Monday, November 5, 2012

"God is ... Mind" - Professor Peter Bien

Peter Bien

          We are always told that God is love.  Might we extend this by saying that God is also mind?  Perhaps, although I’m sure that some (even many) will object.
          In exploring this, let’s start from the very beginning: chapter 1 of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”  The earth was without form and void.  It can’t be both.  If it is “without form”—that is “formless”—it consists of unformed substance; it is not void.  So, a choice is given here.  Theologians exploit this by saying that God is either volitional (creating something out of nothing, out of a void, by wishing it) or rational (transforming formlessness into form, chaos into cosmos, by an act of intelligence, of mind).  A loving God can wish the universe out of nothing.  But a God who transforms chaos into cosmos needs to be an intellectual power capable of forming the formless.  The editors of the Revised Standard Version prefer rationality over volition, since they declare, “Out of primordial chaos God created an orderly world.”  They declare as well that creation out of nothing was a later doctrine and cite Maccabees 7:28: “. . . look at the sky and the earth.  Consider everything you see there, and realize that God made it all from nothing . . . “.  I, too, prefer the rational God—or why not both rational and volitional?  Let’s give Him or Her a mind for thought, organization, and understanding, as well as a heart for loving. 
          There is still more evidence for mind in Genesis 1.  Remember, “darkness was upon the face of the deep. . . . And God said, ‘Let there be light’ . . .” (verse 3).  But sun, moon, and stars don’t come until verse 16, two day’s later.  I once did an extensive study of the meaning of “light” in Genesis.  I discovered that all the ancient sources equate this light with intelligence, enlightenment—in other words, with mind: the divine power that organizes, giving form to the formless.  The ancients were entirely clear about this.  Listen to Plotinus (3rd century A.D.): “The One [God] remains absolutely at rest, and Intellect springs from it like light from the sun.”  Light here is equated with God’s intellectual energy, the divine Mind that creates differentiation out of undifferentiated chaos, the finite out of the infinite.  Listen also to Saint Thomas Aquinas (13th century): “Brightness . . . agrees with the property of the Son [S-O-N, NOT S-U-N], as the Word, which is the light and splendor of the intellect.”  A modern Biblical scholar concludes that the Word in John’s Gospel, equated with both Light and God, is “the rational principle in the universe, its meaning, plan or purpose.”  Finally, listen to Dante (late 13th, early 14th century): “All that which dies and all that cannot die / Reflect the radiance of that Idea / Which God the Father through His love begets: / That Living Light, which from its radiant Source / Streams forth.”  Here, wonderfully, the two possibilities are joined, light being the “Idea” generated by “love.” Yes, God can be both love and mind.                                       
          The overall topic for this term’s chapel services is “Loving God with Your Mind.”  That’s why I am attracted to Romans 7:25 as an appropriate Biblical verse:  “On my own I can serve God’s law only with my mind, while my human nature serves the law of sin.” Or, as more freely translated in the New English Bible, “I myself, subject to God’s law as a rational being, am yet, in my unspiritual nature, a slave to the law of sin.”  This seems to derive from Stoic philosophy, which greatly influenced early Christian thinkers.  The Stoic view was that God equals nature and that nature is rational.  Accordingly we, imitating God and thereby fulfilling our own natures, should strive to be rational, loving God with our minds.  I qualified this view at the start by saying “Perhaps” and by worrying “that some (even many) will object.”  Indeed Saint Augustine, at the end of the 4th century, did vigorously object to Stoic influence, claiming that it exhibited “an exorbitant belief in the power of human reason and the ability of the wise man to perfect himself,” a belief that “struck at the heart of Christian teaching, by ignoring the Fall and eliminating the need for divine grace”.1  It is hard to argue against Saint Augustine, and furthermore hard to argue against postmodern philosophical thinking with its emphasis on the vagueness and imprecision of everything, on the omnipresence of mutability, the absence of any final point of stability in the swirl of existence.  But I am a Quaker and Quakers really do not place the Fall at the center of Christian belief.  We were of course accused of heresy on this account, perhaps justifiably; nevertheless Quakers in general and I in particular are more attracted to the conviction—at least the hope—that by imitating God we may become capable of thinking and acting rationally.  The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (ca. A.D. 50–130), whose ultimate guru was Socrates, put it this way: “Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered.  And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”2
          This appeals to me because I believe that we and our circumambient universe are part of a cosmic order established in the beginning when God said “Let there by light.”  As I observe and contemplate the regularity of sunrise and sunset, the circling of planets around stars, the predictable cycle of living creatures’ birth, growth, maturation, reproduction, and senescence, the intricate interdependence of animate and inanimate creation, I really do sense rationality at work around me and inside me.  Of course unpredictability, chance, and inexplicability are also present, but I prefer to see them as defects of our system rather than that system’s essence.  The Stoics assert that this cosmic order is constituted by Zeus (God).  I am not a “creationist,” but if God is just shorthand for “the nature of things”—the predictable regularity characterizing cosmic order—then I have no problem.  Indeed, I can subscribe to the Quaker assurance that something of God— something of the rational universe—resides in each person.
          Of course a viable religious system should be more than just a comfortable intellectual doctrine; it should also direct our behavior.  If God is mind as well as love, then we, imitating deity, should behave rationally.  Perhaps we ascribe good behavior chiefly to love.  That is fine; however, good behavior must also derive from understanding, discrimination, correct choices, allegiance to a reasonable table of values, the ability to differentiate between that which is subject to our control and that which is beyond our control.  In sum, good behavior depends not only on love but also on rationality, perhaps (who knows?) primarily on rationality.
          In any case, although we are always told that God is love, I hope that I have convinced you that we may extend this by saying that God is also mind, even though some (even many) will object.

