About Me

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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Church's One Foundation - and 21st Century Church

The opening hymn at the seminary commencement yesterday was "The Church's One Foundation." I remember as a child singing this hymn beside my staunchly Presbyterian dad, and marveling at how he also sang along with gusto the opening verse "From heaven He came and sought her, to be His holy bride. With his own blood He bought her, and for her life He died." I was already a bit of a closet mystic even then, and I loved that intimate image for Christ's love for the Church - and the awareness that "The Church" included all of us, all denominations, all the people of God. It may have been a first glimmer of what I now deeply believe: that life in the Church, the Body of Christ, the people of God, is not an individualistic thing, but a mystery that connects the human and the divine and teaches us to be the presence of Christ in the world. The verse of that hymn that I most love, and pray as I sing, is particularly appropriate these days:

Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed
By schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up, "How long."
And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.

So much publicity about the church is about us fighting among ourselves over matters of doctrine -- the Episcopal Church possibly breaking up, the Anglican Communion unhappy with the American church and likely to dissociate from us. Scuffles between denominations about this and that. But the commencement gave me hope for the future of the institutional church we know , as it always does.This year especially I know a lot of the graduates and they are good, dedicated people with fresh energy and real, practical prayerfulness. They will be facing changes in the next generation, but they have the gifts and energy to lead us to something new, if we can keep track of what's really most important. And the seminary commencement always does celebrate, for me, the church gathered, doing the best we can for the gospel, as well as my own ministry of teaching and spiritual companionship, so woven into the life of that institution. But the awareness of schism and distress on the horizon in the church was also hanging in the air, and I was glad this hymn-prayer was chosen, to ground us.

Meanwhile, I was just back from a conference at the Washington National Cathedral this past weekend weekend about Church for the 21st century. It featured many excellent speakers,, including Diana Butler Bass, Michael Battle, Tony Jones of the Emergent Church movement, Marcus Borg, Barbara Brown Taylor, Phyllis Tickle. Quite a feast -- and a wonderful Eucharistic feast liturgy, too, one of our nights together. I've been teaching for years what was at the center of the conference: that the Church is about the people of God, living into their call to be disciples of Jesus -- especially in practices of faith such as discernment, hospitality, social justice -- the church is not about institutional survival but about forming people to become a presence that serves our call to be a community of reconciliation. Especially in the broken world in which we live. We talked a lot about the survival of the mainline denominations and the new vitality which comes from (!) actually practicing our faith. That commitment to faithful practice, together with the focus on forming disciples, was the most exciting part of the conference, for me.

I particularly appreciated the way Michael Battle held up the work of reconciliation and the African concept of "ubuntu" -- "I am because we are, we depend on one another" -- as reflecting the heart of the gospel call as early Christians understood it, an understanding that Western individualism has distorted. I was intrigued by the way he uses a relational theology of the Trinity, a relationship between persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) to reflect on the identity of the Church as a reflection of the image of God as community - always one, always in relationship, a mystery of unity-in-diversity that is at the heart of our faith. And he also argued that the Church is the way that the world sees the activity of God, the Holy Spirit, in human life and history. His presentation particularly spoke to me, the last day of the conference, pulling together a lot of what we'd heard about spiritual practice and giving it theological grounding.

I hope that in the midst of the fights over property, polity, doctrine and "who's in, who's out," we can keep track of that call to be a community of reconciliation, and remember that the Church, the people of God called by grace, extends throughout time and history and has hit major times of conflict before. Let's hope it's true, what the hymn says, that there is a whole network of prayer that will carry us through these troubled times, and keep us faithful to what is really essential, whatever changes may be coming in the institutions we have come to know.
. . . saints their watch are keeping. Their cry goes up, "How long?"
And soon the night of weeping will be the morn of song.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Physics and God - the "Theory of Everything"

In the interdisciplinary course that I'm teaching we're doing a unit on theoretical physics & string theory. A student raised the question of whether there is a religious dimension to physicists' search for a "theory of everything." And it got me thinking about what people mean when they suggest that theoretical physics is somehow bringing us to greater knowledge of "God." So here are some theological musings about that.

