Meditation by Alistair Miller 2010

Experiencing God
Meditation be Alistair Miller
2010 January 03

We have heard three parallel texts from scripture on the essence of God: the Word; Wisdom; the life and teachings of Jesus, the Christ. The Lectionary reaches out more widely than usual to include readings from the Sirach – a part of the Apocrypha for most protestant churches but widely used elsewhere and frequently by the early church. It’s part of the Roman Catholic canon and that of most Orthodox churches. The Jewish canon doesn’t include it though it is recognized by references in the Talmud. Ecclesiasticus is one of its several other names and one that you may be more familiar with. That literally means “[belonging] to the church”. That name probably alludes to it having been widely used as a source of teaching by the early church. Interesting that: because it was written, originally in Hebrew, by a Jewish scribe Ben Sirach, around 180 to 175 B.C. (If you’re curious, we know the date fairly accurately because it was explicitly translated into Greek in Alexandria by a grandson of Ben Sirach, who says he arrived there in what we would count as132 B.C. and historical references in the book place it after 196 and before 175 B.C.)

We need to be reminded that early Christianity was a sect of Judaism and reaching into Jewish scripture would have been wholly natural to them as they worked to understand the essence of Jesus’s ministry. Over subsequent centuries, the Church – capital C – would attempt to define this essence of Christianity in terms of a single, orthodox set of dogma but the beginnings were filled with enquiry and searching, searching to experience God.

This is not just an activity of those early followers of the Christos Way.Going back a few more centuries, it may seem odd to us that the Athenians during the great flowering of critical thinking late in the 5th Century B.C. and on into the 4th, had laid foundations of thought for this type of enquiry. The results had seeped into Jewish thinking by the 2nd Century B.C.

We think of classical Greek thinking on religion in terms of the gods of Olympus but the great philosophers of the classical Athenian period – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – viewed those gods as highly unsatisfactory mythos – the Greek word that gives us “myth” but meant not a story without factual foundation but a what-if sort of story that helped to understand concepts of God and reality that could not be explicitly penetrated. For people like Socrates, the old Olympian mythos no longer worked and he wanted to find a replacement. Socrates wanted centrally to place life in the context of understanding God.

Karen Armstrong’s recent book, The Case for God – Deep River Library has a copy – points out that Socrates was so suspicious of establishing definite ideas about the nature of God that he abhorred having any of his thoughts written down because what was written could be misunderstood if the author wasn’t there to explain and explore the meaning. (His disciple Plato wrote it up afterwards.) As Karen Armstrong observes, to think one can capture and comprehend the nature of God so belittles God as to be idolatrous. Socrates put the same idea this way when he was being attacked verbally by a leading Athenian statesman:

“I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know. So I am likely to be wiser than he to that small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.” And Socrates wasn’t limiting the idea to knowledge of God. But how much more the truth in it in trying to comprehend the mystery of God.

It all sounds pretty pessimistic but Socrates argued that we could strive to get glimpses of God though these glimpses came through experiences, most effectively by the spoken word within dialogue – but not argument!Indeed, this was the whole point of Socrates teaching. At his fatal trial for impiety, he described himself as a “gadfly”, perpetually stinging people into awareness, forcing them to wake up to themselves, question their every opinion, and attend to their spiritual progress. For us, to go forward authentically, we need to do so from doubt rather than certainty.

Two millennia of the doctrinal teachings of Church and churches have largely taken an opposite track, fusing faith with belief in church-defined dogma. Remarkably, for many, the church’s firm doctrinal teachings do sometimes work and God is experienced in church liturgies and teachings, especially the Christ-centred teachings of love and caring for others. But, at the same time, the churches have usually tried to stifle new thinking, to divert and to interrupt our questing to experience God. For about 1400 years in the Church’s perspective, this was mostly successful. Then printing reached Europe. Enquiry could no longer be contained; the Word was out. But 1400 years of suppression had left a deep imprint and access was now usually seen as access to “The Word of God” rather than “Words that reveal God”. The writings had (themselves) become sacred rather than as sources of sacred insight. The stories in the sacred texts were interpreted into a unified, integrated and factual story.

