault in us, who indicts us for what we deserve.

The reason Jesus gives this prayer isn’t methodology.

It’s theology.

It’s not the how.

It’s the who.

Because the pagans got who god is so completely wrong, they didn’t know how to pray. They went on and on, thinking they needed to change god’s mind about them.

Jesus warns us not to be like the pagans not because he’s worried we’ll prattle on too long or call upon the name of Zeus.

No, Jesus doesn’t want us to turn God into a kind of satan.

Jesus doesn’t want us to mistake God for an accuser, to confuse God for one who casts blame and doles out what’s deserved.

Jesus gives this prayer so we won’t ever slip into supposing that God is against us.

 

Actually, it’s not really Jesus’ prayer.

It’s the Qaddish, an ancient Jewish prayer the disciples would’ve recognized and been able to recite themselves. And because they would’ve known it, they would’ve instantly noticed how Jesus changes it.

He changes it right from the beginning. Rather than starting, as the Qaddish does, with ‘hallowed be his great name’ Jesus changes it to ‘Father in Heaven.’

     And, of course, Jesus has in mind not just any father, not ‘father’ in the abstract, not anything analogous to your father or my father but his Father.

The Father who, Jesus says, sends rain upon the just and the unjust. The Father who, no matter what we deserve, just sends love.

     The Father who forgives for we know not what we do.

The Father who never stops waiting and is always ready to celebrate a prodigal’s return.

The Father who reacts to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You see, Jesus changes the Qaddish so that from the outset we are pointed to someone far different than who the pagans prayed to.

We’re pointed to his Father.

And that’s the second change Jesus makes to the Qaddish: the number.

Jesus takes it from the singular and makes it plural.

It’s not just his Father; it’s our Father now.

We’re brought into his relationship with his Father. We’re adopted.

One way of making sure we never get wrong who it is we’re praying to is to remember we’re praying to Jesus‘ Father.

He made it plural. We’ve been included.

And Jesus‘ Father never cast blame on him, never accused him, never acted like a satan, never did anything but love him.

The last change Jesus makes to the Qaddish is to the end. Jesus adds on ‘deliver us from the evil one.’

In Greek that’s ho-ponerous. In Hebrew, it’s ha-satan.

Deliver us from the accuser.

     In other words, the very concern that prompts Jesus to give this prayer in the first place is tacked onto the ending of it.

     When we pray, whenever we pray- Jesus says, which for him means 3 times a day- when we pray, we should pray to be delivered from ever thinking of God as our accuser, from ever thinking of God as one who casts down upon us, from ever thinking that God is against us.

 

It’s a helpful reminder because very often the god we pray to, the god in the back of our minds, the god we unwittingly proclaim is a kind of satan.

Don’t believe me?

Just this week I was talking with a friend in the community. He lost his wife a few months ago after a long illness. They have a son, no older than our confirmands. This week the man learned he has a serious form of cancer.

Eventually our conversation boiled down to 1 question:

Why is God doing this to me?

Of course that question is on our minds all the time.

The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-

LIFE HAPPENS

     -and we think God must be punishing us.

     That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

That this is coming to us because God is against us.

Life happens and we want to know why: why is God doing this to me?

And of course we don’t have answers to the why.

     But we do have an answer about the who.

The 1 answer Jesus gives us, the answer Jesus gives us again and again, is this one:

The god you think is doing this to you isn’t God.

God’s not like that. My Father isn’t like that. Our Father isn’t like that.

Don’t be like the pagans.

And just in case you forget, here’s this prayer. When you pray…pray this way.

xir185972

We’re not just confirming you today, we’re sending you into a different world.

I wonder-

If the pre-Christian world thought of god as a kind of satan, then I wonder if the post-Christian world will too?

Because if so, there’s never been a better time to be a Christian.

When you’re my age, the people who will have gray hair will fall out like this:

Out of 10 people,

2 will be ‘selective adherents’ meaning they come to worship when someone makes them, like on Christmas or Confirmation. 1 will consider themselves ‘open to spirituality.’ 4 will be ‘religiously indifferent.’ 1 will be a committed person of faith, any faith. And 2 will be actively irreligious- atheists.

Look at that: 9 out of 10. There’s never been a better time to be a Christian!

And sure, we’re handing you baggage too.

But you can put this baggage down because the god behind that baggage isn’t God. The god behind that baggage is a kind of satan.

So put it down.

There’s never been a better time to be a Christian.

