Thursday, August 29, 2013

No natural necessity...

Thomas Aquinas famously stated that in the work of creation, ‘God does not act natural necessity’ (De Potentia I.5 resp.), by which Aquinas means that God is not forced to create in one particular way, or indeed to create at all. The purpose of this line in the sand for Aquinas is to secure the fact that God is pure actuality, the God who is moved by nothing other than Godself and whose decree to create is utterly free. 

The nature of divine freedom in Thomas Aquinas’ thought is controversial theological territory. One of the principal voices in the debate is that of Eleanor Stump , who in her Excellent book Aquinas, argues that divine freedom must mean God’s ability to choose between alternatives (Stump, Aquinas p.101). 

This all sounds very sensible – what after all does free will mean but the ability to choose one thing and not another. However, Stump’s attempt to express Aquinas’ idea of divine freedom  transgresses another Thomistic maxim, that God’s free will is not exercised discursively. In his Quaestiones Disputate de Veritate 24.3 Aquinas states that, ‘Free choice is to be found in God, but it is found in Him in a different way than in angels and in men’, and that in God, ‘there is a simple view of the truth without discourse or inquiry’. So whatever divine freedom might look like, it does not look the same as my choice between holiday destinations, for instance. To what extent then, if we accept Stump’s definition of ‘free will’, can God’s choice to create the world-that-is be understood as free?

This all serves as a preamble to something I was reading this morning in Autin Farrer’s Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, which seemed to me to express the conundrum clearly.

“If it is even right to speak of creation as the choice of a world, it cannot be supposed that such a choice is anything like the choices with which we are familiar, I can choose a wallpaper for a room. I can flutter through the leaves of that pattern book, gradually narrowing my choice among the colours or designs which are at all suitable to my purpose, until I fix on one of them. I can do this because the shopman supplies a pattern book with some fifty papers in it. But there was, for God, no pattern book of fifty, or of fifty-thousand, possible worlds. The world he would make would be the world he would invent; and his powers of invention are inexhaustible. 
   Men also invent; artists, for example; and the process of artistic invention probably casts as much light as anything human on God’s devising of the world. But there is one aspect of God’s creative activity on which it casts no light at all; and that is, his preferring one possible creation to another. If we ask why the poet, or the composer, applied his talent to the writing of some particular work, rather than any other he might have written, the short answer will be, either that his previous history led up to it, or that the situation he saw before him called for it. For God’s creative act, neither explanation is available. No situation confronted him, before the world was; still less had he undergone a personal history, such as might have directed his invention into one channel, rather than another. 
   The lovers of music and poetry may, indeed, protest that neither the history nor the predicament of the great artist will account for the form of his creations. There is an element of sheer inventiveness which is his supreme glory, and his most godlike power. True, maybe, but of no assistance to us. For while sheer inventiveness may be godlike, it is not an explanation; not a principle pointing to the production of one work, rather than another. It is simply the ability to make both excellent and new whatever is made. 
   Once a work of art is on the stocks, and in process of construction, we can see (though we might not foresee) reasons inclining genius to develop it, and fill it out, in a certain manner. But the reasons, such as they are, lie in the beginning made, the sketch projected, or the skeleton already set up. The intelligibility of the choices which develop a project leaves the choice which first fixed upon it as unintelligible as ever it was. 
   All human analogy fails us. We can cast no light on the choice God makes in creating the world he creates, because we cannot, even in imagination, set up the experiment —cannot put the alternatives for selection on the table, nor construct the selective mechanism. What we feel bound to say about divine decision merely serves to put it beyond the range of human conceiving. God’s mind, we say, does not labour, like ours, through a multitude of suggestions; he goes straight to the goal of his choice. He does not start with shadowy might-have-beens, and fill one of them out with the substance of being. He simply decrees what is; the might-have-beens are accompanying shadows of the actual, the other ways in God knows he could have created and did not. 
   We may say such things; we cannot think them. The creator’s choice is an abyss, where human thought drowns. As in a dream, we spread our hands to swim, and find what seemed water to be a thin vapour. Our customary strokes obtain no purchase; we might say we are sinking, if the medium in which we are were gross enough to be felt, in being fallen through; or if there were any bottom for us to strike.”
(Austin Farrer, Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited, pp. 62–64)

So God's choosing looks nothing like our choosing. What does it look like then? Farrer goes on to sketch some parables of how divine choice might look. I might blog those later. What do you think? Any thoughts in the comment section are gratefully received.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Luke 13.10–17

Why did the Hebrew people have a Sabbath Day? The answer most people give comes from the book of Exodus, where we read,
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” (Exodus 20.8,11)
Woven into the fabric of the universe, there is a pattern of work and rest, and God’s people are mandated to observe that pattern too. Just as God created the universe for six days, so we should have six days of work and then the seventh day, where we cease from all creativity, where we offer our worship to God. And so if we think about the Sabbath as a reminder of the necessity to cease from activity, then the way we keep it will emphasise rest. We will keep it in the way they do on the Isle of Lewis. I had a friend who spent a summer holiday on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and the people he was staying with were members of the Free Church of Scotland. On Sunday morning, they would go to Kirk in the morning, have something to eat when they got home, and then go to bed. My friend walked around Stornoway that afternoon, and told me of the profound lack of activity, and the drawn curtains of the houses of the pious islanders.

