Category Archives: Religion

The Trinity – litmus test of faith, problematic doctrine or three-fold vehicle for developing individuals and communities?

From Approaching Justice: an online journal of religion and politics

One Progressive Christian Takes on the Trinity

by Dwight Welch, United Church of Christ, Oklahoma.

 

trinity

Mark Sandlin, a Presbyterian pastor and blogger at The God Article, came out with a recent post questioning the trinity and the way it’s been used as a litmus test to determine who is out and who is in the church. It’s a sort of a “the emperor has no clothes” post in that it acknowledges publicly what many lay people have thought but never hear pastors say; the trinity is not to be found in the Bible, it was involved with historical debates and political power plays in the early church that may or may not be relevant to what it means to follow Jesus today. So I wanted to express my appreciation for his post and his naming something that I think has troubled many in the church.

Suffice it to say that I agree with him that the trinity should not be a litmus test. In fact, I think most litmus tests should be suspect. They shut down the possibilities of questions, they often operate as power plays, and they suggest that the arguments for a religious ideas are not sufficient so some external force is needed to produce conformity. When that happens, there is reason to doubt the claim. And something happens to a community which has to fear the use of such tactics. They don’t produce space for honest searches, for questions, for religious inquiry in general.

But as a progressive Christian pastor, I will admit, that the trinity has proved to be too important in the making of my own religious ideas to let it go. While it should not be the test of orthodoxy (even the World Council of Churches require for membership), I think of the trinity as the one of those undiscovered treasures when one finally cleans out the attic or basement. You dust it off and you have a new found appreciation for a very old idea. That’s what happened to me in any case.

Like many old ideas it’s had a battered history. Some have taken the trinity to be a “mystery”, an example of how our language gives out when seeking to describe the “ineffable“. Others take it as a contradiction, an example of religious communities requiring belief in the unbelievable as a basis to secure loyalty. It forms our creedal and liturgical language for centuries but its not clear that many members of the church could explain why. And if they could, would those reasons be compelling?

I know my attraction is not because I believe Jesus was God. I don’t. I believe he was a first century Jewish teacher. Nor do I believe that some percentage of Jesus was God and some other percentage was human, as if you cut someone up like that. My thinking of the incarnation is most influenced by Rita Nakashima Brock who speaks of the incarnation as grounded in relationships, not in a single individual, but in the interactions and connections that are had with one another. No person as an individual is so removed from society that you could make a plausible account of incarnation apart from society and those wider set of relationships, including Jesus.

So what compels me to pick up the trinity again? Some of it is history. To me, any religious doctrine that has had sway over a significant period of time and with a broad array of communities, suggests not an esoteric doctrine, a puzzle that can’t be solved, but instead suggests an idea that touches on something important in human experience. That is, religious doctrines that have some staying power, like most kinds of language, disclose something about our world. So I have an interest in what that might be. I’m a language junkie in that way. It’s why I worry about dying languages because something about human life is about to be lost with its passage.

That something Shailer Matthews, describes in terms of patterns discerned about our world and ourselves. What pattern does the Trinity point to? There are a number of good candidates. One that interests me is the inner relationality of God as the pattern of relationships which constitutes communities and human life in general. God never acts alone but is in constant mutual love and reciprocity between the persons of the trinity. From this, we have a model for living. For example, Bob Cornwall finds in the “unity between Father and Son…our unity as church”

But then he writes “can’t we go even further to understand the unity of creation itself to be found within this fellowship?  Jürgen Moltmann advocates that God is present in all things, and all things are present in God. Pushing further, he speaks of our existence within this fellowship in soteriological terms of salvation or wholeness.” I’d like to take that insight and run with it in this piece.

The first time the Spirit makes an appearance in scripture is in Genesis. There the Spirit of God, hovers over the deep, and begins the first act of creation by separating water and the land and the light from the darkness. That is, the Spirit separates and makes distinctions which makes for individuality. Abram is driven out from his people into the desert, and like Jacob, is given a new name to express the creation of something new, a new people, a transformed individual. It is the Spirit which names who Jesus is in the waters of his baptism and it is the Spirit which drives Jesus into the wilderness to take stock before his public ministry.

