Friday, January 19, 2007

As the Bishop said to the Editor

The debate sparked by Bishop Richard Randerson’s recent comments in the Herald about the nature of God is significant for two reasons – the very fact that such a debate has taken place in the mainstream media, and the public intolerance displayed by some conservative Christians in response.

For several surprising days this week, the dialogue and letters pages of the national paper have been dominated by responses to the Bishop’s acknowledgment that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God, and his belief in God as something other than a guy with a beard “up there”. Letter writers, guest columnists, Herald writers, and other clergy all chimed into the debate. There was conservative outrage at this “heresy”, plenty of liberal letters making great use of the word “inclusive”, and a strident band of atheists maintaining that every calamity and genocide in history was the fault of the previous two groups.

But there it was – a discussion about the nature of God laid out bare for all to see and think about. As the earlier heretic Lloyd Geering pointed out in the 1960s, this discussion is not new. Debate about the nature of God has gone on across all faiths, and within the Judeo-Christian tradition, since Adam was a boy – somewhere between six thousand and two million years ago. Biblical texts such as Song of Solomon, or Mark’s contributions to the New Testament strikingly talk about a God more along the lines of Bishop Randerson’s “God as life-giving spirit flowing through all creation”, than of a thunder bolt wielding chap in robes.

Geering points out that across the Christian Church, clergy have been actively having this debate for at least a hundred years, and congregations have not been far behind. My feeling is however that most outside the Church are not aware of these strands of belief. Rather, it is the traditional image of God (with all that this implies – something I will write on more later) that most agnostics or atheists think of if asked to identify who/what ‘God’means. For most, it is a concept that in our post-enlightenment age simply doesn’t compute.

For this reason, the opening up of the debate publicly can only be a good thing for the Church.

Or at least it would be if the debate is conducted with respect and tolerance. Randerson’s comments were notable for this. Nowhere in them is any denigration of the traditional view of God, or criticism of traditional Christians for their genuinely held beliefs in this regard.

Contrarily, the conservative reaction dripped with bile. Randerson was a “heretic”, he shouldn’t be a priest let alone a Bishop, the decline of the Church is down to people like him, he roasts tabby kittens in tubs of baby lard etc… It was a sadly predictable reaction, reflective of people with a siege mentality, and ignorant of the diverse strands of belief that have shaped Christianity over two thousand years.

A traditional view of God is still relevant for many Christians, and will continue to be so. Equally, there is an alternative paradigm that views God and faith in a different that has many followers. Both groups need to work together in a spirit of irenicism to build a Church that stops looking inwards, and instead goes out into the community to seek justice for the kind of people that Jesus spent his time with – the poor, the sick, the dispossessed, and desperate.

These people probably wouldn’t have even read the Herald this week.


Anonymous said...

The Melbourne Synod of 1991 noted a Report from the Archbishop’s Commission on Mission, originally set up by the late Archbishop David Penman, a New Zealander, in 1988. I had the good fortune to be that Commission’s Secretary, and so still have on my computer both the Report itself and a Commentary I wrote independently and published in 1994. Needless-to-say, like so many church documents it languishes still collecting dust in some archive for fear of being implemented! Many also wanted something far more “practical” (the pragmatic spirit ever lives on!) - despite a long section written by ITIM Staff addressing explicitly organizational matters which were integral to the Commission’s model of Mission.

If I cut and paste an entire section of that Commentary below (rather than try to rewrite some new material), it is to raise the bar considerably on this entire debate now that folk like Michael Wood have joined the fray. Amazingly, what I wrote then has fascinating pertinence now! What is so wearisome to some of us who have indeed been following/participating in such debates as MW alludes to (Geering’s 100 years or so...) is that the “conservative reaction” has already addressed the many tired old views that have been dogging this web site and has moved on to wonderful new pastures - of reviving a full blooded Trinitarian Orthodoxy!! It is this extraordinary and glorious “paradigm” that is genuinely to the fore these past 40+ years (I will not bore you with the literature here). For while human beings still try to construct God in their own image - and our late modern/postmodern western world is certainly no different! - the truly DISTINCTIVE thing about the Christian Faith and christian faith remains not only the ‘God’ detailed in the Nicene Creed but now that unique vision of the Nicene deity re-polished and re-minted and addressing copious concerns which our tired old culture has raised these past 250 years: freedom - both divine and human; subjectivity - again, both divine and human; language - or better, linguisticality; history - or better, historicality; narrative and/or drama (as that specific form of language that engages with much of what has gone before); temporality, the transitory/perishable; and so pathos or suffering [to list the seminal themes of the literature of this revival of Trinitarianism].

