I. My text for today is the gospel according to St. John, I, 1-5, 14
That text reads as follows:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father."II. At this point, I would, with your indulgence, like to repeat what I said in my sermon four summers ago in 1990. I pray that in this sermon I do not speak heresy or anything that verges on heresy.
Heresy is a stubborn will to deviate from the articles of faith adopted by an established church. In the Anglican communion, it is a willful departure from the 39 articles.
To disagree with theologians is not heresy, for the theologians often disagree with one another.
In the course of this sermon I may disagree with Christian theologians from the 4th to the 14th centuries, but to do so is not heresy.
As you know, I am a philosopher, and I must tell you that it is easy for a philosopher to be a believing Jew or a believing Muslim (not fundamentalist Jew or fundamentalist Muslim, for that no philosopher can ever be).
But, it is much more difficult for a philosopher to be a believing Christian, even if not a fundamentalist Christian, because the dogmas—the articles—of Christian faith—are difficult to understand, The grievous error of fundamentalism applies not only to Scriptures but to the creed. It is the error of which St. Ambrose cured St. Augustine when the latter heard the former preach on Milan on the text; Idolatry and the Making of Graven Images. "The letter killeth; the spirit givesth life."
III. At this point, I would like you to face with me the first problem that confronts us. What does the word "word" mean?
A. Clearly not the visible or audible spoken word of any natural language, such as English, French, German, etc.
B. The Greek word "logos" is in Latin "ratio" and should perhaps be translated in English by "thought"
C. A little more freely we can think of “logos” as standing for the divine intellect, the mind of God
D. God’s essence is to exist and also God’s essence is to be Intellect.
E. The text of John I mentions the two great mysteries of the Christian church: the trinity and the incarnation.
(1) The Trinity: three person of one substance.F. No conflict between Christian monotheism and the doctrine of the trinity. G. And in the Nicene creed, we say that the second person of the trinity is begotten, not made, which means procreated, not created.
(2) One individual having two natures: divine and human
H. Two beginnings: Genesis, I and John, I. Can we reconcile them?
I. At this point, permit me to read you some passages from a commentary on the trinity written by Father Walter Farrell, a Dominican Priest and a collaborator of mine.
"The Trinity is a mystery. Unless we had been told of its existence, we would never have suspected such a thing. Moreover, now that we know that there is a Trinity, we cannot understand it. The man who attempts to unravel the mystery is in the position of a near-sighted man straining his eyes from the Eastern Shore of Maryland for a glimpse of Spain. We cannot probe the depths of the ocean of divinity with the foot-rule of the human intellect.
"When such truths are made known to us by a superior intellect, there is not much we can do with them. Certainly we cannot prove them; we have little result from attempting to probe them; we can show they are not violations of reason, that is that they do not involve contradictions, and we can dig up a few clumsy illustrations. Thus, for instance, we can show that the idea of three persons in one nature is not inconceivable, it is not the contradictory statement that the same thing is at the same time one and three. As a matter of fact, the exclusion of this often alleged contradiction against the truth of the Trinity is absurdly simple; ...
"In the mystery of the Trinity, the persons are distinct from each other; but each one is identical with the divine nature. Is this not a violation of the mathematical principle that two things equal to a third are equal to each other? The Father is not distinct from the divine nature, the Son is not distinct from the divine nature; therefore the Father is not distinct from the Son. The revealed truth is that though Father and Son are not distinct from the divine nature, they are distinct from each other.
"By way of illustration we hit upon such clumsy, things as the merging of three flames into a single flame; the light of a candle, which is red, yellow and blue, yet one light; or the trunk of a tree springing from the roots and the fruit coming from both root and trunk, yet all three make up one tree.
"Human reason cannot get much done with truths that are entirely proper to the mind of God. Perhaps the best procedure, in dealing with the Trinity, would be to single out the basic theological terms, subject them to analysis and illustration, so that we might be able to achieve an accurate statement of the mystery and maintain our slender intellectual foothold on the towering truth of three divine persons in one divine nature."
IV. Let me turn now from the gospel of St. John, I and the Nicene creed, to the Lord’s prayer. You will soon see my reason for doing so.
"Our Father, who art in Heaven, blessed be thy name..."
A. The troublesome word is "heaven." Over the last 25 centuries it has changed its meaning in remarkable ways.
B. For Aristotle, the heavens were referred to by the word "de caelo." The celestial
C. For him and for the astronomers of Alexandria later, it referred to the visible sky above our heads: the sun, moon, and the fixed stars and the constellations.
D. In the high Middle Ages—12th and 13th centuries—before the Copernican revolution, the word "heaven" still referred to the sky above our heads.
E. Then, with Galileo and Kepler it referred to the solar system with the sun, not the earth, at the center.
F. With this imagery, it was alright to say that heaven is up there and earth is down here. It still was a physical space, to which one could ascend and down from which one could descend.
G. Now in the 20th century, we know that the solar system is a small speck in our milky way, and that the physical cosmos consists of thousands of galaxies receding from us at the speed of light.V. Under these circumstances, how shall we think of the heaven that is home of the transcendent God: We must think of it as eternal (timeless and spaceless) and immutable. Physical or material bodies cannot go to heaven or descend from heaven. There is no up and down about going to heaven, or about being in God’s presence there, or in the hell that designates God’s absence.
VI. We must learn to be Christians without using our imaginations—without all the superstitions and myths that are no part of Christian faith. (The very worst error in theology is fundamentalism—taking the word of holy scripture literally and imagining what they tell us. Our Christian faith must be enlightened by our intellects, not by our imagination.
VII. Finally, let me return once more to the text of the day, the first chapter of the gospel according to St. John.
A. How can we understand that the word was both with God and was God? I do not understand how to answer this question? The first sentence of Genesis, in the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth... In the beginning (the same beginning?) the word was with God and the word was God?
B. The two great mysteries of the Christian faith
(1) The trinity and the incarnation;
(2) God is both transcendent and immanent: Christ for a time and the Holy Spirit forever in time.
(3) The divine nature of Jesus; and the Crucifixion.
(4) The resurrection: and the problem of a spiritual body