Is there any objective reality at all?

Science / SOSc

To my mind the fundamental objection to a Quantum reality, from a philosophical perspective, is that it seems to raise the question of if there’s any reality that exists outside of the experience of the observer. In other words, the Universe is only realistic if there’s someone looking.

The classic thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat is the best known illustration of this conundrum. A cat in a closed box and a randomly timed explosive device is, as long as the box is closed, both dead and alive at the same time. It’s only when the box is opened that we “pin” the cat into one state or another.

Most often the weird idea is explained away from having any physical reality by insisting that the whole paradox stems from our incomplete knowledge of the system. In other words, the cat is alive or is dead in the box, but because we can’t see into the box, we’re just writing a mathematical expression that contains our lack of knowledge. There is, goes the argument, an objective reality that exists apart from the observer, even if we can’t perceive it.

But that’s not true according to a new analysis by a team of Australian physicists who have done a detailed analysis of the situation.

They looked closely at the mathematical description of the cat’s state in the box, it’s “wavefunction” and how that function describes reality. The weirdness of Quantum Mechanics is essentially contained in the question of how to interpret and understand how wavefunctions describe reality.

This is what they found:

“‘Our results suggest that, if there is objective reality, the wavefunction corresponds to this reality.’

In other words, Schrödinger’s cat really is in a state of being both alive and dead.

As measurements improve further, physicists will be left with two possible interpretations of the wavefunction: either the wavefunction is completely real, or nothing is.”

More here.

I don’t know which is more interesting. The superposition of life and death, or the denial that there is any objective reality. Both would have profound implications in theology. Both would be a pretty big challenge to classical formulations of the faith, at least as they are typically taught.

(Though those of us who are fans of Karl Barth, who seems to me to be a fan of Meister Eckhart, might see that his fundamental insight about the unknowable reality of God, other than what God wills to reveal to us, could be profoundly useful.)

Je Suis Charlie – building walls of love in a dangerous world

Current Affairs / Religion

Je-suis-CharlieFourteen years ago I was asked to preach at a city-wide observance of the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. What I said then has been very much on my mind as I’ve been following the news out of Paris and the murders of the journalists who worked at Charlie Hebdo. Essentially I argued that it was only by having strong, healthy and interdependent communities that we would be able to feel safe again. There was no military solution, no Homeland Security protocol that would be able to protect us as much as that.

Someone who heard the sermon that night wrote me this morning asking if I had a copy of it. I guess I wasn’t the only person thinking about what I had said 12 years ago…

So I’m posting it again – in large part because I still believe what I said then.

Sermon Delivered at Nativity Cathedral on the Occasion of the Requiem Mass for those who died or were wounded in the attacks on 9-11-01.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight O Lord, my God and my Redeemer.

I’ve developed a new habit over the last year. When I sit at my desk, working on my computer, I tend to always have a web browser open to news page. I click the refresh button on the web browser every ten minutes or so just to see if some new development or disaster has occurred since the last time I checked. I suppose it seems pretty silly now, but in the first couple of weeks after the attack happened a year ago, it seemed like there were constant new and breaking stories.

Last week I was sitting at my computer working on something and I did what has now become reflexive for me. I clicked the refresh button on the browser I had open and glanced up at the news page as it displayed. There was a breaking news bulleting that “another plane has been hijacked. The plane is reported south of Washington and turning back to the city. Evacuations are occurring and bedlam is breaking out on the ground and there are sirens heard everywhere.” I immediately leapt up from my desk and went out into the hallway to let the staff know what was happening. We all went right into emergency mode. The Sexton grabbed an AM radio and hurriedly tried to tune in a news station. Our Outreach Minister started to say a prayer and our Receptionist’s face completely drained of color. In a moment we were taken back to the same feelings we had experienced a year ago tonight.

I ran back down the hall to the computer and hit “reload” once more. Apparently someone had thought it would be “interesting” to repost the news stories as they had appeared from a year ago – and what I had read was year old news about the plane that ultimately crashed in Pennsylvania. I went out and reassured everyone that this was a mistake – but the strong emotions took time to disappear, and we realized with some surprise just how close our fears were to the surface. The fear and stress that we had felt a year ago has not vanished or been truly dealt with. At best the hole that the pain had left in our souls was merely papered over, and this “false alarm” had ripped that thin covering apart and we were left looking down into the abyss once again.