Consequently, if either +RR or MW (let alone dear old Geering) would actually engage with THIS DISCUSSION and bring it into both the pews and the streets - which some of us have been doing these last 20 years - then I’d be the first to say, “Good on yer mate!”

Extract of “Confessing the Missionary God: A Commentary on the Report of the Archbishop’s Theological Commission on Mission” by Bryden Black, Melbourne 1994. Due to the Anglican All website’s formatting limitations notes are endnotes and, despite the distraction, emphases in [brackets].

4. The Future of the Trinity

Quoting Karl Barth and referring especially to "the great history of God" prompts our fourth and final subsection of this part of our Commentary. It is unashamedly a theological reflection par excellence upon all that has gone before; and again, unashamedly, it has as its focus the doctrine of the Trinity.

One suspects, though, the moment one mentions this "doctrine" many readers will simply give up, and prefer even to "get on with it" - that is, with the missionary task itself, as they see it. Yet this would be a grave error and, dare I say it, to miss the signs of the times of the Western Church at their deepest level [previous sections had already addressed sundry cultural and social levels of mission]. For whatever our own particular response to Karl Barth's theology - positively or negatively or with simple indifference - the fact is that he supremely points the way to our best chances for theological renewal, a renewal moreover that is explicitly Trinitarian in nature. As Stephen Sykes has put it: "It is, we believe with John Baillie, by working through Barth and not by going round him that a pathway exists to constructive contemporary theological endeavour; working through him, moreover, in a direction in which he endeavoured to point." (1)

Just so, the legacy of Karl Barth has prompted during the past thirty years an enthusiastic revival of interest in the doctrine of the Trinity. The names of Eberhard Jüngel, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, Walter Kasper, Tom Torrance, Robert Jenson, Colin Gunton, Catherine LaCugna, and many others come to mind. But sadly this tremendous amount of work seems not to have yet reached the hearts and minds of those who still (amazingly!) inhabit the pews of the "average" Western Church. However, different notions of "God" abound, and Rahner's perceptions on "mere monotheism", mentioned above, are frighteningly apt. And yet this is hardly surprising upon reflection, given our overall cultural legacy, especially the way [italics] the Trinity has been regarded and dealt with in the Latin West during the last 1000+ years. [It is also not surprising given the western cultural rise specifically of mere deism/theism since 17th C.]

Putting it rather simplistically yet not too inaccurately, we today are left with a formula [in italics] that supposedly denotes a "Trinitarian" understanding of God, but with barely an inkling of those specific kinds of experience or series of events that originally prompted such an extraordinary way of speaking of the deity. Originally it was the exact reverse [all in italics]. So extraordinary was their experience [in italics] of those events [in italics] surrounding the mission of Jesus that the Early Church was forced to struggle down the road which attempted to articulate this experience in an explicitly Trinitarian form. Far from being an exercise akin to seeing "how many angels could balance on the end of a pin" (supposedly a medieval scholastic trivial pursuit!), what became known as the doctrine of the Trinity was indispensable [in italics] when the missionary Church encountered other claimants to deity during the course of its missionary life. For essentially the doctrine of the Trinity identifies [in italics] the nature of the Christian God. The formula "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" is in effect the means of Naming [last 4 in italics] the Christian deity as revealed in the course of the Gospel's story.

If this is the case - and the wealth of contemporary scholarship would indicate at least as much - then, should our basic response to any mention of the doctrine be a "switch-off", this points in fact to a tremendously serious and sick state of affairs. We are not sure who our God really is; we are not able to so communicate him to others that he may be distinguished clearly from other claimants to deity among the smorgasbord of today's religious options - which of course is indeed very much the sobering case in the Western Church.

Now; many of us have our pet attempts at making some kind of sense of this formal heart of the Christian Faith - especially on Trinity Sundays! Three-leaf clovers, triangles, "ice-water-steam", the God "over-us"-"alongside-us"-"in-us":(2) all these and more are paraded before church-goers as if to cast some light upon "what remains of course always a Great Mystery"! True; as Augustine said once, "If you can understand it/him, then it/he is not God!" (Sermon 117). And words too always have their limitations: "Describe the aroma of coffee. - Why can't it be done? Do we lack the words? And for what [last 2 in italics] are words lacking? - But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?" (Wittgenstein).

