Archives for posts with tag: enlightenment

(An edited version of this paper has been published at https://anglicanism.org/at-whitsuntide-trinity-sunday-encounters-with-god)

By Hugh Bryant

Archbishop John Sentamu retired on Trinity Sunday. There is a lovely tribute to him in the Church Times, which ends like this.

AT THE end of one of many public meetings held when he arrived in Yorkshire, he invited questions. The last one came from a little boy, whose parents must have delayed his bedtime so that he could see the new Archbishop. “Why do you believe in God?” the boy asked.

The Archbishop beckoned him to the front, and, noticing that the boy’s shoelace was undone, knelt down to retie it. “When I was a boy,” he said, “someone told me that Jesus could be my friend. So, that night, I knelt by my bed and asked Jesus to be my friend. And do you know something? He is still my friend.” You could have heard a pin drop, as grown-ups wondered whether that could be true for them, too.

How well do you know Jesus? At Whitsuntide, Pentecost, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit among the disciples, as Ruach, πνευμα, a rushing wind (with tongues of fire). Ruach and πνεύμα are Hebrew and Greek words which mean a wind, which by metonymy come to mean ‘Spirit’ in the sense of the Holy Spirit. A divine wind.

As Christians we understand God as the Trinity. God the Creator: God as human: God the Spirit, replacing the human God when He has gone back to ‘heaven’, back into the Godhead. ‘The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us’. 

It’s a way of understanding the third act of the drama. Act one. God created the world. Act two. God was born in human form, as Jesus, lived and died. Act three. Jesus was resurrected from the dead, but then eventually he left to join the Godhead, or more familiarly, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven,’ and was replaced by the Holy Spirit.

To explain the mystery of ‘God in three persons’ is a rite of passage for every preacher in training assigned to preach the parish sermon on Trinity Sunday. But perhaps a greater challenge arises in connection with Ascension and Pentecost. 

There may be many faithful people who are content to hold ‘in tension’ apparently contradictory ideas about ‘heaven’: that it is in some sense ‘up there’, but at the same time that God is not delimited in time and space, so there is nowhere, up or down, where God is particularly at home. 

I used the term ‘Godhead’ deliberately. If God is in ‘heaven’, it begs the question where exactly He is. So an alternative way of thinking on the Ascension would be that Jesus was somehow subsumed into the ‘godness’, the heart of being, the Godhead (cf. the ideas of Paul Tillich in John A T Robinson, Honest to God (1961)).

It is said that Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, reported back that he had ‘looked and looked, but I couldn’t see God up there’. But it wasn’t simply a matter of his seeming to confirm Marxist atheistic dogma. Gagarin was a Christian. He believed in God: it was just that he hadn’t found him in space.

We make a rather easy move, I think, to dismiss the very long tradition that high places, being ‘on high’, say, on Mount Olympus, or above the clouds, are somewhere reserved to the divine. In the Old Testament, the Deuteronomist is concerned, in identifying divinity with the One True God, that the former places of worship, worship of idols such as Baal or Asherah, described as ‘high places’, should be eradicated. But Yahweh lived in heaven, and he was worshipped on the Temple mount, a high place in itself.

If what we are looking towards in God is ultimate power, truth and authority, again this is most simply imagined spatially: God reigns over the earth. The Enlightenment challenge is almost the same as Yuri Gagarin’s. If God is, if heaven is, ‘up there’, then why is He not observable and susceptible of scientific analysis? Because, indeed, He isn’t. Wittgenstein put this propositionally, that metaphysical statements could not be verified in the same way as ordinary empirical ones. 

So whereas we can agree about what it is for something to be a chair, or a nut cutlet (the humour of which, in concept, has not lasted so well since it convulsed the lecture theatres in the 1960s), we cannot say what would verify the truth of a statement about what it is for something to be good, or for someone to be the Son of God. 

‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, Wittgenstein wrote at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He meant that his theory of meaning could not cover metaphysical concepts, and therefore he had nothing to say about them. But again, like Gagarin, Wittgenstein was a believer. He went to church throughout his life.

So we can infer that Wittgenstein, and presumably Gagarin, did not take the fact that their chosen means of verification had drawn a blank as proof that there was no God. Just because in earth orbit in VOSTOK 1, Gagarin did not perceive God with his senses, and just because Wittgenstein could not identify a way to verify metaphysical statements, neither of them took those failures as evidence of falsehood. 

Obviously by the time that the early twentieth-century Vienna School of philosophers including Wittgenstein, Carnap, Neurath and its founder, Schlick, had been written up by A.J. Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), the doctrine of ‘logical positivism’ had assumed an atheistic face, or at least an anti-metaphysical one. Bertrand Russell, who was Wittgenstein’s tutor at Cambridge, was militantly atheistic, as was Ayer.

