Faith or Humility?

I’ve been turning a thought over and over since last weekend. The Gospel for that Sunday was the story of the Canaanite (outsider) woman who meets Jesus and asks for a healing for her daughter. Jesus initially rejects her request saying that he was sent to the Israelites not the outsiders. She pushed back and Jesus, impressed by her, heals her daughter.

It’s an odd story that doesn’t really fit with the paradigms we use to understand that Gospel story these days. We tend to think (rightly I believe) that God is acting in Jesus to draw all the nations and all people into a new relationship with God. The short hand version name for this paradigm is “Inclusion.” God is inclusive and profligate with Love for all. That’s a hard thing for us as humans to understand.

From that viewpoint, this gospel story is hard to understand. Either Jesus changes his mind (which doesn’t seem to fit with any of the other stories in the gospels), or he’s playing some sort of game with the woman who confronts him (which also doesn’t fit).

But Inclusion wasn’t always the primary paradigm for understanding the Gospel. Right after the Reformation, in the protestant churches at least, the paradigm was Faith. As Martin Luther argued, we’re saved by Faith, not by the actions we take or don’t take. That’s a huge point and an important thing to remember, and a central teaching in St. Paul’s writings. And it’s a bit easier to focus on the outsider woman’s faith that Jesus could heal her daughter in spite of Jesus reaction to her question than it is to put his reaction into a matrix of Inclusion. (So this wasn’t as difficult a story to preach prior to the post-WW2 paradigm shift.)

And prior to Faith, the paradigm of the Church was Humility. We were saved by Jesus and his humility to God, and we were expected to follow suit and be humble as well. To the early Church what was notable about the outsider woman wasn’t her insistent belief that God had room for her in God’s heart, or her faith that Jesus could and would heal her daughter, it was the way she responded humbly to Jesus’ reluctance to heal. She doesn’t become angry, she accepts what he says but continues to push. The early writers commend her humility and say that is what Jesus ultimately commends.

My point is this – there are multiple paradigms that have served the Church in its attempt to understand that actions of God in Jesus’ earthly ministry. But we always tend to look at each story through one set of lenses at a time. It’s rare that we take the time to try all of the various lenses that Church has used over the thousands of years it has wrestled with these texts. I’m thinking that this has impoverished our ability to read the Gospel. All of our understandings of what God is doing in Jesus are partial and incomplete. Like in physics where we need to know when we ought to use classical physics versus when we ought to use quantum physics, perhaps we need to be ready to shift paradigms when a particular story just won’t fit…

I’m thinking of committing myself to discipline of reading the gospel stories through these various paradigmatic lenses this coming year. I want to see what new insights such a practice brings to me as a preacher. There’s an art to knowing which sort of physics to apply to a given situation. I’m wondering if there’s a similar art to knowing which great Gospel paradigm to apply to a given story.

The only way to know is to try it.

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These things did not happen in a corner

Today we had a chance to drive up to the top of the Mount of Olives and to look across the Necropolis of Jerusalem to the where the Dome of the Rock stands – where the Temple stood in Jesus’ time.

I knew intellectually that there view from the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron valley to the Temple was important to helping unlock additional meaning in what is called the “mini apocalypse” in Mark’s Gospel, but until I stood there and saw the details with my own eyes, I didn’t understand the full reality of what I had been told. Today I got it.

Somehow in the moment of hearing the Friday prayers and sermon from Al Asqua Mosque, visiting the Western Wall, looking to where the Holy of Holies had been, seeing smoke rise from where Gehenna had been and even visiting the Garden where Jesus prayed on Maundy Thursday night – which is right in the midst of the necropolis – I realized that all of this was a part of the prophetic actions of Christ in Holy Week. Every location that I had read about had a deeper meaning and context when placed into its historical location. Everything was much closer and much more intimate than I had ever imagined. Every location in the story of Holy Week could be seen from where the apocalypse had been told.

I tried to imagine what it must have been like on Maundy Thursday as the “crucified” passover lambs where being carried down the steps of the of the Temple, toward the Kidron, toward the garden, toward the graves. And imagining the deeper meaning of the true lamb, gathering his disciples in the Upper room to celebrate, to share in their lamb, and in the Lamb as they began their passover feast.

I have been told that part of the key to prayer in the mystic tradition is to be able to see the deeper levels of reality in the everyday. Standing at the top of the Mount of Olives, looking at where the Passion happened, and remembering when it happened, I had just a moment of that sort of seeing.

I guess I now understand why so many people have told me that I wouldn’t be able to fully grasp the whole story of Holy Week and the Triduum unless I came to Jerusalem to see. The events had to happen here, in the way they did – not in a corner someplace else, or in a different city as a sort of holy folly. They had to happen here so that the full meaning of Jesus’ death could be taught.

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The paradox of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Some of you know that I’m in Jerusalem at the moment on a tour of Israel. Today we had a chance to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as part of our itinerary.

It is my first time in Israel and I am both overwhelmed and underwhelmed by what I am seeing. Underwhelmed because the reality of the holiest sites of Christianity is not at all what I had imagined them to be and overwhelmed for exactly the same reason. I now understand better what a friend of mine meant when she said that Jerusalem is a place of profound paradox.

The Holy Sepulcher, at least as I experienced it today, is crowded, noisy, hot and incredibly human and mundane. People stand and talk as others are falling on their knees and weeping with what they are experiencing. Children run and laugh, tour groups pose for staged pictures, and guides seek lost tourists just like any other major tourist attraction I’ve ever seen. And yet, in the midst of all of this teeming life, there is the reality that something profound happened in this place that changed the course of human history.

