CHURCH OF THE TRANSFIGURATION
Mountain Lake, New York: 1995
is a summary of the understandings that have been most helpful to me, in interpreting the meaning of
life. It may interest family and friends. It could be of value to persons who are inquiring, or
regarding their faith in God, or their understanding of the Church.
I have felt comfortable as a member of the Episcopal Church - as
comfortable as one should expect to be in this world. But by far, the most
helpful thinker I have encountered has been Paul Tillich, in whose classes
I sat for two years in Union Theological Seminary, New York City.
I commend his books to those who seek further.
Question of God
is not one more being, who may or may not exist. The expression,
'the existence of God,' should never be used. To 'exist' means to 'stand out,' as it were from potentiality to actuality.
Everything in the universe thus
stands out; it might not have. There might have been nothing,
not even time and space. This we cannot imagine. To speak of God
as Creator is to try to make reference to the Source of all existence, the
One Who out of nothing brought our universe into being. Everything that
exists has been 'made' (see "Symbol & Concept" below); so God does
not "exist'; He is the Maker, the One Who gives existence to all that
exists. The moment a person speaks of the "existence of God", that person
is not speaking of God at all. He or she speaks out of a misconception.
Yet a person with the minimum of technical education can 'know
God' in the most fulfilled way.
We cannot imagine that time
never had a beginning; yet we cannot imagine the beginning of time, without wondering
what was before that.
was realizations like this that forced the conclusion that it is beyond the realm of science to
answer such questions as even a child often asks.
The origin of the universe
is beyond all explaining. Articles on the Big Bang theory are fascinating; but
they either presuppose that something already existed, or they 'tell a story' (see
Myth, below). The source of being is hidden in ultimate mystery, never to be
susceptible to human understanding. But if we have no reliable understanding of
what it all means, we are really all at sea. We don't know what we are here for.
religions, and many other interpretations, offer themselves as answers, and usually with brash
confidence, and an too often, extreme, hostile arrogance. They realize, if their
religious conviction should be undermined, their whole world would collapse, so they
in the extreme. This high emotion indicates the importance of ultimate
meaning. Possessions, family members, country - all mean a great
deal to us; but their loss does not usually destroy the ultimate meaning
of our lives. The word, 'religion', comes from ‘religare,’ to tie
(To jump ahead a bit, Paul wrote to the Church in Colossae that this
is exactly what Jesus as the Christ means to us: "In him all things hold
together," Col. 1:17. The experience of this led me out of chemical engineering
into the ministry.) Confronted with what might undermine that
which holds their whole world together, people can grow desperate.
we are not talking about God unless we are speaking from ultimate
concern as to the meaning and purpose of our lives. Faith in God has nothing to
do with "a man upstairs" pulling strings. It is that which
makes our own life and our world ultimately meaningful, affecting our emotions
and will and understanding. It gives us the 'courage
to be' (title of a Tillich book), patience, persistence. It is part of being
human to sense that, or hope that, beyond all our empirical observations of our
universe, there is that upon which we can rely, ultimately meaningful, hidden in
the mystery beyond existence. For
many of us,
it is a profound struggle, sometimes over many years, to
Yet virtually every responsible person carries on his or her daily
profession, search for work, or retirement, on the basis of a faith,
or unconscious, that it is all meaningful. A research scientist
from the presupposition that the universe has a reliable rational
and that the human mind has a corresponding rational
structure, making understanding possible. This presupposition is faith,
a scientific certainty. On the other hand, the author of Ecclesiastes
with the issue of the meaning of existence, long maintaining
"all is vanity and a chasing after wind". A thoughtful book.
"God" is ultimate mystery, beyond any possibility of
grasp, we cannot "conceive" God. At McGill's Student Christian
a professor asked us to tell our conception of God. One girl
"An oblong blur." I still think she had something. How else
we picture ultimate mystery?
are trying to think something, and say something, about that
which is beyond time and space, beyond
(a spatial term, and therefore
the universe, beyond existence, beyond the contrast of subject and object,
beyond the contrast of masculine and feminine,
of qualities "beyond" the highest qualities of personality (i.e.,
just a force, like gravity). We are limited to our language, to our
and thoughts that are drawn from our experience. We have neither
nor words that can grasp the ultimate. So we have to ask our
to point beyond themselves; they no longer conceive nor define
describe; they symbolize.
Tillich once said, "All statements about God are
symbolic. The only statement about God that is not symbolic
is the statement that all statements about God are symbolic." The term,
is symbolic, as is the pronoun, 'He"; likewise, "Mother" and
As indicated above, God is beyond gender contrasts. We use
and phrases like Creator, image of God, eternal, heaven, Kingdom
God, Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, Ascension,
Coming, the Consummation - all as symbols. They point, with
to ultimate Reality; they should not be rationalized which we do
try to prove they are true. These terms help us express our
and share our faith.
