Sunday, June 29, 2008

God as a Verb... and other orthodox ideas

Note: this is Part Two of a 2-part series on the Creeds as interpreted by our Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Part One is not available as a text file but I can email a recording of it as a sound file if you'd like. Just post a comment to that effect and I'll take care of it. Maybe someday I'll learn how to post those here!]

If you were here last week you heard me promise that today I would continue a discussion of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ new book, Tokens of Trust. In this book the Archbishop examines the creeds of the faith in order to introduce basic concepts of Christian faith. And what he has done is this: he has dug deeply into the classical theology of the past, without being pedantic or boring or having a lot of footnotes, and shown how these classical arguments for God can profoundly deepen our modern faith.

But we have to begin by addressing this very disturbing reading from the book of Genesis, the famous story known as “the binding of Isaac,” in which God directs Abraham to prove his faith to him by sacrificing his only son, Isaac, on top of Mt. Moriah.

A lot of us read this story and we find ourselves reeling: What kind of God would ask a man to prove his faith by killing his only son?

So it is important to say something about this story, and about how we read the Bible as Episcopalians, which is with reason as well as faith; this is an ancient remnant from the days when human child sacrifice was commonly practiced – and contrary to encouraging that practice, this story was told to help explain why the people of Israel no longer did it.

While many of their neighbors practiced child sacrifice well past the day when this story was set to writing, the people of Israel felt called by God to discontinue that horrifying practice – and they told this story, in part, as a way of explaining why. Their God was a God of mercy; who provided a ram in the thicket, rather than an innocent child.

But this story is a story of mercy, not murder. And it’s also a wonderful example of how reading the Bible is like going on an archeological dig – we find these ancient stories that take us back to the very foundation stones of civilization. Here is a story that takes us right back to the moment when we as a culture decided to turn our backs on child sacrifice – and in the process set an example for other nations and cultures.

So what kind of God is this? A God of mercy.

Which brings us to our book by the Archbishop. What this Bible story teaches us, among other things, is that what we say about God is important. Who God is, what God demands of us, where God is to be found – these ideas about God that we carry around in our heads and that direct our actions in the world profound consequences. If our God is a god of vengeance, then we will literally worship vengeance, and we are likely to bring violence and hatred into the world. If our God is a god of prosperity, we will literally worship comfort and wealth; and as a result the poor will make us uncomfortable and we will dismiss both the poor and the discomfort they cause in us; and we will try to live our lives mixing with our own kind, avoiding those who are different. This is one reason why the Living Room is such a special ministry for us at Incarnation – because it constantly invites us to be in close proximity with people who are very poor. If they make us uncomfortable, there is something of God in that.

But before we go too far down this path, we have to remember that as soon as we start talking about God, as if God were an object like any other object, accessible to our thoughts, we start getting into trouble. I’m reminded of the story of the teacher who asked the young student, "What do you think of God?” After a pause, the student replied, "God’s not a think, he's a feel."

And yet... we can’t help but ask questions about God; God might be more of a “feel” than a “think”, but how can we live in this world without thinking about God?
The famous SF Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe understood this when he was looking at a simple box of Kleenex, and realized, “If there is no God, who pops up the next Kleenex?”

This is not a question answered by the Archbishop.

But the Archbishop does tackle issues nearly as weighty.

His first two chapters deal with this first phrase from the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible...”

And again, let me emphasize that there is far more material in these 2 chapters than I can begin to cover in two sermons. There really is almost a lifetime of sermons in these first 50 pages.

But one thing he does is to insist that we stop thinking of God’s creation as something that happened in some moment in the distant past. Rather, he says, we should think of God’s creation as happening at every moment – that God is creating and sustaining us constantly, right now.

For example, rather than thinking of God as having created light, like a lightbulb that just keeps shining from that first moment, he says God is more like the electric current that gives energy to the lightbulb. And that energy is flowing through us and in us and in everything that is – a super-abundant, ever-flowing energy that keeps everything from slipping into non-being. He says,

"It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before we’ve ever thought about it."

