Trinity/All Heretics B, 2012
A Liturgy is also available
NICODEMUS. PROTECTING DOUBT AND THE CURIOUS IN US
The streets were dark and deserted.
Not a soul could be seen.
At least he hoped not.
There was one lonely figure, jumping from shadow to shadow,
never using the major streets of the town,
travelling only in out of the way places,
hoping not to be seen.
So, what’s he doing, jumping from shadow to shadow in the middle of the night…? (Lowry 1990:78).
So begins a story sermon by one of the best in narrative preaching. Eugene Lowry.
Yet I can’t help feeling that, in this, and in other bits of the sermon
I haven’t shared with you, Lowry gives Nicodemus
a bit of a ‘bad/bum rap’, even if unwittingly.
Because I feel Nicodemus is reduced to a foil.
Portrayed as a narrow-minded, left brain, literalist,
Nicodemus’ so-called ‘illicit’ night-time liaison
is often interpreted as skulking about under the cover of darkness.
But my own personal theological journey has always encouraged me
to take a second look at Nicodemus.
Before I do though, let me offer a comment or two
on the flip side of today - ‘Trinity Sunday’.
And then some words on a surprise, non-lectionary event:
All Heretic’s Day.
• First, to the Trinity.
I have been assured by my Brisbane colleague, Revd Dr Greg Jenks,
that the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity (as it is officially called),
or Trinity Sunday as it is called in the Lectionary,
has only been observed since the 14th century,
and only in the Western Church.
And it is observed as a result of an edict issued by then pope, John xxii.
Although it was the 2nd century theologian Tertullian
who was the first to name God as a trinity.
Second, the subject of plenty of controversy over the ages,
the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the scriptures.
Although Greg Jenks also suggests that the Trinity Sunday readings
“provide summaries of the raw material behind the formal doctrine” (Web: FaithFutues Wiki).
Third, it is the only Sunday in the Lectionary which celebrates a doctrine.
And if you are old enough and can remember the 1960s
John Robinson Honest to God debates, you may also recall that Robinson said:
“I was once asked a question after one of my talks: ’How would you teach a child the doctrine of the Trinity?’ It was one of the easiest questions I have ever received. The answer was: ‘I wouldn’t’” (Robinson 1967:86).
So, for a piece of theology which was supposed to bring unity in the church
amid political intrigue and a host of opposing theological opinions,
of ‘suspected heretics’ and ‘dissidents’, I am not so sure
such a doctrine can claim to be a success!
Although an opinion I read some time back caught me off-guard.
Marjorie Suchocki, professor emerita of Claremont School of Theology
and executive director of ‘Process & Faith’ said:
“despite (its) divisive history, the doctrine of the Trinity is more important today than ever, and for two very practical reasons: the first is that the doctrine can keep us from the idolatry of thinking God is just a human being, only bigger and better than the rest of us. The second is that the doctrine tells us that the very deepest form of unity is one that includes irreducible diversity” (Process & Faith web site 2006).
• Now to Nicodemus.
I invite you to hear Nicodemus was a pilgrim. A sincere religious seeker.
A student who uses his precious study time
to expand his search beyond the standard texts
and distractions of the day.
I invite you to also hear Nicodemus,
a member of the religious institution of his day,
is a mover of theological boundaries.
Willing to risk leaving behind the so-called ‘truth’ as he
and his colleagues has known it, in order
to explore something new.
So instead of questioning his motives, as I feel Lowry and others have done,
I reckon Nicodemus’ motives need to be recognised
as both open and honourable.
For Nicodemus as for us, must be allowed to respond to
‘the new’ or ‘the different’ in a variety of ways
rather than prescribing a single mode.
How else can he and we discover that our lives
and our thinking might be different?
Nicodemus. Patron saint of the curious. And for many of us, our patron saint.
May he protect the curious in each of us.
• Finally, All Heretic’s Day.