A companion of mine and I were later reflecting on a short passage from the Book of Acts where it is related that St. Paul said “these events did not happen in a corner”. They happened in a busy city, in a place where people have always gathered and where people still stream to visit for many reasons other than the fact of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Seeing the Church drove home to me that point that Paul was making. This happened in a mundane, human scaled place. It is hard to get my mind wrapped around the simple small scale of a church building which easily contains the place of the crucifixion and the place of the resurrection, but it is just as it is, and just as it was. Small, noisy, and common.

And it seems to me that it really couldn’t have happened in any other sort of place – at least now that I have been there.

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Pursuing the Mystery of Science and Faith – a sermon

I preached this sermon last week at the 2014 Ecumenical Round Table meeting on Science, Technology and the Church meeting in Salt Lake City last week.

A rabbi once told me, in a conversation about faith and science, that God hides the truth from us, and expects us to work, using all of our faculties to find it. That’s a counter to the common understanding of how Science or Theology work, but for those of us who are seekers in both fields, it’s something that we know to be true because we encounter its reality every day of our lives.

I was hoping to call out everyone who lives in both worlds and ask them to be living examples that one could be a believing scientist…

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Science and Religion. The road show

Great evening speaking to a group of people at Glencoe Union Church last night. The pastor is very active in issues surrounding the interactions between Science and Religion (and in particular with the Templeton Fund). He invited me to give my talk on best practices in conversations between scientific and religious thought.

I’m taken by an off-hand comment he made in introducing me. It was that I was the first speaker they had in the series (which has been nearly a year long one at this point) who was trained as both a scientist and a theologian. What the community seemed particularly interested in was the way that I, and others with such background, integrate the two disciplines.

I know a number of people with the same sort of background as I have – though most are much better scientists than I am or was. But when I think about the people I know, most of them are in the Society of Ordained Scientists, and there’s only about 150 or so of us. That’s a small number actually, even though it feels like a lot of us when we’re all together.

Perhaps it’s time for those in the SOSc, and those who have similar sorts of backgrounds, to become much more intentional about speaking publicly about the integrative work they have done in their rule of life. People seem to need to know it can be done. And it’s a proof best done by example it seems.

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What’s going on with the new data from BICEP?

I’ve seen a number of news reports over the last day talking about the newly announced detection of primordial gravity waves by the BICEP program at the South Pole. Most of them trumpet these results as proving the Big Bang. That’s not what’s going on here.
Pscomp
What’s been found is the first experimental evidence of a theory that’s been widely accepted but never “proved” by primary data, that very early on in the existence of our Universe, space-time expanded at rate far exceeding the speed of light. We don’t really know why that happened, and we don’t really know for sure that it stopped happening, but the fact that it happened was used to explain the relative homogeneity of matter and energy in the early Universe, and the fact that the space-time manifold is nearly flat.

The “nearly flat” part was the motivation for the original idea behind what’s called the “Inflationary epoch” of the Universe. When I was a physics student back in the mid seventies and mid eighties the big push in observational cosmology was to try to determine whether we lived in an open or closed Universe. A closed Universe would have had a overall curvature of space-time that would be “spherical” in a four-dimensional sort of way – like the two-dimensional surface of the earth is curved in a spherical way in three dimensions. An open Universe would have been curved like a saddle shape. A good chunk of my graduate studies were involved in working out some of the basic mathematics of a curved Universe (specifically: finding coordinates under which the Klein Gordon Equation was separable into individual spatial unit vector terms). We talked about the funny but completely unexpected possibility that the Universe was “flat” – and had exactly zero curvature. That was the Euclidean ideal, but no one executed to find it.

Except we did. The data kept coming in and as it got better and more precise, the observed curvature was shown to be about as perfectly flat as anyone could measure.

That was a big surprise. Of all the infinite values that the Universal curvature could be, the odds of it being exactly flat were vanishingly small. Something must have made it that way.

So cosmologists guessed that for some unknown reason the Universe had gotten very very big at some early moment in its history. And that while it was curved in some fashion at the largest scale, we could only observe a very very small portion, and that small portion was so stretched out that it looked flat to us. (That link is from 2011 btw.)

What the BICEP data is showing is something that was expected if Inflation was real, but hadn’t yet been observed, that the would be gravitational perturbations from that early epoch that would still be visible. The discovery of these waves is experimental proof that Inflation happened. So the idea that was invented to solve a puzzle about the flatness of space is now seen to have really happened.

Here’s an excellent sort of technical explanation of what is going on in these observations. (It was posted the evening before the announcement was formally made.)

And here’s a superb(!) explanation of why this might be a very very big deal – we finally have data that takes us back to the very beginning. From this we might be able to say something about what was going on before our Universe was born. Note that I said “our” Universe. Because this almost directly implies (and maybe not almost) that there was something before we were. That’s a big deal.

(I have a book in front of me that argues from these principles and others that the possibility that there is something existence before we were might just give a full physics based reasoning for something we in theology call “eternity” – and maybe even more. I’m reading the book for my Lenten journey. Hope to be able to post on it later.)

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You made the heavens and the earth, with all their vast array

From today’s meditation:

“The universe is essentially a giant empty, soundless, cold, chaotic void. In incredibly rare instances, there are small pockets of organized matter. The little pockets represent very simple things like electrons, a proton, a cosmic ray. Even more rarely those little bits of organization combine into something complicated—a hydrogen or helium atom. Even more rare than that are clouds of hydrogen. Stars, planets, and everything else that we can see are very small and very rare things when we think on the cosmic scale. It’s hard to imagine that God fills all of this vastness with the fire of love, or that God can comprehend its totality.”

More here.

Every now and then I read something that I’ve written and think, wow. That’s not bad.

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