Who do we say God is? Part 2

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This post will pick up where it left off in part 1.

Christianity did not only inherit and adopt the economic and political forms of the Roman empire but also the philosophical ones. The Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had an undeniably huge impact on Christian development everywhere but particularly in the west. The roman Catholic church has referenced these teachers almost as much as their own scriptures in official writings from its earliest formation right up until today.

This influence in Christian history brought with it the idea of God as more of a cosmic force than a tribal deity. The teachings of Plato and Socrates heavily influenced the way we understand God. The platonic teaching of forms can be explained, very simplistically like this: everything we see on earth is an imperfect reflection of something in heaven. They didn’t call it heaven, they called it the world of forms, but Christian theologians took it as heaven.

So, by Platonic reasoning, every chair on earth is an imperfect representation of perfect chairness in the world of forms. Not just physical things but more ephemeral things as well. My love for my son is an imperfect reflection of the form of fatherly love. Math, and in particular geometry, was a big part of how this Greek school of thought came to this conclusion. Every round thing on earth, every apple and every orange, is an imperfect image of the perfect sphere which we know about only in our minds.

And so heaven became this world of forms and God became the perfect form of love, righteousness, and power. This is how they understood the Hebrew scripture which says we are created in God’s image. With the influence of the academy on the church God became a very mathematical God. Like math, God was abstract, unchangeable, perfect, and while he certainly had an impact on how the earth works he was not physically present like he was for Abraham, Moses, or Solomon. Theology became a process of rational speculation and the religious leaders shifted their attention from sacrifices to Greek logic.

One major philosophical theologian was Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas really solidified the logical argument for the necessary existence of God still used today in discussions between atheists and Christian apologists. Again, like I did with Plato, I am going to give you the extreme Cole’s notes version of his argument and necessarily butcher it in the process. Aquinas wrote volumes of theology, thousands of pages, and we don’t have time to go through it all now, nor do I have the expertise to do something like that. But here is the butchered version of Aquinas’ ontological argument for the existence of God.

He starts with the assumption that everything which moves has been pushed. Unless another force comes along and gives something a nudge it will stay where it is. He also says that anything which exists came into existence because of another force. Things don’t simply happen on their own. He argued that if you trace this line of thinking back you end up needing to have what he calls an initial mover, or a first cause. He argues that God must be this first cause, the one who set the universe in motion. The one who took the proverbial pool cue and started all the balls rolling.

This idea of God took off during the later middle ages and was really a big part of the way theology turned after the middle ages ended. One other thing that happened in the middle ages was a great disconnect between the clergy and the laity. Where the early theologians like Paul, or Tertullian, or Augustine had their works read out in public and were at least nominally familiar to the average Christian, the very scholarly and academic theology of the middle ages was pretty far removed from the common people.

The average person was more concerned about being baptized and taking communion so they could get into heaven than they were about ontological arguments for God’s existence. In short, the ritual and temple worship of Solomon had been carried on, though drastically changed, into the cathedrals of medieval Europe except with a clear apocalyptic view. The apocalypticism of the middle ages was very different than that of the early church however. It was not about the salvation of the world in the future, it was about the salvation of individual souls in the after life. Paul’s teachings of the resurrection of the body were forgotten and people were more concerned about purging sin in purgatory so that they would qualify for a spot in Heaven after they died. This was the purpose of all religious action and thought and a legitimate worry for most Christians.

With the protestant reformation came another radical and drastic change not only for the protestants but for the Catholics as well. The reformers wanted to see the gap between common cathedral worshippers and philosophical theologians lessened. They also wanted to break the tradition of papal authority, that is the idea that the Pope was God’s direct and perfect agent here on earth. So the protestant revolution gave rise to a new understanding of God. The two guiding principles were sola fide and sola scriptura. These Latin terms mean by faith alone and by scripture alone. We talked about faith vs works in one of our previous discussions. But today we are going to focus a little more on sola scriptura, by scripture alone.

This ideology was really about authority. Until the reformation, the church in the West had it’s central authority in the pope, but that authority was more about running the business than about understanding God. The reformers wanted to take that authority away from the pope and place it in the Bible. In their minds Christianity was defined by the Bible alone. That same Greek philosophy which had, up until this point, been wide sweeping and synthesized what today are the separate schools of theology, astronomy, natural science, social science, ethics, music, and many other fields, was beginning to make some real progress and call into question many assumptions of Western culture. After the reformation and into the age of enlightenment science had really come into itself and was starting to attract the attention of the intellectual elites. Science had an ultimate authority which was the scientific method that allowed for a new and astonishingly successful way of making truth claims. All of a sudden theologians felt left out of intellectual debates with outdated and unverifiable truth claims. The protestant theologians wanted back into the intellectual court and so they created the doctrine of solar fide and set scripture as their truth maker. The Catholic counter reformation sought to address the issue by reaffirming their papal authority and putting a great deal of effort into the scholastic efforts of the papacy.

