Thursday, May 19, 2016

Dancing with the Trinity

A little change from my normal political diet. This time, I want to  try to explain the Trinity and dance with God as I am doing so, since dancing lies at the heart of the Trinity.

As I have written frequently, Christians, Jews, and Muslims have much in common. They are all children of Abraham.Unfortunately, there is also much that divides them. Two major doctrines, in particular, separate Christians from the other two Abrahamic faiths. One is the two natures of Christ. According to Christians, Christ is not only fully human but he is also fully divine. In contrast, Jews and Muslims claim that Christ is only human. Muslims admit that he is a special prophet, but he is not divine. 

The other major doctrine is the Trinity. I want to examine this doctrine briefly in order to help clarify it a little and to promote better understanding between these faiths. This is not intended as a theological treatise but merely as a post in this blog. Nevertheless. I do hope to elucidate this distinctively Christian doctrine a tiny bit. This post is inspired  by Trinity Sunday, which is the first Sunday after Pentecost. This is the only Sunday in the church calendar that celebrates a doctrine. In 2016, it happens to fall on May 22.

How should this doctrine be understood? The traditional teaching is: the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. There are three Persons, but only one God. There are not three Gods, but only one God. The divine math is simple, although confusing: 1+1+1=1.

It's no wonder that so many of the early church councils were called to formulate a correct understanding of the Trinity. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity seems to be almost incomprehensible, so that it seems possible merely to confess it, but hardly to celebrate it. The doctrine of the Trinity seems much too dry, too confusing, and too distant to celebrate. Thus, the Trinity is ignored even by many Christians. That is sad, since they are unable to describe this doctrine to others, especially Jews and Muslims for whom the divine math is especially difficult to understand.

In my teaching for many years, I have often tried to explain this doctrine to those who claim that Christians worship three Gods. "How can one God be three Persons?" they ask. This doctrine is not explicitly spelled out in the Bible. In fact, the word Trinity is not found there at all. The term was the invention of an African theologian named Tertullian. The early Christians arrived at this doctrine when they applied their God-given reason to the revelation which they had received in faith.

In the story of salvation, creation is usually attributed to the Father, redemption to the Son and sanctification to the Spirit. Although they are distinct as persons, neither the Father nor the Son nor the Spirit ever exists in separation or acts in isolation from the other two persons of the Godhead. But the inner relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- in such a way that each of them is fully and equally God, yet there are not three Gods but only one -- is incomprehensible to the human mind. It is, and always will be, a mystery, not in the sense of a “who-done-it?", but rather something which finite minds are incapable of understanding.

The story is told of the great philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo, who wanted to understand the Trinity and be able to explain it logically. One day as he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this, he suddenly saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup, came and poured it into the hole. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine went up to her and asked, "Little child, what are doing?" and she replied, "I am trying to empty the sea into this hole." "How do you think," Augustine asked her, "that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?" To which she replied, "And you, how do you suppose that with this your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?" With that the child disappeared.

Perhaps it would be easier for Christians if God had revealed his triune nature more clearly in the Scriptures. Yet God has provided clues about himself from the very beginning. The Genesis account does not say, “Let me make humankind in my own image,”but “let us make humankind in our own image according to our likeness.” From the beginning, he is the God who exists in community. The triune nature of God assures us that he is the Creator, the Word, and the Spirit  and that all are involved in creation. God creates communally. There are many other clues as well.

Why did God reveal the mystery regarding his very nature in this way? The importance of this doctrine lies in this: we are made in the image of God; and therefore, the better we understand God the better we can understand ourselves. What does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us about the kind of God we worship and what does it say about the kind of people we should be? Here I have two points to make.

First, God does not exist as an isolated individual but in community, in relationship with many others. In other words, God is not a loner or a recluse. For Christians, it means living in relationships as well and shunning every form of individualism.  The Trinity shows us that three is community, three is love at its best. Two is not enough. A marriage is not a family. It is only two people who are living together. Not until a child comes along does it become a family; then it becomes a community, just as the Trinity is a community.

