Tuesday, 17 May 2016

“The Mathematics of God”: a sermon (Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Romans 5:1–5; John 16:12–15)

1 + 1 + 1 = 1
3 = 1
1 = 3

Any child in second grade can tell you that this is very bad mathematics.

1 + 1 + 1 = 1
3 = 1
1 = 3

In our lessons today for Trinity Sunday, we have hints of how this bad mathematics can be a sign of hope for us, and for the whole world.

Our Psalm is a hymn to God the Creator, to God whose name is majestic and whose glory is above the heavens.  The Creator’s glory is revealed in the width of the universe, but is also reflected most closely in the human mind and conscience. 

As Christians, we worship this God, but we are not alone in doing so.  This Creator God, the first person of our Christian Trinity, is worshipped in all monotheistic faiths, by Christians, by Jews, by Muslims, by Sikhs and by Baha’is.

·         This is the One whom Muslims worship as Allah, the All-Compassionate and All-Merciful.

·         This is the One whom Jews worship as the One whose name is too holy to pronounce.

We worship God the Creator.  We share God the Creator with other people of faith.

While we share God the Creator with other people of faith, we also hear in our lessons of an experience that is unique to us as Christians.  In our lesson from the letter to the Romans, we hear the affirmation that God the Christ has enabled us to share the glory of God the Creator and the peace of God the Creator.  For Paul, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus were the ways in which the Living God was most fully known.  As Christians, we worship God the Christ, knowing that we worship a Jesus-shaped God; God who has experienced our human life to its very depths.

In our lesson from John’s Gospel, we hear of the third element in this equation, the Holy Spirit, ... the Spirit of God, ... the Spirit of Truth, ... the Spirit of Life.  God the Spirit is promised to the people of God, revealing both the Creator and the Christ. 

In a real sense, God the Spirit is the hardest of the three to put in a box.

·         God the Christ is unique to us as Christians.

·         God the Creator is shared by Christians, by Jews, by Muslims, and by other people of monotheistic faith.

·         But God the Spirit resists all our categories.  The Spirit of God is experienced by all people of faith.  The Spirit of Truth is present among all people of ethical sensitivity.  The Spirit of Life is found among all living beings.  God the Spirit refuses to be limited by our human categories of culture, religion, or even species.  God the Spirit is the hardest of the three to put in a box.

But we also affirm, as Christians, that the Three are really One:

God the Creator,

God the Christ,

God the Spirit:

truly Three,

yet truly One.

1 + 1 + 1 = 1
3 = 1
1 = 3

In our lesson from Proverbs, we have a hint of what this can mean.  This was written in a Jewish context, not a Christian one.  The writer of Proverbs had no idea of any sense of a Trinity; it’s not what the passage was about.  But in his celebration of Wisdom as a true expression of God’s life, we have an early glimmer of the idea that God is not radically solitary.

In our lesson, Wisdom is personified.  Wisdom is portrayed as a woman.  In Hebrew, Lady Wisdom is called Hokmah; in Greek, she is Sophia.  In our lesson, Ms. Wisdom calls out on the streets, like a peddler selling her wares:

O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it.  

As we sang a few minutes ago, perhaps it was a bit like Molly Malone on the streets of Dublin in the old song:

“Wisdom and knowledge, alive, alive –o”

And, as the passage progresses, we hear of Wisdom as God’s companion from the beginning of God’s Creation.  Before the earth was formed ... before life evolved ... before humanity emerged, Wisdom was God’s fellow-worker in the artistry of Creation.  God was not alone.

“Wisdom and knowledge, alive, alive –o”

It is a jump, but not an impossible jump, from this ancient Hebrew celebration of Ms. Wisdom as God’s fellow-worker to the later Christian affirmation of God-in-Trinity, ... God-as-Community, ... God who is radically relational at the depths of God’s very being, ... God who is not alone, ... God who calls all humanity into relationship, both with each other, and with God.