Up until this point religious truth had been largely based in experience. People accepted religious to the based on what they felt, but now, religious truth needed verification from a higher authority, religious claims needed to be grounded in something authoritative. No longer could a preacher like Paul simply tell people what was up, if religion was going to keep up with science it needed truth makers. While the protestants had scripture and the Catholics had tradition a new group began to emerge known as deists. Deists were the pinnacle of the rational scientific movement, they believed that both scripture and tradition were outdated stories from less enlightened primitive times at best and flat out superstitious nonsense at worst. Deism essentially believes God to be a cosmic watchmaker who set the universe into motion and now sits back and watches it unfold. In the deist mind God does not answer prayer or intervene in history, God is completely uninvolved in the world and was merely the initial mover Thomas Aquinas spoke about in the middle ages and nothing more.

Deism is a word we don’t here much anymore but it’s effects are still strongly felt today. Eventually deism led to atheism on the one hand and what some scholars call functional atheism on the other. I personally think deism is what most western Christians believe today. A vague concept that God is out there but doesn’t really have anything to do with daily life. A way of understanding the gospel as a set of moral and social instructions that we can base our lives off of.

In response to the deist movement and the pluralistic religious ideas of the 18th and 19th centuries arose the fundamentalist movement. The fundamentalists saw deism as one step away from atheism and wanted to go back to what they considered to be the fundamental teachings of Christianity as taught in the Bible. They insisted on literal interpretation of the scriptures and were skeptical of science, philosophy, and religious pluralism. While their movement claimed to be true unadulterated Christianity it, like all other forms of religion, reflected their own biases and cultural assumptions.

In the 20th century and right up until today there is another counter movement against fundamentalism. The United Church belongs to the Western liberal tradition which is essentially a rebuttal to fundamentalism which was a rebuttal against deism. Deism was born as a way to put aside the superstition of the past and had it’s roots in the protestant reformation which was, of course, a rebuttal against medieval Catholicism.

Now, we’ve covered a lot of ground but think back to Moses’ God, who lived in a wooden box covered with gold and who required animal sacrifices, how much does that God look like our God today? How much can we think of Moses’ God as the same as the Western Christian God of the early middle ages? How much does the temple dwelling God of Solomon look like the God of the Protestant reformers? How does what we believe today fit into the history of Western Christian thought and what will the church of our children look like? Is there any consistent thread? What do you hope to see carried into the future and what are you willing to leave behind?

Who do we say God is?

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Our ideas of God, and indeed all our religious ideas, have changed over the centuries. We can see it within the Bible and we can see it within the tradition of the church after the Bible was canonized as well. Today we will look at some of the changes we can see throughout the shared history of Christianity and Israel and try to look at the wide array of ways God has been worshiped, from tribal deity to cosmic principal, from God of the oppressed to God of the oppressors, from an interventionist God to a divine clock maker; the ways we have understood and worshiped God have flip flopped and changed a hundred times over.

We spoke about the early church a while ago during our discussion on creeds and the way orthodoxy and heresy were formed. Concepts of God’s nature are not all that has changed, but also concepts of human nature. Questions of predestiny, questions of God’s will for social and moral values, and questions of afterlife are anything but consistent throughout Christian history, denominations, and even geographical location. The illusion that there are consistent or definite qualities which specifically make a group Christian is just that, an illusion.

If we start with the earliest figures in our tradition, Abraham and his family, we can see a way of life very different from what we practice today. Abraham sets up small altars upon which he sacrifices animals to his God. While Abraham is considered the father of monotheism, his monotheism is fairly different from what is essentially the deism of many people today.

For one thing, there is good evidence to support that the early Israelites didn’t really believe in one god so much as they worshiped one god. The commandment given to Moses to not have any other gods before me, suggests that there were other gods but that they weren’t to be worshiped.

During this period the Lord was not located anywhere in particular, that’s why Abraham could set up an altar anywhere he wanted and why God was with the Israelites even in Egypt and even in the desert as he tried to help them find a new home.

But that changed after Moses had his encounter on mount Sinai and God instructed his people to build a tabernacle that the Lord could dwell in to be amongst his people. God became a localized phenomenon with the building of the ark of the covenant. So, at this point, God was still mobile, not attached a location, but had become physical and attached to a particular people in a ritualistic and material way. No longer could one simply erect a small altar and be in the presence of the Lord, now the Israelites had a tent with a box in it and in there God did dwell.

Eventually that box would come to rest in the temple which Solomon built and an entirely new way of expressing religion came about. God was no longer mobile, travelling with his people, God was now sedentary and attached to the holy land of Jerusalem. Along with temple worship arose a more complex priesthood and system of ritual and sacrifice. Institutionalized religion appeared in a way very different from the simple priests descended from Aaron in the past.