So most Christians haven’t been able to appreciate the Old Testament’s evolving insight into God as, for example, it recorded the Jews’ progress from polytheism to a monotheistic “our God” – a new concept with disastrous consequences when King Josiah – having codified monotheism with his “discovery” of Deuteronomy – took on the power of Pharaoh Necho — and lost. A couple of decades later, King Zedekiah invoked this concept of God’s special interest in Judah a second time and lost to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and the Exile and destruction of the temple.We usually read the story superficially: bad luck Josiah (good king); serves you right, Zedekiah (bad king). Of course, rather than being a setback in spirituality, the captivity in Babylon moved Jewish understanding of God forward, past the doctrine of divine backing. The Book of Ezra gives an example of shifting religious understanding as some Jews returned to Jerusalem. As Armstrong points out, Ezra, in recording the difficulties of the return, sets out an emphasis on attention to the teachings of the Torah but his accompanying commentary stresses the parallel importance of Torah re-interpretation.

Move forward to after 70 A.D. and the destruction of the new temple, another major advance happens. Without the focus of the Jerusalem Temple and its rituals, radical re-interpretation has to occur in both surviving parts of fragmented Judaism: Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity begin to diverge after co-existing for barely 15 years. New ways of seeing God based on love for others rather than sacrifice.

Shortly after the destruction of the Temple, two rabbis were walking past the ruins. Rabbi Joshua was unable to contain his grief: “Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.” But his companion, Rabbi Yohanan replied: “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice’ ”. Kindness would replace ritual; religion be centred on compassion.

Alas, after each burst of new searching into the mystery of God have come attempts to halt the process in the form of a new establishment. Churches, Christian or otherwise, like to codify belief. By exercising the authority of those beliefs, power becomes available and is almost invariably deployed.Periodically, the Spirit attempts to break through: sometimes suppressed as heresies like Pelagianism in the 4th and 5th Century – opposing the concept of original sin, among other things – and Catharism suppressed in the 12th Century in the Albigensian Crusade. Sometimes successfully causing huge upheavals, such as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Methodism in England; even, more modestly, within the background of my Presbyterian origins – in the Disruption of 1840 in the Church of Scotland. What all of these had in common was an urge to find new ways to approach the Christian faith and take away the dogmatic control of the established church exercised by a monopoly on elements of belief.

All of these were based on fresh understandings of the Word, perceptions of Wisdom, of insights into the nature of God. People initiated them because of their experiences, their encounters with the Divine. To me they are the norms of progress in our perceptions of the mystery we call God.

Today, perhaps, our insights ought to flow from the explosion of what we usually label as secular understanding. So I end as a scientist with a story from physics – not my personal specialisation but a specialization that physicists at least would claim as the root of knowledge.

Fred Hoyle, who some of you will associate with his opposition to the theory of the “Big Bang” – a term that he coined – as the origin of our universe, had been a declared atheist. In scientific circles, Hoyle is honoured more for his contributions to understanding nucleosynthesis, how diverse elements were produced in stars. In the familiar process, hydrogen atoms are fused to produce helium and energy. In sufficiently massive stars, mass-four helium atoms are then added to atoms like carbon and oxygen to build ever- heavier nuclei – all the way up to iron.But there was a problem: how did the process get from helium to mass-12 carbon. There is no island of stability at mass eight and the triple coming together of three helium atoms would be too rare to provide an explanation unless the combined energy of this process precisely resonated with a stable energy level for carbon. This decidedly unlikely level had not been observed but Hoyle could see no other way and postulated that a resonant level had to be there. When it was subsequently discovered, a deeply shaken Hoyle saw the hand of God in it and never returned to atheism. It was just so utterly unlikely[1].

Hoyle’s is a story that resonates with my experiences of God. Fortunately, since we can’t all immerse ourselves in understanding nucleosynthesis, human experience has shown that there are myriad other ways to experience the mystery we call God by any name: the Word, Wisdom, the Christ. The only loss in our living is if we have never looked for ways to try or have been blind to experiencing God because the insights came in ways that we had almost been taught not to see.


Service of 2010 January 03

[1] This would be seen as an extreme example of the anthropic principle – that any condition that makes human life possible or the universe workable no matter how improbable is not a proof of anything since anything else would be unobservable. However, that seemed too big an aside to introduce as a footnote in the meditation. The anthropic principles – there are several – make up a big enough topic for separate consideration and are probably better explored in dialogue than an address. Hoyle apparently was more impressed by the extreme improbability than the anthropic principle. Indeed, anthropic principles have had to be invoked so many times to explain the remarkable workings and co-incidences of the underlying physics of our universe as to defy rational logic. Our universe is an amazing place.

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