We say that
God is "Almighty". This does not mean God can pick up Mt. Everest and put
it in Kansas. (I know one man in Kansas who is
glad about that. He says mountains and trees get
in the way, so that you
can't see the horizon.) It
means, really, that there is nothing that can occur
which could destroy the meaning of the universe. It is a statement of faith
about the ultimate unity of our universe, and rejects dualism, the notion
that there are two ultimate gods (usually one good and one evil).
this distinction between concept and symbol can save
one from futile and misguided
arguments regarding God, heaven, and
assertions in the Creeds. The big mistake is to take one of these
words and think about it, or argue about it, as though it were a
subject to rational grasp and analysis. Treating the important
of the Second Coming as a rational idea has produced even sad
in the Body of Christ.
are many fine, thoughtful people in Europe and North
who will tell you, "I don't believe in God." Many times such a
means, "I don't believe there is a grand fatherly Supreme Being
up there running the universe, and intervening in our affairs
here when he feels like it" or when some pious soul asks him to."
I don't either. All too seldom do clergy clarify this distinction
symbols and concepts, and that is why a young man said to me,
can't believe anything the Church says, in this day and age." I
blame him; I blame the Church for a disastrously poor job of adult
our symbols are powerful words, almost irreplaceable. It is
that those expressing faith in the depths of life and the depths
the universe will seek and employ such symbolic language. So you
expect more symbolic words as you turn these pages.
is a term little used or understood outside seminaries. I fought
against it for more than two years of
my 3-year seminary course. I then
was still a scientifically minded rationalist, in spite of an
authentic conversion to Jesus Christ which took me into seminary. But I was
misled by the widespread rationalistic and moralistic theology so
in the 1930's.
philosophy called "Existentialism' understands our
predicament, as we human animals crawl
here and there over this small
planet. We are confined within the structure
of existence. We cannot get
outside the universe to see the entire thing whole. We
can do no more
than say, This is how it looks from where I stand. We are limited to a
interpretation, an existential view. Because we cannot
the universe in its entirety, because we don't know everything, therefore we cannot be
absolutely sure of anything, since all
things are interrelated. Existentialism can
raise all the questions, and describe our predicament of being deprived of
ultimate meaning. But
most existentialist philosophers proceed to write books,
offering answers (!), thereby ceasing to be honest existentialists.
actually happens in religious history is that a group of people
seize upon a clue, one finite person, or one finite event.
Or it seizes them. They are totally grasped
by the conviction that here is the Answer as to what life is all about.
The Answer is "revealed" for us in this person, or this event.
Besides Jesus, people have been drawn to the Buddha, Mohammed, Baha'u'llah,
and others. For some extremely nationalistic groups, their nation fills the
role. For members of the
philosophical schools of Greece, various famous philosophers,
or their systems, received the passionate devotion of religion. For the
Jews, the Exodus under Moses was and is the criterion for the divine
and purpose of life. The content of each religion's ethical
is also derived from the revelatory event, the clue.
points out that "miracle" and "faith" are correlative
terms. A miracle should not be understood as an event that involves a
of the rational structure of the universe, but rather an event
which people find faith in God. The objective side of the revelation is the
miracle, the event which produced the faith; the
side is the receiving side, faith. Of course, past ages lacked
scientific understanding, and delighted in wonder-producing events
stories, with many such reported in the Bible. Jesus tried to
that kind of fascination so earnestly and consistently, that
may well discount the stories of his "doing miracles". His healings
may well be authentic reports, but note that he could not do much for
the people of Nazareth because they
felt they knew him all too well. For us
the real miracle is the appearance of Jesus as the Christ.
the Crossing of the Red Sea. The crossing took place in the swampy area of the Sea of Reeds. Two stories
are mixed in Exodus. One says the waters divided, with two walls of water.
This we have to believe has
never occurred, ever. God does not make such changes in the structure He gave to His universe. But we are also told that a strong
blew all night, lowering the water level, and this made it possible
for the slaves to escape. They
couldn't believe it. The greatness of
Moses united religion with noble ethics, as expressed in the Ten
and the Covenant or Testament. The Exodus became
for the Jews, the revealing event that gave them their faith in
and their vocation as His People. One result was the writing of all
books of their Scriptures, including Genesis which tells in myth and legend the
prehistory before the Exodus. It could not have been written
adherents of a faith cannot simply make a decision to abandon
it for another. They are totally
grasped, and, it is not too much to say,
they cannot help themselves. Conversion can
happen, but it is not a process that can be manipulated. (The Spanish forced
their brand of
Christianity onto Latin America, it is true, but I shall leave that
point is that the genuine response to revelation is faith. That is not a
of believing what you know isn't so; nor of believing what you
prove ("taking it on faith", a terrible expression). It is the
experience (for Christians) of finding in Jesus the absolute and final
Truth about life, about existence, about the universe, and finding my
salvation in him, so that I rejoice to belong to his Church (even
I can hardly stand the priest and some of the people and some of the
of the national leadership).
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