There also arose a new form of religious leaders alongside, and often opposed to, the priests. They were called prophets. The prophetic tradition is a brilliant and beautiful one, not many cultures have had the courage to include in their own structure and scriptures an entire class of people dedicated to calling the religion phonies.

The prophets spoke for God. While God physically rested in the tabernacle, which had been placed in the temple, God’s voice was now to be heard through the words of prophets. This marked an entirely new way of interacting with God. The prophets main complaints were that the Israelites mistreated foreigners and slaves and that they fell away from worshiping the one true God.

The constant appeal of the prophets to stop worshiping Baal suggests that a good number of people were worshiping Baal and this again points to the fact that the Israelites were not as strictly monotheistic as we might like to think.

With the Babylonian exile and the subsequent Roman occupation the Israelites were exposed to a great deal more external religious influence and their tradition changed yet again. For one, what had seemed like clear progress for their people by God was shattered. God had promised Abraham many descendants and followed through. He had promised Moses a law and a land for the people and he had followed through. He had promised to protect Israel and his temple and for many years had followed through. But now it had all fallen apart, where was their mighty God when Babylon and Rome came to oppress them?

And so they developed an apocalyptic tradition, which Jesus was part of. Before this time God had been understood as manipulating both nature and history for the sake of his chosen people. Everything from how the crops did to whether wars were won or lost was a result of God’s divine providence. But now, how could the God of Israel allow his people to suffer so much? So the focus shifted from God saving now to God saving later. The apocalyptic tradition placed hope in the future, in a coming Messiah who would usher in an era of peace and prosperity. Jesus was understood by some to be that messiah.

The early Christian movement took apocalypticism to its full potential. Paul told people not to bother getting married, not to bother making any long term investments, or to do anything really other than repent for the coming of Christ was at hand. Because Jesus had been raised from the dead the end was soon to come, and by soon he meant soon, like next week or something, any minute now the world was going to end and we all needed to be ready. The judgement was imminent, the righteous who had died were going to be physically raised from the dead, and the whole world was going to be radically changed. The apocalypse had come and was just getting revved up.

To these early Christians Heaven wasn’t a nice place your grandma went after she died, Heaven was a coming kingdom with Jesus as king that would rule the earth and start any day now.

That form of radical apocalyptic Christianity wasn’t sustainable in the long run, for obvious reasons: Jesus didn’t come back, and things here on earth stayed roughly the same. After a couple generations went by people had to adapt the Christian message, they had to find a new way to practice their faith and to understand God and their own place in the world. And so, Christians began to lessen their previously harsh criticisms of popular culture and Roman empire. They began to integrate into society and find regular jobs like regular people. Some of them even became soldiers and in their travels spread Christianity to the broader Roman empire.

Around 300 years after Jesus Christianity had become a thoroughly settled part of the Roman religious world. The Roman world accepted various cults to various gods and Christianity was one of the multitude of religious options a person could pursue in a very metropolitan and diverse society. Eventually, one very influential person had a conversion to Christianity. His name was Constantine and he was the emperor himself. He had a dream in which Jesus spoke to him and promised him victory in battle. One has to wonder if this is the same Jesus who had instructed his disciples to turn the other cheek and who chose crucifixion over defending himself.

Whether it was the same Jesus or not Constantine won the battle and converted to Christianity. This marked the moment where the church stopped being a small Jewish cult and took the first steps towards being the inheritor of the Roman empire, a wealthy and influential political and economic force. Of course, it didn’t happen overnight, but in a few short centuries Christianity was the official religion of the empire and the ideology behind a massive army and trade system.

That’s as far as we’re going to get today. What do you think some of the effects of Constantine’s conversion were? How do you feel about the shifts in Christian thought we’ve discussed so far? Do you see any reflection of our own ideas of church in our history up until this point? What can we learn from realizing how our ideas of God have changed? When Pilate was confronting Jesus, Jesus told him that he had come into the world to testify to the truth and Pilate responded with the very question we are still wrestling with today, “What is truth”. So, my friends, what is truth?

Columba: The Paradoxical Saint

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Be a bright flame before me, O God

a guiding star above me.

Be a smooth path below me,

a kindly shepherd behind me

today, tonight, and for ever.

Alone with none but you, my God

I journey on my way;

what need I fear when you are near,

O Lord of night and day?

More secure am I within your hand

than if a multitude did round me stand.

Amen.

-Prayer of St Columba

 

The life of a tradition mirrors the life of those who are living in it. St. Columba was the force which brought the Celtic Christian tradition out of the comfort of its font of life in Ireland and into the marches and uncharted lands of pagan Pictland. He was a product of his time, a fierce and passionate Celt with an unwavering devotion to the imminent God of the tradition he was carrying. He was a man who was riddled with passions and pride, yet he was also able to embody the virtues of self-restraint and humility, but above all he was considered a saint by the people of his time and is remembered as a hero to the Celtic people.

