Monday, May 19, 2008

Sermon for Trinity

I had an experience of the Trinity as I preached this, so it at least meant something to me.

On the other hand, no one saw that the candles were not lit. Inner light or air head? You decide. If you read my last post, you'll see the questions repeated, but in a new context.

Separate and the Same

The doctrine of the Trinity is perhaps the defining moment of our faith. It is the only teaching which has its own feast day. As the early church came to be formed, this was the teaching that defined whether or not one walked the way of the Christ or some other way. God is One. God is One in Three Persons. Eternally and mutually indwelling. If you have studied even a little church history, you will remember that Trinity was what the Church did for three hundred years. But no matter how often I read all the debates, I come no closer to being able to unveil the mystery.

But I have learned one very important thing. Spiritual truth likes to hide. It likes to sit there right under my nose looking so ordinary or so beside the point that I pass it right over. Indeed, whenever I encounter someone or a group of someones making a very big deal about something that is either so ordinary or so completely off the wall that it just seems incomprehensible, I’m sure that I’ve encountered a Spiritual Mystery. Here are some examples. The evolution debate is a spiritual mystery. So is the seeming idiocy of contemporary political discourse. The temptation when confronted by this kind of thing – and the doctrine of the Trinity is certainly one – is to simply ignore it.

Trouble is, one ignores mystery at ones own risk. Mystery is how I grow. Mystery invites me to move beyond my givens and assumptions and to dispense with literal explanations of every kind. And what better place to start than with something it is impossible to take literally? In the spiritual world, evolution, politics, and the trinity are not puzzles to be solved; they are pathways to greater knowledge. Evolution calls us to evolve. Our contemporary political discourse shows us a house divided against itself. The Trinity, by the way, puts it all back together. The Trinity is what we affirm every Sunday when we say the Nicene Creed.

How many of you thrill with the excitement of God when we get up to recite the Creed? How many of you secretly wonder in the depths of your rational and spiritual hearts, what’s the big deal? Many people I’ve talked to say the Creed is a barrier to their faith, arguments from another age, that they just can’t believe that stuff. As if it were all about them.

Teaching school reminds me what a passion our culture has for answers. We give tests with answers. We see problems as needing solutions. In this context, the Creed becomes one more set of answers to check off. But what if it isn’t an answer at all? What if, instead, the Creed is really a question, but, like a good game of Jeopardy, has disguised itself as an answer?

So today, since I cannot explain the Trinity, I’m going to talk about the Two Great Questions. These two questions were asked 2500 years ago on two different sides of the world. They were such good questions that entire cultures were built as people worked on them. Globalization has recently brought them together. The first was asked by Prince Siddartha who, after his Enlightenment, became known as the Buddha. Prince Siddartha asked, “Why do people suffer?” To find his answer, he left his sheltered home. He suffered. He meditated, he fasted, he befriended outcasts and discovered a way of religious life that anyone could practice. Finally, after taming his own disordered mind and illusions about the nature of reality, he sat under the Bodhi tree and contended with the universe itself, achieving Enlightenment. When a Prince was transformed into a Fully Awakened One, an amazing model of human consciousness and the interconnectedness of cause, effect and choice was born. It was a model that was deeply centered upon the concerns, joys and sorrows of sentient life – and Buddhism inhabits a universe that, like the magnificent Ptolemaic heavens of Dante’s Paradiso, is entirely alive and sentient, where what I do to a goat will resonate in my soul for hundreds of years and there is great providence in the fall of a sparrow.

Meanwhile, at the same time in the Greek world, Thales of Miletus asked a very different question, and the human condition took a very different turn. Thales of Miletus in Asia Minor was the first of a series of men who decided to turn away from the human, and all those difficult and oh so human gods of the Greeks and all those unsatisfactory myths that seemed to be pretty pathetic explanations of anything and simply cut to the chase. Thales’ great question was, “What is the world made of?” Because Thales set his sights upon the material world, modern science and concrete analysis were able to arise. Natural phenomena could be studied as precisely that: actions of nature that required no divine intervention whatsoever. Religion became optional, an aspect of life rather than life itself. Thales’ question implied a correct and single answer, an answer that could be discovered by rational enquiry and did not require introspection, meditation or any of that other “mystical” stuff. Right answers also meant wrong answers and debate became, not a process of inquiry, but a contest. So Thales named water as the primary element; Anaximander after him, thought it was air; Heraclitus went for fire, and Democritus posited that all matter was made of little building blocks which he called “That which cannot be cut,” or in Greek, “atoms.” Unlike Buddha’s question, Thales’ question does not concern the state of my soul, my happiness or my lot in life. I can be miserable and angry and still be a good scientist; I can work on others without first working on myself, or to put it slightly differently, the mechanisms of nature do not depend upon human happiness, and what I do to a goat is only important insofar as it affects or advances me. But because we are human and happiness matters, those questions did not die, either. They were delegated to medicine and ethics and religion and so began a split between people of intellect and people of faith, between the head and the heart, between thoughts and emotions. In a split cosmos, it became very easy for me to hide from myself, to edit my character to only its finest aspects and make others take the blame for my faults. The Greeks, by the way, were known as very quarrelsome people and the West, which is so largely their legacy, has won fame as the culture of war and conquest. In Buddhist countries, on the other hand, conflict is not so honored. Conflict generates too much bad karma. There is no split between science and religion, because both are part of the whole.

Now let’s return to the West. I invite you to a question. If you were God, and you were confronted by all these warlike and quarrelsome people who thought they were so powerful, what is the one thing you would do?