So the Spirit is intimately involved in the creation of the new, of the individual, of uniqueness, and of identity. The Spirit names things, separates people out, and creates new individuals. If anyone remembers the process of adolescence, the separations involved, in the growing up years, especially from parents, this provides the context for an individual to emerge, with a unique set of gifts, ideas, and personality to give to the world. If you watch the movie Boyhood, which just came out, you get to see that process unfold over many years.

The key part to the previous statement is to “give to the world”. The point is not simply to be an individual but to take that individuality and put it in the service of others. That is what makes it a gift. Paul identifies Christ as the power that makes for salvation. To the degree that our gifts can be put into the service of others, the encounter, the exchange that occurs, can become transformational and therefore salvific. In that, Jesus represents the Christ not in the waters of baptism but when he leaves the wilderness and begins his public ministry.

When we share who we are with each other, what HN Wieman identifies as creative interchange, it can transform individuals. They have a shared experience and the result is a different kind of relationship, one marked by growth and change, where new values emerge that are inclusive of those involved in the interaction. Because the moment you invite others into your community, you are inviting them to transform you as much as you will transform them. A new community emerges as individuals add their gifts and individuality into the mix. The act of creation which follows is what I understand when I affirm God as creator.

In this, there appears to be a three folded process.  The first is the act of creating individuals and individuality, the Spirit. The second is taking the gifts of individuals and sharing it with others, the Christ. The third is the deepening of relationships, the transformations of individuals and communities, God the creator. All three presuppose each other. You can’t create individuals apart from other people in community. You can’t create growing communities apart from individuals adding their uniqueness to the mix. You can’t deepen relations apart from the encounter with others. All three are necessary, all three need each other, and all three become the creative workings of God.

This three fold process, when separated out, produces problems though. If you have individuals who have no relation or responsibility to others, you don’t have a society nor can you build community. Think Ayn Rand. Think the United States and what fruit that has born. Now if you have communities which seek to squelch individuality, they are digging their own graves. They do so, because they remove the possible gifts that diversity can bring and because the problems inherent in these communities have no means of correction. Think any authoritarian system.  It is only when individuality and our relations with others work to build communities which sustain both that you can produce the creative good in life, that is when the act of creation becomes divine.

That three folded movement of God then becomes a way to get a hold of reality in some measure, to understand it and respond to it. That’s what I take the task of good religious doctrine. So when I say I believe in the trinity it is not because I am claiming orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure I’m not. It’s not because I want to make Jesus God. I understand Christ to be bigger then Jesus as much as he represents God’s saving acts for us as a Christian community. That is Jesus, points to something about our world in his life, he gives us a face to represent this reality but the reality is bigger then him or anything else in our tradition.

Of course reality is bigger then our words and our doctrines too. But they can open us up to our world, they can be maps as I noted in my last column. In that there are a treasure trove of ideas, doctrines in our Christian tradition. Some which may need to be put aside. Others which need to be reclaimed. I’m interested in reclaiming the trinity but I have no use for scapegoats and blood atonement. So I’ve done both, dropped ideas and reclaimed them and I believe the freedom to do just that must be accorded to everyone in the church. In that I thank Mark and his blog for his ideas, the conversations they spur in the church, and for anyone who is seeking to live out their faith in a way that humanizes us all.

Dwight Welch is the new pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma

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Progressive Spirituality – Link to ABC Broadcast with Rachel Kohn

This week’s Spirit of Things (ABC Radio National) focuses on progressive spirituality. Crossan, Borg, Webb and Scott are interviewed by Rachel Kohn. If you missed the Brandon Scott seminars in New Zealand and Australia here is a chance to catch up on the search for the ‘real’ Jesus.

The ABC’s podcast can be picked up at:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/spiritofthings/progressive-spirituality3a–body-and-spirit/5736320

Call for submissions to Assembly: UCA Discussion Paper on Marriage

UCA Discussion Paper on Marriage  and Same Gender Relationships                                 

The discussion paper on marriage requested by the UCA 13th Assembly has been provided by the Doctrine Working Group for distribution and consideration.