1 + 1 + 1 = 1
3 = 1
1 = 3

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday.  We celebrate the God who is radically One while truly Three.  We celebrate God-as-Trinity, God-as-Community, the Living God whose incarnational self-giving radically subverts our human notions of power, even while simultaneously offending our human notions of mathematical certainty.

1 + 1 + 1 = 1
3 = 1
1 = 3

It is still very bad mathematics but, in God’s own strange way, it is the source of our hope.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

"Best foot forward": making yourself look good for public opinion polls

Most people like to put their best foot forward when they're being questioned for public opinion polls and other surveys.

Most people drink less, weigh less, exercise more, and watch less television when they're answering questions asked by a chap with a clipboard than they do in real life.  They have more frequent intercourse, attend worship more regularly, read more, and listen to far more classical music and jazz in the alternate reality of the poll than they do in the reality in which we actually live.  Most good polls have this factored into their results.

Similarly, when the poll is political, many people are a few steps to the left when they're being polled than they are when they actually step into the voting booth. 
  • When the pollster is at the front door (or on the blower), many people will identify with those candidates, parties, and causes which correspond with their deepest ideals, values, and hopes.  They identify with what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature".  They may thus indicate a preference for a centre-left candidate that reflects these ideals.  (As well, they want the person taking the poll to view them as being a worthy citizen, and as a person deserving respect and approval.)
  • However, when the same people enter the actual voting booth on the day of the election, some of the same people will actually vote for a more right-of-centre (or even far-right) candidate who expresses their darkest fears and their unspoken prejudices.
Most good polls also have this factored into their results.

(Note at the end of 2016:   Given the fact that the polls got the results of both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election so frighteningly wrong, the polls may need to change the statistical formula by which they allow for those who try to put their best foot forward when speaking to a pollster, while embracing "the dark side" in the polling booth.) 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Some thoughts on Faith and Politics

Last week I had some thoughts about religion and sex.  Now for some thoughts about religion and politics.

This is a political year.  General elections will take place in Australia in July and the US in November.  There were elections in Ireland a few weeks ago, and in the Philippines yesterday.   And next month will see the E.U. referendum in Britain.  I'm following these elections with interest, with a personal interest found in my attempts to Trump-proof and Brexit-proof my modest retirement savings.

I'm not a politician, but I'm interested in politics.  My own political views are somewhere around centre-leaning-left to left-leaning-centre. 

As a clergy type, I'm interested in the relationship between faith and politics.  Personally, I'm amazed that so many people now associate being "religious" with being right-of-centre politically.  I really don't get the connection that exists in many people's minds between a religious faith and a right-of-centre political viewpoint.

When I was growing up in New Jersey in the northeastern US (as a member of the "baby-boomer" generation), most of the people I knew who were on the political "left" were active in churches or synagogues.  As well, most of the people I knew who were on the political "right" were people who frequently made fun of religion, and for whom religious names were among their favourite swearwords.   This was well before the "religious right" developed any political prominence at all in the 1980s, and when conservative Christians (whether the more "evangelical" sort of "Protestant" or RC traditionalists) tended to be highly apolitical and "voted their income" the way most people did.

And really, if you're part of any major faith (Christian or otherwise), and if you really "get" the ethics of your faith, one result will be an altruistic attitude toward others that generally would be seen as a left-of-centre (or at least moderately left-of-centre) position in the economics-based politics found in most western countries.

It's possible to be an authentic person of faith and a person of a broadly right-of-centre political temperament.  However, such a person will often find that their faith will necessarily moderate their politics, "sanding off" the rough edges of their conservatism.  Such an individual may embrace the classic conservatism of an Edmund Burke, a William Pitt, or a Benjamin Disraeli, emphasising tradition, continuity, and social cohesion, but will firmly reject any call to a "greed is good" attitude, to a crudely "tough guy" approach to either national security or law enforcement, or to the prejudices promoted by many professional bigots on the far right of the political spectrum.