Logical positivism is heavily influenced by mathematics. It distinguishes between ‘first order’, logical truths, such as that the same number cannot be both positive and negative at the same time, and ‘second order’, contingent truths that can be inferred or observed from first order truths – that something is a red cow, for instance. This has no room for the Platonic or Aristotelian ideas of metaphysics – μετά τα φυσικά, things after, or on top of, physical things. So there is the Platonic concept of Ideas, essences. Not just that something is a table, but that it has the qualities which make it a table, the essence of tablehood. 

Plato understood a dualism of body and soul. The soul of a person was that person’s essence, what it is for someone to be that particular person. So it was a short step to a concept of immortality, based on a transmigration of souls, a nether world, Hades, where the souls of the dead go across the river Acheron, and from which the blessed emerge into Heaven above, into the Elysian Fields.

The logical positivists had nothing to bring to this understanding. In a binary world or any other world conceived mathematically, it was impossible to find room for souls.

But more recently, Oxford philosophers of religion, most notably Richard Swinburne, have looked again at the apparent conflict between logic and metaphysics. Quantum theory has produced mathematics described as ‘fuzzy logic’. 2 + 2 does not necessarily equal 4. Logical proofs can be constructed so as to demonstrate that a soul could exist independently of a body.

But even if one allows that metaphysical entities can exist, how do they ‘work’? What are we to make of the concepts of ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’, in a sense of reunion with God? If sin is άμαρτια, literally, ‘missing the mark’, salvation lies in being recovered into the divine safe haven where the Godhead is.

Except it isn’t a ‘haven’, in most Christian understanding. It is ‘heaven’. But first let us go back to sin. The ingredients include, of course, not just sin, but

sins, bad acts. It seems to me that this might also lead to an examination of theodicy. Why would a good God allow bad things to happen?

It is argued that, for instance in the Book of Job, when Job rails against the injustice of God, we are almost led into concluding that God is not in fact all-good. But suppose one brings in the traditional answer to this ‘problem of evil’, which is that humans have free will: we can choose freely to do what is bad, evil, as well as what is good.

In so doing, we are opposing the good God. If what we do goes against the goodness of God, it is taking away from, missing, the love of God – and it is therefore sinful. But it doesn’t make God into a bad God – indeed, just as Jesus wept, at the death of Lazarus, it may even sadden God.

But consider St Paul’s discussion in Romans 7, which arguably muddies the waters by positing limits to free will. Paul sins not because he has chosen the bad over against the good, but because he ‘couldn’t help it’. In other words, he feels himself not to be a free agent. So perhaps free will isn’t an explanation for apparent divine cruelties.

Traditionally, theologians have argued that sin and bad conduct are not the same. To follow the Ten Commandments will make one morally good, but one could still be sinful, it is argued. I am not sure, however, that Pelagius was entirely wrong. It may be that one cannot earn one’s way into heaven by good deeds; but to the extent that one’s good deeds draw one back into God’s entrance yard, they may bring one closer to salvation.

But what about the cross, and Jesus’ ‘atoning sacrifice (ίλασμον)’? It seems cogent that, again, a good God would not want his own son to be offered as a human sacrifice. 

We are back to the question of knowing God. How do you know that God loves you? By being aware of Jesus’ sacrifice of himself on the cross. ‘Greater love hath no man …’ There are examples of sacrifice – people standing in front of a gun pointed at someone else; standing in for someone else who is going to be harmed. The stories of a Maximilian Kolbe or a Jack Cornwell. 

But specifically, taking upon oneself the burden of someone else’s sin? Being punished for someone else’s transgressions? What is really happening? A suggested model is the Jewish idea of a ‘scapegoat’. 

Sacramentally or symbolically, the sins of the congregation are laden on to a goat (or a sheep or any other docile domestic animal to hand): the poor animal is then cut loose to fend for itself, and probably starve, in the desert outside. How exactly are the sins ‘loaded’ on the poor animal?

We are in the realm of classical drama. Achieving catharsis (‘cleaning out’ your soul) comes through pity and fear, according to Aristotle. Watching someone suffer, to some extent you suffer ‘with’ them. What does that ‘with’ mean? The difficulty is that I cannot know what it feels like to be you, or to experience what you do, and you can’t feel what I feel either.