Hanover, New Hampshire
October 30, 2012.

1 Noel Malcolm, reviewing Christopher Brooke’s “Philosophic Pride” in TLS, September 28, 2012, p. 5.
2 A. A. Long, Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), p. 272, citing Epictetus’s Encheiridion 51.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Knowing God - Judy Anne Williams

The idea of seeking to “love God with our minds” raises a pretty basic question. How can we love what we do not know? And yet, how is it possible to truly know God, the infinite, the Creator, the Source of Life? On the one hand, Jeremiah tells us that God has said,

Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord.  (Jer 9:23-24).

Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek. (Ps 27:8).

But although we are told metaphorically to seek God’s face, it is clear that this isn’t our literal charge. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly and rather graphically assert that God’s holiness is so enormous and unapproachable that it is not meant for our human bodies. Nobody wants to burst into flames, people!
So the question then becomes, what is the nature of this knowledge of God that we are supposed to attain, how are we to do it, and how will it allow us to love God more dearly?
One simple way to know God, of course, is through His works. In the 19th Psalm, the poet says,
1 The heavens speak the glory of God;
   and the firmament
* proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day unto day pours forth speech,
   and night unto night declares knowledge.
  (Ps 19:1-2)
Having been raised without faith, my first inklings of the Divine were in my experiences of the natural world. “Majesty” is not a concept that Americans are very down with, but that was exactly the reaction that I had to encountering the beauty of Creation in its most natural state (often through trips “up” here to New Hampshire from my native land of Boston). I think many people have had that spiritual encounter, and some of them made their way to college up here in the North Country.
I do want to say that my early sense of the Divine in nature was more than just, “This is so pretty, there must be a God who created it!” I don’t personally need a concept of “intelligent design” to see the Divine in the Creation, nor do I have a problem with evolution, or geological time. Creation is the more beautiful to me in the infinitesimal time of its development, the endless turning of the earth’s crust, the cascade of random mutations over millions of years creating the chameleon’s swiveling eye. I don’t need a God with hands to have molded it all out of clay in some specific amount of time. The ancient light of the stars, the descendants of the Big Bang, are no less a testament, in my heart, to the existence of God.
I see the Divine in the Creation when I am pierced by its beauty, but also by seeing its overwhelming power. The primary sport in my family during my childhood was whitewater boating. If you’ve ever tried to pick up even a large bucket of water, you have a visceral sense of how surprisingly much it weighs. River flow is measured in CFS, or cubic feet per second, and whitewater is created when a great weight of water, powered by the undeniable force of gravity, hits the resistance of unmovable rocks. When you are in the midst of a churning mass of thousands of pounds of water, your mortality, and the limits of your human power, are very obvious.  It was humbling in a way that was sometimes terrifying, but also spoke to me, even before I knew what faith might be, about my place in a relationship with a force that was clearly far greater than me. By working in collaboration with that power, I could come safely to the end of a small, but intensely thrilling journey.