The way we talk about Sabbath, emphasizing the cessation of activity, generally reinforces this ‘six days the Lord created, on the seventh day he rested’ paradigm. But we often forget that the Old Testament gives another reason for the Sabbath in the book of Deuteronomy,
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you…  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut. 5.12,15)
You all know the story which provides the background to this command: Israel had been in Egypt for hundreds of years. As time went on, the Israelites were made the slaves of the Egyptians. They were forced into back breaking labour making bricks, day after day, with no future, with no hope of rest, with no time even to worship God. Every day, the Hebrew slaves were told that the only worth they had was found in how many bricks they produced. In desperate exhaustion, they cried to God, and God heard them and freed them and gave them the gift of rest. The message of the Sabbath day was much more than, ‘six days the Lord created, on the seventh day he rested take care of yourself and have a day off’, it was a message from God which said ‘No human being can ever claim to own you, you are no longer a slave, you don’t have to work for a master who always asks for more.’ Sabbath was given because God hates oppression. Sabbath was a gift from God which proclaimed that his people were free.

Now, I think that when the Synagogue leader in the gospel reading thought about the Sabbath, he had the Stornoway Sabbath in mind. Angry at Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, he says ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day’ (v. 14). 

But Jesus thinks differently. Here is a woman with a condition which leaves her unable to raise her head or to look at the people who are speaking to her. Eighteen years she has been bound, physically bowed down. As a woman she was already a second class citizen. Suffering from her disability she would probably have been ostracised from  her community. Doubly untouchable. She was weighed down to the ground with the condition she had suffered for such a long time, practically invisible to those she lived with. And Jesus saw her. I think that offers hope to any number of us who feel small, bowed down, who feel invisible. Jesus is the one who notices those who everyone else ignores. He sees us more clearly than we see ourselves.

Jesus sees this invisible woman and set her free. The Synagogue leader could only see the restriction of ‘you’ve got six days in which to do work’. Jesus realised that what the Sabbath is really about is liberation from slavery. In the case of this woman the slavery to the condition which has bound her many years. Couldn’t the healing of the woman wait for another, more appropriate day? No. There is no more appropriate day than the Sabbath on which to liberate a child of Abraham than the Sabbath day, the day that proclaims God’s hatred of oppression, whether oppression by disease, or oppression by religious leaders and traditions which tie up heavy burdens to weigh people down to the ground.

To reinforce his point, Jesus reminds the synagogue leader of his own Sabbath behaviour: On the Sabbath he unburdens his livestock to lead them to water – if a beasts who have been bound only a short time can be liberated on the Sabbath, how much more a daughter of Abraham who has been bound for eighteen years. 

The Sabbath is about liberty. Later in this service when we give thanks to God for his goodness and for his liberating power revealed to us in Jesus Christ, we will pray these words ‘This day the risen Lord walks with your gathered people, unfolds for us your word, and makes himself known in the breaking of the bread. And though the night will overtake this day you summon us to live in endless light, the never-ceasing sabbath of the Lord.’ We look for the dawning of a Sabbath that will never end, and so as we wait for that day our task is to make every day a Sabbath, an opportunity to proclaim the liberty of God’s kingdom. What traditions and practices and behaviours do we as a church have which bind people and make them an invisible underclass? How can we liberate those who have been oppressed by the communities which are supposed to proclaim the liberty of the children of God? May we be people who live and proclaim with integrity the liberty of God’s kingdom.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

By faith...

I've always struggled with the litany of 'heroes of faith' in Hebrews 11, particularly the way that it has been used to valorize violence and martyrdom. Here was my attempt to deal honestly with a difficult text.

Hebrews 11.29–12.2
Luke 12.49–56

What is faith? That seems a good question for us to ask. The truth is that, while I am sure we would all say that we have faith, I am also sure that we don’t spend much time thinking about what faith is. One popular answer is offered by Richard Dawkins: ‘Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.’ Well, love him or hate him, when you read the Epistle to the Hebrews and its statement that ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,’ (Heb. 11.1) you begin to think that Richard Dawkins may have a point! Perhaps faith does, simply mean ‘credulity’ or something like that? And then you read the examples of faith which the writer to the Hebrews highlights, Warriors, Kings, Prophets and Martyrs. No doubt wonderful people. But if faith is a blind hope of future glory, it can be hard to read a litany of martyrs like that of Hebrews 11 without thinking of those who even today, destroy themselves and many others with them for the hope of a martyrs reward in paradise. Faith, holy war and martyrdom are a potent and often savage combinations. They represent the abandonment of reason and the embrace of violence. Really, is this how we are to show our devotion to God, either by inflicting or suffering violence?