Maybe this ‘atoning sacrifice’ is not a transaction – an eye for an eye, say, buying off, placating, a wrathful deity – but rather more akin to complementary medicine; healing, by way of a sort of inoculation. If we take in some minor badness or do it, it can protect us, vaccinate us, against being overwhelmed by total badness. In doing this sacramentally, in entering into someone else’s sacramental sacrifice, as the priest perfects the sacrifice, so we the congregation are blessed by an approving God, or, even, ‘saved’.

This kind of salvation does not, though, imply intimacy. It does not lead one to say one ‘knows’ God, or more particularly that one ‘knows’ Jesus, in the same way in which one would know one’s Aunt Florrie. The revelation experiences in the Old and New Testaments – the burning bush, the dove coming down from heaven, the ‘gardener’ at the empty tomb – none of these are at all comfortable. People who ask how well one knows Jesus cannot really be referring to those examples.

On the other hand there is the Pauline idea of Christians being ‘in Christ’, or ‘in the Spirit’. Among others John A. T. Robinson has, in his ‘The Body’ (John A. T. Robinson 1952, The Body – a Study in Pauline Theology, London, SCM Press) argued on the basis that ‘in Christ’ means ‘in the body of Christ’, i.e. in the Church. I do not think this sits particularly well with those passages where e.g. John, in Revelation (1:10) says that he did something when he was ‘in the spirit’.The NEB is stretching the Greek too much by translating έγενομην έν πνεύματι as ‘I was caught up by the Spirit.’ It clearly does not mean, ‘as a member of the church I… [did something].’ Another way to make sense of this is to invert the meaning, so to be in Christ means, to have Christ in you: and in that Christ has gone, has ascended, it is the Holy Spirit that will fill the believer in Jesus’ place. The Spirit is the Comforter, the spirit of truth, the Paraclete or advocate, the barrister at the court of life.

At the first Pentecost the Spirit manifested itself miraculously, burning – or not burning – the disciples’ hair as the burning bush similarly burned without being consumed, for Moses. The men of all the provinces listed in the Book of Genesis, from Parthia and Cappadocia and all, found themselves able to speak each other’s language.

We don’t have such astonishing experiences, however. What would it mean for one of us today to be ‘in the spirit’? 

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, 27th April 2014
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today,
I wish, I wish he’d go away. [Hughes Mearns, 1899]

I hope that’s not too irreverent a way to introduce some reflections on the story of Doubting Thomas, which is one of my favourite stories in the Bible. I’ve always thought that, if I’d been around at the time, and had been fortunate enough to be one of Jesus’ circle of friends – if not one of the actual disciples – if I’d bumped into the disciples, and they had been saying, ‘We have seen the Lord’, I think my reaction would have been a bit like Thomas’: ‘Unless I can see him, touch him: I couldn’t believe it.’

But then Thomas is put out of his misery, because Jesus does come: Thomas does see, he does touch – and he does believe. But Jesus himself says that the really marvellous thing is if someone doesn’t have Thomas’ good fortune, wasn’t actually there, wasn’t able to see, feel, touch the risen Jesus – but nevertheless still believes – that is the real marvel.

St Peter wrote in his first Letter, Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice …

This is a very important message for all of us Christians. Starting from the disciples on the way to Emmaus, Christians have always had a tendency to be a bit despondent when they haven’t had Jesus right there in front of them. Now 2,000 years further on, there are an awful lot of people, like the Prime Minister, for whom their Christian faith ‘comes and goes’, but clearly doesn’t exactly get him by the throat.

Let’s go back a minute to the man who wasn’t there.

Yesterday upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.

The Jesus that Thomas encountered, the Jesus that all the disciples encountered, was there – and then he wasn’t. He was a man, but he was also God. So in a sense, he was a man who wasn’t there.

The bit that Thomas saw, and felt, and touched, was Jesus the man. But the fact that he saw, and felt, and touched Jesus, the risen Jesus, the man who wasn’t there: the man who had died, shows that this was a revelation, a revelation of God: God showing himself.

You can approach that in all sorts of different ways. If you believe in God as a sort of benevolent old chap with a beard above the clouds, who somehow created everything that there is, that may be fine – and it may indeed be perfectly OK to believe in someone like that, simply because you know that the question, what it is to be God, is actually beyond our comprehension, and therefore a picturesque metaphor, like an ancient Greek god on Mount Olympus or in the heavens – or indeed, all the imagery we have in the Bible, ‘sitting on the right hand of God’, and so on, may be perfectly OK as a way of talking about something which we really can’t comprehend – but which, nevertheless, we can believe in.

The point about the Resurrection is that it was God’s ultimate way of demonstrating, not only that He, God, is there, He exists, but that He is still interested in His creation, and in us in particular.