Like others before me, I also see God in my fellow human beings. I’m not just talking about the cool stuff that we sometimes create, although it can be impressive. If you’ve never seen the giant arch in St. Louis, it’s incredible, and as magnificent as a mountainside. But to me, the truest testament is our occasional ability to transcend our animal origins and our inherent sinfulness. I think the fact that we manage to love each other at all is miraculous. Look at me. I’m annoying! I talk too much, I’m a know-it-all, I’m impulsive and emotional and I can get really self-righteous. Somehow across the divides of all of our many faults, we manage to connect with each other. And not just connect, but love ,deeply and unconditionally. If there were not a loving Divine, how would this ever be possible? I think we might all have killed each other long ago.
I’ve been talking about a lot of personal experience, but there’s actually a scriptural basis, and Christian theology, behind these assertions, even if I might have come to them initially in a non-intellectual way.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’ (John 17:25-26). I usually use the NRSV, but I like the translation of this passage from Ephesians in the New International Version: ” 13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” (Eph 1:13).
More “conservative” Christians than myself interpret the larger context of these passages as indicating the necessity of a specific belief in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. The message is that to be a true follower, and to receive the salvation that Christ offers, one has to profess a particular belief in Jesus’ role as the Son of God, the exclusive incarnation of the Father. Without this action of mind and will, access to the grace of the New Covenant is lost. It’s not at all difficult to see the Gospel of John in this manner, and I would never “argue” with those who base their theology in this approach.
However, I have chosen and pursued a different strain of Christianity in my journey, a more “liberal” (or even “radical”) denomination that focuses on opening doors and creating an inclusive community of “Seekers of Truth.” We look to the authority of our communities and of tradition, but we also emphasize a mystical relationship with God over Biblical literalism and scholasticism. Our sense is that our “knowledge” is grounded in the gift of the Holy Spirit, which has resulted from our “inclusion” in Christ’s closeness to and knowledge of the Eternal Father. Christ, the active, loving, Divine principle, which existed before the incarnation, has come to give us a new knowledge of God. He continues with us through the Holy Spirit.
When we embrace that knowledge of God, we are transformed, regardless of our attestations. In my experience, opening one’s heart to the Divine power through the Holy Spirit inspires a new level of clarity and unhappiness about one’s own sinfulness, and an urgent desire to live in the Way of Light and holiness. Every step of the Christian journey then proceeds from that process. Our Way is one of service, humility, and love. Or, as Paul names them in Galatians, the “fruits of the spirit are: “Patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23).
We will always be aware that our knowledge of God is imperfect, and incomplete. “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the grains of sand by the sea.” (Ps 139:17-18). We live with our smallness, our inability to fully know the Creator. The day when we may “see face to face” is not yet with us. But, through grace, we may still know and be known by God, in a way that does not require perfection of knowledge, or of ourselves, but only the simple choice to step forward, arms open, into the relationship with the infinite Divine.