Like any proper hagiography from that period of time Columba’s story begins with a miraculous birth. His mother had a prophetic dream in which an angel came to her with a beautiful cloak which she held in her hands. After admiring its beauty for a short while it floated away and off to a far land across the sea. The angel told her it was a symbol for the son she would bear. It foretold Columba’s mission to convert many souls to the Christian faith. Prophesy was of the utmost importance to the Celts, and was a staple of Columba’s miracles. This prophesy, and its fulfillment, would be the basis for all of Columba’s life.

The life of St Columba exemplifies the four aspects of the Celtic spiritual journey. His font of life began in the house of Cruithnechan who had baptized him and given him his first instructions in religious life and literary endeavours. However, it was Columba’s fate that the comfort of the font of life would not be a lengthy part of his journey. His path was a transformative one which not only explored the marches, but expanded the font of life to encompass them upon arrival, enlarging the circle as he went. However, before he was to explore the outer regions of his spiritual journey, he first had to experience the highs and lows of the mountains and valleys.

It is fair to say that Columba had many extraordinary visions which could be considered mountain top experiences. The one that seems to be the most formative in his personal journey was the visitation from the three sisters which God gave to him for brides. When visited by his Guardian angel one night Columba was asked what gifts he would ask of God. Columba answered wisdom and purity. The angel was so pleased with his response that he foretold these two gifts would come to him as well as one more. Then, one day, three beautiful young women approached him, informed him they were the daughters of God, and promised themselves to him as his wives. The names of the sisters were purity, wisdom, and prophesy.

This vison is what I have chosen to call Columba’s mountain top experience. It was an influential and life changing event in his life which set the tone for much of what was to come afterwards. Of all his visions this one spoke to his personal condition directly more than any other. It is also deeply symbolic of the merging of Celtic and Christian culture. The fact that women were the manifestation of these most highly prized virtues is evident of a Celtic understanding of divinity, which includes both genders. That Columba was to marry these girls, who were the daughters of Jesus, was a blending of Christian ascetic ideas of celibacy for monks and the importance of love and personal connection for the Celts. It could be said that these sisters were like Columba’s anam cara. He shared with them a deep and personal connection, yet they were not truly of this world, allowing for both the immimentalist ideas of the Celts and the new dualistic ideas of the Roman church.

This mountaintop experience helped carry Columba out of his font of life and into his first exploration of the marches. After this experience he left Cruithnechan’s care and entered into monastic life as a deacon under the tutelage of St Finnian. Columba’s story was very much about the marches of life, and he would eventually go much further than this, but not until he had found his valley.

While studying with Finnian Columba took it upon himself to copy one of Finnian’s psalters without permission. Finnian took great offense to this and sought legal retribution under the authority of High King Dermott. Dermott ruled in favour of Finnian and Columba was ordered to return the copied text to him. This finished psalter was of great value and took a considerable amount of time and skill to produce. The issue was contentious enough that Columba decided to defend the psalter, and his pride, by means of military action. Columba’s army defeated Dermott’s in a gory battle which cost the lives of thousands of men on both sides. Columba was then advised by one of his spiritual mentors that he must win back for Christ as many souls as were lost in the battle.

This formative incident in Columba’s life is representative of the valley in many ways. Mainly because Columba is shown to have very human characteristics. Envy for the psalter which was not his, and a willingness to go to battle and sacrifice the lives of so many men to satisfy his pride are not the characteristics one expects to find in a saint. This personal failing surely must have been as much a devastation to Columba as the consequences of his actions which were to follow.

Out of the valley Columba was again thrust into the marches, but this time much further out. His spiritual journey was to take him to pagan Pictland, to the west of his familiar font of life in Ireland. It was in the Kingdom of Dalriada, in Pictland, where Columba would fulfill the prophetic dream of his mother, bringing his story full circle and forging out of a hostile and foreign land the monastery which would become the hub of Celtic Christianity.

This expansion into far reaching marches was not only a part of Columba’s personal journey, but of the Celtic people as whole. There are rare moments when one person’s life becomes completely entwined with the life of an entire culture and Columba, for a brief moment in history, embodied Celtic Christianity as they travelled together to the far reaches of uncharted territory. In a glorious feat of Providence the fate of one man changed the fate of an entire people. Celtic Christendom expanded its font of life into what was before the marches and the lonely island of Iona, which was the very fringe of the Celtic Christian world, became the center.