But to read this passage from Hebrews and to take holy war and martyrdom from it as our bench-marks of what faith looks like would be a huge mistake. Because if we were to do that we would forget that what these people are commended for is not martyrdom, or heroism, or military might, or cunning, or wisdom or success or even for being persecuted. They win God’s approval because of their faith, and nothing else. Faith might have motivated them to do good things. Sometimes faith motivated them to foolish, morally questionable and sometimes downright wicked actions. 

Take one of the ‘heroes of faith’ on our role call, Jephthah the Gileadite. You may not have heard of him before. He was one of the early rulers of Israel, they were called ‘Judges’. Jephthah believed in God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, promises to give them a land of peace and security. But life in the promised land brought Israel into conflict with other nations. Jephthah was preparing to do battle with the Ammonites, and in faith, he prayed to God ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering’ (Judges 11.30–31). He returned to his home victorious, and his daughter came out to greet him. And so Jephthah murdered his daughter. Faith in God’s promise led Jephthah to unimaginable wickedness. Surely we can find better examples of faith? Why is this man, of all men, worthy of our consideration? Not because of the cruelty to which his faith led him, but because, with all of his moral fallibility, he believed that God was able to bring about the future of peace he had promised.

To believe that God is able, even when the odds are stacked against you. That takes faith. To believe that, even though everything looks like it is going well for you, if God’s future dawns, it will do so because God has done it, and not ultimately because of our excellence and skill. That takes faith. 

For the people who originally received this letter, probably Jewish converts to Christianity (that’s why the book is called Hebrews) living in Rome, the temptation was to give up believing in God’s promise. They had probably suffered loss of friends, alienation from family, possibly the confiscation of property. Those word’s of Jesus in the gospel reading – son against father, mother against daughter – this was reality for some of these early Christians. The state they were in provided every reason to give up. To throw in the towel. But the writer of this letter wanted to draw their attention to these people of faith from the past. People who believed in God’s promise. Who’s lives were often morally compromised, but who believed that whatever their present circumstances, God could bring about what he had pledged. 

And here’s the thing: All those people, who had faith in the past did not receive the fulness of God’s promise – The messiah for whom they waited was still in the distant future. Therefore – the writer says – surrounded by such a company of faithful people who continued to hope in God’s future even though they did not receive it’s fulfillment, how much more should we who have received the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ continue to trust in the promises God has already fulfilled and will bring to completion. The heroes of faith in the past didn’t even know what the course they were running looked like or where it would take them. But we have received the fulfillment of what they were looking for: Jesus, the pioneer of faith.  He is the one who ran ahead of us and marked out the course for us, faithful even through the disaster of crucifixion. He now stands ready to receive us when the race is run. He is the pioneer and perfecter of faith (there is no our in the original Greek text).

We are surrounded by this vast cloud of people, too many to count, all who bear witness that God remained faithful, and that he is able to bring his promise to fulfillment. A great cloud of witnesses who cannot run the race for us, but who are willing us on. The best thing we can do, as they did, is to keep our eyes our eyes fixed on Jesus, who not only marked out the path of faith, but who has the power to bring faith to its completion. To make God’s future for the world a reality.

As a church, we have known many difficulties in the past few years, and we’ve had a number of successes too. How can we be people who aren’t seduced by our successes into thinking that we can build the church under our own steam? How can we be people who aren’t discouraged to the point of giving up by our failures? If we are to be people of faith, I think that it may look something like this: we will daily ask ourselves – ‘what is the future God has promised? Do I trust that, whatever we may or may not do, that God faithful to that promise and will bring it about? How can that promise inspire us to continue running, and to help my faith work for peace and not violence? How does that promise threaten and challenge us? What are the weights and encumbrances, the behaviors and beliefs, which we need to cast off to run efficiently. And finally, are we keeping our eyes fixed on the faithful trailblazer, who alone has the power to bring God’s purposes for the world to completion?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Omnes Amandi...

From a sermon of St Augustine on the privilege of being an overseer in the church of God. Preached on the anniversary of his ordination...

"The turbulent have to be corrected, the faint-hearted cheered up, the weak supported; the gospel’s opponents need to be refuted, its insidious enemies guarded against; the unlearned need to be taught, the indolent stirred up, the argumentative checked; the proud must be put in their place, the desperate set on their feet, those engaged in quarrels reconciled; the needy have to be helped, the oppressed to be liberated, the good to be given your backing, the bad to be tolerated; all must be loved."
(Sermon 340)

Omnes amandi. All must be loved – The hardest, most beautiful words on the privilege of being a minister.