Because when you’re my age, 9/10 people won’t know what Dennis taught me when I was confirmation age:

That God doesn’t change. God’s never changed. God will never change.

God just is Love and unconditionally in love with each of us.

When you’re my age, 9/10 people won’t know what Dennis taught me when I was confirmed:

That God doesn’t change.

And so God never changes his mind about us. You.

God’s love does not depend on what we do or what we’re like.

There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less.

9/10 when you’re my age won’t know what Dennis taught me: that God doesn’t change.

God doesn’t care whether we’re sinners or saints.

As far as God’s love is concerned, our sin makes absolutely no difference to God.

We can’t change God because God doesn’t change.

9/10.

9/10 won’t know that God sends rain upon the just and the unjust.

That God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve.

9/10 won’t know that God forgives even when we know exactly what we do.

9/10 won’t know that God is

   an old lady who’ll turn her house upside-down for something that no one else would find valuable,

a shepherd who never gives up the search for the single sheep,

a Father- Jesus’ Father, Our Father-

who never stops looking down the road and is always ready to say ‘we have no choice but to celebrate.’

There’s never been a better time to be a Christian.

Because when you’re my age in the post-Christian world, you can set aside all the baggage, you can forget about all the accessories we argue about and you can get down to the basic, simple message that transformed the pre-Christian world:

God is for us.

For You.

Always.

Nothing can change that.

Nothing you do can change God’s mind about you.

Because God doesn’t change.

Of course, you’ve got more than 20 years before you’re my age.

That’s a long time.

Too long to remember everything I just said.

So maybe you could just try remembering that 1 word I remember Dennis teaching me: immutable.

Or maybe instead to help you remember, whenever you pray…pray like this…

 

 

 

 

 

image001This weekend both in a blog post and in my sermon I emphasized the ancient doctrine of God’s immutability:

Immutability = God doesn’t change.

Far from being a deficiency in God, I’m increasingly convinced that retrieving the ancient conception of God is vitally necessary in a post-Christian culture. Too often the god I hear young people reject is a god but not the God of Genesis 1, John 1, Colossians 1 or even Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasSpeaking of Aquinas, my comments this weekend channeled the theologian Herbert McCabe who himself spent his lifetime channeling the ‘dumb ox.’

About God’s immutability, McCabe writes:

“It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this; that God deals out to us what we deserve. … I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself impoverished and hungry. In despair he acknowledges how his sin has altered his relationship to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But what precisely has changed?

Has the father ceased to love his son?

Has he become the angry patriarch the son now fears him to be?

On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet and welcome him home.

No, what has changed is the son. Because of his sin, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing the father as he really is.”

McCabe continues: images

“Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is. He recognizes himself as a sinner, and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.”

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares;

“God changes our mind about him—again and again and again.”

That, in sum, is the point of everything McCabe ever wrote.

Next, McCabe hides the dense, nuanced theology of Aquinas behind his simple, spare prose:

“God is not a being within the universe; he is not a part of the world. He is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we say that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe, and if he had chosen not to, his glory and being would not have been diminished one iota.

God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love.”

Crucial to the ancient Christians’ view of God’s immutability is Genesis 1 where we are told that God created the universe from no-thing. In stark contrast to the pagan worldview, scripture conceives of God as totally transcendent of contingent creation.

This distinction between Creator and the creature, therefore, qualifies all our speech about God. We must use language if we are to proclaim the gospel, yet, as Thomas Aquinas noted, the metaphorical nature of these stories must be affirmed, if the Christian distinction between Creator and creature is to be respected.

UnknownOne such problem of language is forgiveness.

Christians talk about the forgiveness of God;

but what exactly do we mean when we say God forgives us?

McCabe elaborates:

“God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re- creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God.

We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.”

Now, I know the pushback that will come at this point. The language of scripture IS filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin, who requires propitiation; the image of the God who endures our sins, who is jealous, who is righteously angry at injustice.

While it’s true scripture speaks this way, it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

“The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom.”

God is not a god.

Nor is God the Jekyll and Hyde of so much Calvinism, the god so many people rightly reject, fear or secretly loathe.

God is not a god we need to appease. God is not a god we need to persuade in order for him to forgive.

God is not a god who puts conditions on his mercy and care.

God is the God who comes to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love.

 

profileThe big news from the Box Office returns this weekend wasn’t that the Muppets turned out to be not very wanted at all.

Instead, the Monday morning news from Hollywood is that ‘God’s Not Dead,’ the little Christian movie that could (thanks to pre-selling tickets to evangelical churches and their youth groups) came in 5th place in total ticket sales.