What is it about this attack on America that has left such strong feelings lingering in so many of us? The number of people who died on that day was horrible, but there have been worse moments and more frightening events in our history. More people die regularly in traffic accidents or died in the Blitz on London, but neither seems to have affected so many so deeply and so profoundly. Tens of thousands die yearly of AIDS in southern Africa but we haven’t had the same deep emotional response to their loss.

For a long time I thought that what we were really mourning when we returned to contemplate the loss of life in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania was the fact that we no longer felt safe. For so long we in America have felt secure and protected behind our two great oceanic moats. Wars happened, persecutions happened, terrorist attacks happened, but always someplace else, never here where we lived. This attack has struck us directly on the mainland of the United States, in two of it greatest cities and came seemingly out of the blue. It was an attack not against military forces or groups prepared to defend themselves, but upon civilians going about their everyday routine, never imagining the doom that hurtling toward them from out of a cloudless sky.

But I believe there is something more subtle happening here tonight – something more complicated causing the distress that we all feel. It isn’t so much that we were attacked – it more an issue of who attacked us. These 19 men who fiendishly killed so many so quickly are not the sort of attackers we’re used to thinking about. These are not terrorists in the strictest sense of the word. They made no demands, they presented no manifesto, and they took no credit on the world’s stage for their deed. They attacked us not to cause us to change our ways. The attacked us simply to kill us. Their deepest prayer was that their action would cause ignite a Third World War – a conflagration that would set peoples of different religions against each other. Out of the war they hoped they would start, a new radical militarily robust Islamic sect would stride forth and sweep all opposition away.

The implications of this are truly frightening. They don’t want to talk with us, they don’t want to reason with us – they want to kill us. In their minds we need to die. We need to die not because of our admittedly error prone ways – but because of the way we behave when we are at our best. They want to kill us because we are tolerant, because we encourage and try to embrace dissent – because we believe truth is elusive and only become apparent through hard, committed conversation and interaction between people who disagree. They hate the fact that we don’t believe there is a simple clear answer for every moral question. They hate the fact we tolerate in our midst those people they can not tolerate. They hate us for being the best the American ideal can be – diverse, a melting pot for all the world’s greatest hopes and dreams.

It is truly frightening to imagine that there is nothing that we can do to discuss this with people who seek our destruction. They offer us no quarter, no terms to accept or reject – only death and that because of who we are when we are at our best.

Who are these people?

It’s important that we be very very clear.

They are not people who follow the religion that was revealed by the Prophet Mohammed. The leaders of Islam have disowned these men and made clear that the submission to the Will of Allah does not ever include the willful taking of innocent life.

These are not the people of the Arab nations – many of whom reacted with horror at the acts that were supposedly perpetrated in their name.

These were not the people of the Arab street who curse us and argue with us. They engage us in conversation and attempt to get us to change our way – a disagreement with how we are American. Their disagreement is something that not only will we hear and engage, but whose very existence is sacred to the American ideals.

Who are these people? In truth they are a small group of men. Thousands (maybe tens of thousands) of whom have gathered around a wealthy man who’s family has rejected him, with a history of violence and who is a self declared religious leader of a small extremist sect of Islam. They represent no nation state, no broad consensus among honorable people – merely a focal point for a small number of men who have chosen to fill their hearts with hate in their attempt to hide from the light of God’s love.

If they are so few in number, how did they cause so much destruction? Thomas Friedman in his latest collection of essays Longitudes and Attitudes writes about the advent of a new person in history – the super-empowered individual. The nineteen men who managed to kill as many people as died in the bloodiest day of the Civil War, and in an hour or so rather than a 24 hour period, were able to do so because they perverted modern technology from its intended use. 150 years ago it took two great armies of more than 100,000 men on a broad field of battle an entire day to manage to kill more than 3000. It took 19 men moments to kill the same number of unarmed civilian men, women and children. These men used unarmed airplanes, built for peaceful commerce, for travel and for the good of many – and turned them into human guided missiles with warheads of innocent lives.