Once, around thirty-five years ago, I was at a seminar where the main speaker asked to imagine what the main impact would be on our lives if we completely lost our faith.  After thinking about this question for a few weeks, I concluded that one of the most obvious results of such a loss of faith would be that my political views would probably drift significantly rightwards.  I still believe this would be the case.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

A voluntary moratorium on churches making public comments about sex: a modest proposal

In my observation, one of two things normally happens when church leaders make a statement: on some public issue:

  • A church leader or a group of church leaders makes a well-researched, well-argued, nuanced, and compassionate statement on war and peace, poverty, indigenous people, refugees, asylum-seekers, immigration, the homeless, the unemployed, etc. … and the statement is ignored by most – if not all – media outlets. 
  • A church leader or a group of church leaders (including many of those involved in making the statement mentioned in my first example) gets hot under their collars over an issue related to sex, and fires off a media release taking the most conservative approach possible to the issue … and the coverage gets a huge amount of airtime and column inches.

The reason for this difference in coverage is easy. The first example doesn’t make for an entertaining news story, while the second does.

And, in my opinion, the reason the second example is considered so entertaining is that it reinforces the popular (and negative) fictional image that many of our neighbours have about those of us who inhabit the Christian churches in our communities, i.e. ultra-conservative, out-of-touch, hypocritical, and a bit dirty-minded.  (And while a few people in churches fit that stereotype - at least to some extent - most of us don't.)
This situation is even more critical when we add to it the long-running global public issue of child sexual abuse in religious, educational, and other institutional contexts. No church is untouched by this issue.  It threatens our moral credibility in all areas of each of our churches’ lives. 
As a result of this scandal, all faith communities - Christian and otherwise - need to realise that, collectively, our moral credibility with the wider community – and with much of our own membership - on issues of sex is now precisely nil, nada, zero, zilch, and zippidy-doo-dah; and that - as a result - we need to rebuild our credibility on these issues from the ground up. 
In response to this, I personally believe that (until the day in the future when every faith community – Christian and otherwise – across the world has fully dealt with issues of child sexual abuse in their own contexts) all faith communities need to establish a voluntary moratorium on any public comment on issues relating to sex (or, at least on any public comment taking a conservative stance on sex-related issues).
Yes, let’s talk about these issues within our own communities and among our diverse communities.  Yes, make a public comment if you can say something about sex that isn't ultra-conservative.  But, otherwise, let’s keep these conversations reasonably in-house until we’ve re-established our moral credibility on these issues.

(Following these thoughts about the relationship between religion and sex, you may wish to see some of my thoughts on the relationship between religion and politics.)



Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Book Review: kurina kuwara milaythina (The Place of the Eagle’s Feather)

Tim Matton-Johnson, kurina kuwara milaythina:  The Place of the Eagle’s Feather, Burleigh QLD:  Zeus Publications, 2015.

(Reviewed by Bob Faser)

This is a book that we’ve needed for some time in Tasmania.

Tim Matton-Johnson is a Uniting Church minister of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent.  Over the years, he has served both as a minister to congregations and as an ecumenical staffer, as well as working in secular employment.  He is presently minister of the Uniting Church’s Bridgewater-Gagebrook Parish Mission in southern Tasmania.

In the course of his ministry, Tim has sought to relate his Christian faith and his Aboriginal heritage to each other, as well as to relate both to his active concern for the environment and to a post-Enlightenment, scientific worldview.  This book is the result of this on-going reflection.

The fact that the Aboriginal stories of the “Creation Beings” to which Tim refers are specifically Tasmanian stories gives particular value to this book for those of us who are involved in ministry in a Tasmanian context.

I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone (indigenous or otherwise) who seeks to build bridges between the Christian faith and Aboriginal people, particularly in Tasmania.  I’d also recommend this book to anyone who seeks to relate the Christian faith to the Tasmanian cultural context.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Book Review: Seeing – Remembering – Connecting

Karen L. Bloomquist, Seeing – Remembering – Connecting:  subversive practices of being Church, Cascade Books, 2016.

Reviewed by Bob Faser.