God’s Not Dead. 

Apparently neither are Dean Cain’s (Superman) or Kevin Sorbo’s (Zeena) careers. They both star in the movie though you might not notice since they’ve aged beyond all recognition.

God’s Not Dead perpetuates the apocryphal yet pervasive myth of a Christian student at a secular (ie, godless) college going toe-to-toe with his atheistically evangelical philosophy professor. As a perfect homage to evangelical paranoia, the film features cameos of Phil Robertson’s (Duck Dynasty) son and daughter-in-law.

While it’s true I’ve not viewed God’s Not Dead nor could anything induce me to view it, in ham-fistedly critiquing a film I’ve not actually see I’m merely participating in a time-honored evangelical tradition.

Reportedly, in God’s Not Dead the protagonist (believing student) sets out to prove to his amoral atheist professor (Kevin Sorbo) that God does in fact exist.

To which the Source and Ground All Being replies, after metaphorically smacking HIS Almighty forehead: ‘Sigh.’

God’s Not Dead.

Dean Cain is not dead.

Kevin Sorbo is not dead.

But evidently for Christians the discipline of philosophy has rigor mortis.

Certainly the sub-discipline formerly known as metaphysics.

Thus far, all the critique of the film on the internet has centered around pushback that God’s Not Dead trucks in a mythic stereotype of the Christian experience on college campuses.

Thus far,

I’ve not seen any Christian critique that the argument of the movie- the argument within the movie- shit, the very assertion in the title of the movie, relies upon a logical fallacy that is

A) not good philosophy

and

B) is certainly not Christian.

The reviews of God’s Not Dead, pro and con, merely confirm that both believers and non are clueless as to the ancient definition of the word ‘God.’

If you can ‘prove’ it

(either in the negative or the positive)

by definition

IT’S NOT GOD.

Christians should know that already.

So…for you beginners out there:

God is not a being within the universe.

God is not a part of the world.

God (big ‘G’ is key) is not a god.

God is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world God has made.

As much as it runs counter to Christian pop: the world makes no literal difference to God.

This is what Genesis means it says that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing and hence exists apart from everything. God did not have to create the universe, and if God had chosen not to, God’s glory and being would not have been diminished one ticket stub.

Here’s the cold, hard, metaphysical math:

God + the world < God alone.

God + everything that will ever be < God alone.

God + the World = God

God – the World = God.

God + (a) = God

(a) = the World, You and Me

a = 0

The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love.

Because God is not a being within the world but “Being” itself.

Thus, the assertion ‘God’s Not Dead’ is both true, not true, and unremarkable.

It’s true in that, as Existence Itself ‘God’s Not Dead is a necessarily true statement. It’s like saying ‘Existence is Not Non-Existence.’

It’s not true in that, as a Being outside, beyond, transcendent of the created universe, any god whose existence you could (dis)prove, by definition, is not God (see: Bush, Burning).

It’s unremarkable in that as Being Itself God is the most obvious thing of all.

Sadly, what’s proven stone, cold dead by films movies like God’s Not Dead is the Christian intellectual tradition it purports to advocate.

For its box office success, God’s Not Dead relies upon the scandal that colleges oppose Christian belief.

The true ‘scandal’ that bubbles to the surface whenever evangelical students hit sober-thinking college campuses is how little their church-sanctioned God-talk corresponds to ancient ways of Christian speech.

College disciplines such as philosophy and metaphysics and theology expose the extent to which American evangelicals anthropomorphize, even idolize, God.

The campus ‘scandal’ revealed in God’s Not Dead is that the god worshipped, defended and ‘proved’ by the film’s protagonist is merely a god.

Not ‘I Will Be Who I Will Be.’

 

 

 

imagesDeadly Sins and Atonement Theories are both on my mind and on the preaching docket this Lent.

This weekend I’ll have limited preaching time due to our Worship Through Service event, but I hope to give a few minutes to reflecting on how Wrath plays into our understanding of God and ourselves.

Spoiler: Jesus’ (the True Human) Wrath is most usually directed at mistreatment of the poor and marginalized.

I blame it on Dennis Perry, who gave me Aquinas to read as soon as I came to faith as a teenager, but I’ve always been troubled, theologically and intellectually, by the notion that salvation’s balance requires Jesus’ death to be paid to God.

Such a transaction- and that’s exactly the language used by proponents- posits a change in God’s disposition towards us because of Jesus’ suffering and death.

