Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Another way of knowing God

Maybe we’ve gotten it backwards.
When Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the year 313 of our calendar, he inherited a religious landscape that looked rather like a dysfunctional school playground. The children were all playing different games, in the same space. Chaos resulted.
In 325, the playground supervisor -- Constantine -- gathered all the factions together and ordered them to work out their differences. Or else.
And so the Council of Nicea came up with the Nicene Creed. Or the first version of it, at least.
That creed defined the Trinitarian God. It said that God was known in three “persons.” First, God the Father, the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful patriarch who rules the tribe. Second, Jesus the only Son of God, indistinguishable from his divine parent. And third, the Holy Spirit, which emanates from both of them -- like an aura, I suppose.
That formula has been the Christian norm for 17 centuries. Every other creed, every other doctrine, follows that pattern. There are still ministerial associations which will not let you in unless you can recite and affirm the Nicene Creed word for word.

Order of priority

The bishops who drafted the Nicene Creed probably never thought about the order of their axioms. It would be obvious, wouldn’t it, that God who created the universe came first? The world already existed when Jesus, the human, occupied 33 years of human history. So he comes second. And the gospels clearly state that the Holy Spirit was sent by Jesus after his departure. So it has to come third.
But the order has implications. Because creeds start with God, we tend to think first about God. We define God -- immortal, all powerful, all-knowing, perfect, controlling everything, transcendent, utterly separate and different from mere mortals…

And then, because Jesus is God incarnate-- of the same substance, says the Nicene Creed -- we attribute the same qualities to Jesus. Which means that he must have had God’s power to free himself, if he chose to. That he had supernatural powers to heal, to walk on water. That he knew in advance how the Temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. And that he would rise from his tomb on the third morning. And so on.
Joseph McLelland, himself a patriarch of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, offers a different angle.
“There are two theories about how God became known as the Trinity,” McLelland said in the Presbyterian Record. “One is, you start with God, the Father, the absolute God. From that God are two emanations -- the Logos, who becomes incarnate, and the Spirit.
“[Or] among Christian theologians, you start with the specific, which is Jesus of Nazareth… If you start with Jesus, then Jesus is the model for God…”
We know a lot about Jesus’ qualities -- compassion, generosity, selflessness, kindness… Perhaps we should be saying, “That’s what God is like.”
The late Clarke McDonald, a friend and mentor, liked to say, “Jesus is the window through which I can see as much of God as I’m capable of seeing.”
Taking Jesus as the model, rather than some abstract definitions, might make God a lot less distant, a lot more approachable.
Copyright © 2016 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca


Frank Martens has devoted himself for years to learning about the Palestinian/Israeli situation: “I couldn’t help putting your four rules of hospitality into the perspective of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. 
“First rule of hospitality: when a stranger comes in peace, do not turn him away. When great number of Jews started coming to Palestine in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s the Arabs accepted them into their society and they lived in peace until the Zionist movement started in Europe. 
“Second rule of hospitality: take what you’re offered; don’t expect more than your host has available. When the Jews of Europe started buying land from absentee Arabs living either in the cities of Palestine or abroad, the conflicts started, but just on a rather small scale. Farmers were displaced from land that they had worked for centuries. Later, when the smaller conflicts developed into wars where Palestinians were slaughtered and cornered into small enclaves of land, the Israelis certainly broke your second rule. 
“Third rule of hospitality: know when it’s time to leave. I supposed you could look at this third rule from both sides – if you don’t want to think that Jews took more than they were offered and chased out or killed their hosts in the process. 
“Fourth rule: don’t start thinking it belongs to you. Israelis have never thought anything other than that the land of Palestine was given to them by God. 
“The actions committed by Israel in dispossessing the Palestinians from their homeland is criminal. If the ICC does not judge them guilty I would hope that their God does.”

Isabel Gibson looked more at the personal experience I had: “Yes, it can be hard to go home, even to visit. Maybe we need to be more like snails, carrying our homes around with us.”
Sometimes I think that I have spent about half my life looking for my home. I travelled a lot -- 66 countries at last count -- and almost every town or village I went into, I found myself wondering, irrationally, if this place was supposed to be where I found “home.” Now that I’m older, I know that I have found home -- until age and disability force me to leave it.
Do others have that feeling?



The lectionary offers a choice for this Sunday: either Lamentations 3:13-16, or Psalm 37. Since I haven’t done a paraphrase of Lamentations (although I’ve been tempted) you’re getting Psalm 137 -- not a happy psalm. I couldn’t help wondering how the biblical writer might have dealt with the protests by black athletes who refuse to stand for the national anthem at games. 

We didn’t ask to come here. 
Deep in our DNA, we remember where we have come from --
another continent, another culture, another world.
You ripped us from our womb.
You beat us, maimed us, used us, sold us.
You said God had granted you dominion over us.
And you told us we were happy
because we learned to sing, to dance, to laugh,
to hide our broken lives. 

Then you gave us our freedom.
You said you had. 
But you hadn’t. 
We were still shut out of your restaurants,
your washrooms, your schools, your families. 
We were lynched, tortured, humiliated.
We sat in the back of the bus.
We remember.

And then you ask us to sing your warlike words, 
to stand in respect for your glorious achievements. 
We cannot celebrate your narcissism.
We cannot sing your self-congratulation.
We would be happy to see you trip on a splinter,
to fall down and smash your skull open. 

For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.



Ralph Milton has a new project, called Sing Hallelujah -- the world’s first video hymnal. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at www.singhallelujah.ca
Isabel Gibson's thoughtful and well-written blog, www.traditionaliconoclast.com
Wayne Irwin's "Churchweb Canada," an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://www.churchwebcanada.ca>
Alva Wood's satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town are not particularly religious, but they are fun; write alvawood@gmail.com to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” – ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at twatson@sentex.net



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I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca


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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: knowing God, God



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