Wednesday, March 30, 2016

In defence of the deity and the divinity of Christ, in the face of threats to both


Is the deity of Christ under fire? Apparently, there is a growing body of opinion among some practising Christians, both those attending and those leading parishes, that calls itself “atheist” going even further than those calling themselves ‘agnostic’. Searchers will always poke and prod all issues in their spiritual journey, else what is the path to spiritual maturity. We are a seeking, curious, restless and persistent species, and our relationship to “god” however we envision, picture, worship and believe that reality, continues both consciously and unconsciously as we go through various experiences of other relationships, births, deaths, funerals, baptisms, religious celebrations and the accompanying emotional turmoil under our intellectual agitation.

For many, any religious inquiry is predicated on the pursuit of some kind of insurance policy, that ‘just in case’ there is a God and there is a heaven and there is a hell, then these people in looking at the table set with options so stark, keep the doors of inquiry, scepticism, doubt, and even fear open, without realizing that they are unwilling to permit a firm conclusion on any of the questions. Others, on the other hand, demand firm and final answers, as a way of mediating their anxiety. For some of us, both approaches are both necessary and potentially spiritually healing. And then there is the question of which people are in which camp, and with whom we wish to identify. Presidents over the last several decades wanted and sought the counsel of the Billy Graham’s, and the Bishops and Cardinals of the institutional church. Family ceremonies or respectable families were conducted by and under the auspices of the church, depending on the denominational flavour of the family. Increasingly, ceremonies like marriages, are conducted by civil authorities, Justices of the Peace, and others empowered to commission affidavits and represent the civic authority. We can and do see the carnage in broken lives, as a direct or indirect consequence of the differences between individual belief and institutional expectation. How humans conduct our lives inevitably intersects with specific ecclesial expectations and even obligations. And, as can only be expected, sometimes those differences are so serious, in the mind of the church, that persons and families are driven out of the church. These expulsions too often seem based on the needs of the church for guarding and protecting and sustaining some long-held dogmatic position: no artificial birth control, no therapeutic abortions, no doctor-assisted dying, no sexual relationships outside of marriage, no ordination of the LGBT community, no lying, no abusive behaviour, no ‘taking the name of God’ in vain, no failure to attend and to contribute to church finances....and depending on the period of history, no equality of races, no tolerance of other faiths, no inter-marriage between faith communities.....and the list could extend much further.

Judgement, is epitomized in the “judgement day” of the apocalypse, when in Christian terms, God is to return and divide humanity into those “acceptable” and admissable” for an eternal heaven of streets paved in gold and amicable relationships from those “unacceptable and inadmissible”...promising them an eternal damnation in some kind of hell.

And for many, even the existence of heaven and hell is open to question, given no human has provided empirical evidence of either. Imaginative renditions of both abound, however, as humans attempt to grapple with ultimate prospects for their eternity. The question of whether Hitler would be admitted to heaven, always a divisive and searing intrusion into any discussion about heaven and hell, was dropped into a discussion in a Field Education class at Huron College in 1988. Of course, opinion divided instantly between the ‘liberals’ who believed he would, and ‘conservatives’ who were adamant that the answer had to be ‘no way’. Such division is really not reconcilable. Neither side can ever convince the other of the validity of its position.

Hence, the perpetual tension that continues to plague and/or energize the religious/spiritual dialogue.

And such simplistic divides spill over into many of our issue-oriented conversations about matters of faith.

The question of the deity of Christ, however, has to be separated from the effectiveness and relevance of the institutional church. The former is a question of theology, a question of the perception, cognition and epistemology though which a human relates to Christ, the purported Son of God and the Son of man. The latter is a matter of human organization and administration, never capable of perfection and wanting in so many different ways as to be barely discernible from a former version. We live in a technological age in which enormous power has been unleashed through access to both the internet and the digital devices we use for communication, both incoming and outgoing. That unleashing of “power” linked to the considerable advances being made by research scientists in so many fields, naturally and even predictably casts a long shadow of assumed and presumed power, influence, elevated status, and even heroic powers (at least in the minds and the imaginations of many movie writers, directors and producers) on people unaccustomed to such perceived control. The degree to which humans have prided themselves on the acquisition and the deployment of this new-found influence continues to segregate those who have already succumbed to the hubris of which the Greeks spoke so fervently in many of their tragic dramas from those who resist the temptation to seduction by the ‘drug’ of new power. It is not so much that many seek to erase or deny or simply ignore the deity of Christ, as it is that many, because they have not been convinced of the empirical evidence of the truth and validity of such stories as the ‘virgin birth,’ the resurrection,’ the miracles documented in the gospels, that they become sceptical, doubtful and even rejecting of the mysteries embedded in the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. Simultaneously, the Jesus Seminar has through much scholarly research contributed much to our “knowledge” of the life of Jesus the man, without in any way attempting to contribute to the death of Christ’s deity. Not all have perceived their work in a generous and grateful spirit, and have condemned what they see as a blatant reduction of Jesus to a mere human being.