I’ve always found this problematic and partial because God, by (ancient) definition is immune to change.

God is not a god.

The God of ex nihilo fame is not a being within the universe. God is pure Essence. Perfect. Changeless. Eternal.

God, as John says, just is…LOVE.

God isn’t loving; God is LOVE with no potentiality. No room for any addition of anything. No cause, as the FIRST CAUSE, to be affected by anything.

God, for good and for ill, is not affected by us at all.

God just loves. Us. God’s creatures. Gratis. Just as we were created. Gratis. The gift never ceases to be given.

Which begs the question:

How is it possible that God is ‘offended’ by our Sin?

How is God’s mind, disposition or will changed by anything we do or don’t do?

The Bible speaks of God in the masculine, which we all recognize is an anthropomorphism made for communication’s sake.

Is it possible God’s anger, wrath, jealousy is also a necessary anthropomorphism made for very urgent, compelling reasons within the life of God’s People? To narrate their experience of the world and with God?

I understand the above will strike many as overly metaphysical, the oft-repeated if ill-informed indictment that metaphysics represents a Hellenization of the Biblical God. Understanding such a disagreement, I nonetheless assert that mine isn’t a solitary perspective but is one with at least half of Christian history behind it.

UnknownGiving articulation to that ancient Thomistic perspective is Herbert McCabe:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin.

So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult.

What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re-creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change.

When it comes to God, however, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite.For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner.

God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God.

It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.

imagesHerbert McCabe was a 20th century theologian who deserves to be rediscovered. McCabe was a Dominican who brought an Irishman’s clear, vibrant prose to the Church’s greatest of teachers: Thomas Aquinas.

Here’s an excerpt on the atonement:

 

What does the death of Jesus have to do with us? Why is it important to us?

One such answer, which has been very influential in the past, is that by his death Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the world. The idea, I’m sure you will remember, is that sin had offended God and since God himself is infinite such an offense has a kind of infinity about it. It was not within our power to restore the balance of justice by any recompense we could pay to God.

So God the Son became man so that by his suffering and death he could pay the price of sin.

This seems to be based on the idea of punishment as a kind of payment, a repayment; the criminal undergoing punishment ‘to pay his debt to society,’ as we say. It takes a divine man, however, to pay our debt to divine justice.

Now, I can make no literal sense of this idea, whether you apply it criminals or to Christ.

I cannot see how a man in prison is paying a debt to society or paying anything else at all to society. On the contrary, it is rather expensive to keep him there…It is impossible to see Christ hanging on the cross as literally engaged either in making restitution or in serving as a warning to others.

If God will not forgive us until his Son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.

If society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way.

And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, God must be even more infantile.

As St Thomas says, satisfactio really means restitution or ‘paying damages.’ Unknown

It is indeed true that we could not afford to pay damages to God, but it is also true that such payment could not be needed for plainly God cannot be damaged by my sin.

The G(od) Spot

Jason Micheli —  January 7, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_70152_small_user_2741517This weekend we kick-off a 4 week sermon series on marriage and relationships based off of Adam Hamilton’s book, Love to Stay: Sex, Grace and Commitment. 

The first of those subtitled themes has spooked some sober-minded fellow sinners.

Sex, the assumption seems to be, is simply not a suitable subject for a sermon (unless, I suppose, it’s in the service of preaching ‘against’ some form of sexuality).

Ironically, this time last year I posted an article about how Christians are uncomfortable with the full implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The post, ‘Jesus Farts,’ netted me a scolding from my bishop whilst simultaneously proving the point of the post: we don’t think of our bodies in a divine way and we certainly don’t want to think of the Christ in a full-throated physical way.

The reaction to my post last year and a single theme of Hamilton’s book this year has convinced me that many Christians have a malnourished theology of the incarnation.

We’re closeted Gnostics.

We think ‘God’ is Spirit thus godly things must be ‘spiritual things.’

We’re conditioned by the Enlightenment.

We doubt that the objects of the material world point to and are sustained by Beauty itself.

We forget that by taking on physicality in Jesus Christ the Divine imbues our physical lives with the divine.

The things which comprise our everyday, material, physical, fleshly lives are sacred.

Holy.

 Just as with the tangible objects of bread and wine, the physical touch of another can be a means of grace.

The reaction to the first subtitled third of Adam Hamilton’s book has provoked my interest not in Hamilton’s book (sorry, Adam) but in a little book of the Old Testament.

The Song of Songs.