Friedman argues we are going to have deal with the fact that modern technology is going allow a single individual a greater ability to affect the whole of society than we’ve yet seen. This is the just the latest and more horrific example. We are most likely going to see more and more of this type of attack – a small group of men causing death and injury on a scale unimagined just a short time ago.

It seems so hopeless – but we are never without hope. We worship the living God – and with God there is always hope.

The Bible lessons that we have heard read aloud this evening remind us that we are not the first people in history to suffer at the hands of a seemingly implacable enemy. The words of the Prophet Jeremiah remind us that God will never forsake God’s people forever – and that after a time, the promises made of old will be seen to be true of us again.

The Gospel lesson reminds us that Wars and Disasters surround us but do not overcome us. They are the remnants of old reality that the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is replacing with new. In spite of the momentary fear we experience, the larger view is that God is with us in the midst of our loss leading into a deeper relationship with God and with each other.

But more than that: the small group of men who seeks to destroy us are not the only super-empowered individuals upon the stage. We are super-empowered individuals as well – but our power comes not from hydraulic lifts or electrical relays or network connections. We have the burning flame of the Holy Spirit that was placed within us at our baptism. If we have God within us – who can ever stand to truly harm us? The power we share in is the power of creation itself, a power that binds up the works of destructive chaos.

How can we use this power we share?

Some of us – those with heroic faith are probably already well on their way to forgiving those few who destroyed so many. They know what so many of want to know – that the true power of God is to love those who hate us, and by loving them, we can transform them.

But what of the rest of us whose faith is not of that quality just yet? What of people like me?

I may not now be able to truly love those who hate me, but I can love those around me.

I can love the people I meet day in and day out as I live my life here in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I can love my neighbor right here, right now.

I can go outside tonight and sit on my front step and get to know the names of the people who live closest to me. I can work at finding ways to turn our group of homes into a real neighborhood whose inhabitants know and care for one another sharing the burdens of sorrows and the rewards of joys.

I can join Rotary or Lions or the Jaycees or any community based organization that works locally to make a stronger region. I can share in the important task of building up a region so hard hit by the aftermath of 9-11.

I can smile at the people I meet in line today. I can hold the door open for someone whose arms are full of packages. I can thank people as I go about my little everyday errands.

I can build a wall of love around this town. I can help to construct a wall of love that no plane, no missile, no hatred can ever breech let alone destroy. I can do this – we can do this because we are individuals beloved of God – the God of Love. With God’s love supporting our small efforts we can love the world back into a proper relationship with the one who made the world in the beginning. For we know and have Christ’s own promise, that nothing can ever destroy the works of Love co-created with God.

Is there an image of hope for us this evening?

Absolutely. There is an image from a year ago that has seared itself upon my mind. Two people, who in desperation chose to escape the flames of the Twin Towers by leaping out of a broken window to their death. But as they fell – they held hands. They knew in that moment of unimaginable terror that the simple act of relationship could make the unbearable bearable. Their act of hope in the moment of their death reminds each one of us this night that we are never without hope.

Let us pray that by God’s grace we can witness this truth to others in our daily lives.


Christmas 2014


“Bethlehem has opened Eden: Come, let us see! We have found joy hidden! Come, let us take possession of the paradise within the cave.

There the unwatered stem has appeared, from which forgiveness blossoms forth! There the undug well is found from which David longed to drink of old! There the Virgin has borne a child, and at once the thirst of Adam and David is made to cease.

Therefore let us hasten to this place where for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!”

Anonymous from the hymn, Ikos of the Nativity of the Lord

May the Christ Child be fully present to you in this season of Christmas, and may you and your family be blessed in the coming year. Thank you for your prayers this past year.