Jesus said to us, “I will not leave you comfortless…But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:18, 26-27)
May God make you an instrument of His peace.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Christianity's Unique Claim - Richard R. Crocker

Christianity’s Unique Claim
Richard R. Crocker
First Congregational Church, Lebanon, NH
May 22, 2011
Acts7:55-60 and John 14:1-14

          We have before us today two familiar but still puzzling texts that are important for us, as Christians, to understand. The first is the account, in the books of Acts, of the stoning of Stephen, whom we all know, probably as the first Christian martyr. He was stoned by people who were offended by his preaching. This should be a warning to any preacher that it can be a dangerous occupation. Truly. Now why should this be? Why should proclaiming the love of God be dangerous? Could it be that the love of God is really an unpopular, dangerous idea? – and that many of us prefer to hear about God’s wrath?
          Now, people are killed, more often than we like to notice, for having unpopular beliefs. And unpopular beliefs are more likely to be beliefs that call for change in the way we think and act. Resistance to those who call for change is the default position of the human race, and this is understandable, because not all change is good. It is often seen as safer to stay with the tried and true. But if we had stayed with the tried and true, we would still be driving horse and buggies, as the Amish do.

          It is important for us Christians to understand that many people, in his own day, saw Jesus as an innovator, a progressive, one improperly respectful of tradition, custom, and law. Indeed, his crucifixion occurred because he challenged the status quo. Stephen was stoned because he also challenged the status quo. We must remember that Christianity was basically a challenge to the status quo, until it itself became the status quo. It is probably fair to say that today many people identify the Christian church as a conservative cultural force rather than a progressive one.  Even protestant Christians rarely protest (stand for) anything; they seem to be against more things than they are for.

          With that background, I’d like to move to the gospel lesson, which is at once a passage of great comfort to many Christians, and a passage that is very challenging, even upsetting, to others. I refer, of course, to these wonderful verses from the gospel of John, where Jesus assures his disciples of the reality of eternal life with him. That is the comforting part. But those comforting words are followed by other often quoted words “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” - a verse that has been used to reinforce a view of Christian exclusiveness that many people, in our pluralistic world, find a stumbling block. I’d like to explore this tension in a little more depth to see if we can understand these words more meaningfully.

But first, we will have to begin with a little bible study that many of you will find very elementary, but others will find very helpful. Since the custom or habit of Bible reading has largely evaporated in our culture, I am assuming for this exercise that many of you know really nothing about the Bible. Others may know much more. Please forgive me if I have misjudged where you are.

          Perhaps it would help if you all took out the pew bibles and turn to the front, to page ___, to the table of contents. You will notice that the Bible is divided into two parts – the Old Testament, which is the literature of ancient Israel, and the New Testament, which are the documents of early Christianity. These parts together constitute the Christian Bible, which many of us describe as the word of God. By this most of us mean that it is where we find out about God. It does not mean, for most of us, that every single word in this book is equally holy. Taken as a whole, the Bible has, for many generations, taught people about the most important relationship: the relationship between human beings and their creator.

          Now, look at the New Testament. The first four books are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are the four gospels – gospel being a word that means good news. These four books are narratives, or stories, about the life and teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. Each of them tells that story in a different way. They were written by different people, in different places, at different times, and for different churches, and for different purposes.  But when we study these four gospels, we notice that the first three – Matthew Mark, and Luke – are very much alike. Despite differences, they seem to tell the story in pretty much the same order. Mark has no stories about the birth of Jesus, Luke has an extensive story. So there are differences, but these gospels actually use many of the same words. Stories about Jesus that appear in one are likely to appear in at least one of the others. We call these the synoptic gospels – synoptic meaning “read together”. They cover much of the same grounds in much of the same way.  With the gospel of John, however, things are quite different. Not only does it tell the story in a very different way, but it arranges events in a different order. And, most importantly, while the synoptic gospels often tell short stories, with short sayings of Jesus, John’s gospel contains long discourses.  Thus, the passage we read today form John is part of a very long discourse that Jesus gives on the night of his betrayal. We have the impression that the way Jesus talks in John is just very different from the way he talks in the synoptic gospels. In John’s gospel, Jesus often seems to talk more like a Greek philosopher than a Hebrew prophet.