Yet all this is curiously beside the point. For while God ever remains the true mystery of/behind the world, he is also the open positive [in italics] mystery, who reveals [in italics] himself to humans through the [in italics] Human Being, Jesus.(3) As he addresses us, so we may responsibly (German: verantwortlich) relate with him. He may be authentically known as we are known by him through the Son in the Spirit. In the words of Hilary of Poitiers, writing around 360 A.D.: "The work which the Lord came to do was not to enable you to recognise the omnipotence of God as Creator of all things, but to enable you to know him as the Father of that Son who addresses you" - and who continues to address us by means of the Gift of the Holy Spirit. And so, how to communicate this awesome reality to others, who appear not to so know him - as they may yet do?

As with all speech that stretches the bounds of our present familiarity it has to be cast metaphorically. The situation of the Western Church has simply been that so often we have lost the Sitz im Leben [in italics] of those original metaphors; we have fossilised the metaphors as if they themselves were the reality. Even the great Augustine (whom Rahner, Jenson and Gunton, for example, variously "blame" - with some justification only - for much of the West's "misadventures" in this area) admits that "the Greek distinction between ousia and hypostasis is rather obscure to me". Yet it was precisely this distinction in the Cappadocian scheme of things that permitted the God of the Gospel to come to speech! Furthermore, for Augustine the "simplicity" of God was axiomatic - as it was for Neoplatonism generally. Yet again it was precisely the heart of true Nicene theology to differentiate the identities [last 3 in italics] of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as moreover constitutive [in italics] of deity per se, whereby there is "one divine ousia, the varied [in italics] sharing of which distinguishes Father, Son and Spirit, and the varied sharing [in italics] of which qualifies their joint act as God".(4)

This is not the place to enter further into an examination of the vicissitudes of Western trinitarian theology.(5) Only let us say this much. The logic of our third subsection above, indicating our third strategy, has a deliberate trinitarian basis. All the references to the personal, to faithfulness, to freedom, to interdependence, to complex polyvalence, to non-dualism and non-monism as well as a kerbing of certain understandings of pluralism - all these and more are predicated upon a trinitarian view of deity. Colin Gunton, in his Bampton Lectures for 1992, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity, has tackled specifically these and related issues via a reconstituted theology of creation, predicated also upon a renewed trinitarianism. His approach only serves to reinforce my position, that the Western Church, situated within its missionary context of "modernity", desperately requires to come to grips with not only a rejuvenated trinitarian theology, but additionally one that goes beyond anything the Tradition has offered so far. Whither might this lead us?

The title, "The Future of the Trinity", is deliberately double edged. Will the doctrine of the Trinity find a future among the hearts and minds of Western Christians anew - let alone society at large? Will this "God of the Gospel" be permitted to refashion especially our form of Church, the way God's people constitute and organize themselves - according to God's own unique nature? Time will tell perhaps. And secondly, time is exactly the gift of the trinitarian God himself. Only the trinitarian God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, may so give this gift.

The quintessential and persistent temptation of religions is to try to escape the vicissitudes of time, either in a platonic manner or in a buddhist way, for example, it matters not in the least. Instead, it is precisely the nature of the true God to be historical, or rather, to have about him the nature of historicality, a dramatic eventfulness. Just so, not only may we see deity as "Unoriginated" (as the origin of all space-time reality), so that the Father may be seen as "principle and source" of deity (after the Greek Eastern scheme). The Gospel would have us view "God is Spirit" as equally [in italics] God-constituting, so that the "Unsurpassed", and the "Unsurpassable", is equivalently "principle and source", the goal [in italics] of all: the One who ever liberates and transcends all captivities to the past, who fulfils, and intends to fulfil, his promises for the future over and over. (6) (We catch a glimpse of these two divine foci at the beginning and at the end of that great span of salvation-history dramatised in the Bible: Gen 1-2 and Rev 21-22.)

In this way then, God's eternal [in italics] nature is conceived, not [bold] as some timelessness, "eternally present", or something, but rather [bold] as his own singular faithfulness and freedom, always, everywhere, across all times and places - according to that which he has enacted in the life, death and resurrection of One Jesus of Nazareth, with whom God has uniquely identified himself in our own particular space-time world. This world furthermore has become open to just this God's own future, since it is now true - according to those promises fulfilled in Jesus, God's "Yes" and "Amen" - that nothing may separate us from his love. For God is indeed a blowing storm, who blows all before him and who sanctions the foot of his Beloved Son's cross as the place of our safety - to paraphrase Martin Luther.

