Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sort Of - God's Action in the World

All Things Bright

On Trinity Sunday, one of the hymns at the Eucharist was All things Bright and Beautiful. I cannot recall when I last sang this hymn, but it produced in me a great flood of nostalgia; together with Away in a Manger I think it is one of the first hymns I learned in Kindergarten and our somewhat tuneless voices squeaked through it at least once a week.

The eight o’clock congregation at St Peter’s, Lewes, is totally atypical for such a service , particularly in the UK, but also in a fair number of Episcopal parishes: the church is full, the average age does not hover around 72 (which is probably a conservative norm for most “8 O’clocks”), the singing, led by a very competent organist, is lusty and does not drag, and, most blessed of all, this congregation is not shackled to Rite I (not to mention those who still regard the 1928 Book of Common Prayer as a Textus Receptus).

What was I Hearing?

With all this is mind, it is not surprising that I found myself singing more heartily than my now rather croaky tenor has achieved in years. “Each little flower that opens … the purple headed mountain … the cold wind in the winter”: verse after verse, I belted out the words, perhaps, for a fleeting fragment of a second glimpsing some of the wonder of a five-year old, but certainly for a moment transported to a less complicated state. As we got into the third verse, however, I sensed a sort of descant, not the one provided in the Hymnal music, which doubtless for artistic and not theological reasons, shortens “the Lord (should it be LORD?)† God” to a simple God –El(ohim) ; clearly the complexities of J & E were not an issue for Cecil Frances Alexander. I listened through the billows of enthusiastic sound. What was the descant? “In a manner of speaking. Sort of, but don’t let that matter”.

What Caused the Echo?

Luckily, there was an excellent sermon on the Trinity (“Who says, ‘Oh my Trinity’ when presented with a brand new kitchen?), or I should have spent the rest of the time mulling over the words of the descant and trying to work out what I really do with liturgical texts that pitch fork one back to an intellectual norm of two and a half centuries ago. Of course, the consideration of liturgical texts is a relatively innocuous occupation, but the boat begins to rock seriously when one moves to dogmatic and formulaic texts, and then, inevitably, to scriptural ones.

The reasons for the echo descant in my head are far too great in number and enmeshed in complexity even to begin to ‘unpack’ here: I suspect that that would need a full autobiography, which would, inevitably, not get at the many influences to which I am blind. Suffice it say that I moved from a childhood only tenuously connected to “Church” (and it was made clear to me that “Chapel” was not ‘our kind of thing’). I was of course Christened, i.e. baptized, and confirmed, but it was not until I was in the Royal Navy, aged 18 and training to be a Radar Mechanic, that I came into contact with the tiny Christian community served by a remarkable C. of E. Chaplain on a Naval station of almost 2000 trainees of various kinds. I suppose I moved from a kind of Deism (developed by hours of discussion in my latter years at school), to a kind of C.S. Lewisian and rather aggressively “orthodox” position. The typical Chesterton/Lewis/Greene/Belloc position was that it could only be 'invincible ignorance' that prevented people seeing the obvious superiority of Roman Catholic claims, going with a rather superior attitude towards “heretics”. C.S. Lewis’ remark is fairly typical (and slick) that if one approached the N.T. with an open mind one could only reach the conclusion that Jesus was God (sic) or mad.

Reassessing Ideas about God

It was at several years into my theological training before I completely escaped the dogmatic blinkers imposed by Lewis’s kind of Christian apologetic, a trajectory that has continued now for over 40 years with, it seems to me, an accelerated pace in the last decade.
A bumper sticker I have seen recently might sum it up, - except for the fact I didn’t have a car as a theological student: “My karma ran over my dogma”.

So behind the descant is a long development. The trigger for its appearance at “the Lord God made them all” resulted from a great deal of reassessing of orthodox views concerning the transcendence/immanence of God, the Christological dogmas of the fifth century, the nature of Christian prayer and a renewed tussle with the issues of theodicy.
Perhaps the immediate trigger was the feeling that the author of this rollicking hymn clearly took for granted a God who on a regular basis “meddled with the molecules” to borrow a phrase of David Jenkins. In a book with the rather quirky title, God, Miracle and the Church of England. On p. 61 he asks, “Did God push the Emperor Theodosius off his horse on 28July 450?” [This accident had significant historical and theological consequences, particularly in the framing of Christological dogma.]

How Does God Interact with the Universe?

This is not a frivolous question; it is, in effect, asking how does God interact with the universe; I assume that if one wishes to remain within the broadest perimeter of a definition of a Christian Theologian, one accepts as axiomatic some form of divine origin for the Universe.
At the same time, if one is not to remain a purveyor
of formularies that depend on an understanding of the physical universe that is no longer in any sense tenable, the need for theological recasting of the central tenets of the Christian faith is urgent and paramount.

Even decades after the geological writings of Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology, 1830-33), Charles Darwin (Origin of Species, 1859), and a host of physicists, astronomers and chemists, conservative theologians, that is, the vast majority outside a few German universities, had hardly budged since the 14th century. The uproar over David Jenkins', views (particularly after his appointment as Bishop of Durham) suggests that more clergy than one would suppose have not come to grips with the total shift of world-view which any serious theologian must face. So far as the “person in the street” is concerned, we have daily evidence that this is the case; almost every day we see someone on TV, standing in a scene of desolation, giving thanks that God saved their house alone out of a row of a dozen.