Scripture’s role in Anglicanism


Scripture’s role in Anglicanism

The question of how Anglicans (Episcopalians) use the bible has come up a couple of times this week in various conversations. And as luck would have it, I’m working my way through a book by Paul Avis on what we mean when we speak about an Anglican Church, and in my reading this morning, I came across this quote:

This faith is said to be ‘uniquely revealed’ in the Holy Scriptures. Here the Scriptures are accorded the status of the vehicle of revelation. But neither here nor in the Articles is there any theory of revelation or of biblical inspiration. The Articles state that ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necesary to salvation’ and this is echoed in the Chicago—Lambeth Quadrilateral (1886–88) which upholds the Scriptures as ‘the rule and ultimate standard of faith’. Anglican formularies do not recognize the Scriptures as a source of binding precepts and precedents which should determine the worship or polity of the Church. Reason and tradition also have their part to play.

Avis, P. (2008). The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (p. 11). London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury.

I’m grateful for the way Avis puts this. We use Scripture as the rule and ultimate standard, but it, in of itself, is not the source of “binding precepts”. It’s in Scripture’s conversation with Reason and the Tradition of the Church that we comprehend the Truth.

(This allows space for the Creeds and the Liturgy as well as our own engagement with both and Holy Scripture as the vehicles the Holy Spirit uses to reveal God’s truth to us.)

Just an early morning thought today.

Creating a Center for Reconciliation in Rhode Island

Religion / Rhode Island

There’s been a great deal of interest in the last few days in a decision we made at our diocesan convention regarding the future of our Cathedral in Providence. Convention voted overwhelmingly to start working to create a Center for Reconciliation at St. John’s and to begin working toward telling the truth about our own denomination’s participation in the slave trade as part of our own reconciliation work.

Header logoWe’ve been guided by the work of the Traces Center, founded by people with deep Rhode Island roots, who created the “Traces of the Trade”. And we’ve been inspired by the reactions that Episcopalians in Rhode Island have had to learning their own history.

On the Tracing Center website blog there’s a wonderful account of the process that has brought us to this moment:

“Also in 2006, Katrina was invited to preach at St. Michael’s Church in Bristol, R.I., where many of the slave-trading DeWolf family were practicing Episcopalians in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The Rev. David Dobbins and the Ven. Janice Grinnell of St. Michael’s were moved by the sermon Katrina gave during the filming to initiate a spontaneous healing ritual during the service. This became the final scene in the film. Over the years, David and Jan have remained conscious of the need to continue to implement the process outlined in the 2006 resolutions within the Diocese of Rhode Island. Jan became the diocese’s archdeacon in 2013, and when Bishop Knisely issued a call for ideas to reimagine the cathedral, she and David conceived the idea for a museum and reconciliation center. They convened a diverse group of Rhode Islanders to explore the concept, which has grown and flourished from that beginning.

In Rhode Island, the Episcopal Church’s complicity in slavery and its economic benefits were especially stark. As Bishop Knisely notes:
  The ship building and shipping industry in Rhode Island were major players in the slave trade and much of Rhode Island’s economy was built with the profits of that trade. Many … of those businesses were owned and operated by Episcopalians. So we feel we have both an obligation and an opportunity to speak the truth about the church’s role in the slave trade.

Of course, the Episcopal Church is not unique in having historic ties to slavery, nor in having wealthy benefactors who made fortunes in slavery or the slave trade. In Providence, Brown University embarked several years ago on its own process of discernment and atonement for its historic dependence on the slave trade, a process which culminated in, among other concrete steps, the establishment of a new Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which, along with the Tracing Center, is a partner in the cathedral project. Nor is this institutional complicity limited to Rhode Island: other religious denominations in the U.S. have been exploring their historic ties to slavery in recent years, as have other colleges and universities. For a scholarly analysis of the latter history, see Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).”

More here. Please go and read the whole account.

Please pray for what we are hoping to accomplish here. We will need your help.

Building a truly modern personal biblical library

Religion / Web/Tech

Many years ago, my brother the pastor and professor, talked me into spending more money than I wanted to on a computer bible system. It was one of the first ones that was published and he had found it a real help in his sermon preparation. He and I serve in different faith transitions, his being more traditionally evangelical than my Anglicanism. But I am always willing to learn from others and started trying to use the software in my own ministry.