All of the above, then, is just throat-clearing to say that during our 4 week Love to Stay sermon series I will be blogging my way through this much-neglected (if known at all) part of the Jewish and Christian canon.

So read it with me and check out the future posts.

Even though the Song of Songs is one of the most commented upon books by theologians and biblical scholars, chances are you’ll have to locate it by way of your bible’s table of contents.

Before I commit to the Song itself perhaps a little courtship is in order.

The Song of Songs falls under the Old Testament’s ‘Wisdom’ literature, but it’s not at all like the other books in that category.

The Song of Songs does not meditate on the goodness of God in a suffering world a la Job.

The Song of Songs does not reflect on faith in or fear of the Lord as the Psalms do.

The Song of Songs contain no prudent, pithy sayings like you’ll find in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes.

The Song of Songs is not like anything in the Hebrew Bible at all.

It’s not law, prophecy or covenant history.

It’s an erotic, explicit series of poems to love.

Physical love.

The Song of Songs is about a passionate young woman and her not-always-as-interested lover.

The Song of Songs is about erogenous zones and seduction, aromas and places to be found alone.

The Song of Songs could make Shakespeare blush and the 50 Shades author red with envy.

hs3Most of the poems in the Song of Songs are narrated in the voice of the young woman, a woman who, in the words of one ancient commentator, is without modesty. Contrary to what you may think about the stodgy, antiquated bible, this young woman’s voice and desire drives the arc of the book.

Here’s the odd thing about the Song of Songs: it’s completely secular.

None of the poems make any mention of God, faith or religious practice.

It’s just about the erotic passion between this woman and her lover.

‘Just?’

The full title for the book is The Song of Songs: Which is Solomon’s. It has a subtitle too.

That construction, Song of Songs, is a Hebrew idiom for a superlative. The Hebrew Bible uses it a lot, mostly in constructions like ‘Lord of Lords’ and ‘Holy of Holies.’ In other words, this form of superlative most often is a way of referring to the Most High God.

And so…

Song of Songs likely could be a way of saying this Song is about God or that this is the godliest, holiest, most sacred of songs.

Why not? The Old Testament prophets frequently compare God’s relationship with Israel to that of a jilted lover or a cuckcolded spouse.

Why must the analogies always and only be in the negative?

While we can’t be sure who wrote the Song of Songs or what was their intent by writing it, we can be certain what the ancient rabbis intended by including it in the canon. In this ode to erotic, physical love they found an analogue to the love between Israel and her God.

Later the ancient Church Fathers found in the Song a parallel for the love Christ has for his Church, and because the Church Fathers believed the external works of God mirror the interior life of God, they found in the Song a description of the love the Father and Son have for each other through the Spirit. chag1

Sex, according the most ancient way of reading this scripture, is an analogue for the love between the Trinity, the love between God and Israel and the love between Christ and the Church.

As anyone who’s taken the SAT’s knows, sound analogies work both ways.

The ancients didn’t just read the Song of Songs as suggesting that God is like the erotic passion of lovers.

The ancients believed the Song of Songs showed that the erotic, physical passion between lovers is like God.

It’s not just a poetic description in other words. The erotic love between lovers really does correlate, in reality, to the nature of God. Indeed our love is only an approximation of it.

A foretaste of it. Foreplay, if you like.

As Robert Jenson puts it:

“By the classic understanding of Creator/creature analogies, mostly developed by Thomas Aquinas, this does not mean that our eroticism is the original and that we construe God’s relation to his people by projecting it. Just the other way around, it means that human lovers’ relations to each other are recognizable in their true eroticism only by noting their analogy to an eroticism that is God’s alone.

Just as our faulty righteousness can nonetheless be anticipation of our eschatological sharing in God’s own righteousness, our frail eroticism can be an anticipation of final sharing in the fulfillment of God’s and his people’s desire for another.”

Eschatological is a jargonny word, I know.

For the laymen out there, the quote means this:

Heaven will be a lot more fun than sitting on clouds and playing harps.

 

 

 

 

1381692_387083858087384_1966426747_nWhat more could you want for your morning than the silky smooth, sexy sound of my voice cogitating on Medieval metaphysics? Fine, listen to Matt Lauer first and then you can listen to this. Jason with a dog beats Miley Cyrus with a wrecking ball any day.

Here’s the sermon from this weekend:

      1. I'm an Atheist Too

I’m an Atheist Too

Jason Micheli —  October 7, 2013 — 8 Comments

Skeptical BelieverWe kicked off a new sermon series this weekend: The Skeptical Believer: Making Peace with Your Inner Atheist. To bring home a Medieval, metaphysical point, my dog Clara made an appearance in worship and- thanks be to God- behaved herself.
The scripture was John 1.43-51.
I’ll load the audio onto the blog and in iTunes when I have it. In the meantime, here’s the text.

