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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Re-Thinking my Dissertation, a mother's day.

Thirteen years ago I wrote my Doctoral dissertation on the Triune God. In that work I looked at a lot of theologians who had written about God's being, and found quite a few that I liked, and a few I only tolerated. I set up the parameters of my discussion using the work of two theologians: Douglas John Hall, a Protestant from Canada, and John Zizioulas, a Greek Orthodox from Pergamon.

I used those two primarily because I liked what they did with their theologies, and also because I was seeking an answer to a question they both could answer, although neither one answered it on their own. I am seeking a way to understand the relationship between God and humanity. For them and for me, it is not trivial that God is Triune. I hold that the only way for Christians to have a relationship with the Divine is to have a Triune God. Unitarian Christians are a mystery me, and I do not understand how anybody can bind themselves to someone else without an understanding of a socially construed concept of God.

This is a key concept, because, theoretically, it applies not only to Unitarians, but also to Jewish and Islamic understandings of God. What I mean by this is that the basic understanding of God, which for those who believe in God becomes the ontological basis for their understanding of reality (in other words, reality has a direct connection to your God), has to have some way to show that God desires (loves) someone (thing) without having it be a logical necessity or a solipsistic choice. Got it?

Here's what I mean:
     1. Your belief in God has a direct bearing on how you believe reality works (obviously, if you don't believe in God, this doesn't matter--but why are you reading this?)
     2. If your belief in God is static and unitary, how does God enter into relationship with humanity? (Various religions, who believe in a unitary God--very few believe in a static God--suggest that God enters into relationship with humanity through an external means to God. That is, what establishes the relationships between the Divine and humanity is not intrinsic to God's own way of life and being. For example, the Jewish people hold that God enters into relationship with humanity through covenant and law; Islam, through the Koran and prayer, and neither tradition posits that is who God, either a law or a book.)
     3. If your relationship with God is engaged through external means, we humans then begin to enter into relationship with creation (the environment, our neighbors, even our families, etc.) by external means. Usually we call this obedience to however God enters into relationship with us. So, if God enters into relationship with us through laws, then we enter into relationship with the environment with laws, with our neighbors with laws, etc.

This works fine in many cases, but do you love your mother because it is a law? Do you love your neighbor because it says so in a book? Most people, even most people within religious traditions that understand their God in a unitary way, do not love for those reasons. The mystical traditions of Sufism (Islam) and Kabbalism (Judaism) seek to discover ways to love that are not based in laws and books alone. Christianity--from the get-go--posits something completely different. God, because God is not unitary, but rather plural, loves because God wants to love.

So, Christianity says that God, as the Creator Father, as the Son, and as the Spirit desires love in order to exist as God. That is, without love, God would not exist because one or two of the "persons" would not receive God's own being. God would literally dis-integrate. And not exist. That's why Christianity spends so much time talking about the love between the Creator Father,  Jesus the Son, and the Spirit of God. If there's no love in that relationship, there's no God. (Admittedly, whether there is only three or not is a bit arbitrary. The Bible has Three persons, and Christians go with that, although God is still a mystery, and it might be more than three.)

This does not mean that Love is God, however. Love, in and of itself, doesn't create God. Just like love cannot create a marriage between me and my wife. My wife and I create a marriage, and we create love in it. But love is not the creator of our marriage, but rather, the way in which our marriage is lived out. The same would be true for the relationship I have with my mother. Love did not create our relationship--biology did. But love is how my mother and I live out and express our relationship. We define love, love does not define us, and the same is true with God in God's three persons.

Notice my three-part analogy above: I hold God loves because God desires to love. (God does not have to love, and this is why the resurrection of Jesus is integral to the Christian Triune God--this is evidence of God's desire to love Jesus even though he is dead. How do you love a dead son? You bring him back to life! I presume not even God would do something like that because God had to, but rather because God desired to...)

If that is an adequate metaphor for understanding how God works, then the relationship God has with humanity stems from those intra-workings of God. (Granted, I assume God reveals to us what God what most values in God's own self--God might still have something up the proverbial sleeve, however.) God's relationship to humanity now is based on God's desire to love humanity, without an external means to to that love. God loves us, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is about the only tangible evidence we have of that love. (And it is scanty evidence indeed. Empirically. However, the love of people who believe in that evidence, even a little bit, becomes the empirical new evidence of God's love. This is called the fruits of the Spirit. And the cycle goes on and on and on...)

Because God is not a unitary being, and God does not relate to us by means external to God's own way of living and being, e.g., a book or a law and other such ways...we now relate to our reality based on the desire (which is internal to our make-up, as it's how God is "made up") to love rather than on something external to us. So Christians love their mothers not because it is a law or in a book, but rather because they desire to love their mothers. (This is the big Christian dilemma--what if the desire is not there? In Judaism, for example, to love your mother comes down to loving God enough to follow God's law, regardless of whether you desire it or not. Sometimes you do, and that is great, but sometimes you don't. Too bad. It's a law. Get over it. Christians don't have that option--although, granted, we did steal that law about loving your mother--we didn't, however, steal the law against eating pork. Hence, we have ham on Mother's day for lunch.)

In Christianity if the desire to love isn't there (and the reasons could be many, we usually call that absence of desire to love "sin"), the mother or child suffers through it, even if it kills them. The minute you try to force someone to love you, you no longer have desire as the basis for your love. You have force. For Christians, it is better to die than to force someone to love you, that is, if you are a Christian who uses the example of Jesus of Nazareth as your guide. (Does this mean, for example, if a child is being beaten by their mother they must stay and take it until they die? Absolutely NOT! If the child, who may have a desire to love her mother, tries to leave the situation and the mother forces her to stay because the daughter has to love her, it is the mother, not the child, who has misused God's love. In fact, a child would leave that situation--if possible--because she desires to love her mother, and her mother is not making that love possible. In this case, it is the child, not the mother, who best exemplifies the desire to love. It might break the child's heart to have to leave her mother, but unfortunately in this example the mother does not have the desire to love her child. And she may never. The child must be protected until she learns that her to desire to love her mother is not the same as her mother forcing her daughter to love her. God works from love, not force. That's the theological reason why Christians don't allow children to be abused.)

It's been 13 years since I wrote that book, and I couldn't have done it without my mom. She's always been my biggest fan...and I'm OK with that.

So this year, this trinitarian Christian says Happy Mother's Day, not because I have to, but because I desire to...Happy Mother's Day mom.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

1 comment:

Mildred Martin said...

Wow, your dissertation is really amazing! Just think those 13 years ago, technology is what it is now, so it was hard for grad student to research for their paper. I guess dissertation writing is easy for those who have determination and strength to pass the paper on time. Anyway, it would be great if you can upload online your thesis paper for people to see and read it.