Secondly, human beings become fully human only when they are in a relationship with others and, although they may not realize it, with God. In that way, life becomes trinitarian. The doctrine of the Trinity challenges us to adopt an I-and-God-and-neighbor principle. Christians are commanded to live in a relationship of love with God and other people. Then, and only then, can we truly express our humanity. God intended human beings to live in community, as is clear from the Genesis story, when God created a helper for Adam and they both had a relationship with God -- a relationship that mirrored the relationship that exists within the Trinity.

The interrelationship between Father, Son, and Spirit has been expressed by Christian scholars using the term “perichoresis.” That’s a Greek word that can be translated as "dancing around." I like the implications of God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, engaged in a divine dance, interacting with one another, expressing their love for one another, and complementing the work each has to do. Each Person of the Trinity is engaged in a loving dance that includes all the work of all the others.

Salvation itself -- being made right with God -- proceeds from the Father who is incarnate in the Son; all this disseminated through the work of the Spirit. God’s work involves more than taking individuals to heaven when they die. God’s work is to restore his kingdom on this earth, so that all of God’s creation can know his shalom -- the peace that says all things are as God has intended them to be. God sent Jesus to bring the shalom of God to the entire creation. Today God sends Christians out into the world. Whatever work they have to do in this world, they do it from the standpoint of the triune God who has created, redeemed, and enabled them.

Don't think about the Trinity as just a doctrine, but rather as three Persons who love each other and who also love us. As followers of Jesus, the Son, we are loved by the Father, and inspired to love by the Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are at work in our lives, in the life of the Church, and in the life of the world. As we live in new awareness of God in all God’s expressions as Father, Son, and Spirit, our spiritual lives will deepen, our vision of God’s kingdom will expand, and the work that God has chosen for us will take on a new vitality and urgency.

This image of the relational dance of God is wide enough to include us and all created things. Non-relational images of God do not allow such room, but the loving dance of Father, Son, and Spirit offers us and all creation the divine space in which to live into the fullness of our identity as children of God. The shared love of the Trinity inspires us to love all created reality. Thus we must be concerned for the environment. Climate change is real, and as humans we must accept responsibility for it.

There is a beautiful artistic depiction of the welcome that God gives into the life of the Trinity in a Russian Orthodox icon originating from the 15th century: Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity. It depicts the story of Abraham welcoming the three visitors who represent God. The three figures in the icon are shown as angels seated at an altar table. They have identical faces, but their postures and clothing differ as though we are looking at the same figure shown in three different ways.

The way in which the figures relate to one another makes this icon so compelling. The Father looks to the Son gesturing toward this Word made flesh, Christ gazes back at the Father but points to the Spirit, and the Spirit opens up the circle to receive the viewer. Between the Spirit and the Father in the Trinity icon is an open space at the table in which the viewer is brought to sit in communion with the Godhead. Here we see an image of God’s relational circle into which we are welcomed: the Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, and the Spirit welcomes us to the table. It is a lush image of how God relates to himself and to us.

This triune God, who made himself known in the Scriptures, invites us to this relational dance. It might be a lot easier for everyone if we had a God who was a bit easier to peg down, but that is not the case. Instead we have a triune God who is difficult to explain. He reveals himself not in the minutia of doctrine but in community, in bread and wine, and in water. It is especially in the waters of baptism that we can swim in the crazy, beautiful promises of the triune God who welcomes us into the swirling dance of his love that led to Christ's sacrifice on the cross for the sake of the world.

Perhaps the Trinity is not such a dry, dusty doctrine after all, but one that bathes us with the love of God. The loving Trinity models community and inspires people to love those who are all around them, whether nearby or faraway. May that drive Christians to love Jews, Muslims, and those of other faiths or no faith at all. If this explanation has helped everyone to understand the Trinity a little better, then that is a bonus.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Call for a moratorium on Alberta oil sands

In this post, I don't intend in any way to disparage the extent of the tragedy in Fort McMurray nor the courage of those who fought the wildfire, much less the plight of those who lost their homes or are now unemployed for an extended period of time. What I do want to do is raise the crucial question about the future of the nearby oil sands. This is the elephant in the room that people prefer not to talk about.