To promote this new sermon series, last week on my blog I asked for people to send me their strongest arguments or questions about God.

Here’s the best (and worst one) I received:

“Jason, there are a lot of questions I could submit to you, but in my opinion, given what science teaches us about the world’s origins, all those questions boil down to the biggest question of all: Is there a God?” 

Back in the summer, when we initially planned this Skeptical Believer series, our goal was to encourage you to question God, to question your faith.

Back in the summer, we hoped this sermon series would give you permission to acknowledge and explore and wrestle with your doubts.

That was back in the summer. But then came September.

In September I preached two sermons: the first on how the Gospels can be trusted as true, and the second on how the Resurrection of Jesus can be trusted as true.

Given the reaction to those sermons, I’m now convinced that this Skeptical Believer sermon series was a terrible idea.

Because you don’t need any encouragement to question the faith.

For some of you, that’s all you do. Question and doubt whatever the Church has taught.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with questioning; I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with doubt.

After all, by definition the very concept of faith requires doubt.

You can only have faith in what is not certain.

For example, I have faith that my wife will always love me, but that my wife will always love me can never be a certainty.

And if something is not certain then it is not immune to doubt.

There’s nothing wrong with questioning.

Jesus himself in the middle of today’s scripture passage chastises Nathaniel for believing too quickly, too blindly.

The problem is-

I don’t know many people who are like the Nathaniel in the middle of today’s story, believing quickly and without question.

Instead I know a lot more people who are like the pre-Christian Nathaniel at the beginning of today’s story, the Nathaniel who rolls his eyes dismissively at the notion that any wisdom could ever come from a backward, ignorant, archaic place like Nazareth.

I know a lot more people who are like that Nathaniel, who think all religion is, in a sense, “from Nazareth.”

I mean-

If you think you have to choose between intellectual honesty and belief in God, then you’ve simply not understood what Christians mean by the word ‘God.’

If you think empirical science could ever disprove God, then you’ve only proven that you forgot to investigate the ancient meaning of the word ‘God.’

If you think the biggest question boils down to ‘Is there a God?’ then you don’t realize what Christians- and Jews and Muslims and Hindus and even some Buddhists- mean when we say the word ‘God.’

So what I want to do today is actually the opposite of what we’d planned for this series back in the summer.

I don’t want to encourage you to question your faith.

Or rather, instead, I want to encourage you to question your faith in the assumptions the modern world has given you:

The assumption that the 21st century raises questions to which the ancient faith has no answers.

The assumption that Christianity is not as intellectually rigorous as any other discipline.

The assumption that we as modern people know a great many things the ancient Christians did not know- and that may be true, but it’s also true that the ancient Christians knew a few things very well that very few of you know at all.

Namely, philosophy and logic.

So what I want to do today is the opposite of what we had planned and something different from what I normally do.

I don’t want to encourage you to question God.

Instead I want to make an argument, for God-

I want to make a philosophic argument, one that comes out of the ancient Christian tradition, from Thomas Aquinas, who was probably the greatest thinker in the history of the Church.

I want to take you through Thomas’ argument because if you understand his logic then you will understand what Christians mean, fundamentally, by the word ‘God.’

And if you understand that-

Then you will understand why ‘Is there a God?’ is not, in fact, the biggest question.

Rather, God is the answer to the biggest, most obvious question of all.

pastedGraphic.pdf

imagesSo you’re going to have put on your thinking caps…or just go to sleep and you can read it on my blog on Monday.

Now first, Thomas would say that not only is the question ‘Is there a God?’ not the biggest question of all; it’s not even a good question.

It’s a bad question.

Why?

It’s a bad question because its premise is wrong.

As soon as you ask ‘Is there a God?’ you’ve fallen onto the wrong track because you’re assuming that for God to be he must be an object to which we can apply the adverb ‘there.’

What do adverbs do? They designate place and location. We use adverbs to speak of objects that have a ‘thereness’ to them.

And so we could say there is a cup of water of there, a hymnal over there, someone sleeping in the pew over there.

Or, we could expand it and say there is a building in Paris, France called the Eiffel Tower. Or there is a planet called Saturn; it’s there on the other side of Jupiter.

But in that sense, ‘there’ is no God.

Because God is not an object in the universe.