There have been signs of God’s involvement all down the ages. Moses and the burning bush: Daniel in the lions’ den; all the various miracles that Jesus did, are very difficult to explain, unless they are to some extent revelations, revelations of God at work in the world.

Many of us will be able to say that they have experienced the power of prayer; that prayers are answered. Again, very difficult to analyse this in any way. Why, for example, are some prayers answered, and others aren’t?

The philosophers of the Enlightenment – Spinoza, Locke, Hume – all had difficulty with the idea that God was something, God was a something, something made, when at the same time He was the ultimate cause of everything, the ‘unmoved mover’ as Aristotle called him, or the ‘first mover’, the first cause, in Thomas Aquinas.

The idea of the ultimate cause, the unmoved mover, ‘τι ό ού κινούμενον κινει’ [Aristotle, Metaphysics, Λ 7, 1072a25], could lead you to William Paley’s C18 idea of the ‘divine watchmaker’; that Nature was so marvellous in its construction and operation, that it must have been constructed by, and organised by, a divine craftsman. The most complex mechanism which Paley could think of was a watch – pretty rare in C18 – so God’s skill must be at least that of a watchmaker – he was the Divine Watchmaker.

Charles Darwin is said to have been inspired to start his own researches into evolutionary biology by reading about Paley’s idea of the Divine Watchmaker.

But the problem with those understandings of God – sometimes called ‘deist’ ideas – which were popular in the C18, is that they don’t make sense of Jesus. They imagined a divine watchmaker, a god who set up the world, programmed it, pressed the start button – and then had nothing more to do with it.

It would be fairly difficult to justify worshipping, or having any kind of interaction with, that sort of a god. There wouldn’t be a lot of point in praying to the divine watchmaker, because he wouldn’t be there. He would probably have moved on.

It would be difficult to understand any ideas about ethics, why we should choose to do one thing rather than another, on the basis that some things are good or bad – because the divine watchmaker, having made the mechanism to run at a certain speed, and perhaps in a certain direction, wound it up and set it going, has left it to get on by itself. The world has to evolve by itself. As Richard Dawkins put it, the watchmaker is blind.

There’s nothing that the clock itself can do to change its time or to run in a different direction. So if all there is, is God in the form of an unmoved mover, then we are ultimately pre-programmed, predetermined, and there’s no point in our trying to choose between the good and the bad.

If, on the other hand, we accept that the point about Jesus is that His life, death and resurrection is a revelation, is God showing His hand – then it is the revelation. The divine watchmaker is not blind. He is still there, caring for what He has made and sustaining it. The fact of Jesus, his life, death and above all, his resurrection, is the evidence. How should we respond to it?

Although I’m sure you’ll all realise that I’m mighty tempted to have another dig at our hapless Prime Minister and his lukewarm faith, I don’t think it would be very fair to do that. Let’s concentrate on what we should do. St Peter, in his first letter, suggests that when you have faith in Jesus, ‘you believe in Him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Peter 1:8-9).

You, you who have come to church, have faith that God cares for you, and that God will save your soul, will bring you home. I suppose the thing today is that, for many people, there is no sense of being lost in the wilderness and needing to be brought home. There is no sense of being cut off from God – which is what sin is – because people feel that they can get by perfectly adequately without addressing their minds at all to any questions about God. They just don’t engage.

If you’ve got a nice family, if you’re doing reasonably well: if you’ve got a decent job or a decent pension: if you live in a nice place, if you drive a nice car: if you have decent holidays: if you have all that, it’s very tempting to think that there’s nothing really missing in your life.

And yet, of course, very commonly, people experiencing that sort of earthly-paradise prescription, which might even be normal life in Cobham, say – are often the ones who confess to not being entirely fulfilled, to having a sense that there’s something missing in their lives. Perhaps they turn to some New Age philosophies or fads – Yoga or special diets – in the hope that it’ll fill the gap in their lives.

Yoga or special diets. I hope that doesn’t sound impossibly sniffy. What I’m leading up to, is that you don’t need pet rocks or fancy diets. You just have to get your head round what the encounter with Thomas, or the meeting on the road to Emmaus, or the empty tomb, all add up to.

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe’ [John 20:29]. That’s the message. It changed people’s lives 2,000 years ago – and it can still do it. We need to think hard about what that revelation can do in our lives, and how we ought to respond to it.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday of Epiphany, 5th January 2014
John 2:1-11 The Wedding at Cana in Galilee – Christ Reveals his Glory

You might wonder why our lesson just now was about the wedding at Cana in Galilee rather than Jesus’ visit from the Wise Men, given that this Sunday is our celebration of Epiphany; Epiphany, which means showing off, revealing.