Columba shows us some very crucial things which are still relevant today. He demonstrates the fine line between faith and arrogance, courage and belligerence, virtue and sin. He walks this fine line and touches feet down on both sides. Yet, most importantly, he shows us how imperfect people can still be tools for God’s purpose.  In this we can see that our own shortcomings, our own folly, can be interwoven into God’s plan. He exemplifies that very Celtic view that our lives and the world around us are not separate from God’s world. We live and breathe in God’s grace and the very living of our lives is not separate from, or opposed to, Heaven. Columba was very much a part of this world and was subject to those human qualities that we all share yet he was a holy man and venerated saint. This paradox blurs the lines between sacred and secular and shows us that those distinctions are, in many ways, arbitrary.

He also shows us that with unwavering faith the intimidating marches in our lives can not only be known and explored but also tamed. The circle of our spiritual life is expanding and we aid that process by our willingness to follow God with courage, and perhaps sometimes arrogance, into the unknown.

Swords into Plowshares

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War is one of the tragic truths of our world. For as long as humanity has recorded history war has been the focus of that history. For as long as nations have kept armies war has been the source of power. For as long as fear and greed have been the driving forces in politics war has been the result.  War seems to be integral to human life and inescapable.

It has been so essential to our ideas of nationhood and governance, honour and virtue, duty and responsibility that we accept war as necessary, inevitable, and even justified. But Jesus came to tell us that there is another way. He came to tell us that love and forgiveness are infinitely better than violence and retribution. Martin Luther King Jr did a really good job of elaborating on this as well when he said:

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars…Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

But how does love do that? How can love drive out hate? And most importantly can love be an alternative to war? I would like to share with you a couple stories I took from a package put out by the Central Mennonite Committee. One is a story of how humanity and love shine out through even the darkest times.

How the spirit of community and giving is really what people want to share with one another even in the depths of the most gruelling warfare. The other is a story about how political problems on an international scale can be solved by means other than violence, how war is not our only option in times of distress. The first is called the story of the Christmas truce and the scene is set on the western front of the First World War in December of 1914:

For some months, Allied and German forces had been locked in a stalemate of trench warfare. Often, their trenches were located only a few hundred meters from each other. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, soldiers from opposing armies began to exchange greetings and songs between their trenches.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day many of them ventured into “no man’s land” to put up simple Christmas trees, to exchange food, cigarettes and souvenirs, and to jointly bury their dead. Some groups sang Christmas carols together, while others played games of soccer.

Military officers clearly were not pleased with this kind of “fraternization.” The following year at Christmas, Allied commanders issued specific orders to soldiers not to participate in any further Christmas truces, though some smaller ones occurred. Later in the war, they ordered artillery bombardments on Christmas Eve to ensure there would be no friendliness across enemy lines. After all, the war had to go on!

The story of the Christmas truce reminds us of the common humanity of all people – even those we call our enemies. Perhaps it invites us to consider what the world would look like today if the Christmas truce of 1914 could have led to a real truce. Perhaps the spirit of Christ in that day could have made for a lasting peace instead of one that would fall apart only 25 years later.

 

Our second story is called The Singing Revolution and takes place in Estonia after the Second World War:

Stronger than an army and more powerful than a fleet of tanks, the songs of the Estonian people changed the course of a nation and brought about their independence. Estonia became an independent country in 1920 but was conquered by the Soviet Union following the Second World War. Under Stalin’s plan of “russification,” he tried to suppress Estonian nationalism by banning nationalistic songs, making it illegal to fly the Estonian flag, and encouraging Russians to immigrate to Russia’s newly acquired territory.

But Estonian culture and nationalism persisted, and in an effort to regain their independence, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered, over the course of four years, to stage mass peaceful demonstrations. Estonia may be one of the smallest countries in the world (1.3 million people at the time), but they possess one of the largest repertoires of folk songs. They sang these songs in unison in an attempt to regain their independence.

At a music festival in September, 1988, 300,000 Estonians, nearly a quarter of the population, linked hands and sang together. The next year, 700,000 gathered along with millions from Lithuania and Latvia, linking hands in a human chain the length of three countries. After four years of persistent singing demonstrations, the revolution was successful. When Soviet tanks entered the capital, Estonians acted as human shields to protect radio and TV stations. Estonia’s Congress and Supreme Court declared Estonia an Independent State.

The united songs of the people accomplished what tanks and military could not. Estonia freed itself from Soviet rule, peacefully becoming an independent country once again.

It is not easy to put your faith in peaceful alternatives to war. Who would ever have guessed that Christmas would be all that was required for enemy forces to share rations and play soccer?  Or that folk songs could liberate an oppressed nation? Especially when you consider that the Soviet Union was not known for its empathy to the plight of the nations under its jurisdiction.

But peaceful tactics have been successful in other situations as well. India gained its independence by means of non-violent action under the guidance of Mahatma Ghandi. The civil rights movement could easily have turned into a very violent situation if it were not for the gentle yet powerful leadership of Martin Luther King Jr.