The doctrine of the Trinity is "a summary concept" (Jüngel) of this Gospel narrative. It is "the grammar" (Kasper, Jenson) of this story of faith, hope and love. Human confession [the topic of subsection 3 previously, “Confessional History”] of this God truly finds itself in those occasions when people participate with other people in their discovery of this God as he discloses himself to them, when they leave behind whatever false gods litter the pathways of God's Spirit who is Holy, when together they begin to enjoy that glory eternally shared and ever transforming all from one degree of likeness unto another. To steward, to be involved in the management of this history faithfully is our human calling - unboundedly! The task - the challenge - for the Western Church is to renew her missionary identity, to respond more authentically to her calling after the Trinitarian Image of him who gives her birth, to become who she truly is.


1. S.W. Sykes, "The Study of Barth", in idem. ed., Karl Barth - Studies of his Theological Methods (Oxford, 1979), p.16. The reference to Baillie is to a quotation used earlier (p.7) from The Sense of the Presence of God (London, 1962), where he speaks of going either "round" or "through" Barth.
2. Notice there has been no mention of the increasingly popular "Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier/Giver of Life" formula. Not only is this merely a revival of Sabellianism, being utterly modalistic; it depersonalizes the One who is supremely Personal, whose Being is Communion in intense reciprocity of love and knowing.
3. I am deliberately contrasting here the likes of Jüngel with Rahner, who amazingly, despite his own “methodological principle”, still views deity as “The Absolute Holy Mystery”. More consistency, which Jüngel supplies, would help here ...!
4. So writes Robert Jenson in The Triune Identity: God according to the Gospel (Fortress 1982), p.166. [He has since published his Systematic Theology in two volumes, 1997/1999, the first of which is devoted entirely to The Triune God.]
5. See A.B.S. Black, The Trinity and the Contemporary Doctrine of God: Towards a new model for understanding the nature of the Christian God. Unpublished PhD thesis 1988.
6. For a more extensive treatment of these themes, see Jenson, The Triune Identity, Colin Gunton, Becoming and Being (Oxford, 1978), and much of Jüngel's and Pannenberg's systematic writings [and now RWJ’s Systematic Theology especially].

ZenTiger said...

I do not recall any comments from conservatives suggesting Randerson roasted tabby kittens, and I think puppies were safe too.

He was described as a heretic because the definition of heretic is "a professed believer who maintains religious opinions contrary to those accepted by his or her church or rejects doctrines prescribed by that church" and at first reading, that indeed is what he appeared to be doing.

His opinions are totally valid, and worthy of discussion, but many people had a different concept of what the Anglican doctrine was about. If God is only a concept of "love and spirit" then it follows that there may well be a rejection of the notion that God did not send his only son to save us etc...

Fine for a heretic. But an Assistant Bishop teaching Anglican faith? Is this doctrine, or if not, by definition, heresy?

If heresy, then conservatives raise a perfectly valid point, and it becomes more a matter of fact than bile.

Most conservatives reacted to their understanding that Anglican Doctrine had been foresaken, and not the concepts up for discussion. This was compounded by the media focusing on sound bites like a Bishop saying he is agnostic...missing the accompanying explanation that Randerson would like to redefine the meaning of agnostic when he uses that term.

The media were inciting a reaction, and they got it. I can understand the conservative reaction to label Randerson a heretic.

Throw in some quotes with Randerson somehow uncomfortable with leading Christian prayers in public, and he sounds more and more like a person who has belief, but little faith. Probably far from the truth, but many readers unfortunately have to go off what the media deign to report.

Michael Wood said...

Thanks both for your comments. While my views on the substantive issue are reasonably clear, the purpose of this post wasn't to actually debate the nature of God (plenty of time for that later!), but rather to reflect on the significance of the debate, and the hearing received by Randerson.

In this respect Zentiger, I think you are quite right - sensationalist and simplistic media reporting has not helped the discussion. I do hold though that the conservative reaction to a very genuine man making a serious theological argument was also emotive and extreme. The man was played rather than the ball.

My hope is that the public discussion, now that it is opened, can proceed with greater input and consideration than it previously has.

Anonymous said...

thanks michael for your comment; but - er - I thought that the "ball" was exactly what I was "playing" with my referring to the contemporary revival of trinitarian theology. but then if neither you nor the bishop explicitly know this literature well enough, then of course both you and he will continue to make the kinds of comments you do.

bryden black, christchurch

Presencia said...

You write very well.