Friday, May 27, 2016

Inception of Fearmongering

Over the last four days, I have had the privilege of serving as a chaperone on a 1,163-mile-trip from Virginia to Iowa. There are five middle school students (my younger son is one of them), two teachers, and two parent chaperones. The young people are excited with good reason—they are in the Odyssey of the Mind World Championships! There are teams from at least a dozen nations and probably twenty-five states. Thousands of screaming students pack the Iowa State arena each evening.

Due to budget constraints, our group drove in two minivans, instead of flying. On the second morning of our drive, we were getting ready to leave the hotel. One of the teachers noticed the glove compartment was open and empty. Someone robbed the van! The burglars made off with one of the teacher’s purses and a student’s suitcase. No one was hurt. The items stolen, while creating an inconvenience, were all replaceable.

At first, the kids took the robbery in stride. They talked about it, laughed a little, until…

From the field nearby, somewhere over the horizon, fear crept in… They started getting excited. Their little adolescent voices grew higher in pitch. They talked faster, saying things like, “What if… this… or that?”

The teachers were busy. One called her bank. The other filed a police report. I said to the students, “Hang on. Listen.” And, they listened.
“Was anyone hurt?” They shook their heads.
“Can we replace the missing items?” They nodded.

The other parent took the girl with the missing bag to the store to buy more clothes. All was well. The students, then, threw a ball, talked, played video games, and generally killed time until we resumed our drive an hour later.

In this case, the students were generating their own fear. It was fairly easy to disrupt it. In U.S. national psyche, widespread fearmongering gains traction. In an article in The Washington Post, Robert Kagan presents the rise of Donald Trump’s political ambition as resting on fearmongering. Kagan makes a compelling argument, drawing parallels with Mussolini’s fascism and Hitler’s national socialism. Neither Il Duce, nor Der Führer presented solutions to problems. They both rested their program on scapegoats and alienation.

The Trump phenomenon is, similarly, based on a machismo that lacks substance. In Christian theology, the final answer always rests with God, not humanity. People who build their lives on hubris miss the rich fulfillment of service to others and spiraling kindness. Service and kindness exemplify the agape love God expresses for humanity.

Agreeing with everything a politician believes, says, or has done will be impossible, but, for the sake of the country, voters should be able to have some bellwether indicating how the politician might govern. Even if the politician is disappointing or changes some position, there should be some indication. Over the last century, the U.S. has consistently elected people who pleased some and displeased others. Thoughtful Christians recognize the good/bad in each one. Nixon, who in public parlance is labeled as consummately corrupt, signed the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, and signed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. The same logic applies to every president since then: Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama.

Christians can practice faith in freedom: the freedom to gather, freedom of speech, freedom from religious persecution. When a presidential candidate calls for systemic persecution of a religious group, all religious adherents should feel a chill and hear Martin Niemöller’s words afresh:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemöller was a German Protestant pastor. He criticized Hitler and spent seven years of in Nazi concentration camps. “But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated” (1 Peter 3:14). Do not let Trump’s talk of the boogie man scare you. Do not give in to fearmongering. As Christians, we have a higher hope and we have much at stake if fearmongers, like Trump, gain power.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday

In the Gospel of John, chapters 14-16 are Jesus’ farewell discourse. He does not describe something that has already happened. He looks ahead. The text points toward Jesus’ looming death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus speaks to his disciples; keep this community in mind.
 In 16:12-15, there is a brief shift from the preceding subject. Jesus has been describing the Holy Spirit. The Greek, here, is helpful—the word Jesus uses for Spirit, Paraclete, means advocate or helper. This passage is situated on Trinity Sunday because it juxtaposes Jesus the Son, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father. These are not God’s roles. They are not three gods. This is about one God, with three unique persons.
Studying the Holy Trinity is always a bit of a struggle because the subject is so complicated. For people who just want to know how to live, how to be a good neighbor, how to raise their children, how to be ethical, studying the Trinity can seem esoteric, or even unnecessary.
Talking about the Trinity can also be embarrassing because there are so many Trinitarian heresies, or ways to get it wrong. We hear, The Trinity is like water; it can be liquid, ice, or steam. No! This analogy is modalism. Quite often, the minutia of parsing doctrine from bad analogies gets boring. Surely, we say, someone can explain God to me in simple terms! Yet, when a description of the Trinity sounds simple, the person speaking is probably describing a heresy.
We might ask, who decided one Trinitarian definition of God was a heresy? Who decided another definition was not a heresy, or was orthodox? The answer is: people. People made these decisions with God’s guidance—people like you and me. They relied on the leading of the Holy Spirit, the helper described in John 16, and biblical stories of God and Jesus Christ.
When we consider God leading people—whether we are describing Jesus’ interaction with his followers, God’s encounter with humanity in the Hebrew scriptures, or the leading of the Holy Spirit today—we look at what God does. God-doing is the Economic Trinity. This comes from the Greek word oikonomikos, from which we derive the modern English word economic. This sense of God-in-motion, God-in-action is evident throughout scripture. We study the Trinity because it matters; it distinguishes Christianity from other religions and gives meaning to our faith.
This week, an Egyptian Air commercial airliner crashed. The Egyptians have located the debris in Mediterranean Sea. We do not know how or why it suddenly dropped from the sky. There is speculation, but what we do know is that God was with the people on board, even as it suddenly descended from the sky. The nature of God-relating-to-humanity in those horrifying moments is the Economic Trinity.
On Facebook, I have a friend who is a young Muslim lady in Pakistan. We met because she started following my blog. I made several posts about my Trinitarian reading this week, and when Reemsha commented, one God was present in that interaction—God, Jesus, and Spirit.
Early Christian creeds, like the Athanasian Creed, express a Trinitarian formula, “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity… there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit… they are not three Gods, but one God.” These divine persons, with respect to one another, are the Immanent Trinity. Thus, God, as revealed and acting in salvation history, is the Economic Trinity, and God’s inner working is the Immanent Trinity. Karl Rahner brings these ideas of God together, when he writes, “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.”[1]
To this, we can say, so what? What difference does immanent or economic Trinity mean? Sure, we see evidence of the Trinity in scripture. In John’s Prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus and God are one, but distinct persons. However, since this is a theological construct, with Emil Brunner, we can ask, “Is this truth the centre of Christian theology, but not the centre of the Christian Faith? Is such a discrepancy between theology and faith possible?”[2] In other words, can we practice our Christian faith without messing around with this complicated, heresy-ridden idea of the Trinity?
Sort of. As Christians who seek God and wish to practice a thoughtful faith, we have a choice between (a) doing the work of studying the Trinity, or (b) dropping the subject. And, while there is plenty of space for studies on being the peacemaker Jesus talks about in Matthew 5:9, there is also a time and a place for plumbing the depths of the Holy Trinity. Taking time to explore scripture and the Christian tradition yields a treasure trove of theological understanding. The Economic Trinity is about salvation. The Immanent Trinity is about understanding the nature of God. Both provide language for us as we talk about God.
To Brunner, I reply: Yes, the discrepancy theology and faith is possible. One can be a Christian without wrestling with the Trinity. For many Christians, Trinity Sunday is little more than an excuse for an extraordinarily boring sermon. To those, I say, God will not smite anyone who avoids the complicated task of understanding a Triune God.
To those who do wrestle with the Trinity, you will be blessed with greater understanding of the God who offers salvation and an ongoing relationship.
In John 16:12, we see Jesus offering a pastoral response to those who are weary of analyzing the Trinity. “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” How often I wished to hear those words when I was a student! For us, the Spirit is a helper to guide us on our path. We do not need an analogy to help explain the Trinity. For we can say the words: “…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance…”
Just like Jesus looking ahead in the farewell discourse of John 14-16, we, too, look ahead. We have the Spirit of truth to guide us. In John, Jesus equals the truth, and the Spirit does not come to us individually, but communally. Just like thinking about the Trinity, we do not struggle alone. We approach the topic as a community, and this is where it gets interesting.
Our questions—such as how to live, how to be a good neighbor, how to raise children, how to be ethical—are not ours alone. We have the Spirit of truth, sent from Jesus, who is in unity with God and the Spirit, the divine three-in-one of the Holy Trinity. We can find answers to our questions in scripture, the Christian tradition, and in the Spirit-led community.
Together, we join the Spirit and become God’s accomplice to do greater work than we could alone.

[1] Karl Rahner, The Trinity, New York: Crossroad, 1967, p. 22
[2] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950, page 205

Friday, May 20, 2016

Brunner's "Triune God"

Emil Brunner writes:
When we turn to the problem of the doctrine of the Trinity, we are confronted by a peculiarly contradictory situation. On the one hand, the history of Christian theology and of dogma teaches us to regard the dogma of the Trinity as the distinctive element in the Christian Idea of God, that which distinguishes it from the Idea of God in Judaism and in Islam, and indeed, in all forms of rational Theism. Judaism, Islam, and rational Theism are Unitarian. On the other hand, we must honestly admit that the doctrine of the Trinity did not form part of the early Christian—New Testament—message, nor has it ever been a central article of faith in the religious life of the Christian Church as a whole, at any period in its history. Thus we are forced to ask: Is this truth the centre of Christian theology, but not the centre of the Christian Faith? Is such a discrepancy between theology and faith possible? Or, is this due to an erroneous development in the formation of the doctrine of the Church as a whole? (The Christian Doctrine of God, Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950, page 205)

Scanning my shelves earlier this week, I saw Brunner’s Christian Doctrine of God and thought about how the great German might describe the Trinity. The previous paragraph opens his chapter on “The Triune God” with a dichotomy between theology and the faith life. In liberation theology, this same dichotomy exists between right-belief (orthodoxy) and right-practice (orthopraxis). Brunner’s comparison does not stand in opposition, as dichotomy might suggest, but touches the challenge of talking about the Trinity in Christian life.

A friend said, “Those are two part of the Christian faith that always trouble me: the prodigal son and the Holy Trinity.” He does not like the prodigal son because of the father’s extravagant grace. For my friend, the son should experience his comeuppance. The Trinity is equally troubling because it is almost impossible to think about it without reverting to a classic Trinitarian heresy.

Brunner asks a good question: Is this truth the centre of Christian theology, but not the centre of the Christian Faith? Yes the discrepancy is possible, but the answer is bit more complicated because the Trinity is about human experience of God’s revelation and describing God’s self in human terms.

At one point, Brunner summarizes: “Only the true personal presence of God, only the Incarnation of the Word, and the coming ‘in the form of a servant’ of Him who was in divine form, can establish the rule of the Holy Lord, and create communion with Him who is love; only God truly present, Himself in Person, can truly reveal God to us, and truly reconcile us to Him [sic]” (p. 219).

Trinitarian thought is about the relationship between God and humanity. The language also tells us something about God-self. Parsing the Trinity into digestible chunks might be the point of Brunner’s contrast between theology and faith. To have faith in God does not require an advanced understanding of Trinitarian controversies or the contradistinction between the economic and the immanent trinity.

Speaking of the economic and the immanent trinity, Karl Rahner’s The Trinity seems to be calling my name…