I've often noticed that there are similar patterns of thought, especially on the intuitive side, between theoretical physics and theology. Stephen Hawking famously said that if we could arrive at a "theory of everything" -- i.e. a theory that unified the equations of quantum physics and general relativity and made sense of the four forces in nature, we would "know the mind of God" The idea of God as the ultimate explanation for everything, the reality beyond what we understand that "makes sense" of things seems to be what Hawking is assuming. This is an idea of God that comes largely from Greek philosophy, and actually has been associated, in
classical thinking, with the mathematical order of things. It is not the "personal" Creator-God that we meet in Biblical tradition (see my post in January under "What I Believe" for more on this) and I think we get confused when we try to conflate the two. It's interesting that Einstein seemed to be pretty committed to an idea of God that predicted ultimate order in the universe -- that was why he struggled over quantum theory and uncertainty ("God does not throw dice," I think he was quoted as saying).

But most often when we get into discussions of God in the "Science and Religion" area we are talking about "The God of the gaps" -- God understood as the explanation for the things
for which we don't have other explanations based on observable "fact". The problem with the "God of the gaps," for a believer as much as for anyone, is that it suggests that the more we learn about nature the less we will need a concept of God. That leads to what I see as a rather dangerous argument about whether it's somehow faithless to pursue knowledge because if we find out too much we won't need God any more, and it also strikes me as a somewhat limited idea of God if you're also looking at the long traditions of human religious experience and Biblical theology. But it is an idea of God that's been out there throughout the modern period.
(The link above takes you to a good article about the "God of the Gaps" and intelligent design by physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC).

When Hawking talks about "knowing the mind of God" by unifying all the theories, it seems to me it's "God" in the sense of "the dimension of reality that makes sense of everything." It's almost a Platonic idea -- or perhaps Aristotelian. There's a sense of wonder and appreciation of order that goes with this idea of God -- and it is connected to enlightenment theologies: Deism: the idea of God as the "divine watchmaker" who sets the world in motion and then withdraws, or the idea of an "intelligent designer" of the universe-- which is a theological, not in any way I can discern a "scientific" idea. What's missing from these ideas of God is any kind of moral dimension or sense of relationship or accountability between the divine and the
human. It's God as a philosophical concept, but not connected with human communities or religious experience or scriptural story.

It is interesting, though, that Muslim scientists in the middle ages, who also were reading Greek philosophy, saw mathematics as a way of understanding and contemplating the ultimate order of God's Creation - so they did make that relational connection with God through mathematics. I think modern western science is so focused on human control of nature that that idea -- of mathematics as a kind of means of mystical contemplation -- is pretty alien to western thinking. (Karen Armstrong''s chapters on "The God of the Philosophers" and "The
God of the Mystics" in A History of God are pretty interesting on this, especially her discussion of the philosopher-mystic Al Ghazali).

Some of the religious wonder that comes with the Enlightenment/Greek idea of God as ultimate order shows in a poem, "The Spacious Firmament on High", written by Addison & Steele in the 18th century. I use this stanza as a way of reminding myself of the experiential dimension of this Enlightenment idea of a God who is behind the order of nature, but not particularly connected with human conduct, morality or experience. The last stanza, speaking of the stars and the moon (and taking an oddly non-Copernican view of the universe, since the image is of the planets orbiting the earth) - particularly helps with this:
The poem goes

"What though in solemn silence, all move round this dark terrestrial ball
What though no real voice nor sound amid their radiant orbs be found,
In Reason's ear they all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice
Forever singing as they shine, the hand that made us is Divine."