In the words of many lay persons, the ‘holy word’ (the Bible) is merely the writings of human beings, inspired perhaps but certainly not written or dictated by any God. Nevertheless, these words and their poetic, historic, liturgical, and even legal import have prompted Christians and Jews for centuries to pore over their meaning. Their respective theological and instructional methods for their young, and even for their elders, however, have been premised on very different bases. Jews, for their part, never presume to know the mind of God, and have therefore committed themselves individually and as a community to rigorous study of the Talmud, the Torah and the Midrash, the layers of attempts to unpack the holy words. Christians, on the other hand, have fallen into the self-sabotaging trap of presuming, in their own respective and different kinds of epistemologies,  based on an evaluation of different standards, to know both what God expects from human beings, and how God has ordered the universe and the relationship between humans and ‘God’ in order to be rewarded with an afterlife worthy of striving to attain.

Paradoxically, through the theology of the gospels and the letters in the New Testament, God has also declared, according to some Christian scholars, that salvation is not and cannot be “earned” by human action or will (even though created in the image of God, we also have been the recipients of free will), but that forgiveness was “bought” through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the acceptance of such monumental ‘grace’ is the pathway to salvation and an eternal life in heaven with God, Jesus and many others. We are said to be free to accept or to reject this sacred ‘gift’ and that acceptance changes everything in our lives. Some, however, see this entry, dubbed a born-again epiphany as much more complicated than a once-in-a life-time event; they see this as a continual, or even a repeated kind of experience, congruent and consistent with the narrative chapters of our lives. Others, in the Christian community focus on the salvation of the whole community, through peace and reconciliation and social justice, as the only way for each individual Christian to have access to anything remotely resembling a heavenly afterlife.

All of the notions  included in a litany of Christian ‘beliefs’ from the transformation that  purportedly takes place in baptism, the forgiveness that accompanies the penitential rite, the representation or the transubstantiation of the eucharist elements of bread and wine, the resurrection of the dead Jesus into the Risen Christ.....they all stretch human knowing beyond its capacity to function. In fact, it is in the unknowing that some pilgrims argue they come even closer to worshipping God, and His Son Jesus Christ. Some, like the Quakers, even practice a silent worship, in which they clear the clutter from their minds and their spirits, in the expectation that somehow they might more likely hear, sense, see, perceive the ‘voice’ of God, and through such an awesome, shaking quaking experience, come to a more deep and profound connection to this mystery of God. And Quakers, like Unitarians, are not restrictive of or controlling of the beliefs of their adherents. They are both open to believers, non-believers, agnostics and atheists and include many disenchanted members of other faith communities, who have been so wounded by their experience in those faith communities, they have left and search for more welcoming places to gather and to worship.

How we come to ‘know’, while significant in our spiritual journeys, may be less important than that we do not know and do not presume to know. And our not knowing, even our not believing will never be of such strength and ferocity that it can or ever will destroy any deity of Jesus; it may just be the opposite, that our humility in not knowing, in the way we seem to have come to need to know the causes of our cancers, the causes of our domestic violence, the causes of the rape and pillage of the environment and in that humility still remaining open, receptive and even enthusiastic about pursuing all of the questions that on the surface would indicate both doubt and denial, yet underneath demonstrate a profound and earnest and authentic searching for God who has been described by some as not so much a being, or even a noun, but rather a verb and a relationship.

Of course, we try to bake into the cake of whatever tangle of beliefs and doubts we are currently walking in and through, a set of moral and ethical principles some of which find their source in the holy writings of most world religions: love one another, seek peace, justice and reconciliation, leave revenge to God, life is sacred as it is a gift from God. And then there are also the sanctions we attach to our religious and spiritual alleyways; and they really are dead-end alleyways in which we become mired, twisted and contorted in our attempt to demonstrate to others, and one has to assume also to God, that we know better than ‘those’ people who are doing evil. We link specific definitions of evil to our faith and justify our attempts to rid the world of evil, without spending a similar amount of energy, time and study on what constitutes evil and why circumstances and biographical narratives can be and have been shown to be linked to criminal behaviour, and we know much more about how to prevent such evil than we take specific, individual and collective steps to reduce its impact on our world.

No, the deity of Christ is not dead or drowning; the mystery of the Christian faith has seen it survive through extreme bloodletting and violence, through inordinate alienation and dismissal, through sexual scandal and pecuniary extortion and has lifted and sustained the spirits of kings and paupers for centuries. The cultures in which it is practiced shift, and morph and even transform; the ways of learning and the levels of knowing both have the potential to deepen our capacity for unknowing, and for developing the maturity, both intellectual and spiritual, to face both without hiding, avoiding or denying. And whatever God is supportive of a life that commits to its own spiritual development, including the development of an intimate relationship with the deity we Christians know as Jesus, The Risen Christ and the pilgrimage that has been trod before us, is a divinity whose character and reality we cannot even fully comprehend.

And how we work with, walk with and dance with the mystery, the unknowing and the infinite says more about a human life worth living and also worth getting to know more about. Walking, working and dancing in an opposite direction has no enthusiasm  and the Greek word enthusias was their word for God.

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