Friday 11 January 2008

Bishop's Tightrope

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, interests me because a) he writes replies to emails quickly, b) he is the President of the Modern Churchpeople's Union and c) he is the the Anglican diocesan bishop where I live and I worship in one of his churches.

So a letter of the released to the non-subscriber Church Times of a week back, 4 January, 2008, written by a Mr Peter Hilken of Cambridge, interested me, in that it made the case for the human Jesus whereas John Saxbee, a week earlier, was stating the case for a Nicaean Jesus, and indeed so stating the case for the Nicaean Jesus (he has to be God to be meaningful on a theodicy argument) that it leaves folks like the letter writer feeling second class. Well, as far as I can see, the letter makes by far the better argument.

So, tackling the bishop's argument first, in the Church Times, Issue 7554, 29 December, 2007:

It's sort of Christmas and Epiphany, making a distinction between an apparent shepherd saying, "He’s the spitting image of his father,” and a Magi saying, "He's a chip off the old block."

The spitting image, rather like the Epiphany Songs of Praise litany locally, is totally different from a chip from the block, and there are other allusions to genetics and DNA in the chip, and closeness in the image. Plus the Greek words bit. He asks if it matters:

Well, it does matter. It matters to such an extent that making sense of a tsunami, a devastating cyclone, or a terrorist atrocity depends upon how we answer.

If Jesus is "the spitting image of his father", there is a likeness between him and God which is as close a likeness as any human being has ever revealed before or since. And that is good news, because, on the one hand, he becomes the means whereby we can glimpse something of what God is like: in the words of Bishop David Jenkins, "God is as he is in Jesus, and therefore there is hope."

On the other hand, we can glimpse something of our own capacity to grow in the likeness of God in so far as we fashion our lives after the example of Christ. Day by day like us he grew, so that day by day we might grow like him.

I cannot understand why the above is "on the other hand". It is not the other hand, but an extension of the same hand. The "on the other hand" surely follows:

Yet a likeness is not a sameness. If Jesus is no more than "the spitting image of his father", then human beings are left still dependent on our own human resources to make sense of life's joys and sorrows, tragedies and triumphs. Faced with natural disasters and terrorist atrocities, we now have in Jesus an example of divine courage, compassion, self-giving, and sacrifice which combine to help us cope. But there is nothing here to help us comprehend what all this might mean.

If this baby born in Bethlehem is going to make not only a difference to the way we live in the world, but a difference to how we make sense of the world in which we live, then he has to be "a chip off the old block".

I have to say I am baffled. I do not see why a divine Jesus helps us cope more than the image.

...Making sense of our life on earth is now resourced by the very being of God, born into the world and around in the world.

Meaning is still available in abundance, and nor does the very being of God do anything different for the poor sods who die in the tsunami or in any other disaster. God, whether incarnating or not, is still not doing anything about anything.

...If we have only human resources available to come to terms with evil and suffering, then the best we can do is project on to God our human understanding of love and power - and then realise that, in the face of such disaster, God may be all-loving or all-powerful, but he clearly cannot be both.

I cannot see how the theodicy argument is made any different by this assertion of incarnation. The Jews and Gypsies and gays and mentally handicapped still died in death camps under the Nazis: no incarnate God came to their rescue. Nothing extra was delivered because a God died on a tree, for them, or for anyone else. The day the asteroid comes flying out of the sky and wallops the earth and finishes off humanity is still the same.

Left to ourselves, we are so constrained by the limited horizons of our fragile humanity that the questions that matter most are the ones we are least able to answer. That is why atheism and humanism struggle to make headway in our so-called secular society.

I would have thought atheism and humanism are doing quite well. Best sellers, indeed.

...the very reality of God beckoning us beyond the horizons of our own humanity to a place where the Light of the World shines full of grace and truth - ah! then, we have a glimpse of eternity over-arching the tragedies and traumas of life on earth; then we see sense in what seems senseless, meaning in what defies human understanding.

It is very remote, this, if such exists. Incidentally, if this approach does make (more?) sense, it does not bring it into being by making sense. The very God has to be first, and then make sense, presumably.

Then the bishop thinks there is an image of air walking when Christ as God is more than an image.

...honest religious thinkers may indeed look as though they are walking on nothing but air. The tightrope that supports them stretches between time and eternity, imminence and transcendence, the known and the unknowable.

This might be because it makes little sense. The issue of the virgin birth as secondary is not really relevant at all (is this agreement?). He says what matters is the tightrope, in the manner of Wittgenstein's understanding.

Now, as we set out on this perilous adventure, we survey the scene from this tightrope well-trodden but never totally traversed.

Which means I am even more lost: why is this tightrope not totally traversed? Is it because it is not actually so, and lies in the realm of the imagination? Not according to the explanation. This is all real, despite Luke's travel of the Jesus family from Nazareth and the Matthew travel of the family from Bethlehem. He says:

Yet, while there is surely sense in the appeal to Jesus as an exemplar of godly living, this is of little worth unless it is as God that he shows us the Way.

I can't see it. Rather, I agree with Peter Hilken when he says:

I, a churchgoing lay Christian of many years, cannot make sense of the "same-as-God" doctrine. God is, by definition, all-seeing, all-knowing. If Jesus was God, what meaning could there be in his plea that God should take "this cup from me"? Did he not choose the harder road?

Better than this, Jesus does not share the harshness of the creation, says Peter Hilken, but help with dealing with it.

He can, I believe, help us to face death with courage, and to face sin with honesty and forgiveness, but not, I think, to "make sense" of them.

I'm not sure a creation is anything to do with it. Rather, a way of living that is about immediacy, preparedness, thinking again, putting wrongs right, inhabiting joy, and self-sacrificial service. These are ways of living, and entirely human ways of living for a greater good, sometimes unseen, sometimes not happening. What Peter Hilken says, regarding this faith and the institution, is:

My guess is that many of us committed but numerically dwindling Anglicans are in the "like" rather than the "same" camp. Our clergy generally skirt the issue, probably for fear of upsetting the samers; but where does that leave us likers? I have attended many study groups and known many priests, but none of them has shown interest in learning what I actually believe (in spite of all their sermons) about the incarnation, miracles, and the ascension. They don't ask, because they suspect I might give the wrong answer.

The answer to this is to speak up. Be noticed, say what you really think, and argue the case. Have discussion and invite to the discussion. Be free.

In any case the Gospels do not need to push the "same as" view. They are all "likeness" based, even the Gospel of John, and so is the New Testament as a whole. Only later doctrine went to "same as" and created an obligation towards this. Clergy preaching do skirt around; half of them are "likeness" anyway, obliged to dance the "same as" tune on the basis that the crowd who hear and participate apparently expect "same as", and yet are as likely to be in the "likeness" camp.

Peter Hilken does have confidence:

I, however, define Christianity differently, and am sustained by knowing that many theologians and church leaders have been with me on the "like" side.

Good on you, and so am I. Indeed I'd say it is even more complex than this; that likeness is itself mythic and constructed. He says:

...a fully human Jesus is, for me, more inspiring, more hopeful, more helpful to me in facing up to the wickedness in myself and the world, and to inexplicable "acts of God", than is Dr Saxbee's one-substance-with-God Jesus.

Indeed so. Whereas John Saxbee's almost meditation on a theme made little overall sense, this makes more sense. It is more simple, more beautiful in explanation, and of one of us.

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