I didn’t have much luck. The software back then was designed to support close study of the Bible in a verse by verse sort of way. Anglicans tend to read the Bible in literary chunks (like psalms, stories, letters, etc.) rather than by verse. And that’s certainly the way our use of the weekly and daily lectionary undergirds our use of the Bible in our preaching. So while I could use the software to gather a great deal of information about a single verse (including translation issues, text variants, etc.), the package just wasn’t very helpful for what I was trying to do as a preacher.

But things have changed. First of all, the software, published by Logos, has been through a number of revisions, has moved to a truly cross-platform structure and is much easier to use. And even more exciting to me is that it now has a wealth of Anglican sources including commonly used commentaries, theological resources and liturgical resources. This package has been endorsed by people at Lambeth palace (the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office), the Anglican Communion office, and American Church’s Presiding Bishop’s office. And the new tools and resources make it incredibly helpful for the average jobbing Sunday lectionary based preacher to quickly pull together a wealth of information to use for sermon preparation. You can even download powerpoint templates and professionally designed slides for presentations (and sermons).

It’s not inexpensive. Actually, it’s pretty expensive, at least if you try to buy the whole thing at once. But you don’t have to buy it all at once. (I haven’t.) Buy one of the starter packages and then over the years, upgrade and purchase separately the resources you think you’ll need for the way you want to use the system. A student or biblical scholar’s needs are different than a parish priest’s, or a deacon, or a chaplain, or a Christian Ed. director, or a musician, or a Sunday School teacher, or…

New Office

I find that it’s best to think of this thing as a library platform, like Kindle or iBook, that makes modern, professional and popular theological and biblical resources available in electronic format. By the time I had graduated from seminary I had spent thousands of dollars on books and had built a decent, medium sized, theological library. (That turns out to be a real bear to move from office to office by the way.) Logos, and its competitors, are a more modern way to gather and use a personal theological library.

And, if you want to try the system out, you can do that for free with a surprisingly powerful package that FaithLife, the new corporate name for the Logos people, are giving away to the first million people who download it. The Faithlife Study Bible comes with a free modern translation of the Bible, but for $10 more or so, you can add the NRSV, the most commonly used text in the Episcopal Church. And then you’ll have a full study bible, bible dictionary, and single volume bible encyclopedia on your laptop, smartphone or tablet. Perfect for parish bible studies, or for using to read the bible in a year…

You can find the free package here along with more information about what is available and how to use it.

Anglicanism and Evolution; “show, don’t tell”

Religion / Science / SOSc

With all the talk the last few weeks about Pope Francis’ speech regarding the compatibility of Faith and Evolution, I’ve found myself having to remind numerous people, including media folks, that this is not a new development. What Pope Francis has done, albeit particularly effectively apparently, is reiterate the existing relationship between science and faith, at least from a non-American evangelical viewpoint.

But a number people asked me if Anglicans had anything to say on the matter, and other than a few essays here and there, a book or two, and of course the Catechism of Creation that a group of us are continuing to work on, there hasn’t been much that was accessible to non-specialists.


But that’s changing! A Manchester based group in the UK has a new site up called “God and the Big Bang” that is meant to provide all sorts of resources for secondary education students, and students in post-secondary (college) schools and even professional scientists at the beginning of their career.

The programs (and there are different lectures and events designed for different sorts of audiences) intend to inspire curiosity and encourage young people to think this sort of thing through for themselves:

God and the Big Bang allows young people to ask some of the big questions they usually struggle to find answers to, and hear responses from leading scientists with a wealth of knowledge about, and passion for, both science and theology. With fascinating questions and deeply insightful, respectful and honest answers, this panel session prompts a high level of discussion around science and faith, providing pupils with the opportunity to grapple with current ideas surrounding science and faith, in an inspiring, eye-opening way that helps make the event one that will be remembered by students and teachers alike.

Rather than telling people what to think about the relationship between science and religion, the programs demonstrate how various scientists think about such questions. It’s not a matter of telling, it’s a matter of showing (show, don’t tell” is one of my favorite teaching philosophies).

Keep an eye on the page.

What do Anglicans believe about evolution and the relationship between science and faith? That it’s a fantastically interesting conversation with lots for both parties to learn.