The UCA General Secretary has issued an invitation to send submissions to the Assembly by 10 October 2014 so they can be collated and provided to the Assembly Standing Committee for its meeting in November this year.

The following link will take you to the links to pdf copies of the discussion paper and other relevant documents:

http://assembly.uca.org.au/marriage

 

Americans and the Bible

Thanks to David Judd for gathering this data. Is Australia different?

The Bible in American Life

This is the title of a very comprehensive and detailed study done by The Centre for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis. It is a 44-page document which can be viewed at www.raac.iupui.edu A brief summary appears below. The figures are for the USA and perhaps Australia is different?

Scope of the study: This included which versions of the bible, whether the memorisation of passages is encouraged, favourite books and stories, personal reasons for reading, sources of help for understanding and interpreting the bible, religious traditions and the extent to which the internet and electronic devices are used. Some conclusions:

Those who read scripture in the past year: The initial question was whether people had read the Bible, Torah, Koran or other religious scriptures during the past year. 50.2% said Yes, with 49.8% saying No.

Ages of those reading: Not too surprisingly the highest percent was in the over 75s where 56% said they had read scripture during the past year. The lowest was the 18-29 group with 44%.

By region: Again not too surprisingly the highest percentage came from the South with 61% followed by the Midwest with 49%. The West was 44% and Northeast 36%.

Word of God? 45% said they believe the bible is the inerrant Word of God. 46% believe it is the Inspired Word of God while 9% consider that it is a book of fables.

By race: Not a question which arises much in Australia but in USA blacks were the group who read the bible most at least once in the past year – 70% of all blacks. Among Hispanics 46% of them read it, with 44% for whites and 28% for others.

Frequency of reading: Among those who had read in the past year, 78% read at least monthly, 54% weekly and 17% daily.

Which version? Here the results were dramatic with a whopping 55% favouring the 400 year-old King James version, despite the explosion of new versions in the last half-century or so. Second was the NIV at 19%. Continue reading

Comment: Australians losing their religion

Australians steadily losing their religion:

                                                                                                                        Rodney Eivers

The  Courier-Mail of 30th December 2013 noted:

“We love Christmas and spend billions to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ but according to a report Australians are losing their religion.

The number of Australians  reporting themselves as having “no religion” on the census has jumped from one in 250 in 2011 to more than one in five at the most recent census in 2011.

And many of those who nominate a religious affiliation do not participate in religious activities.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics social trends report provides the first in-depth look at the 2011 census data on religion.

Rates of reporting “no religion” have been steadily rising, and Australia is not alone in this – rates are also rising for countries like New Zealand, England and Wales, Canada, the US and Ireland…On current trends “no religion” will be the most popular response in the next census.”

 

Comment: This report is only telling us what we already know. Opinions will vary as to whether the falling away of declared religion (in the Australian context probably “denomination” rather than religion in its more esoteric sense) is a good thing or a bad thing.  For those of us who, especially from a Christian perspective, believe there is “life yet in the old story” the confirmation of this trend can lead us to ponder where the future leads for institutional Christian religion. John Spong may well be right in his prophecy that “Christianity must change or die!”

 

We in the Lay Forum would seek to do our bit. We might say that a sub-theme of the Lay Forum is supporting the Uniting Church in adapting to change. People will have different ideas of what that change might comprise.  For some it means becoming more “Christ-centred”.  For others it means “getting back to the Bible”. I fear that retreating in this fashion may make Christian faith less and less accessible to the growing secular community

 

Statistical projections suggest that Western mainline Protestant denominations may be a thing of the past within 30 years. My own view is that the prospect of surviving, albeit at a smaller numerical level, could come from exposing the current religious constituency to the revelations of modern Bible scholarship and through integrating the general community into participation and initiation of religious activity. An example of this latter process may be seen in the way Christmas is as big as ever but much of the initiation of the celebration is now coming from outside the churches.*

 

The report by the ABS may be found through this link:

http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/4102.0Media%20Release2Nov%202013?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4102.0&issue=Nov%202013&num=&view=

*Rex Hunt in “Cards, Carols and Claus” describes how this has happened in relation to the Carols by Candlelight concerts in the major Australian cities.  Another example might be the growing “religionisation” of ANZAC Day  by young people.