And it doesn’t matter how many universes there are, or even if they ceased to be, because God is not an object in any of them either.

You can’t find God like a astronomer would discover a new galaxy or a chemist would discover a new element. God is not object that can be found that way.

In fact, in all the great theistic traditions, an object is the one thing God cannot be.

Even though we speak of God as having human and material attributes- because it’s impossible to pray to an abstraction- God is not an object in the universe like you or me, like the moon or a molecule or a cup of coffee.

Just think of the most important story in scripture for understanding who God is:

Moses at the Burning Bush.

Having grown up pagan, Moses assumes this God he’s encountered is just another object, just another little ‘g’ god, in the universe.

So what does Moses do? He asks for God’s name.

By asking for God’s name, Moses is trying to attach a ‘thereness’ to God: Are you the god of this place or that nation? Are you the god of these people or those people? Are you the god of the soil or the sea or sex?

And what name does God give Moses?

‘I am who I am.’

Or, it can be translated: ‘I will be who I will be.’

In other words, God is Amness itself. God is Being itself. God is Existence itself.

It’s what St Paul says in Acts: ‘God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being.’ 

It’s what St Augustine said: ‘God is beyond our utmost heights but more inward to us than inner most depths.” 

Or, to put it in the words of the most famous rabbi of all:

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s pretty damn good. Like the force, God is transcendent: God is beyond everything that is.

But because God is Being itself, God is within everything that is.

That’s why Thomas would say the only good answer to the bad question “Is there a God?” is to say:

‘No, God…is.’

I know at some point this gets so abstract it can make your brain hurt.

But look, I barely understand how my microwave works so why would we ever assume that God is simpler?

Any God who is easily comprehended is not worthy of worship.

Even still, I want to make this as clear as I can.

Thomas says ‘Is there a God?’ is not a good question, and it’s definitely not the biggest question.

For Thomas, the biggest, most radical, most obvious and, if you grasp it, the most life-changing question to ask is this:

How come?

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

The question ‘How come?’ can have many different meanings and you can ask ‘How come?’ at several levels.

And the deeper the question you ask about an individual thing, the more it becomes a question about the world to which that thing belongs.

Until eventually you get to the deepest question about that thing, which turns out to be a question about everything.

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

I know that sounds complicated so let me make it plainer:

IMG_1342

This is Clara. Ali and I got her right after we got married.

Suppose you ask the question: ‘How come Clara?’

If you asked ‘How come Clara?’ I could answer the question by naming Clara’s parents at the horse farm outside Richmond where I bought her 12 years ago.

On that level, I wouldn’t need to say anything more. The question’s been answered on that level.

But suppose then you ask: “How come Clara’s a dog?”

And I could answer: Because Clara’s parents were dogs and dogs are born from other dogs.

You see, you’ve now moved to a deeper level of questioning. You’re asking about what dogs are.

You’re saying for Clara to be is for her to be a dog and Clara’s parents are the sorts of things whose activities result in things being dogs.

So now your original question ‘How come Clara?’ has deepened into a question about the dog species.

Your question ‘How come Clara?’ at this new level is a question ‘How come dogs anyway?’

And of course we could answer that in terms of genetics and natural selection. We could say Clara is an frisbee dog because one or both of her parents were awesome frisbee dogs.

Which is then a new and deeper level of the question.

‘How come Clara?’ is still a question about my particular dog who’s eaten at least 9 of my left shoes, 3 lobsters and 1 pot of gumbo in her lifetime, but it’s also a question that’s answered in terms of how Clara belongs to a wider community- not simply dogs but the whole biological community to which dogs belong.

But then, you can ask the question about Clara at an even deeper level.

When you ask ‘How come the biological community of which Clara is a member?’

I could answer in terms of biochemistry. I mean, I couldn’t actually answer in terms of biochemistry but I could find someone to do it for me.

And then from the level of biochemistry you could take the ‘How come’ question to the level of physics, and every time, at every level you can ask increasingly penetrating questions about Clara.

And each time you go further with the question ‘How come Clara?’ you’re seeing Clara in a wider and expanding context.

To put it another way, each time you ask the question ‘How come Clara?’ you’re asking about Clara over and against some other possibility.

The first question ‘How come Clara?’ simply meant ‘How come Clara is this dog rather than another dog?’

The second level question asked ‘How come Clara is a dog rather than another species, say a newt?’

At the third level question, you’re asking ‘How come Clara’s a living, biological creature and not an inanimate object?’