It's now time to discuss further a moratorium on the Alberta oil sands. The ecological cost has been well documented, but thus far the oil companies that tap this resource have touted the economic benefits -- the thousands of jobs that the oil sands provide and the royalties that flow into government coffer. We all know who has won this battle. Even the new NDP government in Alberta has capitulated.

Is such a moratorium feasible? Probably not, since the forces opposed to it far outweigh the supporters, if not in numbers, certainly in economic and political influence. Therein lies the problem. How can this inequality be dealt with?

Now is indeed the time to do it. The wildfire that threatened to destroy this urban service area (to give its official title) of about 90,000 before the fire started has lost 16% of its homes. Many people have lost everything. Not only their homes but all their belongings are gone and hard to replace.

For some of the people of Fort McMurray, there is little incentive to rebuild their homes when the memory of seeing the destruction the fire wrought remains fresh in their memories. For others, their homes may have been spared, but they are afraid that next time another fire will sweep across Fort McMurray and consume theirs too.

Many experts agree that the exceptionally strong El Nino this past year led to this tragic fire. The unusually warm weather and the paucity of rain that resulted have made wildfires inevitable. In British Columbia and Manitoba The tragedy was this fire started so close to an urban center and winds brought it inside the city boundaries.

Humans have also contributed to climate change, in spite of protests to the contrary. Through fragmentation, as it is called, which is something humans did, fires are able to spread much faster. The number and severity of major so-called natural events such as fires and floods indicate this. These events take place whether there are El Nino years or not, As humans, therefore, we deserve at least some of the blame.

Now is the time to challenge the oil companies and their enablers to stop their misuse of the environment by exploiting the oil or tar -- as many prefer to call them -- sands. There are a number of actions that we as Canadians can take both to signal our disagreement and to punish the companies involved.

One way to do this is by divestment. Many churches and other groups are selling off all investments in companies that extract non-renewable resources. Instead, they invest in green companies, those that are concerned with the environment. Now is the time to do this, since oil prices are so low that companies are more sensitive to such sell-offs.

Another is to demand increased royalties from extraction industries. While this is not a propitious time to ask governments to do so with the oil companies, for example, crying poverty, nevertheless, the people that own the land -- that's us! -- ought to demand more money that can benefit the entire population rather than the shareholders of these companies. More money is also needed to restore the damage that has already been done to the environment as well as further damage in the future.

We should urge governments to pass more stringent regulations, in particular, those that relate to the environment. We are the owners and, thus, we have the right to regulate how our land is used.

First Nations people are already making such demands. The principles they use should be used more generally. The land is the central issue for them. It ought to be the same for all of us, especially for those who are Christians or Jews, since land plays such a central role in the Bible. For Muslims too, the land is important. Once a land has come under the rule of Islam it must not be ceded to non-Muslims.

The growing inequity in Canada and elsewhere will be addressed in part when these royalties are divided in a way that recognizes the right of citizens to the land and, therefore, to what that land provides. The concept of usufruct is basic to many cultures, including Canada's first nations. The Bible also accents this concept.

The call for a moratorium is not intended to punish the people of Fort McMurray after what they have already suffered. These people need help, and Canadians everywhere have contributed generously to help them through the next few weeks until they can return to their homes if the homes are still standing. Even if some leave the community for good, others will want to stay and pick up the pieces of their lives before the fire.

Nevertheless, now is the opportune time to ask the oil industry to stop extracting this precious resource. It is precious to the oil companies, but it is even more precious to those who own the land -- us ordinary Canadians.