How can churches engage with our society so as to resist injustice and to transform the culture?  This is the question Karen Bloomquist addresses in Seeing – Remembering – Connecting. 

Bloomquist, a minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, writes from her experience as a pastor, a theological educator, and a denominational and ecumenical staffer.  At the beginning of the book, she states her purpose as enabling churches to subvert the patterns of injustice in the wider society (which she describes throughout the book as “domination” and “empire”) by pursuing “alternate public visions” of reality (p. 1).

Bloomquist describes three “subversive practices” that need to be cultivated to pursue these alternate visions:  seeing, remembering, and connecting.

·        Seeing is the ability to observe the reality of our society and culture, as opposed to the dominant illusions of our culture.

·        Remembering is the ability to relate both to the broad sweep of our faith tradition and to the reality of our secular history, as opposed to the historical amnesia of our culture.

·        Connecting is the ability to relate positively to people whom we regard as “the Other”, in terms of race, religion, culture, gender, lifestyle, or economics, as opposed to our culture’s rampant individualism and its encouragement to fear of “the Other”.

Significantly, Bloomquist writes predominantly from the perspective of a theologian rather than that of a social scientist, although she is qualified to do both.  Such vital themes of Christian faith as Incarnation, Trinity, and Eucharist frequently appear in her discussion of the “subversive practices” of seeing, remembering, and connecting.  At one level, I assumed the use of these theological themes was a function of Bloomquist’s Lutheranness.  Nevertheless, I appreciated the implication that a church which seeks to participate in the transformation of its wider culture does not have to adopt a theological or liturgical minimalism to do so.

I recommend Seeing – Remembering – Connecting if you’re seeking some brief (101 pages) but substantial theological reading.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Book Review: Out of the Ordinary

(Note: This book review first appeared in the May 2016, edition of Crosslight.)

Patricia Curthoys and William W. Emilsen, eds., Out of the Ordinary:  Twelve Australian Methodist Biographies, MediaCom Education Inc., 2015, RRP: $29.75.   (Reviewed by Bob Faser).

While a reasonable amount of material has been written since Union by historians in the Uniting Church in Australia on the history of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism in Australia, comparatively little in the same time has been written on Australian Methodist history.  

In my observation, there are three good reasons for this situation.

1.   The lack of any significant “continuing” movement among Methodists has meant there was less urgency for ex-Methodists to present the UCA as a legitimate Australian manifestation of global Methodism, compared with the experience of ex-Congregationalists and ex-Presbyterians.

2.   Most scholars from a Methodist background within the UCA have tended to concentrate their energies on topics of ecumenical interest, rather than on topics of a specifically UCA-related interest, let alone those of a mainly ex-Methodist interest.

3.   When these scholars chose to deal with topics of a specifically Methodist interest, they usually dealt with topics related to John Wesley or to other members of the Wesley family, rather than with later Methodist topics.  (In my opinion, this is similar to the movement within many Roman Catholic religious orders to study - and, hopefully, emulate - the charisms of the founders of their orders.)

This volume, edited by Patricia Curthoys and William W. Emilsen, seeks to fill some of this gap.  It contains twelve brief biographical studies of people with significant roles within the Methodist Church of Australasia between Methodist reunion in 1902 and the inauguration of the UCA in 1977.  The comparative brevity of each biography means that a reader can approach this book as twelve brief “bites”.

While the biographies are limited to people who are deceased and for whom no full-length biography has been published, the biographies include a diversity of people of both genders, Indigenous and Anglo, lay and ordained.   Their service included ministry to congregations, theological education, mission, and the broader community.  One minor gap in this work is the lack of a study of any person with a primary involvement in the area of youth ministry, a recognised area of excellence for Methodism in the post-war years. 

Given the significant contributions of Methodism to the UCA and to the wider ecumenical movement (a strong optimism regarding God’s grace, a similar optimism regarding human nature, a conviction that social justice is never an “optional extra” for Christians), it is essential that we are aware of the Methodist dimension of the UCA’s heritage.  This book is a useful contribution to this task.