Our faith is all about what God did do. God was so concerned about us that God appeared in person at the height of that most violent Roman Empire to show us another way. God became one of us. God gave us the Holy Spirit. God showed us a way so totally nonviolent and so healing and full of love that we can only begin to speak its name in the great mystery of the Holy Trinity. That the West attempted to nail it all down into doctrine and make us recite it shows you just how stubborn we really are. But once upon a time a person had to earn the right to say those words and today when we yawn when we recite the Creed it does give me hope, for a yawn is a gateway to sacred mystery, just waiting to be discovered in the breath, in prayer, in living our lives consciously, by not being afraid, because, after all, God knows our hearts and Jesus was living proof of eternal life.

T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, considered by some to be the greatest ode to the century of war, destruction and despair, derives its origins from a Medieval myth, a myth handed down in the west from the fallen world of Rome to the new Age of Faith. The Wasteland is part of the Grail Legend and is the domain of the Fisher King. The Fisher King sits at the threshold to the Grail Castle where the chalice from which Jesus and his disciples drank at the Last Supper and which later captured his mingled blood and water when his side was pierced on the cross is kept and venerated. The Grail holds the mystery of life and suffering. The Fisher King is wounded – he can neither beget new life nor can he die, and the natural world is dying around him. He can only be saved by a question. He can only be saved if a pure knight comes to him and asks him “Good king, what is the matter with you?” or to put it slightly differently, he, and all the land, can only be saved by someone asking “Why are you suffering?” The knight arrived, but he was so wrapped up in his own society’s answers that he felt it would be impolite to ask anything at all. So he didn’t. And so the West lost the secret.

I think, my friends, that God is still waiting for us to ask the right question.

In the world of the Fisher King, Earth is dying, just as she is dying today. Legends, like questions, take thousands of years to unfold. What happened back then has tremendous implications for us who live today. Remember how I told you that the two questions of West and East were coming together? Over the past two weeks, Myanmar and China have again raised the poignant question of suffering. “What is the world made of?” is a good question too. Its answers have not been exhausted by science. It doesn’t even have to be answered scientifically. In a world that is not split, it too, can be a religious question, and may be one of the reasons why, on this feast of the Sacred Mysteries, we read part of the creation story from Genesis. Why is it so hard to believe this story? Why is it so hard to believe that the universe is alive, that the universe is good, that the universe is God? Why, even when God became one of us, is it so hard to believe in the divinity of the material world, of earth, that what we do to a goat matters? I cannot answer that either, and so I will leave you with a story, told by the eminent Church historian Justo Gonzales:

“It was many years ago. My father sat between my brother and me, as he read us the stories of St. Francis - how he spoke with "brother wolf," and how he praised "sister water" and even "sister death." Other people sought to kill the wolf, and saw in water simply something to drink and to wash in. But Francis saw himself as their brother and cared for them as his sisters and his brothers. I loved those stories, but in my mind they were part of fantasyland, as when our father also read to us from the tales of Jules Verne or from the Sunday comics. [But many years later, in my study] I am suddenly struck by something I had never noticed before: "out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree...out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air." The trees, the birds and the animals are made "out of the ground," just as I am. What the narrator in Genesis is saying is not only that humankind is made out of the ground, and that this is good, but also that all other living things are made out of the ground, and that this too is good. We are all kindred, and that is good.”

We are all kindred, and that is good. Kinship, the oneness of relationship is the nature of Trinity. Making that relationship good is the lifelong work of faith. But there are mere answers. More importantly, what is the question that we need to ask that will will bring us together in all our diversity and give to our earth life? AMEN.

1) It was quite rightly suggested to me that Rome established peace under law. I still believe that Jesus, working under Torah rather than Pax Romana, offered a critique, but my position is always open to nuancing.
2) St. Francis was right after all in “Living Pulpit” magazine, online.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

What is the Basis of Life?

In the 6th century BCE, somewhere in the center of what has come to be called the axial age, East and West asked their foundational questions. These questions are very important because they helped to shape the world views that we live with today, and without an understanding of world view, we have no way of discerning the underlying assumptions that define our construction of the truth.

The first of these questions was asked by Prince Siddhartha. His question was: "Why is there suffering?" This is an inner question and led to much inner wisdom.

The second of these questions were asked by various philosophers in Asia Minor and in Greece. Finding mythology unsatisfactory, they rejected it. (Buddha did not reject mythology; he simply went beyond it.) The philosophers' question was "What is the world made of, and how do things retain their identity even when they change?" This is an outer question that cared very little how people happened to feel.

I invite you to consider the implications of these two questions upon human and non human life.

The question "why is there suffering?" realized that if there was suffering, there also was the possibility of not-suffering, since even under the worst conditions suffering is not unrelieved; therefore, the essential condition of our lives must be impermanence. Since impermanence is the key, then change becomes normative and a being can, through careful practice and right seeing, change from ignorance to wisdom, from anger to kindness, from attachment to freedom and thereby achieve the cessation of suffering. When I have ceased to suffer, I am less likely to inflict suffering upon others.

The second question, because it sought permanence, distrusted change. Because the search was for substance, not spirit, the material achieved primacy, and with it the the possibility of a "right" answer. Without the Greek passion for the material world, we would not today have science, technology and all that stuff. But without the Greek belief in a right answer, and the Greek faith in the brilliance of the human intellect, we would not today be so mired in conflict, for with a right answer comes also a wrong answer, and an intellect untempered by kindness is a razor that slices its opponents in two.

Buddha saw no objection to science as it did not change the truth of karma, or the inner life, or the silence of meditation.

The west, on the other hand, created a tension between faith and reason. Since there can be only one right answer, the west created narrowness. Those found to be in error could be dismissed as mad or even dangerous, and could be destroyed.

Buddha teaches that nothing can by destroyed, that it keeps coming back.
Jesus' resurrection taught the same thing, even as the West tried to destroy him.
Of course, materialism says that resurrection is simply impossible.