Sermon for the Feast of Willibrord

Sermons and audio

St. John’s, Barrington Rhode Island; 2014 Diocesan Convention Evensong

Saint Willibrord

This evening we are celebrating the memory of Willibrord – the Apostle to the Frisians.

(I had to look up the location of Frisia – it’s essentially the lands that border the Eastern part of the English Channel and the southern portion of the North Sea.)

He was a celtic missionary of the same movement that brought us Columba, Alcuin, Bede and others. They were of Irish decent, though Willibrord was actually a North Umbrian, trained for ministry in the northern part of England and in Ireland and then sent south to the continent. These were the scholars who taught the court of Charlemagne to value reading and literature. They were the scholar monks who essentially re-Christianized all of Northern Europe after the Roman Legions withdrew from the Western part of the Empire and moved to the East.

Willibrord in particular was a man noted for his humility, his love of routine and common-place, and his desire to succeed in being the best sort of religious person he might be. Leading a delegation to Rome on behalf of the young religious community being planted in what is today the Netherlands, he was selected (and reluctantly agreed apparently) to serve as the Archbishop of the Frisians. (This is about a century or so after Augustine of Canterbury has arrived in Canterbury to convert the already Christian English people to Christianity.) Upon his return from Rome he chose Utrecht to serve as the center of his missionary efforts, and became the first Archbishop of Utrecht as a result. You might recognize the significance of that City for us as Anglicans. In the latter part of the 19th Century the Roman Catholic bishops of that region could not recognize the claims made about the office of the Pope in the First Vatican Council and broke away from Rome and became the “Old Catholic” Church, a denomination with which Anglicans have been in full communion for almost a century. (The society which promotes relationships between the Old Catholic and the Anglican Communion is called the Willibrord Society.)

All of that is interesting and important. But for life of me, I can’t easily see the connections between the lessons appointed by the lectionary and the saint whose life we’re commemorating. The most fulsome accounts of the life of blessed Willebrord talk about how he spent 50 years serving in his ministry, essentially loved and respected by all and died quietly in his bed. Why we are hearing of the lament of Jesus over Jerusalem somewhat escapes me. Unless it is because the lesson is meant to recall to us our long standing ecumenical relationship with our sister denomination and is a lament that we have not moved further toward a more visible ecclesiastical unity with other denominations in subsequent years. (I’m afraid that the Old Testament lesson from Ecclesiastes isn’t much help either, it is a recounting of the restoration of the Temple and regular worship of God in that place. Perhaps it is a reference to the re-Christianization of Europe after the Legions departed and the so-called Dark Ages began.)

But all need be lost due to my lack of understanding the original intent of the lectionary compliers. Looking more closely at the Gospel, which makes sense to me, as we are all called to preach the Gospel whenever possible, perhaps there’s a way to understand the chosen image not as reference to our failed ecumenical work, but in a different light, one which has meaning today, a light that is best seen by remembering the backdrop of what was happening in Northern Europe during Willibrord’s lifetime. I mentioned that his ministry took place during the period of time that led up to the rise of Charlemagne as the first Holy Roman Emperor. I didn’t mention that one of the reasons that Willibrord choose Utrecht as his base of operations was not just that it is situated along a major waterway, but also that it was possessed of a fine castle, a fortress, that allowed the person who controlled that city to control much of the economic life of the region. Willibrord went to the center of power and began a complicated relationship with earthly power as he spread the news of the Gospel to so many. And he made use of that close relationship with power, even allowing the Gospel to be used as an excuse to forcibly subdue neighboring tribes so that they could be saved.

In the Gospel Jesus describes Herod as a Fox and himself as a hen who wishes to gather her chicks under her wing. There’s an implied contrast between Herod the King, the Greek man who is claiming a suspect right to inherit the political power and armed might of Israel, albeit as a vassal king of the Emperor Caesar and Caesar’s legions. Jesus makes the distinction particularly sharp as he describes Herod as a crafty fox and himself as a mother hen. A crafty fox makes sense when describing a man who was essentially a courtier to a great foreign power. But why a hen as an image for the Messiah?

I’m afraid that our separation from the rural culture of the middle east has made understanding this particular metaphor harder than it ought to be for us.