I am indebted to a Unitarian colleague in Adelaide, Revd Jo Lane,
for both the information and encouragement
to celebrate ‘All Heretic’s Day’ today.
For Unitarians (and many 'progressives') certainly brand themselves honourably with the title ‘heretic’.
That was re-enforced on me when preparing a paper for the
Common Dreams1 Conference in Sydney in 2007,
and then later when John Smith and I were editing our (yet to be published) book,
We Weren't Told! A Handbook on Progressive Christianity.
Many of our ‘progressive’ forebears in Australia, were Unitarians
either in fact or in favour. As Jo Lane says:
“They were reformers, questioners, and seekers. They defied the religious conventions of their times. They blazed new paths and made greater choices for us today” (Lane. Unitarian Church of SA. web site 2008).
Jo Lane goes on to say her forebears questioned many things about
Christian doctrine. In particular the notions:
• that God favours some with salvation and condemns others to perdition;
• that individual men and women are permanently depraved and highly
dependent upon the so-called doctrine of the ‘Atonement’ for their redemption, and
• that God is a trinity of co-equal, consubstantial and co-eternal persons.
In all these cases the Unitarians proposed a different theology:
• that God’s love is available to all and that no one is condemned to perdition;
• that people are mostly humane and that human effort is a welcome contribution towards the quality of human life, and
• by indicating God’s oneness and God’s participation in the whole of creation.
For their efforts they were ruled to be ‘heretics’, because they held doctrine
“contrary to the orthodox or accepted doctrine of a church or religious system… [or] any opinion or belief contrary to established theory”.
Jo Lane again:
“These early heretics favoured a critical approach to religion that appreciates the place of reason, human thought and the right to think for oneself. And, they advocated the right of private judgment and the necessity for personal integrity to be upheld in the face of imposed creeds and confessions of faith” (Lane. Unitarian Church of SA. web site 2008).
Those in Australia who were either declared ‘heretics’ or subjected to
years of harassment and at times, trial, include:
Samuel Angus, Peter Cameron, Ted Noffs, Lloyd Geering (NZ),
Charles Strong, Norman Habel, Ray Richmond.
Just to take one, Charles Strong (1844-1942), he described his theology as ‘broad or liberal’ which, he said,
was absolutely necessary to a minister of the gospel
“in order for the development of a healthy Christian life” (Badger 1971:51).
Such a theology had several characteristics:
(i) it was fluid;
(ii) thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit;
(iii) God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’;
(iv) love and justice were always working together;
(v) allied itself with science, and
(vi) is based on human experience rather than an infallible book (Badger 1971:285).
While those of you who know your Australian church
history will recall
from the so-called ‘other side of the fence’, the treatment dished out to
Mother Mary MacKillop, the foundress of the Australian-based
Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, who, in 1871, was
“officially excommunicated by her local bishop, on the grounds that 'she had incited the sisters to disobedience and defiance'” (Eureka Street eZine, 2009).
And who is now Australia's first declared a
Perhaps she could become the Patron saint of troublemakers!
Trinity Sunday. Nicodemus. All Heretics Day.
All invitations to be curious about life and theology.
To rethink assumptions with an altered perspective.
Not just to conduct an autopsy on our past, but to look to the future
through the eyes of new possibility.
To be born anew!
To consider how life might be different?
May this day place us in the company of earnest and compassionate teachers
whose openness defines a new community of hope and grace…
As traditional theological boundaries are pushed,
and pushed again, with honesty and creativity.
Badger, C. R. 1971. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. VIC Melbourne. Abacada Press.
Lowry, E. L. 1990. “Strangers in the night” in W. B. Robinson (ed) Journeys Toward Narrative Preaching. NY: New York. The Pilgrim press.
Robinson, J. A. T. 1967. But That I Can’t Believe! GtB: London. Fontana Press.
Vosper, G. 2012. Amen. What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. Toronto: HarperCollins.