This is ancient, classical theology – Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century supports this view – but the beauty of it is how compatible it is with modern physics:

"Behind and beneath everything we encounter is this [creative] action [of God]. We may look at something that seems unmoving and unchanging, like the pillars of a cathedral or the peaks of a mountain, but what is within and beyond it is an intense energy and movement. The scientist, of course, will tell us that at the heart of every apparently solid thing is the dance of the subatomic particles. The theologian ought to be delighted that this sort of talk puts movement and energy at the centre, but will want to add that at the heart of the subatomic particles is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God."

What does this mean for you and me? First, it means that there is nothing that is not held, supported, created by God. The Archbishop reminds us that in the ancient world, this was not necessarily taken for granted. There were many competing theories out there, many of which insisted that the material world was created by an inferior, second-rate god, or that everything material was inherently divorced from God – that the spiritual life had to do with escaping the prison of the material world in order to ascend to the ethereal realm of the spirit.

But that is not Christian theology, or classically Jewish theology. In our universe, God penetrates to the very heart of existence; God sustains every element of what is. That means that there is nothing in our lives that needs to be held in secret; there is nothing that we need to keep from God out of shame or guilt. God’s creative energy is constantly unfolding, even in the deepest, darkest regions of your life. There is nothing we can do, there is nothing that we can think, that isn’t already subjected to the light of God. We don’t need to live in the shadows. Everything about our lives carries the potential for redemption and reconciliation.

The Archbishop says that when we say that God is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, that means that there is “the possibility of an integrated life, not a life where some bits of us have to be covered up or swept under the carpet....

"There are the things in my life that I’m aware of, there are the things I’m not aware of – and there are the things that I try not to be aware of, that I’m ashamed of or frightened by. But all that I am is the working out of what God has made; some of it has worked out well, some not so well; I have learned to make good use of some of what God has given me and I’ve made a mess of some of the rest or just haven’t come to terms with it. Saying that God has made us in our entirety and is concerned about all of us isn’t, incidentally, the same as saying that anything we choose to do is fine – only that every aspect of who we are needs to be brought into the circle of God’s light, because he can deal with all of it. And that also means that we shouldn’t be surprised if Christians are interested in things like politics or economics, art or sport, and have awkward questions to ask and contributions they want to make. There are no areas that are essentially off-limits if God is truly the Creator of this world."

It is this majestic doctrine of God, this ancient doctrine that has its roots in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, that gives Christians the courage to let God into every aspect of their lives: not only what they are doing at noon, but what they are doing at midnight.

We could go on and on, but I will close with this final point, which is that the Archbishop resurrects the classical notion that what we can know about God is through what God does, not what God is. Who or what God is – that’s an impenetrable mystery. But what God accomplishes, what God does – that is knowable. We can see that with our own eyes – through the life of Jesus Christ. Through Christ, God is drawing the world to himself. God is reconciling us, one to the other, and the world to God, through the action of love.

Buckminster Fuller once said that “Love is metaphysical gravity.”

Love is what draws us together; love is what draws the world to God; love is at the heart of everything that is, seen and unseen.

It’s for this reason that you find me focusing so often on the action of God. As you may have noticed, I much prefer to speak of God in terms of what God does. I say, “In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Giver of Life” -- because that draws our attention to what God is doing – and that is far more knowable, and far easier to talk about in simple, descriptive terms that are true, without putting the being of God in a box. And it is for that reason that I often refer to God as a Verb – as the great mystical traditions and classical theologians would encourage us all to do – not that God is not also a noun, but that it does God far more justice to talk about God in terms of what God is doing.

Which is also why I like to say, about this place – that “God happens here.” To me, that is the most accurate thing we can say about our community. God happens here. If you ever are tempted to start a sentence with the phrase, “God is...,” let the next word be a very: God is being born here. God is living here. God is healing here. God is weeping here. God is laughing here.

What is God accomplishing in you? What is God accomplishing in us? How is God happening?

God is happening here. God is creating us, right here, right now. Praise be to the Living God!



RatherBeHiking said...

It's too bad you haven't posted part 1 of this sermon. When I heard you in church, I thought you were addressing a larger audience than just us.

Emily said...

Thank you for this! I need to preach on the call of Matthew this Sunday, and I think some of what you said about creation has shown me what to do with it.