God not an Arbitrary Meddler

David Jenkins writes, “Unless we can be clear that between the scientific and historical causalities of the universe and of the world on the one hand and the actions and transactions of God with persons on the other there is a space, then the problem of evil is absolutely overwhelming. I personally would sympathize with those who find evil overwhelming in any case. But as a Christian who believes that there is a real and basic sense in which God interacts with the world as he is in Jesus, I do not believe this. Nonetheless I am increasingly clear that God is not an arbitrary meddler nor an occasional fixer.” (p.63).

The Hymn with my Descant

In the light of all this, I hope it might be clear why my mentally edited version of All Things went like this


All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Descant 1: In a manner of speaking

v. 1 Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

Descant 2: So to speak

It is rather unlikely that you will find the following verse in most contemporary Hymnals, though I am thinking of ‘main-line’ churches, and it is clearly a sentiment that would not be seen as outrageous by some (many?) of our millionaire Senators. It certainly seems to be a Republican Party strategy to keep things more or less this way.

v. 2 The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Descant 3: Join the tea party

The following four verses envision God pushing up the mountains (no tectonic plates), keeping the sun on time, apparently fashioning not just whole fruit trees, but each apple, pear or plum –

The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

Descants 1 & 2 are repeated alternately at the end of each following verse.

In closing, it must be remembered that the hymn was written specifically for children who are unlikely to be bothered with issues of divine omnipotence and omniscience. Still, it raises something like the Santa Claus question at a much more serious level. After all, it is quite unusual to meet even a ten-year old who thinks it is worth putting out milk and cookies for Santa, whereas fully grown men and women go through life with images and concepts of God that affect them at every level. Would it be too absurd to suggest that such unreal ideas can cause governmental paralysis?

LORD, in upper case characters is used in most contemporary English bible translations when the original Hebrew has the name of God, i.e. JHWH, mistakenly transcribed by the earliest translators like Tyndale as Jehovah.
In the early parts of the O.T. it was noticed (early 17th century C.E.) that sometimes the word God (El) alone was used - Gen. 5.1 and several hundred more! – and at others, the name of God was added – Gen. 3.1 ditto. This was one of the early clues that the first five books of the O.T., the Pentateuch, were by no means a single work (authored by Moses), but were made up of many elements.
Sections with El alone were called the “E” source, and those with the added name JHWH were designated “J


Part II of this essay will consider the “so to speak” aspect of reading the Chalcedonian Definition. Mercifully, that text has never, so far as I know, been included for congregational use in the Liturgy, though the Athanasian Creed, which is neither by Athanasius, not, strictly speaking, a Creed was mandatory for use at least three times a year in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. (In the 1552 Book, it was called for at least a dozen times a year).
The Theological College (Seminary) I attended in the UK of 1950s, dutifully followed the rubric, plumbing the depths of liturgical torture on Trinity Sunday when the thing was chanted in Plainsong. When we reached the passage which goes :
Such as the Father is, such is the Son : and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate : and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible : and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible,
the plainsong at least covered the sotto voce chorus/descant,
“The whole damn thing incomprehensible”.

Part II will take as its starting point John Hicks’ The Metaphor of God Incarnate.


Mark Harris said...

You write,

"the need for theological recasting of the central tenets of the Christian faith is urgent and paramount."

Who is out there doing this work? Who would you recommend reading?


Canon Simon Mein said...

Good question Mark; sorry for delay.

I fear that I am not as up-to-date as I would like to be, but here are a few books that have stimulated my think around this issue.

Two books of Maurice Wiles (not almost half a century old!):

The Making of Christian doctrine

The Remaking of Christian Doctrine

A more recent work is George Lindbeck’s

The Nature of Doctrine – Religion & theology in a Post-Liberal Age

I have not read (though I intend to) Alister McGrath’s

The Genesis of Doctrine I gather from several Reviews I have seen that he is (unsurprisingly) very critical of Lindbeck, I assume from a Right of Center position.

Finally, John Hick’s

The Myth of God Incarnate (2nd Edition 1005, - Westminster John Knox Press)
is, in my opinion, worth careful reading. It deals with the specific issue of Christological doctrines, but an underlying foundation is the more general question of how we deal with formulations of Christian belief that are not only set in the framework of, but shot through with no longer tenable conceptions of the world.

Two quotations from Hicks might be helpful.

At the very beginning he notes the turmoil of contemporary theology and says he thinks we are, “on the move hinge between the structure of Christian belief that dominated Western civilization for many centuries and the still forming structure of a Christianity that is aware of itself as one valid response among others to the infinite transcendent reality we call God.” (p.1)

And almost at the end:

“I anticipate that a process analogous to the slow and painful acceptance of evolution will take place that Christianity is one among a plurality [of responses to the divine]. There will be powerful resistance; considerable inner turmoil and agony [sometimes expressed as anger against those advocating change]” He concludes that there will be gradual movement, leaving behind “- as in the case of the controversies over science and the scriptures – a continuing and probably powerful fundamentalist wing.” (p. 160)

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