Cal Bombay writing in “God’s Protection” makes at least one meaning of the odd image explicit, especially for those of us who grew up around farms here in the US:

…Across the prairies of the west it’s not uncommon for fires to sweep with great speed and intense heat. They are, obviously, a terrifying experience and often lives are lost. One of the areas of life that suffers most is the small animal kingdom. But the prairie chicken has an astonishing way of handling a prairie fire. At the first hint of trouble, the hen calls out to her chicks, who rush under her wings; she ruffles her feathers and squats down protectively on them. As the fire sweeps by, the mother hen simply dies in the heat, but more often than not, the chicks survive the quickly passing fire. It’s remarkable that a hen will be so devoted, even to death, for her chicks. (Cal Bombay, “God’s protection,” Crossroads Web Site, Retrieved October 17, 2003.)

Barbara Brown Taylor was the one who helped me understand what Jesus is describing when he paints himself as a Hen to Herod’s Fox in the context of Jerusalem where Jesus will later be crucified.

Taylor writes,

Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.

Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her – wings spread, breast exposed – without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.

You see the point that Jesus is making. Herod protects the flock by sending others to die. Jesus protects the flock by giving up his own life on their behalf.

Now, is there a connection we can make between this lesson and Blessed Willibrord?

It’s helpful to remember that our mother Church, the Church of England, is the established Church of England and Wales. That means it is more than partner to the ruling authority in those lands, it is an integral part of the government. That gives the Church in that part of the world a great deal of access and privilege; over which I’ll admit to have having the occasional twinge of jealously. But it also means that Church is frequently in danger of participating in the sort of morally questionable actions that expediency and political reality often require of those who govern.

For instance, while the Church of England eventually came to take an important role in the process of abolishing slavery in the British Empire (following the lead of the Quakers, a sect that the Church of England pushed to have banned and actively persecuted), for a significant portion of the 18th century the Church managed to not only keep silent about the slave economy, it managed to turn a significant profit at the expense of the human souls that were being torn from home and condemned to live the remainder of their lives in brutal conditions. And of course, the Church of England in New England, particularly in Rhode Island has had its own complicated and on occasion disappointing history with the slavery industry here as well.

The Church, our Church, was at the table when such decisions were being made, when this country was being built partly on the backs of the enslaved brought here in chains on boats built and owned in Rhode Island. And we did not act with honor in that day.

I wonder how things might have been different for the Church and for our Country if we had committed ourselves to using our privilege, our place at the table, to stand up and be the voice for those who were denied their place at the table? I wonder what would have happened if we had been more like the Mother Hen that Jesus is for us, and less like the Fox that Herod chose to be?

Of course there’s no way to answer that question, and I suppose to be fair, we shouldn’t spend too much time trying to project our own 21st century outrage at the institution of slavery and the Church’s participation in it onto the people of that day who made their decisions according to the light given to them in that moment. But still I can wonder. Still I think we should wonder.

Who knows what led Willibrord and his contemporaries to entwine their ministries so closely with the earthly powers of those days. Perhaps it was what was normal to them. Perhaps it grew out of desire to return to the days when the Church’s establishment in the Roman Empire meant that they could compel people to believe they way the Church authorities thought they should. Perhaps it was the least bad choice the Church had in that moment. But there’s little of the Hen in all of it, and a bit too much of the fox.

More to the point will be the decisions we make in our own day for the Church we serve and together lead. What will guide our decisions and our choices in our day? The craftiness of the fox? Or the dream(?) of the Hen?

It is my prayer that we will hear the wings beats of the Holy Spirit as we arrive at the moments in which we are confronted with such choices.

Divine Uncertainty: “Jonathan Edwards in a New Light”


When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, I was part of group that tended to eat our lunch at a table in the refectory that was under the portrait of Jonathan Edwards, a former faculty member who later departed to be the President of Princeton. We knew him as a man of heroic faith, who had died as result of offering himself to be a test subject for a smallpox vaccine. And we talked in hushed tones about his famous sermon “Sinners in the hands of an Angry God”. But sadly we never discussed the details of his thought or of his philosophical inquiries.