As a culture I think we have created a false dichotomy where we assume that we either fight or do nothing, we think that non-violence is the same as non-action, but that is not true. We have a completely wrong idea of what power is. We assume power comes from force, from military might, from the ability to be bigger than everyone else.

But Jesus came to teach us otherwise. He came to teach us that the real power is in being humble. That true strength comes not from an ability to over power others but instead from an ability to embrace and heal those who are suffering. True power is being able to force out an oppressive regime with music. Or in dismissing the orders of your superiors and sharing a Christmas meal with your enemy.

That sort of strength requires a deep faith in what you are doing. It requires a faith in love which is really nothing more than a faith in God. Rabindranath Tagore, a great leader in the Indian independence movement, had this to say about faith:

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark”.

Even in darkness we can know that morning will come and we can sing in the night. In the midst of war and violence we can stand out as a voice of peace singing of what is to come. The prophet Micah made a beautiful and famous prophesy of the coming Kingdom of God. He said

“They will beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more.”

This is a beautiful image that shows us how we can better use our resources. I couldn’t find any up to date figures on what Canada spends for the military but the U.S. spends approximately $700 billion on military defense each year. Numbers like this get confusing. I have trouble picturing a million dollars let alone $700 billion but to put that in perspective some estimates put out by The Hunger Project, a charity dedicated to the elimination of hunger in the world, puts the cost of feeding all the hungry people in the world at about $30 billion per year. This means that the U.S. military budget spends enough in 8 days to feed every hungry person in the entire world for a year.

The spirit of Christ does not change. He has given us the commandment to love our enemies and surely he has not changed his mind. For Christ was explicit that violence is to be avoided, that even to protect yourself it is never to be used. But while Christ did not practice or justify violence he was also not passive. He was not tame and submissive.

He spoke out and changed the face of the world without hurting a single person. He used love, forgiveness, and honest public discourse to alter the fate of humanity more than anyone before or after him. A humble man riding a donkey never carrying a sword has had the most profound impact on humanity and he will be remembered long after the echoes of war have ended.

Since time immemorial we have used war to settle conflicts and bring order to human society but we have yet to accomplish our goal. How many times has there been a “war to end all wars”? How many times will war have to fail us before we realize that it is ineffective? War provides a temporary solution to systemic problems. Peace and love are the only forces powerful enough to bring about real and lasting change in the world. We must, instead of fighting wars, remove the occasion for war. We must look at the underlying causes of war and find real solutions. Instead of fighting we should feed people, we should educate people, we should care for them.

If a nation rises up proclaiming war we should feed every child in that nation and help to heal them. Through compassion we can overcome hatred, through generosity we can overcome greed, and through peace we can overcome war. This is the heart of the Gospel message. But what of the soldiers who have given their very lives to uphold and protect the noble ideals of democracy, liberty, and equality? What about those brave men and women who so nobly sacrificed themselves to protect and serve not only their families and their country but even strangers in foreign lands.

Surely Jesus has given us another message as well. He has taught us that to sacrifice yourself for others is the highest and best use of the life he has given us. Where he died on the cross our finest and best have laid down their lives on the battle field. And surely that is a commitment worth commending.

It is through people with that level of dedication, that deep moral inclination to put the needs of others before themselves, those people who are willing to stand up for what they know to be right and stare adversity in the face with confidence and unwavering devotion, it is through these people that peace will be possible when finally we embrace non-violent solutions to conflict. And it is to these people that we owe a debt of gratitude. The best gift we can give to those who have fallen in war is to make sure that no one after them need suffer the same fate, that we come to reach that beautiful time that the prophets of old spoke of, that time when we beat our swords into plow shares and study war no more. When we turn our resources from the manufacturing of weaponry to the production of food. When we stop investing in evil and start investing in what nourishes those whom Christ loves most – the forgotten and oppressed.

As you go about your week take some time to remember those who suffer from war. And together, let’s make a commitment to find the seeds of war in our own lives and remove them entirely. Let’s really look at the world objectively and try to find a way to remove the occasion for war. Let’s work to eliminate poverty, let’s educate children around the world, let’s share our wealth with the less fortunate nations and preach a doctrine of peace – just as our greatest teacher did 2000 years ago. Let’s take the time to ask difficult questions like: Why do we go to war? Is there another way? And what would Jesus do?

 

I would to like end my little rant with the words of a great teacher of Christ’s message, a man who lived the Gospel right up until his death. This is a short excerpt from a speech Martin Luther King Jr gave concerning the war in Vietnam, I believe it still rings true today.

“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. He that loves not knows not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwells in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says : “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.”

The Lord of Three

Image result for abraham 3 angels

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre

while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.

Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.