          Now these similarities and differences have been the subject of study for generations. It is not important today that we do much more than acknowledge those differences. It’s important to note that this gospel passage is not in the other gospels. It is part of a way of speaking that Jesus employs only in John. It is beautiful, but also difficult.

          So, these are beautiful words of comfort: “Let not your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” I am sure that many of you know these words by heart. You have heard them many times – most often at funerals.

These words are followed by a question from Thomas, always, in John’s gospel, the one who asks questions, the one who doubts: “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” This is when Jesus utters the words that have become the hallmark for evangelical Christians: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, these words of Jesus have been used by many people as a way of exclusion. If you do not “believe in Jesus”, if you have not had a certain kind of religious experience, if you have not “accepted Jesus as your personal savior” in a prescribed way, then there is no hope for you. So the saying gets turned inside out. The words that Jesus intended, I believe, as words of inclusion become words of exclusion.

How can they be words of inclusion? Well, listen to Philip’s puzzled response to them. Phillip said: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” This leads Jesus to tell Peter that if he hasn’t seen the father in Jesus, then he has been missing the boat, because “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” In other words, to see Jesus, to live with him, to hear his words, is to know God, the Father. Jesus is God’s revelation in human form. This is the unique claim that stands at the heart of the Christian gospel. We believe that we know God because we know Jesus.

Now these are universal words, but they are not exclusive words. Here is how I think we should understand them. We as human beings cannot know what God is like. We are incapable of it, unless God somehow shows us. All of us yearn for God, but we do not know God except through revelation. Revelation has come to us through the law, which is a gift of God that allows us to live together in peace and respect. But the law itself does not fully show us who God is. Only God incarnate in a human being – and not just any human being, but a human being who dramatically exemplifies sacrificial love, shows us what God is like. And the only way to God is through God’s own sacrificial love, shown to us in Jesus. Does that mean that every person, to know God, must “believe in Jesus”?  In some way, yes. Unless we know that we all were created in and for love, we have no sense of eternal life. To know God is to know that God’s love is unconditional, accepting, and sacrificial. But it does not mean that everyone must recite a certain formula, or agree about every issue, or perform certain rituals.

When I think about this, I think about Gandhi, the great Hindu of our time, who was very interested in the teachings of Jesus. He is reputed to have said the words printed at the top of your bulletin. “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians.”

          Too often the Christian witness has not been one that draws people to Christ, but drives people away from Christ. That is a challenge to us, isn’t it?

I saw a very disturbing and sobering statistic a two years ago, during the debate about torture. According to the research I read, the best predictor of whether or not a person favored the use of torture was whether or not the person attended church. The more they attended church, especially “evangelical churches”, the more likely they favored torture. (

If this statistic is true, it makes us ask: do we really believe that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life? Do we understand the love of God? Or do we really prefer the wrath of God, directed, we trust, mainly toward other people? How would we really live if we believed the gospel?

          Well, we are all here today. Aren’t we? The end of the world didn’t come yesterday, with the favored few being saved and the many being destroyed. Apparently God’s continuing mercy is a disappointment to many Christians.

Many people today argue that all religions are basically the same. Christians – especially conservative Christians – take offense at this and insist that Christianity has a unique claim – that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life, and that it is our job to make people believe that. They are partly correct. Christianity does have a unique claim. But it isn’t a claim that God’s love is conditional upon our adopting or repeating a certain creedal formula. Rather, its unique claim is that, in Jesus, God has shown us the way of unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, and hope. Not just some of us, but all of us.  And what is required of us? After all, Jesus said: “repent and believe the gospel.” What must we believe? Simply that God loves us all. Of what must we repent? Believing that God doesn’t love us all. It’s that simple. Why is that so hard for us to believe?