You see, every ‘How come Clara?’ question is ‘How come this instead of what is not?’

Now, the biggest, most radical question is not ‘How come Clara exists as this dog instead of that dog?’ or ‘How come Clara exists as a dog instead of an elephant?’ or ‘How come Clara exists as a living biological creature instead of as an inanimate object?

No, the biggest, most radical question is this:

How come Clara exists instead of nothing? 

Just as to ask ‘How come Clara exists as a dog?’ is to put Clara in the context of all other dogs, to ask ‘How come Clara exists instead of nothing’ is to put her in the context of everything.

You and me, the world, the universe.

How come you instead of nothing? How come me instead of nothing?

How come the world instead of nothing?

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Whatever the answer is to that question, whatever reality answers that question- Thomas says that’s our starting definition for ‘God.’

You see, Thomas wants you to realize that the mystery is not how is the universe.

The mystery is that the universe is at all.

That Clara is.

That you are. At all.

If you grasp what Thomas is saying, it should knock you over and fill you with wonder over every little stupid detail of your life.

It is

Now, if I haven’t lost you yet then maybe you can see how what’s usually called atheism is not actually a denial of the God that Thomas and the ancient Christians believed in.

Usually someone who calls themselves an atheist is NOT denying the existence of some answer to the question ‘How come there is anything instead of nothing?’

Usually someone who calls themselves an atheist is denying what they THINK religious people believe:

that there is some Great Architect, a little ‘b’ being

called God

who designed and created the world in 7 Days

and now sits up there somewhere in heaven

sending down arbitrary blessings and curses upon the world.

But if denying that makes you an atheist, I’m an atheist too.

And Thomas Aquinas is an atheist too.

And St Augustine is an atheist too.

And most of the entire Christian tradition is atheist too.

 

Most atheists get atheism wrong because they get wrong what we mean by the word ‘God.’

And to be fair, many of them get it wrong because a lot of Christians get it wrong too.

But genuine atheism actually requires more faith.

Genuine atheism refuses to see the mystery Thomas makes so obvious.

Genuine atheism has faith that things just are.

But that’s like saying ‘Dogs just are.’

In the face of all logic and no supporting evidence, genuine atheism insists with certainty that what is, is all there is.

Genuine atheism is content to ask questions within the universe, but cannot see that the existence of the universe itself raises a question that it cannot answer by itself:

How come?

Why is there something-anything- instead of nothing?’

Once you see what Christians mean, fundamentally, by the word ‘God,’ that God is the answer we give to the question ‘How come there’s anything instead of nothing?’ then you can see why it’s stupid for Christians to argue over interpretations of the creation story and why it’s even dumber to suppose science could ever prove or disprove God.

Because what Christians truly mean by calling God Creator has nothing to do with an event called ‘creation’ that occurred at some fixed point in the past.

How the world came to be might be interesting but it’s irrelevant.

Because when we say God is Creator, we mean that God is the Source and Sustainer of Existence itself, now as much as in the beginning and every moment in between.

And God’s the Source and Sustainer not just of the universe but all the scientific laws and mathematical principles within it.

Think about that-

God would still be Creator even if all that existed were scientific laws and quantum states.

Because everything, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence.

That’s why the image of a candle flame is a ubiquitous symbol for God in all the theistic traditions of the world. God’s creative sustaining is like a candle flame in a room at night, and should that flame ever go out, the room would immediately go dark.

 

You could push back on Thomas’ argument.

You could argue that even if its true that ‘God’ is the reason there is something instead of nothing that doesn’t prove that Christianity is true.

And that is the case.

Logically proving that God is rationally plausible does not prove that Christianity is true.

Nonetheless, Thomas would tell you to think about it again.

If everything, as Thomas says, is contingent.

If everything, at every moment, relies upon God for its existence.

If everything in your life, at every second of your life, is a something that could be nothing. Without God.

Then everything, everything in your life, every moment of your life- existence itself- is completely gratuitous.

It doesn’t have to be. It’s not necessary.

Everything, in other words, is gift.

Which is just another word for grace.

And if everything in existence is grace, then God, at an Absolute level, is Love.

I don’t mean God is loving.

I mean God is Love.

And if God is Love, then the universe’s blueprint, its design, its grain, its logic is Love.

Then whatever it means to say a religion is ‘true’ it means that the religion corresponds to the logic of the universe. To the logic of God.

And maybe that’s why, just a few verses before today’s scripture, the Gospel of John calls Jesus just that, God’s logos.

Made flesh.

God’s logic.