When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them

and bowed low to the ground. He said,

“If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by”

-Genesis 18:1-3

 

Before the beginning when God created the Heavens and the earth, there was the Holy Trinity. The eternal life from whom creation flows is not a static lonely god, but an intimate and relational triad in perpetual motion and with infinite possibilities. The traditional language used to describe the natural state of God is one in three, or three in one; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – yet only one God. The primary importance of the Trinity is not found in the distinct persons within it, but in the relationship between them. It is in this circular dance of the persons of the Godhead that history unfolds, and the universe is given life.

The three persons of the Trinity are not varying aspects of the same God – like I am a father, a son, and a preacher. The Trinity is not different states of the same matter – like ice, water, and steam. The Trinity firmly denies any attempts to conform it to the wisdom of this world. Instead, the Trinity is three distinct individual people while still being one whole and undivided person. In its very essence, and in its ultimate truth, it must be a paradox when viewed with human eyes. Just as Abraham addressed his three visitors as one Lord, so do we approach the one true God and see three distinct faces. The doctrine of the Trinity is one which very clever modern minds like to attack as spiritual mumbo jumbo with no rational basis behind it – yet, while the doctrine of the Trinity is beyond the wisdom of this world and the confines of the human mind, it is far from being illogical – or without practical value. If our doctrines of God were simple enough for the human mind to comprehend with ease then they would not be nearly large enough to say anything of real value about God.

Yet, for far too long we have been told not to think too hard about the Trinity – we are simply supposed to accept the impossible as a matter of faith. Now, faith is a word that has been perverted to mean accepting the impossible for no real reason because a priest or a pastor somewhere told you to – when really it should mean to trust in something larger than yourself for very good reason because you know it to be worthy of your trust. I pray then, dear reader, that you may suspend your disbelief long enough to seek the wisdom embedded in what is arguably the most foundational doctrine of the Christian religion – that God is both one and many. May the Triune God give you faith which can move mountains so that you can believe in what is beyond you and trust in what you cannot see. I pray you have the humility to step outside the wisdom of this age and into the wisdom of God. Embrace the paradox and in that foolishness you may develop eyes which can see, ears which can hear, and a heart which can love.

One of the great Christian teachers of our modern time, CS Lewis, had this to say about the seeming paradox of the Trinity:

“On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings – just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are two separate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube. Of course we cannot fully conceive a Being like that: just as, if we were so made that we perceived only two dimensions in space we could never properly imagine a cube. But we can get a sort of faint notion of it.”

 

We can easily imagine a one-dimensional line, a two-dimensional square, and a three-dimensional cube – but there our minds are halted by their limited nature when we try to imagine a fourth dimension. Yet, mathematicians have given us the tesseract, which is to the cube as the cube is to the square. Just as a square’s surface is made of four lines and cube’s surface is made of six squares, a tesseract’s surface is made of eight cubes. This is, of course, only possible with a fourth spatial dimension, one that, as far as we know, does not exist. While we cannot ever properly envision one or even conceive of what a four-dimensional universe would look like, we can still know mathematically that it is a possible thing to exist. In much the same way, we cannot ever fully envision how the trinity exists – but we can understand that it could exist in a way which is beyond our limited perspective. In understanding the existence of the trinity, and some of its principles, we can apply that reasoning to explain other questions and come, perhaps, to understand our own lives better by glimpsing what life beyond our own might look like – just as one understands the potential of a square much better when one realizes what a cube is like.

Accepting the doctrine of the Trinity is helpful both spiritually and philosophically. For now, let us examine some of the philosophical ways that the Trinity can help us understand reality.  Then, once we have explored the fruits of knowledge we can begin to explore the fruits of the eternal life which is bound up within the Trinity.

In the thirteenth century one of the most prolific theologians in Christian history, Thomas Aquinas, put forth five arguments defending the existence of God. Without going into the details of all five arguments we can take a look at some of the basic principles he was using. Aquinas argued that anything which is exists or is in motion has been acted upon by an external force. Anything which exists has been brought into existence for some reason and anything which moves has first been either pushed or pulled. Essentially, everything happens for a reason. If you see a pool table with all the balls moving around you know that someone hit them with a cue. You also know that something has brought the table and the balls into existence, someone constructed the table out of natural materials – and in turn those natural materials existed because of natural geological processes which collected the molecules together.

But, as Aquinas realized, if everything happens for a reason, and if we could trace those reasons back further and further, there are only two options as to what we would find. Either there was a first cause which set the universe in motion and brought everything into existence or time has no beginning and there was no first cause. It was common in the early scientific community to believe the latter position – that the universe had always been and that there was no beginning to time, however, in more recent decades we have discovered that the universe indeed did have a beginning, and that there was an initial event that set everything in motion.