Which turns out to be a real shame because Edwards much like Bishop Barclay, a contemporary, were both significant philsophers whose work has been neglected as western thought has made the shift from modernity to post-modernity. And that’s surprising because both Edwards and Barclay have much to say about a reality in which absolutes exist but are likely unknowable in any complete sort of way.

This afternoon I stumbled across an essay written by Marilynne Robinson and posted on the National Endowment for the Humanities website which looks more closely at Edward’s work, particularly focusing on his writings as “new light Calvinist” (a group that held that ongoing revival was an important part of Christian Life).

I was particularly struck by this quote that details the ways in which Edwards used natural theological revelation as a source for his understanding of God and God’s nature:

“Never departing from strict reason, Edwards sanctified the unknowable. I experienced a quiet, cerebral awakening of my own, as much secular as religious, as much scientific as theological, though these categories are not so clear-cut as they are often made to seem. Edwards intended from his earliest work to create an all-unifying metaphysics and, though he did not achieve this, his thought feels shaped by the intention to keep the possibility implicit. It accommodates Locke and Newton, the best philosophy and science of his period. His thought asserted a great influence on the intellectual/activist movement that arose out of the Second Great Awakening that created many educational institutions across the country, among them Grinnell and Oberlin, and that pressed for the containment and abolition of slavery. Lyman Beecher, his sons Edward and Henry Ward Beecher, his daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe and the large circle associated with them accepted the need for the kind of conversion experience Edwards famously described, and adhered as well to the model of intellectual rigor he presented.

Edwards’s metaphysics is first of all an esthetics. His statements about fundamental reality are based on the nature of light, not as metaphor but as model for all aspects of being, from time to consciousness and selfhood, to love, to the experience of the sacred, to ontology, to God Himself. In Edwards’s understanding, these things participate in one another so deeply that their radical likeness is a kind of identity. Light for him is a virtual synonym for beauty, and the given world is saturated with it. Natural light is an analog or a metaphor for ‘supernatural light,’ an important phrase that makes an important distinction, though his exploitation of the character of ordinary light is essential to his argument.”

Lots more here.

I’m particularly taken with the last thought in the essay:

“Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.”

Fossil Sitting In Sun Light

It’s a view of the Universe that seems much more in tune with the sort of writings you come across in modern theology than one would otherwise expect. As a follower of Popper’s post-positivism myself, I rather taken by what happens in Edward’s schema as he takes the experience of reality as seriously as I think Barth does in his writing. It gives you room for the mystery of the divine in a way that non-experiential thought doesn’t seem to do.

Canterbury on dealing with ISIS and jihadism

Current Affairs / Religion

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury has released a tightly reasoned essay on the necessity of a thoughtful and coordinated response to the threat posed by ISIS and the extremist so-called “jihadists” around the world.

The essay very carefully refuses to find a reductionist explanation, a simple way to understand what is, at its heart, a multi-faceted response to a number of local issues. The Archbishop writes in particular:

“Every conflict is individual, and a global narrative by itself does not address the particularity of each region or country. However, the reality of jihadist terror, and the related elements common to conflicts, have become more global since the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. Strategy must be holistic. This conflict embraces a whole range of complex causes, demonstrated in the huge number of Muslim deaths, often forgotten in the west. Nor is it restricted to the Middle East. The Central African Republic has descended into utter barbarism, with a religious edge, seen by many Muslims as religious cleansing of their followers. Somalia is chaos, Libya is in meltdown.

This struggle is not simply a religious conflict, but a terrible mix of ethnicity, economics, social unrest, injustice between rich and poor, limited access to resources, historic hatreds, post-colonial conflict and more. It is impossible to simplify accurately. We cannot tolerate the complexities and so we seek to hang the whole confusion on the hook of religious conflict. And because even to do that on a global scale is complicated, we focus on one area, at present Iraq and Syria, while others—Sudan, Nigeria and most recently Israel and Gaza—are forgotten. Or, equally dangerously, we deny it is religious, in the illusion that religion makes it unfixable.”

More here.

I can not stress how important I believe the addition of this voice, and what he says, is to the debate about a Western response to ISIS. Please, if you are a person of faith, take a moment to read the whole essay.