The oil should stay in the ground, where it belongs. Maybe one day it can be extracted in a way that does not damage the environment. But that day has not yet arrived, Stop desecrating the land! That must be our cry.

What the oil companies are doing is not just theft but it is also rape. These crimes cannot be justified by pleading the jobs that the oil sands provide. That argument is a specious as arguing that prostitution is necessary in order to provide employment.

Now that many workers are contemplating their future after this devastating wildfire, it is time to urge the government of Canada to mandate a moratorium on oil sands extraction. Even if oil prices are stabilizing and the glut of oil is over, as seems to be happening at the moment, this is hardly an occasion for celebration. The tar sands are some of the most expensive sources of oil. Thus, the proposal of many is to leave it in the ground.

With the threat of another wildfire an ever-present reality, many people in Fort McMurray are no doubt fearful of what the future holds for them. While I do not want to add to their worries, it may be best for all of them to consider moving back to New Foundland or wherever they came from.

Other sources of employment should be sought for these workers. I and many other Canadians are concerned for their welfare but are jobs in the oil sands the best way to solve regional unemployment problems? Probably not. The cost is simply too high. Jobs for a few must not go at the expense of the rest of the Canadian population.

A moratorium is needed now! Now is the time to act! I don't want to sound heartless after this great tragedy, but now is the time. In a few months, everything will be more or less back to normal. But is this the normal that Canadians want?  I doubt it! Canadians are very generous, as this tragedy proves, but generosity alone will not solve the problem of the oil sands. But action will -- a moratorium.

While we are discussing the oil sands, we must not forget the new pipelines that the oil industry is asking for. If there is a moratorium, then these pipelines may no longer be necessary. There are already expert voices citing the lessening demand for oil in the near future and, therefore, calling for an end to future pipelines.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Why Only Study Muslims?

The Environics Institute just published a new report entitled Survey of Muslims in Canada 2016. This report, that was made together with five other Muslim and non-Muslim organizations, is an update of an earlier report made a decade ago.

The report is based on a survey done through telephone interviews conducted between November 19, 2015, and January 23, 2016, with a representative sample of 600 individuals18 years and older across Canada who self-identified as Muslim. The Institute also conducted a complementary survey of the non-Muslim public. This was also conducted by telephone with a representative sample of 987 non-Muslim Canadians between February 6 and 15, 2016.

The survey covers a large number of topics, including, Personal connections to Canada, Muslim identity and practice, Muslim community issues, Integration into Canadian society, Treatment of Muslims in broader society, and Extremism and domestic terrorism. I cannot review all of them in this post; instead, I suggest that you read the entire report for the results. The last theme, however, is worth looking at closely.

The question that immediately arose in my mind after I read the report was: Why did this report only study Muslims? Why not study other religious groups? The rationale for the report, in its own words, is:
Muslims represent the fastest growing religious minority in Canada today, but their emerging presence has been contentious, fuelled in part by security concerns (in the long wake of 9/11) and some religious practices (e.g., Sharia law). While Canada has yet to experience the type of ethnic violence and terrorist attacks that have taken place elsewhere, Muslims in this country do not enjoy the acceptance of other religious minorities, and are a focal point for discomfort about immigrants not fitting into Canadian society. By global standards, Canada is a welcoming multicultural society but the Muslim community faces unique challenges with respect to religious freedom, national security profiling and the threat of security detentions abroad.
The research also includes "a complementary survey of Canada's non-Muslim population, to understand current mainstream opinions about the country's Muslim community." But this concession is not enough to answer my main question: Why only study Muslims.

The answer is provided in the last topic of the survey: Extremism and domestic terrorism. The answer is clear in the title of the section: no other religion poses a similar threat of domestic terrorism and thus a companion study is not required.

However, is this fair to Muslims? Why pick on them? Is this report a response to Islamophobia? In order to answer these further questions, let us first look at the relevant section of the report.