And this makes sense philosophically as well as scientifically, if there was no first cause then where did all this motion come from? Most people in the science vs religion debate (which typically tends to be based on gross misunderstandings and petty bickering from both sides) agree that there was a first cause, namely the big bang. The question at hand then becomes what the nature of this first cause is, whether it was an eternal consciousness that we call God or simply a natural consequence of physical laws. There is no objective scientific answer to this question at this time, and perhaps there never will be. However, we can still explore this question in terms of philosophical inquiry and mystical experience. For now, we will stick with philosophical inquiry.

As Aquinas aptly pointed out, in order for anything to move it must be acted upon by another force and for anything to come into existence there must be a force which brings it. So, if the universe itself had a beginning then what was the cue that struck the balls and started everything rolling about? Aquinas called this proverbial cue stick God while others will think of it more as a natural consequence of physical laws. However, the first question we asked in this inquiry still applies to both these explanations – What caused God? What caused the law of physics? The line of reasoning Aquinas brought about is that there must be something outside of this chain of events which is not confined by the necessity of it all. In order for there to be anything at all there must have been something which started it and that something must be outside of the confines of logic or else it would be caught in the endless trap we have already described. So, then, the question becomes: what could exist outside the boundaries of physical laws and mathematical principles, time itself, and even logical necessities? This something we will call God and this God must exist, like the tesseract, in a way which is beyond the ability of our minds to grasp. Yet, like the tesseract, we can see from observing natural phenomena that its existence is very real, despite our inability to visualize it.

Where I will depart from Aquinas, and where I think the Trinity has an important role to play in this discussion, is that Aquinas thought God was both an uncaused first cause and an unmoving first mover. The main argument put forth by atheists against this is that it defies Aquinas’ first argument, that is that everything has a cause. The Trinity, by its very nature, is a relational being. In this dynamic dance each person of the Trinity is constantly creating the others and spurring the others into motion. In this way, God is not an unchanging or unmoving entity but instead an endless fountain of creation and change – a perpetual motion with infinite possibilities.

Aquinas believed that a motionless and unchanging God must be the necessary first cause. But how can something motionless create motion? The doctrine of the Trinity solves this issue by demonstrating that God is not motionless but quite the contrary – a fountain of perpetual motion. It is the interaction of the trinity which allows for this motion to take place. The Father compels the Son and the Spirit, the Son compels the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit compels the Father and the Son. A web of interaction is created between them which can multiply and refract into an infinite number of possibilities. Yet, some would ask, why must we assume this initial source of movement and creation has an intelligence at all?

Many atheists would argue, again, that this could simply be a movement of natural forces compelled by natural laws. Aquinas addressed this by pointing out the intricacy and intentionality of the laws which govern the universe, not by denying them. To simply accept the existence of natural laws without question is naïve – why are there physical laws at all? Why do those laws allow for such intricate and diverse order? What was the initial cause that brought these laws into being? Given that the natural laws of physics and logic are the ones that have given rise to the need for a first cause, it is hard to believe that they themselves are responsible for there being any universe at all.

The first cause must transcend this reality entirely if it is going to satisfy the need for a first cause without being caught in the trap itself. No, I’m afraid the physical laws are clearly created along with the rest of creation and the depth of purpose behind them must surely speak to an intelligent design. The laws of physics and logic could be non-existent altogether or they could be radically different and not lead to an ordered universe which gives rise to immensely complex forms of matter, energy, and life. Something beyond this reality has made the universe as it is and that something has made a beautiful piece of artwork where a chaotic collection of random substances could be instead.

And so, this intelligent being existing, like the tesseract, beyond our capacity to understand and in an eternal relationship of co-creating and co-propelling is the reason there is something other than nothing and that we enjoy the seemingly infinite complexity of the natural order that gives rise to our very existence and the planet the we call home. However, while all this philosophy is well and good and can help to sooth the mind into acceptance and allow it to let down its guard to open the gates of the heart, the most compelling evidence one could ever find as to why we should assume this first mover to be intelligent is simply mystical experience. We know intelligence entirely through experience – you know that your friends and family have minds because you interact with their minds. This is, in fact, the only possible way to determine intelligence, there is no test other than experience. For one mind recognizes another and anyone who has spent adequate time experiencing the mind of God knows it to be a mind.

One can theorize about a tesseract and draw it on paper and point to its existence by means of logic, but if one could glimpse it, just for a fleeting moment, even if that understanding left you once you returned to your three-dimensional mind, the sense of its realness would never leave you. I compel you, dear reader, if you wish to truly prove God’s existence, the loving perpetual relationship of the Trinity, and the infinite source of possibility contained therein, then seek to know God not with philosophy, but with the heart – for knowledge can only take you so far. To know God is not to understand God, but to love God and to be loved by God – for that is the peace which passes all understanding, and which guards our hearts and minds from themselves.