This morning indeed the Gospel was the story of the Wise Men: the last of the traditional Christmas stories. It’s the lesson for the twelfth day of Christmas. Our decorations are supposed to be taken down tonight, Twelfth Night. Christmas is over. The season of Epiphany begins.

In the Epiphany season, next week we mark the baptism of Christ, and three weeks after that, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Candlemas – when we are going to have a special Evensong here at St Mary’s. In between, in a fortnight, on 19th January, there will be our Christingle service in the morning before Mattins, and – as this is another traditional Epiphany theme – there will be the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service in the evening, at the Methodist chapel, instead of Evensong here.

The candles, the Christingles and at Candlemas, are symbolic of the Epiphany light, the enlightenment, that the coming of God’s kingdom brings. ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come,’ says Isaiah in our first lesson. It is all about showing, showing to the world that Jesus is here.

The wedding at Cana fits in with this. The evangelist says that Jesus turning the water into wine was his first miracle, ‘and he revealed his glory.’ Revealed, manifested. Epiphany.

That’s all very familiar. Emmanuel, God with us. ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’. But what does it really mean, mean to us today?

Time was, when the idea of light, the idea of enlightening people, was seen differently. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the time of the Enlightenment with a capital E, it was the time of Erasmus and the Humanists. They believed that the world could be completely understood through the use of reason, reasoning and logic. That went for knowledge of God as well: whatever we could know about God, we could know only by the use of our intellect – the same way in which we learned about animals and geology and so on.

It led some theologians and philosophers to look at the findings of scientific enquiry, like Darwin’s work on evolution, and to reach the conclusion that life on earth may have been started by God, but that we could not know much more about this God than that He is an ultimate first cause, a creator from nothing, an unmoved mover.

Reason could take you to a belief in that rather limited god, the divine creator – but not much further. You could not know much about what such a god was like. Most importantly, there seemed to be no evidence that God had done anything more than just starting the process off. No evidence that God had any interest in human life, or in particular, that He cares for us.

That’s quite a contradiction with the things that we say we believe in our worship. Look at the Magnificat:

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

That’s not a description of a laissez-faire god, of an unmoved mover who has, frankly, just moved on: it’s a description of an interventionist God, a God who cares for social justice. God with us. God with us, who does not stand idly by in the face of injustice, in the face of poverty and exploitation.

Somebody like Richard Dawkins might say, the Magnificat is just pretty words. It doesn’t really mean anything. Science can’t lead you to believe in a God, or at least in a God who has any personal interest in us.

At the time of the Enlightenment, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the answer to the deists, as they were called – to the people who said that God was just the creator, a blind watchmaker, and nothing more – the answer was that our religion is revealed religion. There are things beyond what reason can tell us, things nevertheless revealed to us, revealed to us by God.

One sort of revelation is the sort of thing which we are celebrating today. Turning the water into wine was a demonstration, an epiphany. Did it really happen? It can’t be proved. But one thing you can say is that if it did happen, then it was a complete contradiction of the idea that God has moved on, that He doesn’t care.

If God has manifested Himself, has showed Himself to us, in the person of Jesus, then it can’t be true that He doesn’t care for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He in turn calls on his flock to be good sheep. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, in Jesus’ new commandment, that we love one another, He calls on us to live like people who recognise that they have God in their midst, God with us, Emmanuel.

‘Whoso have this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ (1 John 3:17). You’ll remember that from the Communion service. It goes on, ‘My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.’

It was, and still is, a revolutionary message. By turning the water into wine, by manifesting himself in his divine nature, Jesus was challenging the powers that be, both spiritual – the Pharisees and the scribes – and temporal, the Romans. They both had a vested interest in the established order – ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’. To upset it was dangerous. In the story of the Wise Men, Herod ‘was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him,’ when the Wise Men told him of the new king’s birth.

Similarly today. Let’s not be too ‘political’, or upset the status quo, people say. Look at all those respectable people who say they are all right, they have no need to believe: there is nothing missing in their lives. They never say, like the bod in the Alpha Course poster, ‘Is that all there is?’ But they have no proper roots, no real understanding of what is good. Instead, they tend to cling to status and possessions. There is nothing else, for them, nothing else to cling on to.

But a Christian has faith, a Christian has faith that there is more, there is a reality beyond what we can reach simply by the exercise of reason, excellent though that is. Our prayers are answered; we know we are not alone. It is reasonable, it makes sense, after all, for us to read the miracle stories, to open our minds to analogy, to metaphor, and to see God, revealed.

‘He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.’

The Lord is here: His Spirit is with us – but we mustn’t ignore Him. It must make a difference – we must change. That’s what Epiphany calls us to do.

‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’ Now what are we going to do?