You could conceivably extend that theology to string theory, if indeed it is the "theory of evertything" (which is of course widely debated and debatable) -- and if you did you'd be right in tune with this "Modern" i.e. "Enlightenment" theology, which seems to me to rest more on Plato and Aristotle rather than Biblical religion. I think we would have less of a problem with
fundamentalism if we sorted this out better, but that's another topic.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Heart of Christianity

Beginning to read Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity -- a book that's been around for a couple of years, and I probably should have read it before now, though as I expected, much of what he says, what people have found exciting about the "emergent church" movement, has been a part of my experience of the faith from childhood. He articulates very well the way of seeing Christian faith that has always made sense to me, and that is now claimed by the "emergent church" movement. What I most like about the argument is how he sorts out 2 ways of looking at Christianity which have often been in conflict, but which also coexist in our time. These approaches share in common a deep commitment to the reality of God and the centrality of Jesus, but they understand "truth" in very different ways. One way, (which was never that much of an issue to me, but I understand how it has stopped many people) is the view of Christianity as being mainly about right belief, for the sake of getting into heaven in the next life. This goes with Biblical "literalism", which insists that what is in the Bible is all "factual." And with a lot of fearfulness about getting it wrong and so not getting into heaven.

My poet's heart is delighted when Borg points out what seems self-evident to me: that stories/myths/metaphors can be deeply, fundamentally "true" without being "factual." And that the practices of prayer, worship, compassion etc. put us in touch with the sacred mysteries of life in ways that intellect cannot fully do (though of course I also believe that the intellect is a great gift and delight and meant to be used!). That's why I encourage people to look at what the stories in Scripture are ABOUT, where they take us imaginatively, what they tell us about the deep truth of the Divine, which is beyond all language. It doesn't matter that much whether they "happened" in exactly, literally, the way the story tells (e.g. whether God really made the world in 7 days, or Jesus walked on water, or was born in a manger, or even rose from the dead -- though I have to say on that one (you can probably tell from my Easter poems in previous posts -- that I personally believe that he did, pretty much as the stories are told. But I don't think that's the only way to see those stories and embrace the truth of the Resurrection; the truth is still well beyond what the stories tell us, as is the mystery of the ongoing presence of the Risen Lord, so central to the Christian experience of prayer and practice).

I also like the way Borg emphasizes that the "emerging" view of Christianity (though I'd maintain it isn't "new" and he'd probably agree) does not insist that belief in Jesus is the ONLY way to truth. Rather, for Christians, it is the way we have been given. This doesn't exclude the possibility of other paths, at all. But it does free us to live within our own cultural frame: to probe, deepen, explore the relationship with the Divine that we are offered in the person of Jesus, who lived, taught, suffered, died, and as we insist, is alive among us still in some way that is "true" -- whether you can take a picture of it or "prove" it factually or not. We are free to explore our relationship with Jesus without fussing about who is in and who is out, which is the great trap, in my view, of all religion. The Christian tradition is based on the witness of people for whom these stories have been true and life-transforming. That transformation, in this life, is the invitation of the Gospel. And it's an open invitation. The promise of "eternal life" beyond this life is a part of the mystery, and it is a hope we hold as Christians. But the spiritual path unfolds in this life.

The story of Scripture is about repeated calls to return to the way of peace, justice, compassion and love, and often this means turning away from idolatry, greed, fear and all that causes us to make gods of our own narrow self-interest. It is an exciting journey, and to me it has always seemed like the heart of Christianity. I'm glad that Borg's work seems to be speaking to so many people who have been turned off by a narrow, exclusivist, literalist Christianity -- a version that, as he points out, belongs to the "modern" period -- coming with the Enlightenment's understanding of truth as "factual/verifiable" -- and missing what wisdom traditions throughout human history have recognized as the truth of the imagination, (this is actually the language of the English Romantic poets - Keats, I think, or Coleridge), or the truth of the "heart," the intuitive knowledge that takes us to the deeper mysteries of life, death, hope and transformation.

We are meant to look at the brokenness in the world and say, in huge grief and distress, "This is not the way it is supposed to be!" And through the power of God's Spirit, working among us, we are called to be part of a transformation toward the good things a loving God always intends for us and for all of Creation.

This is how I've come to see the "heart of Christianity."