I want to quote from the introduction to the topic of extremism and domestic terrorism:
Public concern about domestic terrorism stemming from the Muslim community stretches back to the September 11, 2001 attacks, and continues to this day. There have been no major terrorist events in Canada to date, but the two high profile shootings in Ottawa and Quebec in fall 2015 were carried out by individuals with apparent connections to Islamist extremism. Major incidents in western countries (most recently in Paris and Brussels) have kept terrorism on the front pages, along with the ongoing violent conflict in the Middle East and the recruitment of westerners (including some Canadians) to the struggle.
September 11, 2001, is cited as the day when the fear of Islamic terrorism which is now endemic in many parts of the world began, a fear that continues to this day. I can understand why this report includes a section on domestic terrorism, but why are only Muslims the focus of this investigation? Surely adherents of other religions have been involved in terrorist activities: think of the Sikhs and the Air India bombings. Jews, Christians, Hindus, and even Buddhists have committed terrorist acts.

Surprisingly, the report is very positive about the limited extent of Muslim involvement in terrorism. The survey concludes that very few Muslims believe there is much if any support within their community for violent extremist activities whether at home or abroad, and that no more than a handful of followers of their faith support violent extremists like Daesh, and that this proportion has declined since 2006.

According to the report, "only one percent now believe that 'many' or 'most' Muslims in Canada support violent extremism, and the vast majority estimate that this sentiment is shared by 'very few' or 'none' in their community."

In contrast, as the report states, "the non-Muslim population-at-large is more likely to believe there is domestic support for violent extremism abroad. Fewer than one in ten (7%) non-Muslim Canadians now believes that many or most Canadian Muslims support violent extremism, compared with more than six in ten (63%) who believe it is very few or none."

While most Muslims believe that there is little if any domestic support within their community for violent extremist causes, few are complacent about the seriousness of such activity. As the report makes clear, "Almost nine in ten say it is very (79%) or somewhat (9%) important for Canadian Muslim communities to work actively with government agencies to address radicalization activities that may lead to violent extremism either in Canada or abroad. "

'To be a Muslim in Canada today is to be a person of scrutiny," claims Katherine Bullock, a Muslim and research director at the Tessellate Institute, one of the study partners, as well as a political science lecturer at the University of Toronto. She praises the report: "This survey allows Muslims’ own perspectives to be registered through proper research, rather than hypothesized—sometimes hysterically—by others . . . this updated version will continue to inform politicians, academics, journalists, community activists, and all concerned about the place of Muslims in society."

This survey is an excellent snapshot of the Muslim community in Canada in 2016. As such, it is indeed a useful tool for many people, as Bullock says. Therefore, I hope that similar reports on other faiths will appear in due time. The focus on Muslims has resulted in a valuable study, but I cannot avoid feeling that the fear of Islamic terrorism was one of the motivating factors in its production.

Among its many findings, the survey reveals how young Muslims identify more with their faith than older Muslim Canadians. One reason for this is because young Muslim Canadians feel a strong societal pressure to have to answer for violence perpetrated by extremists in the name of Islam and, thus, they are struggling to reclaim their Muslim identity for themselves.

Without the prevalence of Islamophobia in Canada, young Muslim Canadians might not have had to face this identity crisis.  For the same reason, I would contend, this report might never have seen the light of day. 

This survey also reveals that Muslim Canadians have positive feelings toward Canada and non-Muslim Canadians tend to have positive impressions of Islam than negative ones. These positive impressions increase the more that Canadians encounter Muslims in daily life. That is a useful indicator for relations between Muslims and other Canadians.

Thus, these findings help to explain why we see so little conflict between Muslims and other Canadians and also why Canadians, in contrast to Americans, have recently accepted so many Syrian refugees to Canada through both government or private sponsorships.

This report shows that Muslims are proud to be Canadian and that they appreciate the same things about Canada that other Canadians do. The more non-Muslims learn about Muslims the more that the fear of extremism and domestic terrorism will diminish. Islamophobia may yet disappear from Canada. I pray that it does disappear soon!